Sonia-K Lingerie was established in 2013 by Sania Ahmed, following her ambition to create quality lingerie in Ethiopia. According to the owner and designer, starting the business was difficult but, during the last 4 to five years, there has been huge progress. Now eyeing the export market, Sonia-K looks forward to an exciting future with expansion plans. Capital spoke to Sania Ahmed about her accomplishment.
Capital: Tell us about your background and how you got into this business.
Sania Ahmed: I taught French literature for a long time. I lived abroad for quite a while, primarily in Djibouti, it’s been around 15 years since I returned back to Ethiopia and when I came back I wanted to accomplish something. Looking at how I came into this business, for a country of over a 100 million people, most consumer goods are still being imported including undergarments. This is something that shouldn’t happen.
The other reason was that whenever I came to Ethiopia for a visit, I has noticed that there weren’t places that sold lingerie; panties or bras were hard to find, there was basically only one place that specialized in these items but even that store lacked variety. It was a very interesting situation for me so I decided to move back here and start manufacturing these things.
Over 15 years ago, it was a different time in Ethiopia, there weren’t that many consumers for these kinds of garments, especially bras. When I told my friends that I had the interest in starting this type of manufacturing they said there wouldn’t really be a market for it and that people wouldn’t be interested at that time and nobody would by it.
So, then I put the plan on hold and went back to teaching at the International Community School for six years. It was after those six years that I got bored and so I decided to revisit the idea of opening a manufacturing business and that is what I did.
I wanted to start it; it seems in this country nobody has the courage to start something new unless someone does it first. Even if I was not successful in the beginning, I wanted to start it and show people that it can be done, these things can be produced here and we don’t need to depend on imports.
Capital: What about after you launched the business, what was the process like and how did people accept the products?
Sania: It was challenging. What is interesting is that until recently, my products were not highly successful because consumers were used to imported Chinese products. It is during the last 4 to 5 years that people became more aware and started buying my products.
The perception is that just because it is produced locally, the garments should be cheaper than those that are imported from China; they don’t consider things like, China produces all the raw materials and doesn’t need to import anything, plus they do mass production and they do get a lot of support from the government. We don’t have that here; I have to import things, I have to pay tax and so on.
When I started I really didn’t know anything about the business; both the creation and marketing sides of it. I had to teach myself through the Internet, through reading books and through collaboration with others in a similar field. I still have a lot to learn but I am at a solid stage now.
Capital: Another challenge could be sourcing skilled labor, was that difficult for you?
Sania: It wasn’t that challenging. As long as they had the knowledge of sewing and if they could do that well, then that is enough. I just needed to give them a training for a week or so on how to work with different designs and different cuts. So those that have worked in the garment industry were fast to catch on.
Capital: You also hire only female employees. Why did you decide to do that?
Sania: To empower women and reason is because they would be more suitable because they are direct consumers and would know better what other women like and feel comfortable in. In the production process, they will look at each step, comment on it and connect with the product as if they are the consumers themselves.
Capital: You source a lot of raw materials from abroad. Do you source any fabric locally?
Sania: Yes, I do. We don’t only focus on panties and bras or even those products are not exclusively made from lace, we also produce them using cotton and that cotton we source locally. We also previously sourced other things such as plastic straps for bars and so on locally but unfortunately, the company producing them closed. Our hope is to find and work with other companies locally who are producing the things we are looking for.
Capital: Do you have plans to export?
Sania: Yes, I want to do both local market and export. I really do want to focus on well made affordable undergarments for people in rural areas and other cities outside of Addis. For exporting, cotton made garments are my focus and I have actually exported some already.
Capital: How can people get access to your product in Ethiopia?
Sania: Right now our products are only available in our workshop and production center. We have hired marketing professionals who go around promoting the products and finding interested people to place orders. But this is not enough, I want to take out a loan and open two shops, it is very necessary.
When we ask other shops to take our products, they said they don’t source products locally and are only interested in bringing in imported products. So, we will definitely open our own shops.
There are different challenges now in the import sector; there are problems of hard currency for example so we have an opportunity to fill that gap.