What started as a youth internship for Jessa Blades, has blossomed into a small business endeavour, sustaining employment for Ethiopian women, while offering Canadians a sample of handmade silks and cottons from the African country.
Blades took part in a DFATD (Department of Foreign Affairs Trade and Development) funded youth internship program in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for eight months, and returned this past spring. There, she worked as a Business Development Officer for Design Africa, which is partnership program between Trade Facilitation Office Canada (TFO Canada) and the South African Textile Industry Export Council (SATIEC).
“I worked directly one-on-one with about eight local companies, with an emphasis on product development and marketing support,” Blades explained.
‘Design Africa’ aim is to increase the capacity of medium-sized businesses in the textile industry to reach export standards and to access overseas markets.
Blades said the internship gave her the opportunity to blend together two of her interests: international development, and entrepreneurship.
“It (the internship) exposed me to a new way of development,” Blades said. “When you think development, you think in a narrow field, of health, or education. This internship was something design oriented and that Design Africa existed, was an inspiring opportunity.”
Blades connected with women running businesses in the textile sector, offering marketing and support for product development. Inspired by their work, she stayed in Ethiopia after her internship was completed.
That’s when she began exploring the idea of her business, ‘Konjo,’ which means ‘beautiful’ in Amharic. Working with four companies she was introduced to during her internship, Blades brought back sample scarves to Canada.
The products are entirely handmade silk and cottons, hand-woven, hand-dyed, and finished by hand. Products range from scarves to shawls, and bedding to baby wear.
Blades photographed models fashioning the scarves and put together a catalogue. With the catalogue, she marketed the pieces to Vancouver shops. One placed an order of 150 scarves and this past summer Blades celebrated with her business launch party.
As demand for the products climbs, so does employment for the women in Ethiopia. These women can now provide education and food for themselves and their children. This, Blades said, is, “Where the magic begins to happen.”
“I feel a great sense of responsibility,” Blades said. “I think that’s the thing about Konjo, is that I hope it changes people’s way of looking at development and Africa.”