It was a journey that started as a hobby for Semhal Guesh. While in the university training as an architect, she started making hand bracelets from leather waste which later led her to start Kabana Leather, a firm that produces a wide range of bags mainly targeting foreign markets.
“My hobby became a business when I employed someone and saw the impact it made on their life. I quit my job at an architectural firm to run Kabana full-time,” she told.
Guesh produces under her own brand and also has a division that produces for international labels. Since the establishment of the firm in 2017, it has focused on the international market. However, following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the firm made adjustments so as to focus on the local market in a bid to water down the effect of the pandemic on its business operations.
In addition to producing leather bags, Kabana leather now produces PPEs and other preventive materials with support from the MasterCard Foundation albeit temporarily.
The bulk of its products are sold in the U.S. and Europe and a small consignment sold in Rwanda and South Africa. Guesh said her brand tries to have launches twice a year. “Design starts with a mood board with colors, material concepts and design. Usually, I work with my team to develop patterns and designs. We make samples and get feedback on these. We then manufacture our selection for the launches,” Guesh said.
The architect-turned manufacturer attributes the success of her firm to its niche for functional bags made locally instead of concentrating on seasonal or fashionable products. “We focus on training and investing in our team, so we have close to zero staff turnover,” she said. What’s more, 80 percent of the workforce are women.
Also, Guesh’s business has largely grown as a result of recommendations from satisfied customers. “We have not spent a lot on marketing. We have also found some level of success at trade fairs,” she added.
However, there are some challenges she occasionally deals with. One of the challenges is sourcing quality leather and accessories for the bags. She also struggles to access finance which limits her working capital and makes it hard to move from a small to a medium enterprise or expand operations.
The effect of COVID-19 was another challenge she had to confront head-on. Initially, she laid off some of her temporary staff but with support from the Mastercard Foundation, the firm has recovered and saved some workers.
Guesh, in her spare time, trains young women and girls living on the streets of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. These young women, many of whom are refugees from South Sudan and Somalia, do join Guesh at her company. Others go on to start their own businesses, she said in an interview. “Nothing is more satisfying for me than seeing former employees or the women I’ve trained spread their own wings and start their own businesses,” said Guesh, who grew up hearing a phrase many young girls did not: “You can do whatever you want.”