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Ethiopian Artisans: An E-market for Made in Ethiopia Artisanal Products

In recent years, Africa’s strong economic growth and business opportunities together with the prevailing “Africa rising” narrative, has attracted many multinational companies and foreign investors. This trend includes a vast number of African Diaspora returnees, encouraged by African leaders who regularly call on them to ”come home”. The migration is not only justified on the basis of economics but a patriotic move as well. Many of the returnees are using the skills and experiences they attained aboard to be part of and identify with Africa’s progress –contribute towards building and leading in their home country.

Africa’s economic growth contribution has many faces. Some are the stories of entrepreneurs with fresh ideas.

Makeda Mekonnen and Adiam Asfaha are first generation Ethiopian-Americans who moved back to Ethiopia –a country they consider their native soil –a year and a half ago. Moving to Ethiopia is not new to either of them; incidentally, they previously, on separate occasions for different reasons, had both moved back and had stayed for a few years. On their most recent journey back, their paths crossed leading toward favorable beginnings.

Though Makeda claims it was sheer coincidence, evidently the crossing became the keystone to developing an idea, and perhaps, evoking their passion hidden under a different kind of métier. It seems, they found a good fit in each other, a mixture of talent to start a joint enterprise.

The thought was planted: develop small companies; consult companies on brand development and create an identity for them; give small companies and startups an opportunity, a platform for their finished products; create market linkages and trade. Founded on the principle of enterprising solutions, their objective is to grow the private sector while offering the finest “Made in Ethiopia” artisanal products –foster the artisanal community.

And after further developing the concept, that day came on July 2, 2015 when they launched Ethiopian Artisans an e-market for Ethiopian made artisanal products. It was launched in partnership with Avant-garde Ventures, a for profit enterprise that seeks to act as a market catalyst for trade.

Sitting in a studio like living room in Adiam’s home, as we discuss Ethiopian Artisans, Ethiopian made luxury goods, specialty coffee, Ethiopian art, glassware and the leather industry, Adiam speaks on the motivation behind their venture: “I was initially interested in getting into trade but I realized that a lot of people here in Ethiopia were sending a lot of raw materials (grains, raw coffee, etc), finished products were not necessarily being exported. So we thought the easiest and a good starting point would be to market finished luxury goods –specifically artisanal products. Especially since there are lots of talented people here who can make unique things, we thought that it would be a good start to market Ethiopian artisanal products.” As Adiam closes in on his thoughts, Makeda chips in to further explain. “We would like to offer products that identify Ethiopia with its rich culture, history and art; that is, explore the finest of what Ethiopia has to offer. We hope in return it will situate Ethiopia in a category it has not been placed before: a market place for luxury goods.”

Luxury products relate to the more affluent sector of the market. So does this mean that Ethiopian Artisans is only catering to the affluent society? “It’s not necessarily luxury goods but the best the country has to offer. The best of Ethiopian made products,” Adiam explains.

Ready for business, currently, Ethiopian Artisans has available on its online marketplace, specialty coffee, artwork and glassware. And as per their specification for selecting products they consider “the finest Ethiopia has to offer,” they say: “The main factors we look for is a touch of detail and unparallel quality.”

As for the process, particularly when it comes to coffee, they exclusively pick and promote “specialty coffee” to ensure they offer the best and to meet the taste preference of their consumers. At present, they’re working with some of the best roasters in town to offer what they’re promising the end-consumer –the finest coffee. Ideally, in the future, they say they would like to work directly with local coffee farmers or people who work directly with farmers.

Coffee is not the only product that goes through a fairly rigorous selection process. There is also Ethiopian art. A selection process that leans more towards personal choice –Makeda’s choice. As the main art selector for Ethiopian Artisans, Makeda says she likes to see more of contemporary Ethiopian art with an Ethiopian cultural reference. The art has to present some form of Ethiopian tradition -the essence of Ethiopia. “I look for a distinct kind of art that displays Ethiopian elements,” she says. “I like to see art that veers off traditional art but more coming into the new age. The type where Ethiopian artists, in a contemporary and new age way, are illustrating their art and their belief.”

Their selection and marketing process is set-up in a way where there is complete transparency between Ethiopian Artisans and its clients. “Artists set their own price, we don’t regulate or negotiate. We’re transparent with our markups and everything else,” they explain.

The idea takes on an approach that seeks to foster and empower artists, allowing them to individually showcase their own work. “We want them to come up with their ideas of how they want to grow their business and whom they want as their consumers. We try to be involved in the ideas they have,” Makeda says.

Currently, Ethiopian Artisans is available for the US market –linkage between Ethiopia and the US market. This approach highlights a prevalent discussion: a turn in tide in the popular movement of looking towards the west or outside markets; accordingly, a trend on the African continent that is revolutionizing with a growing middle class African population. So why would this idea shy away from targeting Ethiopia’s rising middle class, and capitalizing on its growing number of Internet users?

“We had no data to research and find out how the local market works. We knew we wouldn’t be able to have an online e-commerce in Ethiopia. America was an easier market. Easier to approach a market that has a lot of diasporas who would be interested in their country and knowing more about it,” Adiam says. “But our goal has diversified, we’ve expanded from our main target being the diaspora to further marketing to people who don’t necessarily know about Ethiopia. Through Ethiopian Artisans, we would like the world to now that Ethiopia is not just about ‘green coffee’ or ‘Lucy’. We want to expose our diverse and rich culture.”

While exposing Ethiopia and its rich culture, and the creative things happening in Ethiopia to the world, Makeda and Adiam are keeping a close eye on the local market. They recognize the potential and would like Ethiopian Artisans to be part of its bright future.

Beyond the existing products available on Ethiopian Artisans’ website, the founders are looking for more companies to work with: roasters, farmers, artists, creative people in the leather and apparel industry, and all other creative people. And though they understand the business challenges of finding a good balance between quality and exclusive designs that are not overly hyped, they find optimism in the opportunities. Brimming with culture, creativity, talent, ambition and natural resources, the sense is that Ethiopia is transforming its made in Ethiopia products into quality goods.

In addition to Ethiopian Artisans, pushing forward with branding Ethiopian made products, Makeda and Adiam are also busy working on another popular Ethiopian commodity that has recently taken the gluten-free market in the west by storm –Teff.  They’re working with one of the leading large-scale commercial farms in Ethiopia, Jeju Farms. Jeju will be among the first farms to introduce domestically grown Ethiopian Ivory and Brown Teff flour to the international market. And since there is a huge amount of Teff in the western market, Makeda and Adiam have taken the role of building Jeju’s capacity and profile by handling their e-commerce, and consultation on developing their product -designing their bags, providing an online platform, promoting and marketing their Teff. Through this, Makeda and Adiam promise their end goal is to put Teff “back into the Ethiopian hands”. An admirable pursuit, without a doubt!

As Makeda and Adiam expand their joint enterprise anchored with a keen vision on trade and the long-term benefits and sustainability in investing in the private sector, they’re also furthering the value-added chain for “made in Ethiopia” products. Particularly at a time when exporting raw materials, especially green coffee, is not so popular in Ethiopia’s trade narrative, they seem to be leading with others who insist on the value-added model. And with an emerging Ethiopia and the evermore-growing online market, Makeda and Adiam are poised with prospects of a bright future.

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