I was recently in Ethiopia for the Origin Africa event and on top of having a fantastic cultural experience and history lesson (Addis Ababa is truly an amazing city) I also had the pleasure to hang out with the lovely guys from ENZI Footwear firstly over an ‘interesting’ shared plate of chips at Lime Tree Cafe and then out to Club H20, dancing to the sounds of DJ Edu representing with Afrobeats, old school R’n'B and Ragga – yep Ethiopians know how to party especially to their reggae to my delight (unshamedly my inner Jamaican heritage erupted into dance).
I had heard about this new African based shoe brand who use the highest available grade of Ethiopian cow, sheep and goat leather. on my network ‘radar’ and so made it part of my heaving schedule to meet up with them and get to know the minds behind the company and the aims and design innovations of this upcoming footwear label.
So with a vision to “..change the perception of Africa and develop its manufacturing capacity through the production of high quality and well designed footwear while maintaining a commitment to social and environmental responsibility”, and with their London launch looming this coming Thursday, I would like to introduce to you Azariah, Jawad, Sam and Christian of ENZI Footwear.
AFG: With such an inspiring vision please tell us just how did Enzi Footwear get started.
Enzi: ENZI was officially established last year, but the idea and been in the minds of co-founder Jawad and Azariah for nearly 11 years now.
Azariah: It was mostly birthed out of frustration. Jawad and I grew up together in Kenya and after graduating from high school we went our separate ways (Jawad to England, and myself to the USA) to continue our education. The ignorant perceptions we both encountered in the “West” deeply frustrated us. It’s a story almost any African living abroad can relate to you, the offensive questions, jokes that aren’t funny and assumptions that formed from a 30 second news clip.
A few years into our studies we met back in Kenya during a summer break with several other classmates, and almost all of us experienced the same frustrations. There was a difficult balancing act Be African, but don’t act African, that some of us had to manage if we wanted to be accepted socially in our new environments. It never felt right. So this group of former classmates started talking about how amazing it would be to start a brand that represented us, and the Africa we were proud of, something to challenge the stereotypes and that would an external reflection of your inner pride. We had no idea how we’d do this, in fact we didn’t even have name, but passionate discussion began nonetheless.
Enzi: The real vision for ENZI began years down the road when Jawad and I were living together in London. Over the next two years of living together we formulated what type of brand we wanted to create, and what the mission would be. A few years later I had moved to Ethiopia, and Jawad came to visit me and we discovered Ethiopia’s amazing leather. It took a little over a year of R&D to settle on our local partners, and once we had that in place we reached out to our business partners Sam Imende and Christian Ward.
Sam is a childhood friend who grew up with Jawad and Azariah. Christian is also a long time friend, and the relationship between us has been invaluable in our business development. We do have organizational structure (Sam – CEO, Christian CFO, Jawad Head of Design and Development, and Azariah COO) but apart from Jawad’s lead in designing, all our roles overlap to a large degree. We try to operate as stakeholders rather than employees. Everyone does their best to tackle whatever task is in front of them.
AFG: Why was it started?
Enzi: As we were coming up with the concept, we started to see other brands coming to Africa to produce footwear. We thought to ourselves “if they are doing it, why can’t we?” It was really that simple. Yet we didn’t want to create a “pity product”. If we were going to tackle the negative perceptions associated with our continent we knew we had to create a high-end product that could stand toe to toe with well-respected brands on the market. We knew we would have access to some amazing leather, but we wanted to make sure we created an aesthetically pleasing shoe with an emphasis on craft. It took time to find a local partner we could do this with, but once we did we really began to take the steps to launch the company.
AFG: We spoke about the background of the logo you use. Can you describe this again for our readers what it means and where it came from?
Enzi: We LOVE our logo! It is inspired by a full stop in Amharic, a language that dates back to biblical times and is also the national language of Ethiopia. The same way a period comes at the end of a complete thought or sentence, our logo is the mark of a complete creative process. It’s our mark of quality and completion. We love the logo not only because we think it looks cool, but it’s inspired by the deep and rich history of Africa.
AFG: You proudly promote Made in Ethiopia as the country of production for your shoes how important is this for the brand?
Enzi: The label “Made in Africa” can be annoying. You never see a product that said, “Made in Asia” or “Made in Europe” on the tag. It says “Made in China” or “Made in Germany”. Why shouldn’t we receive the same distinction with our products? We do recognize ourselves as an African brand, but we are also are very aware of how often people refer to Africa as if it were one large country. The heart of our vision is to change people’s misconceptions of Africa, and we feel that being specific about where are products are made we do that in a small way. As we expand our production in the region we will continue to recognize the country and people who are making the products. We have already begun integrating artisan designs from Kenya and talking to textile manufactures in Uganda. Each country has unique offerings that will help us build our brand and we want to communicate that to the market.
AFG: Do you then source and produce everything locally? And how ethical is your sourcing and materials you use too?
Enzi: To be honest we haven’t been able to source everything locally. Our goal when we started was to source everything locally and produce a completely eco-friendly shoe. We were very ambitious, and perhaps a little naïve when we started this process. It is still our passion, and our vision to do so in the future. In fact, part of what has taken us so long to launch our product has been our reluctance to compromise on our sourcing and environmental impact. We are hoping that as we grow and work with local partners we can place orders that are large enough to fit into a leather tanneries production cycle. In the end we realized that our first mission was to change perceptions, and we felt we couldn’t compromise the look or quality of the shoe to do this. As we work with local partners, and as we grow will be able to do so without compromising.
AFG: What are the challenges you face producing, in particular, shoes in Ethiopia? And what would your advice be to anyone who wishes to do a similar business?
Enzi: There are several challenges, but the main challenge might be the fact that the factories are not used to delivering shoes at this standard. It takes a lot of oversight and time on the ground. That would also be my advice to others who hope to do something similar to us. Be prepared to spend a lot of time on the ground with manufactures and suppliers. Get your hands dirty and make sure that you are happy with what is coming off the assembly line. This is not something that can be achieved through emails and phone calls.
AFG: So all your shoes are made from locally sourced Ethiopian leather. Is sourcing leather in Ethiopia also a challenge?
Enzi: Leather has been a bit of a challenge for us. Part of that is also due to us just learning how to best work with local tanneries. It’s another part production chain that requires a lot of effort and time on the ground. There are also high minimum order quantities that could have really strained our start-up resources, but we are able to leverage our relationship with our manufacturer to cover the costs.
AFG: Looking at where you are now what would you say therefore are the positive things you have found with doing business in Ethiopia and manufacturing there?
Enzi: Well, obviously we have been extremely happy with the quality of shoes that the factory is producing. It took some time, but it still amazes us how the shoes we are producing now are exactly what we had envisioned all those years ago. When the final samples were done it was a real “pinch yourself” moment for us.
The other huge blessing for us is the people we are working with. We have come across some of the most beautiful, humble and hardworking people in this process. We have made genuine relationships. These people are a part of the Africa we want to showcase to the world and we hope our product does them justice.
AFG: That sounds very admirable and equally encouraging. And now? What are your plans with the brand in regards to product you are launching and events coming up?
Enzi: We have a dual launch strategy. The first is more traditional, targeting select boutique retailers in trend-setting cities like London. This takes time as we develop relationships with retailers and manage smaller order quantities, but will be important in establishing credibility in the market. The second approach is through our Kickstarter online campaign, which will be a major catalyst for our launch. We will have our first shoe “Menelik” available as one of the rewards in our campaign. The other rewards include branded leather bracelets and t-shirts. We will also be unveiling shoes that will be available later in the year.
In the future we are looking to expand our production into other parts of Africa to take advantage of the continents vast natural resources. For example, we will be launching a basic apparel line made from some of the finest organic cotton on the planet! Africa is loaded with some of the world’s best natural resources, and where applicable we plan to use local production to create high-end products to export to the world.
AFG: If you could have anyone wearing Enzi footwear today who would be your ideal celebrity?
Enzi: This is conflicting because we believe our brand could resonate with a range of celebrities across sectors, from musicians like K’naan, Bono or Kirk Franklin, to athletes like Didier Drogba, Usain Bolt or Dwayne Wade, to actors like Idris Elba, Will Smith or Matt Damon. These celebrities are influential through various attributes that we associate with our brand such as style, relevance, cross-cultural appeal, dominance and impact. They have fans all across the world from very different backgrounds that share a common attraction. That’s the appeal we want to have and will try to avoid being cornered into a specific genre.
That being said, if we were somehow restricted to one brand ambassador, it might have to be the legendary Nelson Mandela. We have a deep admiration for his transformative leadership that we can draw inspiration from in creating an African brand. We want to build a transformative brand that has a global reach.
And there you go Africa Fashion Guide readers. Welcome to the world of Enzi Footwear. Do watch this space for updates on the brand and above all do follow them
On Facebook: www.facebook.com/enzifootwear
On Twitter: www.twitter.com/ENZIFootwear
Author: Jacqueline Shaw