Traditional Weaving, Contemporary Market

Biru Hudde, 43, is a traditional weaver from Southern Ethiopia. He toil all day in the com- pound in which he also lives in a rental house around Piassa, on the road from Ras Mekonnen terrace to Afincho Ber roundabout. He has been in the profession for the last 30 years.

“This is the business I have been doing to pay for my rent and support a family of eight, 6 children, my wife and myself,” Biru told EBR.

The process of producing traditional fabric is not an easy task at all. As much as weaving is the back- bone for the production of traditional outfits, it is also known to be backbreaking and quite tedious. There are different steps the cotton has to pass through before becoming a cloth.

For all the time Biru has been in the business, he has been making Gabbi and Netela. He takes the end products to traditional market around his village for sale. He sells the Gabbi for Br 300 to 350 and the Netela for half of that. It takes three big roles of thread which costs Br 30 to 40 to make a Gabbi, according to Biru. “You may not always get that much though. You some- times sell for a lot less as you have a family at home waiting for you,” Biru says. He refused to disclose the amount he makes per month.

Not all the weavers weave at their homes though. A little more organized are found at Gudnesh, established site at Shiro Meda, the ground zero of weaving in the capital, with nine G+4 buildings where more than 650 weavers have been accommodated since 2009. The site was built by the government for this purpose. At the beginning, the weavers did not pay rental fees but now, since two months ago, they have started to pay Br 17.00 per m2.

“They are not expected to pay the whole amount for now”, Aklilu Mebratu, head of the Gullele District Micro and Small Enterprises Development Bureau told EBR.

The system is introduced this year and they are expected to pay only 25 pct of it for one year. And 25 pct will be added every year until it gets 100%. According to Aklilu, the bureau has finished its preparation to start a new marketing strategy in which some of the dexterous weavers are provided with the opportunity to work in a more suitable and modern environment and start exporting their products.

Most of the weavers at Shiro Meda, however, have little know how about how the market works. Even though they want to change their lives, they have no idea where to start. Go to a designing school? Take a loan from the government? Form a union? They are tangled with the insecurity of losing what they already have if they dare to invest in a possible opportunity.

“What if it does not work? I can’t lose what I already have as I have a family to support,” says Meles Habtamu, 25, weaver at Shiro Meda, who is also studying Physical Education at Kotebe College of Teachers Education.

But now, a growing number of young designers with passion and desire for the profession are joining the industry, taking it to the next level. The risk these designers have taken availed these once doomed cultural products in the shelves of the luxurious shopping districts of the city such as Bole, Bole Medhanialem, and Hayahulet.

One such entrepreneur who joined the business, leaving her tertiary level education is the 31 years old designer Fikirte Addis. Fikirte owns a cultural clothes selling store-Yefikir Design. The store’s sales can reach as high as Br 100,000 on such high time as holydays and weddings.

“The prices of the products depend on the effort and materials used during production,” says Fikirte.

Locally, casual wears are sold starting from Br 450 and wedding gowns could reach Br 15,000. Yefikir will soon be launching an online store to sell the alluring contemporary Ethiopian traditional clothes, according to the owner.

Other personalities in the business have also managed to importune the interests of big celebrities in the nation. Abraham Tekle, who owns a shop on Aberus Complex, was born and raised around the place commonly known as Teklehaimanot, where most skilled tailors of the town come from. The list of his customers include such big names as Theodros Kassahun, a.k.a, Teddy Afro, Jah Lude, Sayat Demissie and Mulualem Tadesse.

Abraham explains the difference in the qualities and prices of the different products: “The difference in the prices of the products is explained by the quality of materials used. Other than that, the price tags depend on the way it is weaved, the finishing, the patterns, the creative designs and so on.”

Businesses engaged in manufacturing and selling cultural clothes have also created job opportunities with salaries as good as what a fortunate graduate with a bachelor degree earns. Abraham employs about 25 weavers, each getting an average of Br 4000 net per month.

“I used to work independently in the past. But I earn more now,” Tesfaye Wana, one of Abraham’s employees told EBR.

“Weavers are paid per unit. How much they earn depends on their out put and creativity and complexity of the design they produce. Their earnings range from Br 600 to 1500 per week”, according to Fikirte.

The traditional cloth business, which was once practiced only by the low end parts of the society, has managed to sway the youth. That in turn has called up on some investors to establish schools to train those who want to pursue their careers in fashion.

One such school is Next Fashion Design College which was established in 2006 and has trained more than 700 students since its inaugural.

“Around 60 pct of our students prefer taking traditional cloth classes, and we believe that is because of the growing demand in the traditional clothing industry,” said Sarah Mohammed, founder and manager of Next Fashion Design College. Students can take either a three months short term course or a 10 months extended classes. The tuition for both programs is Br 600 per month, according to Sarah.Miracle Designing School is another designing school located around Arat Kilo. What makes Miracle different is that it gives special attention to traditional clothing as all its students are required to design traditional clothes for their final projects. “Around 80 to 90 pct of our students are interested in traditional clothes. There is a high demand for traditional clothing and that’s why most students prefer courses on traditional clothing.”

said Dawit Melaku, founder and manager of the school. The school gives courses in two programs; 7 months and 3 months. The tuition of the programs are br 700 and 1,500 per month respectively.

The industry is not without its challenges and obstacles though. Lack of training for the traditional weavers is one of the shortcomings of the business, as echoed by the ac- tors in the business. Training that would help these weavers open their eyes and connect themselves with the local and international market is very necessary, according to Abraham.

Middle men in the inputs sup- ply chain are ripping unfair profits, which makes the end product more expensive. Thus, price of some of the final products are scaring away possible local customers.

On top of the above problems, weavers with talents are also in short supply in Addis Ababa. This is the reason why people like Fikirte go to places like Chencha Wereda, a small district in Gamo Gofa Zone in South- ern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional States. The Wereda is home to the Dorze Community who has amazing weaving talents.

Other than lack of awareness and poor saving culture, the biggest problem is the unreliable supply chain of input materials. Both imported and locally produced materials are controlled by few wholesalers who set the prices high. Those who can afford, like the established designers, could buy it or perhaps go all the way to the

producers and purchase it for better price. Those who cannot, like most independent weavers, suffer.

Gullele District Micro and Small Enterprises Development Bureau organizes bazaars at least twice a year for the weavers to display their products and create a better market connection. In addition to this if there is a promising business idea; easy access to finance will be facilitated, according to the bureau. But still a lot has to be done to build the skills of the weavers in the areas of modern designing and sewing. These will enhance their competitiveness and empower them to have better bargaining power. Whoever intervenes in to do these will definitely create a meaningful impact in the lives of the desperate weavers.

There is also a communication and awareness gap between the weavers and the growing market. Some weavers feel they have reached a dead end; some even are planning to change their profession all together. While some just go with the flow and wait to see what life has in store for them. On the other hand, some weavers have realized there is more to it and have started going to school and acquaint themselves with the modern fashion world. And on the opposite end lies group of professionals who have gone to inspire the western world through their designs and reap growing profits. But for now, weavers like Biru have to keep on weaving to support their family.

Selam Mussie

EBR staff writter

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