About TFO Canada
Ethiopian Fine Textiles Preserve Culture by Creating Jobs
Sammy Abdella founded Negist in 2005 with his mother, sister and two artisans working out of his family home in Ethiopia. Bridging contemporary demand with age-old traditions, Negist brings the vitality and rich heritage of Ethiopia to life. The company works with local designers, embroiderers, weavers and cotton spinners to produce high-end, handmade textiles from natural materials. Negist specializes in creating unique products for home décor and fashion, including scarves, cushions, curtains and linens.
Two years after its launch, Negist was selected as one of six companies from Ethiopia to participate in TFO Canada’s Design Africa program. Sammy recalls: “It was a critical time for us to learn more about design, creating a collection, developing new products and how to market them.” Through Design Africa, Negist received support in product design development, marketing and promotion. With input from TFO Canada’s technical experts, Negist developed a visible and long-lasting brand with product catalogues and a logo that the company still uses to this day. The company’s artisans were also trained on alternative embroidery and stitching techniques.
At the time, Negist was already exporting to the UK and had just begun to explore the American market. Sammy targeted Canada as a logical next step because of its purchasing power and taste for high-end products. With support from TFO Canada, Sammy had the opportunity to visit Canada and exhibit at the 2008 SIDIM Design Show in Montreal. At the show, TFO Canada’s Executive Director provided coaching to help Sammy market his products to Canadian buyers. TFO Canada also arranged B2B meetings for Negist with potential buyers in Toronto. Sammy credits this exposure to the Canadian market and contacts made as important building blocks to take his company further and grow brand awareness.
Today, Negist works with over 47 permanent artisans and exports its products to all corners of the globe, from Europe, to Japan, to Australia, to Africa, to the Middle East and, of course, to Canada. For the past five years, Negist has been working with IA:MM Inc., a design showroom in Toronto that acts as the company’s Canadian distributor. Through this relationship, Negist has secured sales with some of Canada’s top design retailers, including Holt Renfrew’s H Project for socially responsible brands. “Stores love to tell the story of the products they have,” says Anne Izumi, President of IA:MM Inc. Sammy agrees that Canadians appreciate the product because it is unique, but also because of the work behind it: “They understand the value of working with artisans to preserve their culture and the talent of handmade articles.”
Creating sustainable employment is at the core of Negist’s business model. Sammy remembers when he started 10 years ago, artisans in the group said they would never want their children to take up their craft. In fact, they were working hard to send their children to school for a brighter future away from the life their parents had known. Today, this story is changing. “The main thing that people want is to work,” says Sammy. “Nobody wants a free hand out. If you can create this environment and find the right markets, then the artisans begin to see themselves as independent workers and take pride in what they do.”
In the future, Sammy hopes to expand his business in Canada and introduce new product lines to the global market, such as jute, basket weaving and ceramics, which are already being sold in Negists’s showroom in Addis Ababa. The company is also exploring opportunities to grow its leather goods collection, a current priority sector for the Government of Ethiopia’s trade diversification agenda. By valuing local artisans, through both international recognition and sales, companies like Negist are helping to keep the long history of Ethiopian artistry alive.