Local shoe makers are succeeding despite foreign competition
Nowadays, it is not unusual to see the people of Addis sporting clothes made in Ethiopia. This trend is most remarkable where shoes are concerned, with brands like Solerebels, and Sheba shoes gaining international prominence.
In 2002, Ethiopian shoe manufacturers seemed doomed to fail when Chinese and other foreign shoes galore entered the market. The demand for Ethiopian shoes decreased dramatically when these foreign shoes, which had very nice and flashy designs but low durability were imported to Ethiopia.
But after 2007, things began to look up for Ethiopian shoe manufacturers when they learned from their mistakes and started making attractively designed shoes with all the sturdiness of the older models.
Bermero Shoes is a part of this resurgence. Bermero, located in Piassa next to Oslo Café around Taytu Hotel, opened its doors to customers in 2011. Meron Tezera, 34, part owner and manager of the store, says she and her husband chose the title of their company because of their names.
“My husband’s name is Berhanu. We took the first three letters of his name and four from mine to create Bermero,” Meron explained.
The store buys some of the leather it requires from Sheba Leather Industry, according to Meron. They use leather made from sheep, goat and oxen skin. The price of their shoes depends on the quality of leather used as well as the design. For instance, a bag made of export quality leather will cost 1,000 birr while that made of a lesser leather will cost 300- 600 birr.
Like several of the new local shoe manufacturers you can purchase either ready or custom made shoes at the store but they have added an additional twist by being able to make the shoes, or other accessories like phone/tablet bags in around 30 minutes. At Bermero, the customers choose from a variety of options of styles from a display. They select the leather, color, sole and details they want themselves. Afterwards a Bermero employee comes to take their measurements. At least that is how things were going.
“Initially, we were able to meet the demands of our clients,” Meron said. “However, then we started getting so many requests as the shoes became popular, that we were unable to cope with the orders.”
The popularity of the shoes compounded with the electricity which goes on and off without a moment’s notice has decreased the productivity at the store and now consumers often must wait a week before they can get their custom ordered shoes. Bermero currently employs 31 people. The shop while located in the center of town and convenient for shoppers is not conducive for the production of shoes.
“We have to balance the display area and the work space in a 70 sqm area,” said Meron. “But business is still good. We have a young customer base. Though exported shoes are still serious competition because they are cheaper, there is a reversal in attitude about Ethiopian shoes.”
At Bermero, a pair of men’s shoes can be bought for 800- 1000 birr. Children’s footwear costs 400-450 birr and a woman can purchase shoes for 800 birr or less.
While many Ethiopians have changed their attitudes towards local products, there are some who complain that the shoes produced here have imperfect finishing work. One of them is Hannah Abel, a 26 year old aspiring actress.
“No two pairs of shoes produced here look exactly alike,” she stated. “While that is not necessarily a bad thing, there has to be uniformity when you produce shoes with the same design. Because uniformity comes with standards and standards denote quality,”
She had spent two hours looking at locally made shoes all over Piassa before finally coming to Bermero. After looking at the Bermero shoes for a few minutes, she left for home.
“Maybe I will try again another day,” she sighed in disappointment. “I can’t stand shoddy work and nothing I saw today has impressed me.”
Another place where you can buy locally made shoes is Gabrielle Underwear and Shoe Shop found just a few blocks away from Bermero. There the owners buy shoes made in Merkato and Shera Terra. According to the management of the store, agents of the shoe makers bring them products to sell.
One such agent is Shimeles Tadesse, 30, who works in association with twenty shoe producers. These shoe makers were affected most severely during the 2002 foreign shoe invasion.
“I learned the business of shoe making at my brother’s knees,” he says. “There is a lot that goes on behind the making of a shoe.”
According to Shimeles, first someone cuts the leather into the appropriate shapes and another person assembles all the pieces including the inner lining into the proper pattern. The pieces are then sewn together before being stretched over a molding. After that one person prepares the sole of the shoes while another cleans the upper part of the shoes. Finally, the sole and the upper part are attached together.
“There are over 200,000 shoe designs circulating in the city,” Shimeles claims. “And 95pct of them are not designed by the shoe makers. They are copies of foreign shoes. Despite the flaws in the shoes and the unoriginal designs many Ethiopians still purchases these shoes.”
In 2012/13, the leather industry earned USD 123.4 million from leather exports out of which USD 19.2 million was garnered from the export of shoes, according to the Ethiopian Leather Industry Development Institute (LIDI). The leather industry got USD 220 million from 2009/10- 2011/12.
This puts a lag on the leather industry which is supposed to earn half a billion dollars by the end of Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP). This is in part attributable to the illegal export of Ethiopian shoes to Sudan and Kenya. These shoes are re-imported to Ethiopia with a higher price.
Industrialized shoe manufacturing in Ethiopia started with the formation of Anbessa Shoe Share in 1927. Then in the late 1930s Armenian merchants founded two shoe factories in Addis Ababa. These factories taught a number of shoemakers, who opened their own factories in Addis Ababa and trained their workers. Now, it is believed that there are more than 1,000 enterprises producing leather shoes in Addis Ababa.