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Go around to many of the furniture stores that cater to middle and upper income customers and you will notice that the more stylish offerings come from abroad. Now an innovative furniture show room has come to Addis hoping to allow for more creativity by selling items piece by piece. On the way from Olympia to Meskel Flower, Sini Furniture Interior Design PLC is operated by a married couple from Finland and China. Offering furniture this way allows for more flexibility. They have also provided training to local designers so that now all of their furniture is made by Ethiopians. Pawlos Belete talked to its General Manager Sini Puustinen.
Capital: Can you give us a picture of your company and tell us what you are producing?
Sini: I am a Chinese woman married to a man from Finland. Our company combines North European design with technology from Finland. Design and quality are something that furniture makers in Finland are known for. I have two experts in furniture who have come from Finland to train Ethiopians. All the furniture you see in this show room is completely produced by Ethiopians trained by experts from Finland. The company has created jobs for 60 Ethiopians and we expect to hire more. We are planning to produce a wide range of products. Right now we make office and home furniture including kitchen cabinets. We are in the process of producing doors, windows, and floor products as well as wooden garden furniture products. We are really planning quite a wide range of furniture items.
Capital: Could you talk about Finland’s role in your company?
Sini: Our Company is the first capital investment from Finland in Ethiopia. The government related financing institute has shown an interest in possibly financing the factory expansion although so far they have not provided seed money. Because the company is new we have not yet made definite decisions about how to proceed with potential factory expansion investment partners. However, we are in the process of acquirin land to build our own factory in the future. Capital: Finnish Development Minister, Heidi Hautala, visited your company last November. What was the purpose?
Sini: Her Excellency paid a visit to see what we are doing here in Ethiopia. She told us that she loved our work and she appeared very happy that we were providing job opportunities for local people. She said that our products were very stylish, timeless and tasteful. By the time her Excellency visited us, we had 40 employees. Now that number has grown to 60. Since she left we have really increased our production capacity and to do this we employed and trained additional people to design and manufacture furniture through using their own imagination. When workers are given the flexibility to be more creative they become more engaged.
Capital: What prompted your decision to invest when you came to Ethiopia four years ago?
Sini: I came with my husband when he got a job here with an international telecom company. After he finished his assignment I stayed here with my kids. Since I left China I have lived in different cultures for 25 years. Yet, I feel there is something particularly special about this country because the people of Ethiopia have made me feel very comfortable. It was because people were so easy to live with, the hospitality they showed me and the relationships I had that I decided to stay here with my family. I have two kids and they are attending school here. Simple things like good relationships and being treated well kept me here as well as my desire to work creatively. So I began the business by importing machines from Finland to produce fine pieces of furniture. Over the time, our trained Ethiopian furniture makers are getting better and better both in quality and in taking responsibility for their work.
Capital: Could you tell us a little about your professional background? Have you ever done something like this before? What attracted you to furniture?
Sini: I have a background in economics and this furniture manufacturing endeavour began as a simple interest. After I left China, 25 years ago,I wanted to learn as much as possible about the different cultures I encountered where I was living. I began taking classes at local art schools. This and the fact that I have designed, manufactured and sold jewellery before caused me to want to do something creative. Even though jewelry is a much smaller business I fell in love with designing and wanted to transfer that passion to something bigger. So, when my family moved to Ethiopia four years ago from Egypt, I decided I wanted to do something in the designing field. I really fell in love with Ethiopia and not only did I want to stay here and invest, I wanted to do something that would make a difference in the lives of people here while at the same time working in a field I loved. I knew I was good at design and had the drive to start a business. I noticed that most modern furniture in Ethiopia is imported and I believed that if Ethiopians were given proper training they could create stylish, high qualityfurnishings. All the products displayed here in our showroom are produced by Ethiopians who have received training from designers who came from Finland. Many people who pay a visit to our show room ask whether the products are imported from Europe or somewhere else. We are proud to tell them that they are 100 percent created by Ethiopians. When they realize that all the products in the show room are produced by Ethiopians, people usually get excited. Right now, we are producing for hotels, restaurants, bars, private homes, embassies and many other places. We are really reaching a wide range of customers and both foreigners and locals love our furniture.
Capital: What differentiates your company’s furniture from others?
Sini: The quality and design is what matters most. Our customers are free to combine any pieces of furniture in whatever way they desire.Say that you want to buy a sofa. You can take just the single couch or you can mix and match with a diverse variety of color combinations and designs. In our show room this is an option. A customer can also combine different pieces of a sofa or furniture to create their dream home. Since we produce the furniture here in Ethiopia, we can customize our products. Every product in our showroom, can be bought in pieces so you never have to purchase the complete set. We can also provide advice to our clients as to how they can make the most of the space they have in their home. Even if they are dealing with a small area, we can help decorate it stylishly.
Capital: What kind of seed money did you use? Where do you see the company in ten years?
Sini: We have invested more than eight million birr so far. Since we are currently operating in a limited production area, we are planning to build our own factory site in the future. Thus, we can have a big space that enables us to produce more. That will surely improve our capacity not only in terms of production but also in terms of creating the human resources necessary to do that.Right now we have the experts giving mainly on-the job training for local workers but when we get a new facility we could extend that also to class rooms and the trainees will be able to work independently.For people to work creatively they need to be able to take ownership over their work and to think outside the box. I always tell my employees they are not working for me they are working for themselves. They benefit when what they make is recognized by the society. Where ever it goes, the furniture carries the signature of their skill and they are able to build their own name.We want to take the company to the next level and to become the preferred home and office furniture maker in Ethiopia. A company preferred for its quality, style and affordability. I know that sometimes things may not go to according to plan but we are hopeful that if we can prepare thoroughly, we can make it happen. We are very happy that people like our products and we want to build on that reputation.