On the Brink

ONE Mom Christine Koh traveled to Ethiopia with ONE this October. This piece, originally published on Boston Mamas, is part of our ongoing coverage of the trip.

Our final site visit in Ethiopia represented the awesome and the ironic. Muya (which means talent) is a woman-owned, fair trade business that has “made it” in many ways. In contrast to the primitive yet productive trappings of fashionABLE, Muya is situated in Addis Ababa on a rather restorative feeling compound — a series of modern buildings (vs. wood and tin roofed huts) nestled between plenty of foliage. They make a gorgeous array of home and fashion products and produce scarves for Lemlem (which distributes to clients such as J. Crew). Yet despite their successes, they still struggle to gain footing with sellers; largely, it seems, due to outsider stereotypes of Ethiopia.

I want to take you on a brief tour of the factory, where we saw cotton being spun into spools and then woven into scarves.

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All of the textiles are laundered and pressed by hand. This woman was so happy to see us!

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I loved seeing the women potters at work — they were creating and shaping and painting each piece of pottery by hand. I was completely obsessed with these chubby rainbow guinea fowl — a pair of sisters were painting each tiny dot by hand. AMAZING.

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It was incredible to see the success of this company — the full circle’ness of it was very similar to how I felt seeing the schools at Mojo and then meeting the young Ethiopian entrepreneurs. But here’s the maddening thing. Despite Muya’s success, they have struggled to build seemingly simple things such as a website that allows for international transactions and expanded US retail distribution. My impression from our conversation with Muya founder Sara Abera is that a big part of this is due to stereotypes that potential investment/retail partners have about Ethiopia. It’s a little shocking to me that the products alone are not enough to convince buyers of the quality and production capacity, but apparently it is not. They are still very much on the brink when it comes to living up to their full potential.

Many of us left this visit not only with armloads of purchased goods, but our wheels spinning on how to help Muya create partnerships and distribution here in the United States. I’ll follow up with more information when I have it; meanwhile, if you have leads for potential partners, drop me a line!

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I was in Ethiopia at the kind invitation and expense of The ONE Campaign, a nonpartisan, advocacy organization dedicated to the fight against extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. ONE works to convince governments (the US, as well as others) to invest in smart programs that help to eliminate poverty and preventable disease in a sustainable way. ONE never asks for your money, simply your voice.