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How Ethiopian Mahlet Afework is disrupting the fashion industry

By About Her Culture Team

In 2021, Mahlet Afework, the fashion designer and founder of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia based fashion line MAFI MAFI, made international news when she was chosen for the prestigious Tommy Hilfiger Fashion Frontier Challenge. 

MAFI MAFI was selected as a business working to advance its community, while fostering a more inclusive future for fashion. While Mahlet didn’t win the challenge, she gained a world of new information, connections and even greater horizons ahead. 

An 11-year-old company, MAFI MAFI is a proud ambassador of Ethiopian culture. The luxury line is made from handwoven cloth made by Ethiopian artisan weavers, designers, pattern makers, seamstresses and factory workers. 

The company intentionally disrupts the exploitative and unsustainable clothing and textiles industries by sourcing raw materials locally, paying workers equitably, using hydropower energy and eliminating textile waste. 

We spoke to Mahlet, undeniably a trailblazer in her field, to find out more about her journey in building her extraordinary business. 

How has the Tommy Hilfiger Fashion Frontier Challenge experience impacted your work at MAFI MAFI, and personally as a woman on the entrepreneurship journey?

Mahlet: The Tommy Hilfiger Fashion Frontier Challenge was a year-long experience that was very transformative. I learned so much from the various experts involved in the process, from designing for social impact, to marketing. Once I made it as a top six finalist, it was very eye-opening to receive questions from the jury panel. It showed me what was missing from my business model, and how to approach the next phase of business growth. 

The experience also validated my belief that MAFI MAFI can compete in the global market. It tested us in so many ways, but celebrated our uniqueness and value in a way that I really appreciate. I’m also grateful for the media exposure that has heightened brand awareness globally and brought about new opportunities for investment. It’s only up from here. 

MAFI MAFI is so incredibly immersed in an ethos of goodness to people and planet, in a way we rarely see. What inspired you to create a business like this?

Mahlet: As a child I was inspired by my mother. She was a seamstress who made and embroidered traditional Ethiopian garments and sold them to people in our community for special occasions. She was artistic and independent, and I knew that’s what I wanted to be too. As a teenager I was a rapper in Addis Ababa’s underground hip hop scene, and I began designing clothes for music videos, because urban streetwear wasn’t available in Ethiopia’s fashion market. I created MAFI MAFI as an experiment in merging traditional Ethiopian hand woven cloth with contemporary, cool silhouettes. 

Growing up, I watched my mother face so many challenges as a small business owner in the garment and textile industry, so impacting women like my mother has always been my intention as a business woman. Women operating in Ethiopia’s male-dominated informal textile weaving trade are commissioned less, paid less, and often forced into exploitative and low paying contracts with merchants. Many leave the trade due to financial instability. At MAFI MAFI, we empower women with sustainable employment opportunities and personal development programs. 90% of our full-time employees and artisan weaver collaborators are women. Our ultimate goal is to lift hundreds of marginalized African women out of poverty through livable wages and educational opportunities.

Unfortunately, even though it’s changing, on this side of the world there is still a stigma about Africa being somewhat primitive. MAFI MAFI is a great example of Africa actually being far more advanced than antiquated business models that disregard the impact on people and the environment. What are your thoughts on this?

Mahlet: It feels like the richness and innovativeness of African business is the world’s best kept secret — until recently. Now, the world is catching up to the fact that Africa cannot be defined by the underdevelopment that centuries of colonialism and imperialism have created. The world is recognizing what we have always known to be true; Africa is the future. 

I believe that the backbone of Africa is its women. Economic development rests on the shoulders of women, who are household providers and nurturers. MAFI MAFI’s business model is based on these ideas. We preserve ancient Ethiopian textile weaving and introduce global consumers to our rich history, while providing economic opportunities for women in a small but growing local fashion industry. 

Many African businesses have social impact baked into their business models, because it is what is necessary for our local economic contexts, and also because it’s a rejection of Western ideals of capitalism for African ideals of community uplift. This comes more naturally to us, and the world is catching up. 

How have you managed to tap into an international market despite the barriers of operating within an underdeveloped country?

Mahlet: Honestly, tapping into the international market has been challenging. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s fashion industry is still small, and industrial growth in the country is focused more on manufacturing for global fashion giants. The infrastructural barriers for global expansion are huge, but I overcome them by having a very human supply chain. I have a small team of dedicated people around the world who help fulfill global orders. 

Another challenge is pricing in the global market. MAFI MAFI pieces are unique handmade heirlooms, but people in Western markets aren’t always willing to pay the value of sustainable African fashion. Being undervalued is disheartening at times, but I’ve learned to pick my battles and build a strong client base of people who understand and appreciate the authenticity of our product, even as we expand to new global markets through our online store. I no longer aspire to have a brand that speaks to the American or European consumer. I aspire to build a brand that sells a luxurious African lifestyle. 

What message would you give younger Ethiopian women who dream of success beyond the borders of Ethiopia?

Mahlet: In this digital age, we see a lot of young African entrepreneurs making it big. My advice for women who aspire to succeed globally is to pursue their goals wholeheartedly, and prioritize learning at each level of growth. We have so much to offer; unique perspectives and authentic products. Most importantly, we have the platforms to tell our own stories. We have more agency and opportunity than ever before. Anything is possible, so stay curious about growth, use your resources wisely, and make it happen. Our time is now. 

Visit MAFI MAFI online at www.mafimafiet.com | @mafimafi_et

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