Something Beautiful From Ethiopia

Joanna’s favorite bag: The tote that started it all.

The blossoming of an international partnership for leather bags and social good.

On the popular shopping site of Magnolia Market — skyrocketed to fame by the hit HGTV show “Fixer Upper” — a photo of an elegant leather tote hanging on a rustic wooden ladder draws shoppers’ eyes to what is known as “Joanna’s Favorite Bag.” Joanna, of course, refers to Magnolia founder and design superstar/TV host Joanna Gaines, but the story of just how the simple tote became her go-to bag — and how it found its way onto the arms of countless Western shoppers — begins in a rather unexpected location: Ethiopia.

It all started when, on returning to Ethiopia after living in the U.S. in 2004, Yamerote “Yami” Mengistu sought a way to incentivize Ethiopia’s educated but unemployed women to stay in their country. Her solution? Start a company that employs a mostly-female, at-risk workforce. Her product? Leather goods, chosen due to the high regard held for Ethiopian leather by foreign entrepreneurs.

“I thought, if someone from overseas is saying that Ethiopian leather is some of the best they’ve seen in the world, and if the government is supporting it, let’s see what I can do with it,” says Yami. “Plus, the price doesn’t hurt. Ethiopian leather is very affordable.”

Yami Mengistu founded Rosa Abyssinica in 2004, envisioning a way to incentivize Ethiopia’s educated but unemployed women to stay in the country.

To reflect her desire to make “something beautiful from Ethiopia,” Yami chose the company name of Rosa Abyssinica and made its logo a stylized version of its namesake: the five-petal Ethiopian rose. With a staff of only two, both working from home, the company started production with the simplest item to make: leather bracelets. When those proved a major success at the Artisan’s Bazaar — a large shopping event of Made in Ethiopia products held twice a year in Addis Ababa — Yami felt encouraged to dream even bigger.

Purses came next. When Yami’s friend Kirsten Dickerson — founder of the Texas-based ethical fashion brand Raven + Lily — came to Ethiopia in 2012, she took an immediate liking to the first few sample bags. Kirsten already had a business partnership in place in Ethiopia with the Entoto Project, a jewelry training program for HIV-positive women, and she suggested a future similar partnership with Yami’s Rosa Abyssinica to make the bags.

The following year, the duo officially launched a partnership with one bag designed to appeal to a Western market. When that bag sold out — and orders continued to pour in — Raven + Lily hired a designer who had previously worked for international fashion brands Tory Burch and Kate Spade, and the Rosa Abyssinica workforce grew to 40 women, all based in Addis. Now, in addition to direct orders from Raven + Lily, the company also services partnership orders from Magnolia, Joanna Gaines’ home accessory store.

Read more at: Selamta Magazine

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