Sara Abera , Business, Fashion Designer & Founder Muya Ethiopia P.L.C

Words of Wisdom:We need to learn from the West. We have to work a lot. We don’t dream. We have to learn from West based on what we have.” – Sara Abera

Guest Bio

Interview with Sara Abera , Business, Fashion Designer & Founder Muya Ethiopia P.L.C

Sara Abera , Business, Fashion Designer & Founder Muya Ethiopia P.L.C – Guest Bio

Sara’s Abera’s objective is to introduce the rest of the world to the rich heritage of traditional Ethiopian weaving, while incorporating modern textiles and fashion tastes.

Muya Ethiopia PLC crafts authentic, high quality, handmade household products inspired by traditional Ethiopian patterns for wholesale export.

Sara Abera also wanted to bring together and retrain Ethiopian weavers and craftsmen, so they could work in improved conditions and eventually find higher-value markets for their handmade products.  In fact, the word “Muya” means “talent” in Ge’ez, Ethiopia’s ecclesiastical tongue which gave birth to Amharic Script.

Muya Ethiopia’s socially-responsible business model has earned it the distinction of being the first Ethiopian company to obtain highly-coveted International Fair Trade Association membership.

Currently, the company operates from its compound at Sidist Kilo, employing 120 people, mostly weavers.  A similar, larger site is now under construction, so that a further 600 weavers and potters can join the business over the next five years.

Muya’s textiles are sold in some of the most up-market shops in the world – from Club 55 in St. Tropez to designer shops in New York, Tokyo, Athens, Vienna and Zurich.

In 2008 Muya Ethiopia P.L.C won first prize in  Millennium award for woman Exporters in the Handloom sub-sector.

Sara Abera , Business, Fashion Designer & Founder Muya Ethiopia P.L.C – Interview Transcript

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

Your organization was the first Ethiopian company to achieve an international fair trade membership based on your social responsibility model, how important is that to you to achieve this?

  • It is important, but it also wasn’t an easy task.
  • It was long time to get to be apart of the Fair Trade initiative. It was through USAID and UNIDO and they came and saw what we were doing. We struggled for three years to become a Fair Trade member.

What were some of the key things you needed to do to be a Fair Trade member?

  1. Give to your works by providing a clean and nice environment.
  2. The wage needs to be to standard.
  3. The artisans need to know what we are doing and be a part of what is doing.

What do you do to ensure they feel a part of the vision of Muya?

  • We follow the international market for example, what colour we have to use for 2013.
  • For our employees this is a family business seven or eight generations. When we start a new collection I bring them in and make them part of the idea.  They feel pride, and they see what they are producing. I want them to understand the product, where it is going. They are contributing to the success the organizations.

What implications did achieving the fair trade status have on your business?

  1. Being a Fair trade company is of course good for our artisans and workers
  2. When we relate to the high-end market, and they see cheap stuff, they buy it because they feel sad for the producer.  That is not the case with our products. They are collector’s items. You can see the story behind the product but it is a quality product.

When marketing the product do you also tell the story?

Yes, especially when it comes to pottery products because it is a long process and very tiring.

  • We put the name of the producer
  • What she is doing exactly and give name and information about her – children, if it is a family busy, how many generations, how much time to produce, because it can take 8 hours a day for 7 days to finish the product.

What else have you done to get you to the international status you have achieved?

When we went to international Fair Trade, we encouraged buyers to come to us instead of going to them. So they can see the work that goes into each piece we produce. They can see all the hand spinning of cotton, hand dying, hand weaving. They gained much more appreciation of the product production and its quality.

  • With the new appreciation of how the product is manufactured the demand has really grown.

How did you get the buyers to come to you?

  • The support of the Ethiopian government for the artisan is helpful.
  • USAID has been bringing the American buyers to us.
    • They cover all their cost. They had brought five buyers to Ethiopia and we have a very good relationship with two and it continues to keep growing.

How do you market your cotton products?

  • The buyers ask a lot of questions about the cotton.
  • Some buyers we put our label, and some will use their own labels with our story.
  • The history of each product is being used for marketing strategy.

As the owner of the company, how does it make you feel when another label is on your product?

To be honest, we don’t feel good, but to get into the market sometimes you have to accept it.

  • Our target is to be social responsible. We want to help these artisans. And it is another way of introducing Ethiopia, so we have to accept the process.
  • We also understand that the company has built their brand over time so we can’t just expect our brand to take priority.

What are some of the challenges dealing with the Artisans?

  • We need to change the mentality of the Artisan. These people use to be outcasts. It is not easy to socialize with them. I have to break that barrier. I tell them they are top designer, talented and they are.
  • Sometimes we have a big order and don’t have product. I need to work with the Artisans to change their mentality so they will be productive, and hard working.

How do you structure you business?

  • Families have been doing weaving for generations. Before it wasn’t really helping them economically, but now it is.
  • The man tends to do the weaving.
  • We have several people who are permanent employees and some we outsource.  There is a community 10 or 20 of them that specialize in a specific type of weaving. We don’t force them to come here because Ethiopia is about 85 tribes they have their own way of eating habits, weaving and pottery. We don’t change their symbols but we  make them contemporary. Not too exotic. But we don’t avoid that design.

How do you implement quality control?

  1. We select people are young people from 20 to 35 years old, who have some education.
  2. We give them training. Then those individuals control quality in the communities.
  3. The individuals we select should know the people, language in the communities. They should part of these people. They should talk about the design as each has its own name.
  4. These people we select need to build trust and connect with the Artisans in the variety of communities.

How important is colour in exporting?

  • It is important to know colour, and as African we need to watch not using too much colour, avoiding exotic designs.
  • We can’t sell what we like. It can have some African design, but must be limited.
  • I refer to the International Marketing group, which expertise is colour, it has helped me along. We know the forecast for the next three years.
  • To export we need to follow the trends.
  • More of the African colour is being stronger in the export market.

What do you do in your organization to keep loyal to you?

People leave, but they often regret it.

  • They often have to look for the market for their product, and they often don’t get the money they deserve based on the amount of time they put into producing the product, or the raw materials. They also have to go home without money at times as they did not sell anything.
  • What we provide is a way to plan their lives based on their income. Which they can’t do when they are producing and selling themselves.

Why do you feel you have been successful?

  • Work hard
  • Don’t give up
  • I want to win all the time
  • I am very strong
  • When you go into business you don’t always do what you like. You have to give people what they like. If you don’t look to what other people want you won’t penetrate international market. We have to look at what other people want based on what we have to provide.
  • Flexibility in the fashion industry is very important.

Have you ever implemented a project that did not work?

No because I do everything on a small scale to ensure it will work before I start producing on a large scale.

If there was one thing you can attribute your success to, what would it be?

I don’t give up. No matter what even when I don’t see the opportunity I just continue to work hard.

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

When I decided to work with Artisan, I found it was difficult. But I had learned to deal with them everyday.

What was the biggest obstacle that you have had to deal with until this point in your career and how did you deal with it?

Main problem was getting funding. Getting a loan and growing the business was difficult. We have the demand but we don’t have enough working capital. I now have partners but we still cannot meet the demand.

To get a partner in weaving was very difficult. No one thought they could make money from this business. So it was really hard.

What does success mean to you?

To show the world what we have is handmade quality products.
When I see the Artisans have money for the their family and life. For myself there could have been easier ways to make money, but I prefer this hard way but stay successful.

Leadership Lessons Learned.

  1. Have a good relationship with employees. Let them be part of what you are doing and let them be responsible.
  2. There is a social gap with Artisans, to understand them and be close friends to them.
  3. I have to show that when decisions need to be made, I will make it.

What is next for you?

I have a lot of Ethiopian textile collection. I want to develop to share ideas with high designers. Organize them in soft and hard copy. I want to be an inspiration to tip designers.

Reflective Realizations by Sara Abera

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old daughter?

Let her know she is equal to anyone. What we have we can make change politically and socially. Be strong.

Q. What were you told at that age?

My mother had her own money. I went to the best schools.

“If you work hard. You may never be rich but you will never be poor.”

Words of Wisdom from Sara Abera

We need to learn from the West. We have to work a lot. We don’t dream, we have to learn from West based on what we have.


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