By Mikiyas Tesfaye
What started as the quest of a caring and self-proclaimed, over-protective first-time mother to find the perfect blanket for her child is now making headlines as the next potential international breakout brand from Ethiopia.
Amelsa Yazew, 34, had a bit of a fetish for baby blankets when she was pregnant with her first child, Caleb. She said she bought excessive amounts of mass-produced baby blankets for her child. But it was not until her baby shower, where some one gave her a blanket made out of a Gabi - a traditional hand-woven cloak from Ethiopia, that her quest for a comfortable baby blanket had been accomplished.
After wrestling with the idea of creating the perfect baby blanket from Ethiopian traditional attire, Amelsa set out to realise her plan just three months after giving birth to her son. She meticulously worked on improving the designs of the product, collaborated with artisans to create a blanket that blends the rich Ethiopian heritage with an aura of modernity while embracing an eco-friendly business model.
Following a long and tough process of developing the product, Little Gabies was born and ready to hit the shelves. In the summer of 2014, Amelsa participated in a trade show held in New York City and officially launched Little Gabies. Ever since its introduction to the market, the product has enjoyed remarkable growth and aspires to become a high quality Ethiopian brand, following hugely successful runs by other Ethiopian brands, such as Sole Rebels, which right now is enjoying something of a revolution, breaking into the global footwear market.
Little Gabies' inception rests in a deep philosophical foundation of sustainability and environmentalism, explains Amelsa. The blankets are made from 100pc natural, organically grown cotton, crafted by hand and are impressively packaged for export, using recyclable materials.
Amelsa admits she is a bit of a control-freak when it comes to her products and oversees every step of the process. In line with her deep-rooted sense of environmental sustainability, she obtains the cotton used by Little Gabies from small farmers who use no pesticides or any other chemicals to harvest their yield. Utilising this raw material is great both for the earth and for consumers of the final product, which in this case are infants, said Amelsa, as she spoke animatedly to Fortune about her product. Even the threads imported from Germany and used for the beautiful, cheerful and colourful African-themed embroidery applied in the Gabies are tested for harmful substances, she added.
Strictly following a production process that predominantly relies on artisans, Little Gabies are made using indigenous technologies, from the farm all the way to the spinning and weaving. The process not only creates a unique product but also preserves thousands of years of heritage in making clothes in Ethiopia.
Several women are permanently employed in the spinning process, Amelsa told Fortune. Though she does not claim that their lives have changed, they have found employment that pays better at Little Gabies.
In addition to the spinners, several other young women and men have found different jobs at Little Gabies including four traditional weavers. Kutch Getu, 32, is one of them who has worked as a weaver ever since he was ten years old. He joined Little Gabies five months ago and attests that the drive to attain unparalleled quality is at the core of the company's motivation to see the brand established.
Alemayehu Awoke, 36, has worked at Little Gabies from the onset and earning 225 Birr a day, has increased his income.. Even though he has spent well over 18 years in the business of weaving, he claims the approach Little Gabies has adopted, with the set up of its workshop, is unlike any he has ever experienced. From economical use of space, to its sparkling cleanliness, to the sky-lit roof and ventilated space, the Little Gabies workshop creates a productive ambience for workers, Alemayehu noted.
The workshop is thoughtfully designed to integrate artisans working with their hands. There is also an ironing station and an embroidery machine. The only step of the production process that involves a machine is the embroidery, Lemlem Tesfaw, 45, explained to Fortune. She works on the embroidery machine at Little Gabies. The embroidery cannot be applied manually, therefore, the machine is used once the Gabies have been woven by hand, she said.
Sales of Little Gabies globally have been very successful, Amelsa claimed with pride, so much so that at current production rates, they are unable to cope with the rising demand for the product. There is huge market potential for the Gabies in the United States, which until recently has been the sole destination of Little Gabies, with wholesale suppliers in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, Amelsa said.
Following a recent trade visit to Norway, organised by the Centre for Accelerated Women's Economic Empowerment (CAWEE), with the involvement of Roman Tesfaye, the Prime Minister's wife, Amelsa discovered that there is a large demand for her products in Europe as well. She displayed her products in Norway and successfully negotiated business deals with wholesalers there.
Little Gabies' success in its sales globally and the rising demand for the product locally prompted the company to set up its first showroom here in Addis. On October 17, 2015 it opened its doors on Africa Avenue, to a cheering crowd of customers and excited children.
While the opening of the showroom marks the progress the company is making in the local market, the government expressed its commitment to support Little Gabies and similar companies in their export-driven efforts, Tadesse Haile, state minister for Industry declared at the inauguration ceremony.
She said "I am not a major investor, nor am I someone in the micro and small enterprises. I'm somewhere in between. But government policy so far has largely overlooked the 'somewhere-in-betweens'."
But despite the success Little Gabies has enjoyed, it is struggling to meet rising demands because of unavailability of land to expand its production capacity, Amelsa told Fortune.
On a personal level, balancing family as mother to a very young son, and juggling between her other job as a deputy manager of a trading firm, is proving to be difficult. However, Amelsa said she is very thankful to a supportive husband and family.
Her family understands her work with Little Gabies now more than ever, she shared. The small company she has founded is now on an expansion march. It recently partnered with a young leather shoe designer, Meron Seid, to produce baby shoes from sheepskin and exclusively distribute the product under the Little Gabies brand. She hopes the shoes will promote the 'Made In Ethiopia' brand, just as Sole Rebels is currently doing on global stages.
Amelsa aspires to have her own shops in global fashion destinations such as Paris, New York and London, so that in a few years time, the 300 or so small, medium and large sized baby blankets that she supplies to wholesalers in the US every month will reach her ever expanding customer base directly.
From its underlying philosophy to its commitment in implementing its ethos, from its marketing approach to its packaging, Little Gabies has the makings of a global brand bringing comfort and warmth to mothers and their children worldwide. It has a long way to go in promoting a positive image of Ethiopia. But judging by its product, internationally tested by a third party lab for harmful products, its working process and its vision, Little Gabies - With Love From Ethiopia, is already a genuine brand on its way making global impact.