We have always been told beautiful stories about Africa : the man of the jungle, King Kong and his beloved woman climbing the roofs of New York, Hakuna Matata! And let's not forget the stories for the adults : the super-heroes of the IMF, the good souls of the World Bank and the top economists convinced that the African Miracle is about to happen...one day or the other. The World sings for Africa. The World offers Africa pens, clothes, cars... If one day it were to snow in Africa, would people send us winter coats and snowboards?
SAWA project does not have the so-called generosity of brands which use Africa just to glorify themselves. SAWA is an activist fashion project which has taken the challenge to fabricate shoes in Africa. All the added value benefits the Continent. SAWA has just the courage of its opinion and marketing choices. We are told here and there that the climate of the Planet is going crazy...when the snow falls in Africa, we will be ready to produce the best ski boots...and snowboards!
"Buying the brother a beer..."
The SAWA story started on May 20th 2009 in Douala. Cameroon celebrated the 37th anniversary of the country's unification and the picture above is the only one that we have been able to keep from this celebration. A few minutes after this picture was taken, we were cornered by 3 soldiers accusing us of being military spies for taking a picture of their Jeep.
We thought erasing the pictures would solve the problem. In fact, the solution took the form of a CFA 5,000 (circa €7) payment. We were told "You need to buy the brother a beer". As if by magic, a CFA 5000 banknote switched us from the role of spies to the one of brothers. This marked the beginning of our Cameroonese adventures: our project would fail because of all the "beers" to be paid.
The N'Dokoati Factory
Our first shoes were produced in a small factory at the end of a red track, in the heart of the N'Dokoti neighbourhood. We set up a small production line by gathering a few sewing machines found locally or bought second hand in Italy. We were also able to rely on a former boxer and a few cobblers.
Yves Bessala: Former Professional Boxer who reinvented himself in the shoe making industry. He used to wear a white lab coat as a top which is from where his nickname originates, Doctor Bessala. The Dr delivered our first model which we naturally named after him, Dr. Bess.
Summer 2010 was a good year, our thirst was quenched!
You can see what our first batch of shoes looked like when it was delivered to us below. The 20ft container it was shipped in apparently had a leak!
"Buying a beer" for a customs officer, transporter, police officer etc. became a daily occurrence in Cameroon. Until the day the cost of all these 'beers' lead us to evaluate the business operation. However, our Cameroonese business eventually ended before we made a decision.
In 2011, Egypt and Tunisia decided to change their destinies. The Jasmine revolution stopped short our Egyptian rubber and Tunisian shoelace supply.
Since 2011, our shoes are produced in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Although the road is still long with many challenges (complicated logistics, low productivity, etc), each season our project strengthens: our shoes are premium quality and we can count on a faithful team which is proud of what we are accomplishing together.
There is no night shift to produce our shoes. Although there is not always sufficient production volumes to keep everyone busy, all our factory colleagues are on a permanent contract. Their salaries are higher than industry averages and everyone receive holidays bonuses (Christmas, Ethiopian New Year and Aid) as well as an extra month of salary every year.
Our trainers boast a vintage design, with 5 styles designed for women, men and children with retro-tennis or retro-basketball inspiration.
Our shoes are premium quality: made using fine leathers, full leather lining, sewn outsole etc.
Sawa in good company
Since its creation, SAWA has collaborated with many influential figures and organisations to create special editions in limited numbers. Public Enemy, Oxmo Puccino, Mai Lan,Médecins sans frontières, Michel Berger Hotel Berlin, Cotelac, J.Crew to name but a few.