June 08, 2012
Going barefoot in Africa often means injuries, worms puncturing the skin and putrefaction of the foot from disease. But in the past few years shoes have been getting a foothold in even the poorest and most remote communities of Ethiopia. Many children living high in the wild Adwa mountains in northern Ethiopia now have shoes. With no cushion or support, they are little more than plastic slippers. But in cold rain they provide a surer footing and protect the soles of the feet from being sliced on sharp rocks and toes from being cracked in a fall.
Those who live higher up in the mountains have to climb rock faces every day to reach schools and clinics far below in the valley. Doctors in the distant town of Hawzen say climbing accidents are the biggest cause of death among mountain children. So even the plastic slippers can save lives. They cost about $2 a pair—which most families say they can afford.
In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, a shoe revolution is under way. The prime minister, Meles Zenawi, wants Ethiopia to produce shoes for the world. A cheap workforce is drawing Chinese and Turkish investors. One attraction is leather. Ethiopia has one of the largest livestock industries in Africa. Investors say they wish the tanneries were better. Ethiopia, with its present population of 82m people possibly doubling before 2040, may also become an attractive market.
Life for most Ethiopians is improving. Fewer people are hungry. The number of those deemed by the UN to depend on food handouts fell from 4.5m to 3.2m in 2011. The prime minister, in power since 1991, says that China has “rescued” Ethiopia with billion-dollar loans for roads, dams and other public infrastructure projects. He points to a Chinese railway being built from Djibouti, on the Red Sea, to Addis Ababa. It will replace an ancient Italian line. He delights in a new Chinese-built, skyscraping headquarters for the African Union, letting him dub the city the continent’s diplomatic capital. By the by, though conscious that Western aid has kept millions of his people from starving, he complains about the relative failure of Western investors to put their faith in Ethiopia’s economy.
A Chinese firm from Dongguan, Huajian Shoes, is set to invest $2 billion. It has started to build a vast industrial estate at the edge of Addis Ababa where it intends to make shoes for Western brands. Sceptics say Ethiopia’s shoddy infrastructure may make it hard to produce the volumes of shoes required. If Huajian Shoes succeeds, other shoemakers may follow. Wages will be lower than in China and Ethiopians have a tradition of handicraft.
A small Ethiopian shoe company, soleRebels, is selling its wares globally through the internet. Some of the shoes are made from leather, but most use “vegan-friendly” local cotton, jute and hemp. The shoes are made-to-order. The firm says it can courier them off within a week. Its founder, Bethlehem Alemu, wants to turn her company into a global brand. “I chose to make shoes because it showcases Ethiopia—our natural materials, our weaving and our sewing,” she says. The only non-Ethiopian bits of her shoes are the glue and the rubber soles cut from old lorry tyres.
Source: Eth Economist