The “100% Made in Africa” sneaker company Sawa is struggling to keep its brand in Africa, faced with corruption and consequences of the Arab Spring. But the touch of local handcraft combined with cheap labor is loaded with potential.
Manufacturing in Africa is no walk in the park.
The three founders of the sneakers brand Sawa have also learned the differences in the difficulties, depending on which African country you're doing business in. Beginning in 2009, the shoes were produced in Cameroon, but production was relocated to Ethiopia in May 2011.
"It broke our hearts to relocate, but it was either that or closing up shop completely," says Mehdi Slimani, one of Sawa's two French founders, the third is from Italy. "We knew that to keep the brand alive, we had to stay in Africa," he adds.
The core concept of the Sawa project is to export a fashionable "made in Africa" brand. The models are designed by local craftsmen. "It's activism, but we're not here to ‘save Africa,"" explains the young entrepreneur.
Sawa's three 30-something founders chose Cameroon because of the local know-how, the same reason why Shoe giant Bata had a factory in the country for many years. The trio had signed a deal with a local partner company producing work boots. All of the raw material to produce Sawa shoes came from Africa: canvas came from Cameroon, leather from Nigeria, laces from Tunisia and rubber from Egypt.
But settling in Cameroon for the long-term proved truly impossible, because of corruption in the port of Douala, as well as the side effects of the "Arab Spring." The shoe components transited through the harbor's custom office, where the amount of taxes was unpredictable from one day to the next.
"We always had to negotiate. At the end of the day, the taxes prevented us from being a profitable business," Slimani adds. On top of this, protests in Tunisia and Egypt caused delays in supplies and therefore, in the production of shoes – which led to a situation where Sawa had to pay fines to retailers waiting to sell the new collections in their shops. "We were disappointed, because we expected locals to be economic patriots," the entrepreneur says.
An Ethiopian upgrade
In the end, the company moved to Ethiopia, where its owner-managers were attracted by the recent government-backed industrial dynamism. They were also drawn in by the possibility to buy all the raw material within the country. The Ethiopian partner has a factory with 300 workers who cut, sew and put the pieces together. "We have lost the ‘craftsman" aspect, but we have gained in quality, volume, productivity and security," says Slimani. Sawa also entrusted a young Ethiopian agency with its public relations.
Sawa's owners want their shoes to become best-sellers. Last year, their order books fell after they were unable to produce the winter collection in time. On top of finding new clients, Sawa has to convince its old customers to trust them again.
Originally sold in "trendy" shops such as Dover Street Market in London, Comme des Garçons in Tokyo and Wood Wood in Berlin, the brand reached retailers such as J. Crew in the United States or Tomorrowland in Japan. It's also sold at the Printemps department store in Paris. In 2012, Sawa is aiming to produce 15,000 pairs of shoes; and the trio of entrepreneurs is hoping to double the figure in 2013. The launch of a new model – high top leather sneakers sold at 115 euros – may give revenue a nice kick.
Read the original article in French.