Ethiopia is home to not just products that are typical to its various communities, but also in the specific way in which those products are made. Injera is made on the ‘mitad’, loosely translated as pan or griddle. Most cultural attire is also made in unique methods and steps. The handmade and distinctive features have garnered iconic status among Ethiopians, and global markets are slowly giving an eye. But now, there seems to be slowly shifting trends in the way these very Ethiopian foods and clothes are made. While there are new developments in automating injera-making using a machine, the printing of the ‘tilet’ has been quite common for some time now. Further, some other Ethiopian entities such as the Geez alphabet are also taking shape into modern brands, writes EBR’s Trualem Asmare.
For centuries in Ethiopia, and perhaps even for millennia, women have been making injera through a labor-intensive process that required them to pour the prepared batter onto a hot clay pan, or ‘mitad’, one piece at a time, piece after piece, letting it cook for a few minutes, removing it, and then doing the process all over again.
That is how virtually every injera maker still does it even in far-off American cities in both homes and at injera bakeries that distribute their fresh wares to markets every morning. But innovation and technology have slowly begun to change that. Now, the staple is made in mass quantities by using automated devices that require far less human labor than traditional methods.
Zelalem Injera, with locations in Dallas and Washington D.C, is generating quite an income with the Zelalem Injera Machine, the creation of Dr. Wudneh Admassu, an Ethiopian-born Professor of chemical engineering at the University of Idaho.
The machine can turn out 1,000 pieces of injera in an hour, with only two employees stationed at the end of the process to package them, and a few more to load them onto a truck and ship them out daily, seven days a week.
The modern injera machines played a big role in introducing Ethiopia to the nations. Currently, Ethiopian injera is famous around the world, including in China, America, Canada, Germany, and many more, especially with large diaspora populations.
The mechanical injera-making machine can automatically complete the processes of mixing, baking, forming, conveying, and cooling the dough. It can be connected with machines to stuff, fry, freeze, and pack to create a fully automatic production line of mature food.
In many countries and regions, such as Ethiopia, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, the UAE, and so on, machines to make Ethiopian injera can be bought in many places. Their high-quality, high efficiency, wide range of use, and other characteristics are loved by users.
Injera is not the only Ethiopian product experiencing a new method of production. For centuries, Ethiopians have made ‘tilet’—the embroidered pattern found on traditional woven wear—using only their hands. That scheme of production is now having its competing parallel with small and medium enterprises as well as consumers opting to go for the printed ‘tilet’ for cost-saving purposes.
“The idea of printing the tilet instead of making it by hand started more than three years ago,” said Fekadu Kibrom, Owner of Habesha Tibeb established in 2018. The new practice has put pressure on Fikadu’s business. “It is one thing that the typically Ethiopian cultural taste is being displayed on t-shirts more easily than previously, but completely another thing to lose the traditional way of making Ethiopian dress.”
Fikadu agrees that the ever-rising price of cultural clothing is pushing people away for a cheaper price, even though for poorer quality.
Seid Yimam is a Designer at a small business being accused of putting pressure on the aged way of making cultural clothes. His business at Morning Star Mall around Bole Medhanialem prints ‘tilet’ on t-shirts and avails them during particular seasons.” Seid’s customers mostly require the t-shirts mainly around Orthodox Christian holidays.
Some might see the printing of the usually-embroidered ‘tilet’ as an affront and redaction of culture. Others, however, see it as development and providing the cultural attire to wider masses by virtue of affordability. The discussion is on-going.
Less controversial, and perhaps more welcome, are crafts and other products that use Ethiopian motifs and particulars onto more modern items. While some Ethiopian ideas are being introduced to cheaper and easier methods of production, others are making their debut into new business arenas. Alula Zewdu is the 33-year-old Founder of Geez Watches. Even though he holds a bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory and biomedical engineering and has been working in the medical sector for five years, he moved into this new field after years of study and research.
Geez language is the base of numerous Ethiopian languages and is the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It’s alphabet—the only indigenous alphabet on the African continent—has thus taken the role of decorating watches. Though Geez Watches might not be the first to do it, Alula has developed it into a well-marketed and designed business ever since its founding three years ago.
With a store at the Zefmesh Grand Mall around Megenagna, Alula would discover how watches displaying communal identities are extensively used in the rest of the globe while conducting research for a business idea.
“In my research, I also learned that Emperor Menelik II was the first-ever Ethiopian to wear a Geez Watch,” he informs EBR.
Alula gives his designs to watchmakers in other nations, who then turn them into working watches and send them back to him. His watches are a special type of timepiece that incorporate the days of the Ethiopian calendar and even count in the Geez numbers. The business also sells a product called Geez Ring, which features the names of the days of the week in Amharic as well as the total number of months (13) in the Ethiopian calendar.
“I faced challenges when getting into business including finding a quality watch manufacturer, foreign currency, and bringing the idea to the market.”
The business offers 20 unique and opulent types of watches varying in color, size, and design. Marketed to both locals and foreigners of both sexes with an age range of 25 to 45, Geez Watches is also found in Bole International Airport. The company’s objective is to promote Ethiopia in the global economy and fashion and intend to partially assemble the watches locally.
The cultural industry is not only tied to the arts and intangible heritages. Developing and bringing culture to technologies of the 21st century will surely bring about both economic development but also the protection of cultural heritages. However, care needs to be taken to ensure that cost-savings—as with the case of printed ‘tilet’—does not result in the detriment of the heritage. However, it must be noted that cost-savings has availed the product to those who would have previously not been able to afford. Still, the pros outweigh the cons by much. Traditional methods and modern efficiency can go hand in hand. EBR
10th Year •July 2022 • No. 109