Women taking Africa “by the horn”

I recently set out on a mission to find successful women who are transforming their African communities. To make this challenging task more exciting, I decided to visit countries at the lowest rank of every World Bank economic index. With the help of old friends from Queen’s, I mapped out an itinerary that took me from Toronto to Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Along the way, I met many amazing people, and I’d like to share the especially inspiring stories of two women, who are “taking Africa by the horn.”

I arrived in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa one evening mid-June thoroughly confused. According to my watch, it was 8 pm and a translucent darkness had fallen over the city. However, the taxi driver who picked me up at Bole International Airport had tried to convince me that according to Ethiopia’s orthodox calendar, it was actually 2 pm on the third day of a month called Sanni in the year 2004. Out of sheer bewilderment, I stuck my head out of the window of the cab to clear my head and enjoy the cool breeze sashaying through the city as pedestrians darted dangerously between cars.I was in Addis Ababa to interview Bethlehem Alemu, the woman with the fastest growing brand in Africa. I met her at the flagship shop of soleRebels, a multi-million dollar shoe company she started in 2005. In a neatly decorated room surrounded by loafers and flip-flops, I discovered that Bethlehem grew up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Addis Ababa. Fueled by a strong desire to create employment opportunities there, she assembled community artisans to start manufacturing shoes out of old car tires.

As demand for her climate-practical high-quality shoes soared, she expanded her operations to employ 200 local artisans and began exporting Ethiopia’s eco-sensible shoes to Europe, North America, and Asia. With a simple dream to better the conditions in her community, Bethlehem Alemu has been able to build a highly profitable business that has earned her accolades and awards at home and abroad.

After a week in Ethiopia, I boarded a plane to South Sudan, the newest African country to gain independence. As the plane began its rapid descent, my heart rate quickened. I did not know what to expect of a land that had been under the ruthless dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. For decades, the two regions engaged in guerilla warfare until South Sudan seceded and was recognized by the world on July 1, 2011. Since gaining independence, thousands of South Sudanese have returned “from exile” to rebuild their homeland. As I strolled through the streets of Juba, the capital city, I saw signs that South Sudan is ready for the world.

The roads are lined with wooden kiosks out of which petty traders sell phone cards and food items. The city is filled with construction workers hauling cement to build houses and hotels supported by the influx of foreign investment. However, by far the most impressive evidence of progress I saw was in a little yellow house with a white sign that read “The Roots Project.” This non-profit organization was established by a young girl called Anyieth D’wol to teach trade skills to underserved women in South Sudan.On the sweltering hot day that I visited the Roots Project, Hargeisa, the manager, was helping a group of 20 women with their handiwork. With children strapped on their backs and spools between their toes, the women ­delicately threaded beads into necklaces which they would later sell in the markets. The women use the income they earn to ­support their families and help start their own businesses. Although Hargeisa and her team may not be on the same financial ­platform as soleRebels, the success of this ­outreach program lies in its commitment to rebuild a country by empowering the most marginalized sector of its population.

I left Juba with a deep sense of optimism that with people like Hargiesa leading the way, South Sudan is being steered in the right direction.

Bethlehem and Hargeisa are just two of the amazing women I met during my three-week expedition across the Horn of Africa. Each of them demonstrates that with minimal resources and unwavering resolve, a single person can change lives and transform communities – even countries.

This article originally appeared in the Queen’s Alumni Review 2012 Issue #4

The African Teddy bears

Sometimes , when you least expect it, you create an accidental HIT. This is the remarkable story of Emily Croxford an acclaimed children’s clothes designer who did not want to waste the off-cuts from a line of afro chic clothes she had just sewn. A spur of the moment decision to make teddy bears from the scraps of cloth has turned into a blossoming business with orders from Johannesburg to Toronto.

In an interview with Emily Croxford, she detailed how she created the most sought after toy in homes and daycares.

AS: Emily, What led you to the world of fashion.

Emily Croxford: I graduated from the London college of Fashion in 1991 and I have been making some made-to-measure clothes for adults and children since. But in the last ten years, due to the overwhelming demand for my brand of children’s clothes, I have been focusing on kids wear .

AS: You have a lovely line of children’s wear, but I sometimes wonder if the market for African styled clothes is not over saturated. How do you handle the competition?

Emily Croxford: I have a really unique approach to designing children’s wear. The collection I have for children is not done in the generic way that you find on the market. I just returned from Ghana Fashion Week and I was the only designer showcasing children’s wear. The response to my line was amazing.

AS: You definitely have the gift of style in kidswear, but what drew me to you is your fabulous line of African teddy bears. I am in LOVE with the African teddy bears and this is coming from someone who has never been crazy about stuffed animals yet I just can’t stop gushing over the Afro-teddys. They are to die for. What inspired them.

Emily Croxford: We were going to fashion show last year and we had off-cuts from the finished dresses lying on the floor. Now I could not bring myself to waste the random pieces of cloth so I decided to make teddy bears out of them and I tell you, they were a hit. Everybody wanted the teddy bear. Now the african teddy bear has a life of its own.

AS: I have to be the biggest fan of the Afro teddys. They are different yet so beautiful. How long does it take to make one.

Emily Croxford: I am so glad you like them. You will be happy to know that they are hand made and it takes about 4 hours to make one. They are not mass produced so you can rest assured that no single teddy bear is the same. There is the odd time that someone will ask us to replicate a specific style they saw but for the most part, we customize the teddy bear to your desire. We can emboss your initials or a special message on the teddy bear if you so wish.

AS: Fantastic! What is next for the afro teddys

Emily Croxford: We have a new line coming out with crystals and rhinestone which is just beautiful.

AS: I cannot wait to get my hands on them. Do you ship to North America?

Emily Croxford: Absolutely! If you go to www. nativebelleboutique.com and place your order, we will ship your teddy bear to any part of the world.

AS: Emily, I wish you all the success and I can’t wait to see the Afro-teddy at every toy shop around the world.

Emily Croxford: Thank you.

photo credit: http://www.nativebelleboutique.com/