Seated on a small wooden bench and turning the spinning wheel, with cotton in one hand and pressing the pedal by foot, the UN Secretary General had a feel of the experience of a women’s association producing cotton fibres for weavers.
The site Ban Ki-moon was visiting was the workshop of 25 women organised under the Serto Lemeshashal Association at Shiro Meda.
There are two other women’s associations at the same place, each with 25 members, all supported by an NGO called the Centre for Accelerated Women Economic Empowerment (CAWEE).
Negat Gemechu looked surprised and delighted by what Ki-moon was doing with her spinning machine, even if he did it for less than a couple of minutes.
CAWEE has similar projects in Axum in Tigray Region and in Woyto in Amhara Region, where 138 women are supported. Those in Tigray make jewellery and gemstones and those in Woyto make baskets. The project, which eventually aims to create economic empowerment for 1,500 women in a two-year period is administered by the Office of the First Lady of the FDRE (OFL) and supported by the Entrepreneurship Development Centre (EDC).
The project implementation started in 2014 with the support of UNDP.
Before joining the association, Nigat used to sell vegetables in the open market in Shiro Meda.
“The income when I worked as a street vendor was better than this,” Nigat says.
Nigat says she chose to give up the street vending business because it was not good for her health. But the health risk has apparently followed her because of the cotton dust at the workshop. Five of the 25 members in her association have already left because of it, she adds.
There are some studies which indicate that “cotton dust may contain many substances including ground-up plant matter, fiber, bacteria, fungi, soil, pesticides, non-cotton matter, and other contaminants that may have accumulated during growing, harvesting, and subsequent processing or storage periods.”
The association produces three kinds of spun cotton yarns – thin, medium and thick. The thin one sells for 200 Br while the medium and the thick ones sell for 150 Br a kilogram. They produce an average of 100Kg a month, which means monthly revenue of 15,000 Br to 20,000 Br – half of which goes to the association. That means less than 1,000 Br for each member, minus costs, including the cost of the cotton itself.
“The job is good here,” Nigat says, “but there is no market that makes us gain as much as we expect.”
“Creating the market linkage is very difficult and reaching 1,500 women is the plan,” says Nigest Haile, founder and director of CAWEE.
“We have asked the city government to give us space at bazaars that are held at the district level,” Nigat says.
Among the major donors to the project, the Canadian government extends 260,000 Canadian dollars and the Japanese government extends 70,000 dollars in the form of materials.
“The women are now legally registered businesses and when we exit in December, they will stand by themselves and continue the link with their customers who are exporters to the international market,” says Nigest.
But this does not seem to happen with the unstable market that the spinners point.
“There is no sustainable market link for us to produce consistently every time,” she says. “Two previous buyers we used to have are not buying from us anymore.”
The spinners say that they spend half of their sales revenue to buy the resources they need. The Centre used to buy them the cotton they need during their training. They have had to do that on their own after that.
Nigest says that there are various reasons for buyers leaving them. One is that it is difficult to get quality inputs from the local market. Other issues include quality of the product itself and delay in delivery. The buyers that have quit are those that had been found during the training period.
The jewellery made by artisans in Tigray is sold to Entoto Artisan, a local business that was established in 2003 by Bethelhem Berhane, who left the Ethiopian Tourist Trade Enterprise, where she had been working for six years. The establishment began with a capital outlay of two million Br, which has now grown to about 22 million Br.
“When I was working at Tourist Trade , especially at the Airports outlet, I had the chance to learn about international market links and make good relationship with people,” she says.
After owning a 62sqm shop at the Addis Abeba Bole International Airport in 2008, paying 127,000 Br through a bid process, she started sourcing 60pc of her items from the local suppliers. This, she says, helps her to meet people physically and create trusting relationships with her customers.
Then she employed 108 HIV positive women, giving them training in the making of the jewellery that she sells at the airport, later employing another 25.
“Sixty percent to 70pc of our products are supplied to the export market,” she said.
Then the product championing project of the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) created the opportunity through which she met the CAWEE and learned about the women who are part of it.
“Now they provide us with trade mission representation opportunities and experience sharing abroad,” Bethelhem said. “They also support us by giving expertise training.”
For the gemstone production, one Japanese artisan who was brought through CAWEE, was with them for designing.
Currently, Entoto Artisan has seven huge buyers in the international market and it exports up to 80,000 dollars a month.
“Entoto Artisan joined us as a local donor, also giving training to 100 women in the making of jewellery,” said Nigist.
Another exporter of the products linked to the export market is Amelsa Yazew who owns Tissase Trading Plc. and exports her items by the brand name Little Gabies starting the business at about a year and seven months ago after taking a two months training in embroidery and sewing. She launched the products a year ago.
Currently, she has 19 employees with all of the products she is going to the export market.
“I was motivated to work on Gabies because of the expensive market of children blankets that I bought when I gave birth to my first child,” she says.
They joined CAWEE in December, 2015 and have gained meaningful experiences, sharing advantages, as she did on a visit to Mongolia, where she learned how to use cashmere together with the cotton.
“The harmonisation of the two created more demand to my products; I had no idea of working with cashmere before that,” she said.
Her export destinations are mainly the United States including New York.
Currently, she is planning to have a showroom in Addis Abeba in addition to the outlet she opened last Saturday at Radisson Blu Hotel, Addis Abeba.
“I am very impressed by what I have seen as the women are working very hard and I had a moving experience,” said Ban Ki-moon who had gone around the block to see the busy women spinning, weaving and sewing. Roman Tesfaye, the wife of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who is the pinpoint of the project thanked the Secretary General and expressed the visit as “unexpected yet a very welcome and important visit” to the project site.
“Investing in women and girls is in everyone’s best interest not simply because it is the question of equity but because it is fundamentally at the centre of the sustainable development agenda,” stressed Roman.
Ban Ki-moon, who bought jewellery for his daughters from the displays, said that the issue of women empowerment is at the centre of the Sustainable Development Goals that are to replace the Millennium Development Goals starting September 2015.
“We will do much on women empowerment” he said.
The Executive Director of the International Trade Centre (ITC) under the UN, which works in creating market linkages to the women in the project, Arancha Gonzalez, who was at the site during the visit, also said that the help from the ITC will continue with the expansion of the created market links.
“We are fond of connecting women entrepreneurs,” she stressed. “We do not want charity; we want women to have a decent income.”
The ITC also works in creating market links to coffee and pulses, according to Gonzalez.
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