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    New Markets for an Ancient Heritage


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 1/2007,
    Interview with Sara Abera, Founder, Muya Ethiopia PLC

    © Muya Ethiopia PLC

    An Ethiopian woman entrepreneur links poor weavers with rich traditions to wealthy, culture-seeking buyers.

    Traditionally in Ethiopia, men weave and women spin. Muya also trains women as weavers, to help them gain financial independence.

    Muya Ethiopia PLC makes handwoven home decoration items for discerning consumers. Muya  now exports to the United States, Canada, Austria and Israel. It employs about 120 people, a quarter of whom are women. Trade Forum interviewed Sara Abera, who founded the company in 2005.

    Q: What were the main problems you faced to reach Western buyers and how did you overcome them?

    A: In an international market flooded with inexpensive textile products from Asia, we knew we had to differentiate our African fashion. We thought to inject value to our products by drawing on our African heritage and local craftsmanship.

    Q: Which market do you target and why? Is a "Made in Ethiopia" label an advantage?

    A: Realizing the worldwide trend for authentic, handmade household products, we concentrated our design efforts on closing the gap between our very local, handwoven products and the tastes of global consumers. We created soft furnishings such as pillows, runners, throws, table settings and dinner sets which foreigners love to introduce as the "Ethiopian art of weaving" in their machine-made goods environment.

    Q: As a woman entrepreneur, do you face more obstacles in terms of financing and growing your business compared to your male counterparts?

    A: In principle, there is no discrimination between women and men in obtaining financial help; in practice, there is!

    Q: Ethiopia is a poor country. What does this mean in terms of how you develop your business?

    A: Weaving in Ethiopia is a cottage industry, traditionally done by men from home. Quality control and management of scattered weavers are not compatible with developing high-end products. So we set up a workshop to bring together and retrain local weavers and also to make them feel part of a business - one in which crafts are no longer a family venture.

    We are also training women to become weavers, so they can earn their own income.

    Weavers in Ethiopia - although they are hardworking and very talented craftspeople - work in very poor conditions at home and lack exposure to consumers. We help them to work in improved conditions and eventually find higher-value markets for their products. By giving the craftspeople the respect they deserve, and the means to keep their age-old traditions intact, we are safeguarding a precious inheritance for future generations.

    Q: How does being part of "Brand Africa" affect your business?

    A: It is obvious that in general Africa suffers from a heavy image "deficit", with a regrettable impact on African products. However, we are committed to reversing this tendency.

    We never denied the fact that Ethiopia is, currently, a poor country (potentially, a very rich one!) but we convinced our audience that we are proud of offering global consumers our culture-based collection - not as low-cost producers, but focusing on high-quality products and, if necessary, slightly higher prices.

    Q: What should be done to improve Africa's business prospects?

    A: Africa's cultural heritage has long been a source of inspiration to the big designer labels and luxury brands. So far, however, Africa sees no economic benefits for its craftspeople - the heirs of the traditions - from this "cultural borrowing".

    Significant changes can only take place when entrepreneurs around Africa have the opportunity to meet buyers and investors, to help expand the most potentially rich sector of this continent.