weathering a crisis

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Camillo Calamai (Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

The leather sector is one of the major foreign currency generator of the country. Although since the outbreak of the global pandemic the export of leather and leather goods has been completely ceased. Lots of companies are facing a challenging time with the market. But these companies are looking for other options to sustain in the market and survive the crises. Village industry is one of the companies producing shopping bags to the international market under the line Afar. Camillo Calamai is the general manager of the company that started operation in 2004 as a knitting plant. Village has about 100 employees.
Village process fabrics and leather combining sophisticated technology and high quality natural raw materials and export finished products and also sold locally at various outlets in Bisrate Gabriel, Hilton and Jupitor Hotel. Excerpts;

Capital: Can you tell us how you start your company in Ethiopia?
Camillo Calamai: We set operation 15 years ago with a knitting plant that was supposed to be serving our company in Italy, which is a textile company established by my great grandfather in 1878. Between the two world wars the company becomes the third largest producers of blankets in Europe. It was quite a nice operation. When backing throughout the years we shifted to ladies wear and fashion fabrics and technical fabrics to sport so the knitting plant here was supposed to support the company in Italy and to make technical fabrics. Unfortunately the financial crises in 2008 has forced us to close the operation and we decided to move here to start a new business. The company in Italy was backing us to send some items to Italy but now it is not there anymore so we shift the business and instead of making syntactic fabrics we are making natural cotton and leather for bags.
The beginning was quite well because it was the first product to substitute poly bags before the law that enforce everybody to switch to use eco-friendly product so for a couple of years we produce these and other materials and then the competition becomes a little bit hard. At the beginning it was mainly for shops.
Six years ago we started making some bags of our own line called Afar also we start exporting. We decide to make our own line, our marketing, our branding and whatever was needed to launch a range of bags needed in Europe and other markets.
We participated on several fairs and now even though it’s a niche product and its having a very good acceptance because we are realizing that Africa now specially Ethiopia rely in fashion.
People are looking interested so we are using natural dying and local fabrics that is quite interesting. They are made from natural cotton that comes from the north west part of Ethiopia which is made using basically their hands, no chemicals very little toxic fuels and what really matters is no irrigation. It is very clean cotton which is the probably the best made for environment. We are trying to do natural dying mainly with soils with no chemicals natural and eco-friendly also the quality of the leather.

Capital: How much is your production capacity and who are your immediate target customers?
Camillo: We are making 1500 up to 2500 shopping bags per day and two dozens of this bags from very natural materials. Our target customer’s in terms of shopping bags are mainly food retailers. The commercial market like Europe is huge, it really represent millions of product that are served by China and other Asian producers with some plastic and synthetic materials. I think we have chance of selling not only the shopping bags but also other similar products that can be used in everyday life made from natural products. In terms of our Afar line our target customers are mainly travelers or any one that passes through Africa and has a strong emotional relation with the continent and with the country.

Capital: How do you see running a business in Ethiopia?
Camillo: It is an interesting experience. There are challenges and opportunities. I think I could say in two words that are the base of our market and also the focus we are trying to develop to understand where to go. One is uniqueness and the other is authenticity. I think this corona virus pandemic has been somehow increasing the gap between what we have seen and happening in terms of industrial development but also environment abuse in some highly advance industries. We are main stream producers insisting a lot on how the environment has been preserving this country in how the resources has been unique because of the care that has to be taken.
The other thing is authenticity. A lot of people now talk about eco-friendly product. We have a lot of biological or organic cotton which cost exactly the same price a very little difference with the industrial cotton that is grown with chemicals, irrigations and using mechanical machines which makes no sense here in Ethiopia or in Africa.

Capital: What do you think about the Bt cotton which is in a trial now in Ethiopia?
Camillo: The BT cotton is of course an occasion having cotton that is easier to produce and that goes in to the right direction. But again I am saying that we have to focus on what is really authentic in the country we have to remember that the first domesticated cotton was in Nubia and neighboring areas so this is where we got the first small plants of cotton. We could use to make garments for human beings and that is a long time ago and it is ok to go in to modern technics and also seeds.
In Humera people are still using their own seeds to produce cotton.

Capital: How does the pandemic affect your business what are the challenges your company is facing currently?
Camillo: Our main challenge is that all our orders are either canceled or suspended. So we have started to making face masks as like many textile companies around the world and we are also looking for inputs of other products that we can do because of course there is a need in the market.
If you want to keep the company alive you have to plan hopefully to bring it back to track.
We will work out but we believe that most of them will be resuming. The covid may also represent a chance because I hope there will be a term in to more natural and less harming products probably there will be also less mass consuming and more research of items that have story.

Capital: Do you fear that you may face the same thing that happened to your company in Italy which was closed in 2008/09?
Camillo: Hope it will not be closed. We are working to find a way to pass this difficult moment and we are using to understand what will be the world after the covid 19 crises especially related to our products and textile business. We have been targeting up to now. My feeling is as I said that the future may find some opportunities for our sector, for our business of how things are going in the directions that am hoping if we properly use our chances.

Capital: Do you have any plans to change products or to open other lines or factories?
Camillo Calamai: We are trying to focus on the service and specialize on some phases of what has been happening in the whole world.
In general all the multi phases of textile seems very basic product but it is not; there is agriculture then the cotton then spin you have dying, you have printing, then you have to cut then you have to switch, you have to finish the product properly many of the important operation are all this supply chains and cannot be efficient in modern world if done under assembly that we are 100 percent sure.