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Ethiopia’s leather industry ‘Heating Up’

NARIOBI (HAN) April 10. 2016. Public Diplomacy & Regional Security NewsCHRISTINE MUNGAI. Emo Rugene is a shoe designer, model and actor. He had a promising career as a footballer cut short by injuries, then decided to pursue his second passion which was fashion. (Photo/Courtesy)
LAST June, we at Mail & Guardian Africa put out our feelers on possible trends – big and small – that are likely to shape Africa’s future, and its relationship to the world, over the next fifteen years.

One of the predictions was China was on the fringes of its high growth, cheap labour era, as its comparative export advantage of low wages and a large workforce begins to be whittled away. Sure enough, China has now decidedly re-oriented its economy away from raw materials consumption towards domestic consumption.

We highlighted that a number of countries on the Indian Ocean rim are poised to take over from China as global manufacturing hubs, particularly in garment and footwear manufacturing, as well as mobile phone assembly – highly competitive areas that offer low wages but quick growth.

Emo Rugene is the designer and founder of the shoe brand Afroshoes, creating African-inspired shoe designs mostly made of Ankara fabric since 2012.

Ethiopia was the leading economy on the post-China manufacturing model in Africa, and has been aggressively attracting foreign direct investment in garment and leather manufacturing. Global brands from H&M and Calvin Klein, to Lee, Wrangler and Timberland all have a presence in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia, as well as Kenya, were recently identified as a top sourcing destination by apparel companies, according to McKinsey & Co., which surveyed executives responsible for procuring $70 billion of goods annually—the first time an African country was mentioned alongside Bangladesh, Vietnam and Myanmar.

But if you think it is only global brands looking to set up shop in an Ethiopian factory, you’d be mistaken.

One Kenyan footwear designer looking to scale uphis productions has taken the plunge and is moving manufacturing operations to Ethiopia, where factories there have the capacity to produce 1,500 pairs of shoes a day.

Emo Rugene is the designer and founder of the successful shoe brand Afroshoes, and has been doing African-inspired shoe designs mostly made of Ankara fabric since 2012.

The intercity shoe
He is now looking to launch the “Nyala” sneaker as part of the Afroshoes brand, a new, sleek unisex sneaker, made of sheepskin leather – which makes the sneaker very light, ideal for everyday city life.

In fact, the urban theme runs strongly through the Nyala design, with inspiration coming from three cities – Berlin, Germany, where Rugene lives part-time; Nairobi, Kenya, his hometown; and Addis Ababa, the production hub – making it what Rugene calls an “intercity shoe”.

Ethiopia’s leather industry 'Heating Up'
The Nyala sneaker comes in three colours (from top), named in Swahili: Giza, representing the dark night, Mbingu, the blue sky; and Ardhi, the brown earth. (Photo/ Mutua Matheka/ Courtesy)

The sleek, minimalist design is inspired by Berlin’s architecture: its massive buildings, long visual axes, high ceilings and “beauty that is inconspicuous”, Rugene says.

 

The Nyala design is evocative of the philosophy of Dieter Rams, the famous German industrial designer with electronics company Braun, whose austere, ‘less is more’ approach made Braun a household name in consumer electronics, and more recently, provided the inspiration for Apple’s Inc.’s modern, clean look.

“If I tried to produce a thousand pairs of shoes in my Nairobi workshop, it would take me more than a year,” Rugene told Mail & Guardian Africa. “I chose Ethiopia because there, they can do the entire leather shoe manufacturing process – from tanning, cutting, stitching; everything.”

Rugene, 28, says he just got on a flight to Addis Ababa, with no real plan, only the number of just one contact person.

“I asked around, and figured out where the shoe manufacturing factories were. After visiting two or three factories, I found one that I could work with, “ he told Mail & Guardian Africa.

Art of shoemaking
Ethiopia’s dominance in the leather industry and in footwear shoe manufacturing and design has roots both in the traditional Ethiopian culture and economy – leather is readily available; by one estimate, Ethiopia has the largest livestock herd in Africa, with an estimated 49 million cattle, 25 million sheep, and 21 million goats.

The livestock industry accounts for 15 to 17% of total Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and 35 to 49% of agricultural GDP.

But by some accounts, the art of shoemaking was introduced to Ethiopians by the Italians in the mid-1920s – Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians from 1936 to 1941.

Indeed, one of the most intricate, and technically demanding, components of the Nyala shoe is the hard leather stamp bearing the brand name, done by an Italian shoe manufacturer based in Ethiopia.

In order to start production, Rugene needs more funding, and is therefore doing a Kickstarter campaign that will go live mid-April. He is looking to raise 30,000 Euros ($34,200).

There have been some garment and footwear projects from Africa on Kickstarter that have been successful, and hopefully this one will help make African design and fashion more visible on the global fashion scene.



 

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