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Have you had the opportunity to enjoy any of the new local wines recently? Or savor a cup of coffee brewed from elegantly packaged single-origin beans? Have you noticed eye-catching scarves and leather bags on the streets of Addis? Perhaps you have had a chance to appreciate avant-garde art at a local gallery or awe-inspiring furniture at a friend’s apartment. It must have been impressive to learn that they were all locally made. In fact, the Ethiopian artisanal scene is booming with exceptional creativity and craftsmanship, with modern methods and unprecedented attention-to-detail being weaved into traditional styles.
Souvenir stores and cultural shops have catered to tourists and patriotic locals for decades, offering a limited, albeit much admired, collection of Ethiopian trinkets, collectibles and clothing. A trip to Merkato or Shiro Meda still guarantees great deals on mass-produced memorabilia such as bronze jewelry and flag-themed earrings. Today, Ethiopian artisanship has much more in store for individuals looking for unique styles, eccentric – yet traditionally inspired – designs and high-end crafts.
The evolution of the coffee market in recent years epitomizes the trend. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to go coffee cupping with an agronomist and professional coffee taster. The coffee tasting lab, housed in a large new building, features equipment to facilitate blind tasting and evaluation. I learned that demand for upscale coffee has been steadily rising, and competition to supply superior coffee has also grown. With international processing standards and globally competitive packaging, local coffee producers have taken note of the expanding market for high quality, luxuriously presented coffee.
Exporters have also recognized the massive investment opportunities in high-end artisanal goods. A number of websites and offices have popped up seeking to introduce the world to Ethiopian artisanal products. While some are dedicated to promoting a single type of product, such as scarves, others have created thematically unified market places. Often, these retailers list prices with significant markups, and still tend to be rather successful. The industry is proving to be a considerable source of foreign currency and a significant driver of tourism.
Ethiopian craftsmanship and locally sourced products have always been appreciated by the international community. What has transformed the market in recent years is the newfound attention given to branding, marketing and smoother logistical operations. The shift has allowed producers to increase their margins immensely. Just as Steve Jobs realized the power of promoting luxury in a brand with Apple, so too are local artisans promoting recognition for high-end Ethiopian products.
We can all embrace the changing artisanal landscape by seeking out the growing number of creative spaces that serve as outlets for artisanship and by choosing to invest in local crafts. Next time you are thinking of buying a bottle of French wine for a loved one, consider grabbing an equally superb locally sourced bottle instead.
There is still considerable room for growth. Developing internationally competitive artisanal products will require increased investment in local artisanship. Each of us can take part in fostering a new era of high-end craftsmanship by giving Made in Ethiopia a chance.