Marching To A Different Beat – Part I


Sawa Shoes

Unlike your typical sneaker brand coming from places you would expect, oh say the States, Europe or even Japan, SAWA is a new brand that is definitely marching to a different beat. Launched this past Spring 2010, this brand has decided to take a challenge that few dare to try, it is 100% sourced and made in Africa. Those three little words peaked the interest of Another Africa, so we contacted them to find out a bit more about this brand hailing from the continent and to get a sneak peak at their up-coming Autumn/Winter 2010 Collection.

Sawa Shoes - The Logo

MISSLA LIBSEKAL: Can you tell us who is SAWA, how did you meet?

FRÉDÉRIC BARTHÉLEMY: SAWA was founded by three friends Mehdi Slimani [French], Fabio Di Iorio [Italian] and myself Frédéric Barthélemy [French]. Fabio has been working in the sneaker industry in product development for various brands. Most recently for Adidas in Germany and Le Coq Sportif in France. Medhi worked as a financial controller, a kind of boring job, but he has always been passionate about sneakers and fashion. He made a career move to Le Coq Sportif, first in their financial control department but then moved to product development which is where he met and got to know Fabio. I am also part of SAWA and the last one with a day job outside of SAWA that is until things take-off completely. Though we all share and pinch in together, I am managing partnerships, sales and development. Medhi and I have been friends for I don’t know… ten, fifteen years. We met during our studies in Lille and soon realized that we both came from the same place, the Ardennes in North Eastern France. The three of us decided to create this brand last year. We wanted to give another image of Africa. We are all very passionate about Africa yet we felt really frustrated. We have been there, have friends from there and even some relatives there. We wanted to show that Africa is not only about those positive images that come from the landscape, sports or that kind of thing. We knew that Africa could be as competitive in a difficult arena such as fashion. The three of us decided to take a gamble, to make sneakers in Africa which we knew was something unexpected given that it is quite a technical product. When people think of Africa, they typically think about sourcing raw materials or commodities. They don’t think about making a technical product there. We thought we would experience some challenges and we have had some, but we have also had some very nice surprises.

ML: Where are you based and where is the production site?

FB: We are based in Paris, but the factory is in Cameron. We go there fairly often, every other month for two to three weeks at a time.

The Sawa World

ML: So Medhi & Fabio are working full-time on SAWA?

FB: Yeah in fact more than full-time more like 200%.

Sawa Founders

Sawa founders Fabio Di Iorio (L) and Mehdi Slimani (R)


ML: What inspired you to make this brand aside from the fact that it is unusual and unexpected?

FB: Our inspiration came from many things that we discover during our first trip to Cameroon, when we visited factories, the local markets and also when we spoke with the people. For instance the fabric the shoes are made from is the one and same fabric that the factory employees uniforms are made from. It’s a white canvas, they also have blue uniforms. Another source of inspiration comes from the vintage look that you find on the streets in Africa. A lot of people wear second-hand/vintage clothes coming from the West. We were inspired to play on this, to export the very vintage style that is being imported to Africa back to it’s Western source.

Sawa Shoes The Inspiration

(L) Second-hand clothing arriving from a container at Mboppu market in Doula, Cameroon (R) Sneakers produced in collaboration SAWA with the expertise of African cobblers

ML: When I discovered the shoes, I was really impressed. I think you have done it really well. So do you often get the question, why Africa or not so much?

FB: Yeah sometimes… but sometimes it’s the exact opposite, like why Africa as if we’ve done something bad, taking advantage of Africa which is ridiculous! For us it’s a way for us to give something back to an incredible continent. We just want to show maybe to bigger companies that producing in Africa is possible! It’s not about using the workers of Africa, but rather the complete opposite trying to develop specific products in Africa using local skills, that is what we’ve done! The design was developed in close collaboration with some local talent. They used to work previously for a large shoe factory that closed down. They still have talent and we have benefited from their know-how.

The Sawa African Collaborative Experts

(L) Michel Abbé, a pattern maker with over 30 years experience. He made the pattern for the Dr. Bess. (R) Yves Bessala, a key player who made this project happen and after whom SAWA have fondly named the Dr. Bess silhouette after.

ML: Reading a bit about the brand, you mention second-hand clothing from the West having a negative impact. Typically people in the West think that they are doing something good, can you explain a bit about what you mean..?

FB: But they do, they are doing something good! Myself included I give second-hand clothes to charities etc.. But what we are actually talking about are the second-hand clothes that are bought in Europe and then sold in Africa. For local kids there who say for example have $5 and have the option to buy something branded, say Nike vs a local product, they go for a Nike shirt which basically kills the demand for local fashion. To add to this there is also the tough competition coming from Asian products that makes it really difficult for local production to exist. It’s not a bad thing to give clothes to charities. It’s just the way that it goes at the moment in Africa, the local markets are suffering from imports.

ML: I guess this is the reality of a globalized world. Small brands or business struggle to make it or to stay competitive when cheaper products enter into their market...

FB: Cheaper but also branded! But the effect is even bigger in Africa as there were no big brands in the past; now it is tough for them to exist and to develop although there are many nice items.

ML: How did you meet your African collaborators, how did you find them?

FB: It took us a while. We changed partners, as the first one didn’t share our values. Say for example in terms of respecting the employees, treating them fairly etc.. Funnily enough, after speaking with the employees from this first partner, we discovered somebody else. Somebody way more professional, much more involved and very dedicated to the project. He is really keen to show a positive image of his country to the world. He likes making shoes, he is very enthusiastic. We like him!

We work closely together with our partners, the various manufacturers. For example we pay for material costs upfront, to help them with cash flow. It’s very important otherwise they would have to put that money upfront themselves which is tough for them. So we are also very involved in selected the different providers, like the canvas, rubber etc. This is also a really good thing since we can also make certain that all the components of our shoes are made in Africa, and if possible made locally. In the end, it makes our lives easier and the quality better. This has also really widened our horizons, we’ve discovered new people in the process, met new talents as well discovered new ideas. Speaking to so many different people has helped us in terms of making our universe for our retailers. Usually, we also give our retailers additional local products like the soaps, Le Boxeur matches and notebooks, which you can see on our website. Items that help to give the spirit of the brand. For example the plastic bags for the brand are made in Nigeria. A guy that we know locally, buys them for us in Nigeria. Do you know the film Limits of Control released in 2009 by Jim Jarmusch? The Le Boxeur matches are also used in this film.

Le Boxeur matches, Afrique notebooks and May soap all local and authentic products from Cameroon.


ML: The sneaker market seems pretty competitive, what are your ideas in terms of making a niche for SAWA?

FB: A very good question… It is a very competitive market especially now, every day there is a new sneaker brand popping up. Now, I think that we are making a tiny difference. We are coming with a strong story. Medhi and Fabio have great industry experience, in terms of design and distribution. But for us, we do sneakers because that is what we like! That is how we wanted to present Africa, it comes from our universe and it matches Africa. We didn’t engineer this project thinking that we wanted to make sneakers and how could we differentiate our brand, it was just the opposite. We wanted to do something for Africa! We like sneakers, we did everything together. When you have a real story and when you want share something different with people they get interested!

ML: When was the first collection launched?

FB: S/S 2010, this season was our first collection. This A/W in September, we will be launching new colours, but hopefully next year new designs but we don’t want to go too fast…

ML: What has been the reaction so far since the launch?

FB: Mostly positive, people like the design, they are very amazed that they are made in Africa. What I like is when you have a discussion with someone say on the street or in a bar…. if they are African, you tell them the shoes are made in Africa at first they don’t believe it, then I show them the label on the tongue, Made in Africa, then they get really excited. It’s what they really want to see and I can really appreciate that, people are fed up about hearing cliches whether you are German, English or French. You see what I mean when you are African, people always tell you the same stories, they are trying to be nice, but they are not. When you come up with something new, that can change the image that people have in the back of their minds about the continent, it’s nice! So most of the time it’s positive, aside from people who are always the grumpy ones, who are never happy and want to complain. They say that “Oh you have found a nice marketing idea to sell your shoes…” hahaha I wish it was that easy. Or people who ask “Are they 100% organic or 100% ethical”? Obviously we are trying to reduce our ecological footprint, for instance, the canvas we use is organic, but we absolutely don’t want to market our brand as organic, to end up arguing all night about how the last shoes were made. We just want to make it better with strong ethical goods. As you may know, in many African countries things are not that simple. You can’t impose from one day to another to make people work in the same way that you can in Western Europe or North America; so you have to adapt and try to do things better. The only thing that we want to say is that these shoes are made in Africa. It’s already a big commitment, obviously we are trying to do the rest but that’s not how we define ourselves.

ML: Maybe, as there has been so much talk about branding and marketing, consumers are starting to become very cynical….?

FB: Yes, the reaction that you have devised a lie to bewitch them, consumers I mean. In a way it’s a foreseeable and understandable reaction. It is true we can’t please everyone, but to be frank with you at some stage, I wish that with a snap of a finger, people would think let’s produce in Africa to give us a good image. That would be nice… But the truth is it is a bit less simple to produce in Africa than say in China. It will change with time, but I hope that people would think that it is a good idea. That’s fine by me because at the end of the day, it’s good for the people there.

Stay tuned later this week, for the second part of the interview. Find out which brand will be featuring them in their runway show this coming New York Fashion week!!

For more information on SAWA shoes check out their website and more details on their facebook fan page!

All images courtesy of SAWA Shoes.

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