In fact, fashion design is proving to be one of the most successful Ethiopian sectors for small business and entrepreneurs, generating profit margins ranging from 50 percent to more than 100 percent, according to Mahlet Afework, the 25-year-old Addis Ababa-based founder of fashion line MAFI.
The country is a fashion designer’s dream due to its multiple ethnic groups from which one can draw design inspiration, Mahlet tells IPS. Her most recent collection was inspired by the Dinguza pattern from southern Ethiopia’s Chencha region.
Small companies like Mahlet’s can flourish due to the absence of big chain department stores, and relatively low start-up costs set against high prices individuals are willing to pay for quality hand-made fashion garments
And the economy at large is benefiting from increased international interest in Ethiopia’s textile and garment industry. The industry’s small-scale businesses, with a labour force of 10 or less, registered exports of 62.2 million dollars in 2011, up from 14.6 million dollars in 2008.
And the Ethiopian government believes the industry can raise its aggregate production value to 2.5 billion dollars by the end of 2015.
Ethiopia’s successful fashion designers are predominantly women, according to Mahlet and other designers, who grew up surrounded by traditionally woven cotton fabrics, learning from mothers and aunts the tailoring and embroidering skills for making beautiful and delicate clothing.
This female-inspired heritage is not forgotten. Mahlet works exclusively with female weavers to help them support themselves and their families amid a male-dominated weaving sector.
Despite many designers having the advantage of a home-spun fashion education, a lack of formal fashion design education is preventing many from breaking out internationally, says Mahlet, who is self-taught and credits Google Search as her primary tutor.