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    Fashion Radar Picks Up Ethiopian Leather


    © International Trade Centre, International Trade Forum - Issue 3/2006

    © A. Fiorente Could this bag, combining beauty and ethics, be the next fashion must-have? Big retailers and the press in fashion capitals think it's a possibility.

    A fair-trade luxury label shows Ethiopia's export capacity in finished leather goods.

    World trade in leather and leather products - worth more than $60 billion in 2004 - is expected to grow. With a quarter of the world's sheep and goats and 15% of its cattle, Africa is bursting with potential, but there is a gap between resources and production. African countries produce just 14.9% of the global output of hides and skins and hardly any ready-for-market finished leather goods. When a country such as Ethiopia makes high-end leather products, it shows that promise can become a reality.

    Ethiopia has tremendous potential to develop leather exports, which the Government has singled out as a priority sector. It wants to move the country's production up the value chain from the "wet blue" stage to "crust" leather and finally to finished leather and leather goods.

    ITC is contributing to this process through a project called "Made in Ethiopia", led by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Not only are they producing leather bags and other accessories, but they are aiming at one of the most difficult markets: high-end luxury fashion.

    Project participants have formed a cooperative between local companies and created a new brand - Taytu - named after the legendary, strong-willed Empress of Ethiopia who reigned from 1889 to 1913.

    Taytu is already attracting attention. The label's first collection will be ready at the beginning of 2007. It was showcased at Première Classe, the prime accessories trade show in Paris, in September 2006. Big fashion retailers in London, Paris, Milan, Tokyo and New York placed preliminary orders.

    Culture and ethics are selling point

    The decorative, colourful accessories include leather handbags, wraps, sandals, shoes and jewellery. They are a unique blend of ethnic and sophisticated modern design.

    "We chose not to compete on price and mass production, but in markets where we would have a competitive advantage," says ITC Market Development Officer Simone Cipriani. "Our marketing concept is based on understanding the importance of the origin of a given fashion product for a certain kind of new consumer."

    Extensive market research and preparatory work for the project showed that handcrafted Ethiopian leather goods, particularly handbags, would appeal to consumers defined by fashion gurus as "new authentics". These affluent people are interested in quality, beauty and exclusivity first - and are willing to pay for them - but they also want products created by a fair process.

    Such consumers have traditionally bought into the qualities of big-name luxury brands. Today, they are gravitating towards products they believe reflect their personal style.

    "We are witnessing the emergence of a new trend, where what really matters is a product's capacity to convey a message about the personality of the consumer," Cipriani explains. "Many consumers are more aware of global, ethical issues. They want a product to communicate involvement, activism and hope for a brighter future."

    A tall order for any product to fill. But the enterprising partnership of people behind the elegant Taytu line meets the discerning shoppers' criteria: they are new-world creative, work collectively under fair conditions, share profits and are boosting family incomes. Through an innovative use of traditional raw materials, they are creating highly individual and contemporary pieces, imbued with ethical value. Their collection delivers a charming artistic, abstract edge that breathes Ethiopia, but caters to the Western market.

    Strengthening social capital

    "We brought together 12 manufacturers in a cooperative and designed a fashion collection with them based on Ethiopia's cultural traditions," says Cipriani. The project also recruited Italian accessory designer Barbara Guarducci to find the right balance of handicraft, fashion and culture. She spent six months working with the selected manufacturers, while UNIDO consultants trained local leather workers and suppliers. They also brought in other people in the textile and handicraft industries to embroider, bead and embellish. Some of them are poor women who had only worked in the informal sector. They formed a cooperative and for the first time, had the chance to do business with "official" companies.

    About 250 people from Addis Ababa and surrounding communities are involved in Taytu. Because the project fits in with the Government's leather sector development plan, officials untangled bureaucratic red tape to help establish the cooperative company.

    One year into the project, the 2007 summer collection is being prepared. Taytu is turning out products and people are being trained in processing and filling orders.

    Technical assistance will continue through three fashion seasons - from summer 2007 to 2009 - after which Taytu is expected to be self-sustaining. An Ethiopian general manager for the label is already in place and international assistance is decreasing as local capacities grow. The project partners set up a quality testing facility at the Leather and Leather Products Technology Institute and are looking into creating a design school, in partnership with an established international luxury brand.

    Under a partnership agreement among the 12 companies in the cooperative, profits are shared with a percentage reinvested to develop the new collections.

    "So far, the project is dispelling the notion that this country lacks social capital; our collaboration is helping to strengthen it. And it shows that Ethiopians have the capacity to work together, to trust each other and to succeed," Simone Cipriani concludes.

    Local women learn to make bags for lucrative world markets.
    © ITC/S. Cipriani

    Setting the development wheel in motion

    The Ethiopian leather industry has been manufacturing mainly wet blue leather for the last 10 to 15 years. It is a typical feature of developing countries, as wet blue is the first stage of the leather value chain. In order to generate higher added value, however, the Ethiopian industry is struggling towards crust (the next stage) or finished leather. The Government of Ethiopia has designed, along with UNIDO, a strategy to achieve this goal. It is based on developing leather products - the "downstream" part of the chain - in order to pull up finishing capacities in leather manufacturing. The idea is that a higher demand for finished leather would cause higher production in the country.

    The Government is adopting policy measures that support this shift towards finished leather. The Made in Ethiopia project falls within this framework, as it is about producing a collection of leather goods, using local - not imported - leather. In addition to UNIDO, other Made in Ethiopia partners include the Leather and Leather Products Technology Institute and the Ethiopian Tanners, Footwear and Leather Goods Manufacturers Association.

    "Over the long term, all hides and skins from Ethiopia should be used for locally made finished leather products," says Simone Cipriani, ITC Market Development Officer. "This is why this project is so important. It shows that producing and marketing leather products sets the wheel of development in motion by creating export-ready products rather than exporting raw materials."

    ITC's contribution to the Made in Ethiopia project is a continuation of its efforts to develop the leather sector in Africa. It launched its ongoing Integrated Leather Sector Export Development Programme for Africa in 1997, with financial support from the Netherlands.

    The programme recognized that leather - a labour-intensive industry - is an important source of employment. It promotes the capacities of African countries to export high-quality leather, for example through a series of highly successful trade shows, Meet in Africa, which were launched in 2002.

    For more information, contact Simone Cipriani atcipriani@intracen.org

    Dianna Rienstra, Trade Forum contributing editor, prepared this article with contributions from Simone Cipriani, Natalie Domeisen and Prema de Sousa.