WHO ARE YOU… Mehdi Slimani, creator of shoes, 100% made in Africa
Mehdi Slimani has no limits when it comes to talking about Sawa. He created his brand of shoes that are made entirely in Africa six years ago. After facing “every African problem imaginable”, his company is now based in Ethiopia, and is starting to take off.
Who are you?
I’m 39 and I’m the founder of Sawa, a brand that produces shoes for adults, drawing all its resources from Ethiopia.
Why did you choose the name Sawa?
The brand was christened in Cameroon in 2009, inspired by the name of a costal people. It also has a lot of meaning behind it. In Swahili it means “ok, everything’s fine” and in Arabic it means “together”, so it was perfect! And at the start, we were importing our materials from several African countries. We bought rubber from Egypt, laces from Tunisia, leather from Morocco and bags from Nigeria. Now we make and do everything in Ethiopia, even the communication and marketing.
We left Cameroon because things were becoming impossible. When a container arrived at the port of Douala, I’d lose sleep over it! Everything worked through corruption if you wanted to get a break. And in other countries we fell victim to instability, with the Arab Springs in Egypt and Tunisia, which paralysed the supply of several products.
We dealt with all of the problems one by one. We almost went bankrupt after Cameroon. But at the time I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad, I thought it couldn’t end like that. Then a friend helped us get back on our feet financially, and another friend from the Ardennes region of France who now lives in Ethiopia suggested we move there.
The Sawa factory, in Addis Ababa.
What has your education and career been so far?
I graduated from a business school, then spent ten years in company finances in Brazil and China. I was able change career without having to go back to school. I was lucky enough to work for le Coq Sportif where I did a bit of marketing, then I created Sawa a year later. It was in China I got the idea for the company. All the Chinese people I met in my team said they wanted to start a company, without even knowing which sector they wanted to do it in.
What brought you to start Sawa?
I wanted to do something focused on basketball and fashion. And then I thought about Africa, which led be to want to do something on the African continent. I’m African, I’m a Kabyle and originally from Algeria. Everyone says Africa is the future, but for us it’s the present! The way we see it, we want to by materials in Africa and transform it, to make sure all the value stays in Africa. We prefer going to meet Ethiopians to negotiate in person. It means more investment than if we were negotiating in Europe or Asia. I lived for almost eight years in Cameroon at the start. At the moment I go to Ethiopia almost once every two months, and we’re starting to make things works. We want to do real business over there, without peddling sob stories.
Do you enjoy working in Ethiopia?
Ethiopia is an exceptional country. They are in the middle of an incredible economic dynamic, but no one talks about it because everyone’s stuck in the clichés from the 1980s when there was the famine. But ten years from now people will look to it as a model of development. They are very independent, and self-financed a dam the IMF didn’t want to subsidise. At the factory, we solve all of our problems by trying hard all together. It’s a politically stable country that has never been colonised, and I’ve never had the same problems with corruption I had in Cameroon. When we export, I can hand over the cheque before anything happens, it makes life so much easier! The African industrial revolution is going to really solve a lot of problems.
Are you not scared that business will fall prey to social and environmental problems other countries have experienced, such as child labour?
Well first of all, children don’t work in Ethiopia. There’s a form of apprenticeship for young people over the age of 14 who have a legal status, but that doesn’t shock me. You don’t start learning about a job at 30! I think we’ve lost our way a little bit in France, I don’t think we should be shocked by this sort of system. And as for the environment, I get the impression that a pair of shoes make in Europe or Asia doesn’t raise questions, but everyone discovers that shoes pollute when they’re made in Africa. In Ethiopia 90% of the electricity comes from hydraulic energy, which doesn’t pollute. And Ethiopian tanneries comply perfectly with all of the environmental standards, don’t use chrome, and don’t use manual contact on the skins before tanning.
It’s clear that making shoes contributes to pollution, we try and make sure we pollute as little as possible. We recycle as much water as possible. The government takes a great interest in this subject and contributes a lot. We also respect health standards, with ventilation and solvent-free glues.
How many people are in your staff?
In the factor we subcontract there are 200 hundred employees, and about 20 of us at Sawa, all Ethiopians who take care of quality control, monitoring sales, creative content etc.
How much are the workers paid?
Between 120 and 400 euros per month, with bonuses for national holidays like Christmas and Eid. The country’s average salary is between 30 and 40 euros per month. We pay for their transport and healthcare costs as well. I think they are well paid, and so far we have a good relationship. We don’t produce shoes at night, and the workers have eight-hour days, working five or six days a week depending on the period. Overtime is paid and everything is going well. Also, production is not dictated by production objectives.
Yes, the labour is not very expensive, but journalists are wrong when they say Ethiopia is the new Bangladesh. In Asia a worker produced six pairs of shoes per day, but here we produce 1.5 pairs per day, so there’s no comparison. We’re still learning. We can still be profitable in Africa, but we just need to accept we will be less successful that Asia.
You don’t seem like a charity…
No, exactly, and I’ve always seen something sick about how some companies give free shoes to a “little African” – always described as “little”, by the way – on the condition that Europeans buy their product. Another company will pay for an operation to remove cataracts for every pair of glasses you buy. I find it unimaginable to dictate people’s health based on what other people buy.
Who designed the shoes?
We’re very “low-tech”, and we designed them in the courtyard of the factory in Cameroon. Everyone had their say. And so we made something quite simple, and easy to industrialise. But the latest models were created by a designer, as we had run out of inspiration.
Where do you sell the shoes?
The leading markets are the USA and Korea. We still don’t sell many in France, as strange as that may seem. We have a few retailers who work with us, at Citadium, for example. We also had several collaborations that helped forge Sawa’s image, with Oxmo Puccino, Mailan, Public Enemy and soon The Roots, who have posed for photos wearing their shoes.
How many shoes have you sold?
Last year we sold 20,000 pairs that cost between €95 and €125 euros each. It’s not huge, but it’s enough to make a turnover. We’re not commercially aggressive, but we’re soon going to open a store in Addis Ababa, and we have customers in South Africa and Nigeria. Our development project is focused on Africa, with a rapidly expanding market. But we’ve noticed that creating a buzz for African fashion in French-African countries is quite difficult. In Ethiopia we’ve noticed strong patriotism which drives up sales of African products. The local market is actually well protected. Internationally funded companies can’t sell in the country, for example, and high taxes protect the Ethiopian industry.
Do you like life in Ethiopia?
I adore the countries culture, I’d like my children to grow up here. I’ve reconnected with the naivety – in a positive sense – I have when I arrive in Paris many years ago. It’s an exceptional country to be discovered. If you give a camera to ten people who are going to Paris or New York, they’ll all take the same photos, thinking they’ve done something original. But the underground scenes of these countries are kind of conventional. But if you send them to Lagos or Addis Ababa, they’ll come back with loads of different photos, because these cities are full of real, unexpected treasures!
Is there another African country you would like to invest in?
I’m interested in Rwanda. And I’d like to return to Cameroon, my first love! It’s a superb country, but it’s hard to do business there. I often compare the country to a friend who smoked, and made his sister smoked so she wouldn’t get him in trouble. If you get electricity illegally, people don’t bother you. But then you can never complain about corruption, because you’re doing something illegal yourself!
Not wanting to digress, but is that Lenin in that painting? (above)
Yes! I got it from the factory. There were originally four parts to it, but the three others have been used to repair the roof! It’s a piece of heritage from the Derg, the Ethiopian communist regime.
Do you have plans to expand?
You always need a plan B, and that’s why we’ve been thinking about Rwanda, but at the moment we want to consolidate everything we have in Ethiopia. Meanwhile we’re focusing on the markets in African capitals and in France, but it’s not that easy given the economic context. But at the moment we’re on a good run. With the Ethiopian runners we were thinking about doing something with sports shoes, which would have made sense. But we would have had to face enormous competition. At the moment we’re thinking about other types of clothing, but there’s still a lot of work to do for the shoes!