Founded in 2009, SAWA is a proudly ‘Made in Africa’ footwear brand based in Ethiopia. It’s also the first sneaker to be fully produced on the continent. TDS first highlighted this shoe brand by Algerian-born, France-based shoe designer, Mehdi Slimani, last year for its vibrant and upbeat designs. But as trend worthy as they appear, Slimani strongly emphasises that the shoes’ aesthetic inspiration is ‘deeply rooted in reality’. Made from leather, suede and canvas in an array of hues, these shoes have had an interesting journey so far. Here’s a few snippets on what makes these sneakers rock:
What is in a name?
While it means ‘okay’ in Kiswahili and ‘together’ in Arabic, the name was originally derived from the company’s stomping grounds. This shoe brand was born in Cameroon and was named after the native coastal community from Douala city. At the time, they used to import lace from Tunisia and rubber from Egypt. However, with the advent of the Arab Spring, on top of the crippling weight of corruption in the Douala Harbour, SAWA had to close shop and move to Ethiopia. Today, the entire supply chain nd production happens in Addis Ababa.
No Charity Allowed
Slimani doesn’t mince his words on this subject. SAWA is an activist fashion project that strives to change the narrative that Africa needs saving. He finds the idea of selling products under the guide of charity condescending and in no way part of the solution. As stated on their website, it doesn’t ‘have the so-called generosity of brands which use Africa just to glorify themselves.’ Phrases such as ‘buy one send one’ or ‘portions of the proceeds’ don’t feature in this brand’s vocab because he finds it neither loyal nor ethical. In fact, Slimani only makes one promise, “”We don’t promise to donate part of our income to some charity association for each pair of shoes purchased, nor to build a pipeline towards Manhattan. Our shoes are made in Africa and will be made in Africa as far as you will enjoy wearing them.”
SAWA follows the philosophy of ‘teaching a man to fish’ and utilises the ‘Made in Africa’ to the full extent. By buying the materials in Africa, and running the entire supply chain on the continent, all the benefits remain in Africa and aid in economic growth. Even their communication is handled by African professionals. Their website, marketing and photo shoots are conducted by locals in Addis Ababa, further promoting the continental approach. By focusing on creating a top quality product that can compete on any stage, they empower the people with a livelihood that has a much greater impact than hand-outs. Such a bold stance in philosophy and execution has already garnered attention from stores in Asia, USA and Europe. It has also led to collaborations with brands such as TIGERSUSHI FURS (French touch electro music label), Hentsch Man (UK fashion label), Michelberger Hotel (Berlin), and international artists like The Roots and Public Enemy.
Slimani is a business school graduate, with ten years’ experience in company finances both in China and Brazil. It’s while he was in China that he had the idea to create a socially conscious sneaker company. Apart from maximising benefits the local economy in Ethiopia receives from the SAWA production, this shoe brand is committed to fair working conditions. For starters, their workers’ monthly salaries exceed the average Ethiopian wage up to ten times. With emphasis on craftsmanship, they work eight-hour days with fully-paid overtime, which roughly translates to 1.5 shoes handcrafted daily by each artisan. The brand also covers their workers’ health care and travel expenses, in addition to supporting workers who wish to attend further education alongside their employment.
SAWA wants their consumers to wear their shoes for a long time. So much so that they’ve even shared their quality guide protocol on their website. In order to test their shoes flexing resistance, they bend it at 90 degrees to define the ‘flexion point of the sole’. It’s done 30,000 times to see if the notch would increase. Only the shoes that resist flexion can proceed. They also test for abrasion resistance. “The sole of the shoe is scraped against a 40 meters abrasive band. A good quality sole loses 250 mm3 volume after this test. As far as SAWA soles are concerned, they just lose 79 mm3 volume, which proves that SAWA sole resist to abrasion three times more than a good quality sole.”
Lastly, they test for tear strength by making several perforations on the shoe’s upper. It takes 7.6 Decanewton pressure to widen preformation on the upper of a SAWA while the average shoe in the industry only needs 3.5 Decanewton pressure. That’s twice the strength of the average shoe in the market at the moment. Add this to the fact that they recycle water in their production process and the handcrafting reduces their carbon footprint, it’s a slow fashion winner.
Fusing basketball and fashion isn’t a new concept. But it’s Slimani’s bold declaration that Africa can do real business without peddling ‘sob stories’ that make this brand stand out. By seeing the potential in Africa, designers can work to ensuring the value stays in Africa; making it more self-sufficient and masters in their craft. As Slimani put it, ‘Everyone says Africa is the future, but for us it’s the present!’ What do you think about SAWA’s stance on charity?