Olow x Sawa
MEETING WITH MEDHI SLIMANI, FOUNDER OF THE MADE IN AFRICA BRAND.
The Sawa adventure is a human and economically militant story that takes the gamble of sailing against the North/South flow: raw materials are bought in Africa and are transformed... in Africa. This choice comes from the desire to create qualified, productive and creative jobs on the spot, but also to promote the image of what Africa is, well beyond the Western prism.
We met Medhi Slimani, the founder of the brand, through Thomas Traoré of Isakin. We share the same values, and each in our own way, we have the same desire to offer products, shoes or clothes, that make sense. It was important for us, beyond presenting the fruit of our collaboration, to shed light on a project that is close to our hearts.
Can you introduce yourself in a few words?
I am Medhi Slimani, founder of the brand of trainers made in Africa, Sawa. I am originally from the Ardennes, from Charleville Mézière, the town of Arthur Rimbaud, who had a real history with Ethiopia, where he was a merchant. Another Ardennes native who got lost there!
I arrived in Paris in 1998, after which I lived in China and Brazil, compared to the job I had before. I didn't have a very fashionable background, I was working in corporate finance, related to the car industry. Then I went to Cameroon and Ethiopia, and I came back to Paris.
Before we get to the heart of the matter, what does SAWA mean?
It is the name of an indigenous tribe on the Douala coast. It's a town in Cameroon, where we started.
It's a way of paying tribute to them. We later learned that it means "together" in Arabic.
Could you explain the concept of your brand?
Sawa was created in 2009. The concept is to manufacture shoes in Sub-Saharan Africa. That is to say, to buy the material and transform it on the spot. Because today, the problem is that this continent has not yet made its industrial revolution. Nothing is really produced there. If you take the past year and take out food production, you will not have consumed anything manufactured in Africa. At the time, we said to ourselves that we didn't want to go to the Maghreb or South Africa, but to the heart of the continent, to prove that we could make shoes there. In the end, it's not so much a fashion project as an economic one. I never say that I make fashion, but shoes that have a meaning.
Was this the starting point for you to found SAWA? Or was there another intention behind it?
It's mostly that, and the desire to make shoes. I've always liked that. We wanted to do something about it, but with a real point of view, a storytelling that held up, and once again, that made sense. You don't come in and say you're going to save Africa, you don't save anything.
"What we want is to show the image of a strong Africa. Sawa is all about that, it's a militant project, proving that something can be produced there. "
You said earlier that you were not at all from the fashion world, but do you have a point of view on African fashion, and more widely on Made in Africa?
I am not a specialist enough in African fashion. Made in Africa exists, there are attempts, but there is no brand that really counts today. Moreover, I remember that a few years ago, Galeries Lafayette organised the African fortnight, but without any brands made in Africa... How can you organise an event focused on Africa, without brands made there? At the end of the day, these are African-inspired brands, but nothing is made there, or in Morocco, with shootings in Sub-Saharan Africa. We are indeed on the same continent, but it is not the same.
You said earlier that you started in Cameroon, why this choice?
When we started in 2009, it was the fashion for canvas shoes. There were a lot of brands that produced them. And in Cameroon, there was a big supplier of canvas shoes, with real know-how. In retrospect, it was a bit of a casting error. The industrial part was dilapidated, very old, we had to get people from here and there to train them... In parallel, there were real problems of corruption. And finally, there was the Arab Spring, which had a big impact on us, because we could no longer find raw materials. In short, we don't only have good memories of it, we needed a place where everything was available on the spot.
Why did you choose Ethiopia?
We wanted to stay in that part of Africa. I had an Ethiopian friend, whose father was originally from the Ardennes, like me and Rimbaud, who had been living there for about fifty years, who advised me to meet her there. I went there and I could see that we could make great things, with 95% of the materials of the shoes available on the spot, that's how we started all over again in Ethiopia. It was a winning choice because we gained in organisation, in efficiency, in everything in fact...
"I had a friend from Ethiopia, whose father was from the Ardennes, like me... I went there and I could see that you could make great things, with 95% of the materials of the shoes available there. "
Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like there?
It was a bit more organised than in Cameroon. There are real shoe factories. Even if we were a bit far from the mark, we had to do a lot of training, for example, I had to spend a year in the factory to design what we sell today. It was a lot of personal investment. Afterwards, in terms of integration, I worked with the workers, I lived with them, we built a team.
Today Sawa is a family. I don't live there all year round any more, I used to go there very often, but now I go there less, precisely because we have this team. It's the only investment we've really made, and to make sure that people feel good, that they come to work happily, without thinking that it will be difficult. We've been in Ethiopia since 2011, and no one has quit, we still work with the same people and everyone is happy to work.
The context of the last two years was a bit particular, can you tell us about it?
First of all, there was Covid, so we were unable to go there. But that didn't have much impact in the end, because, as I said, we have a solid team that we can rely on, which has known the product very well since 2011. So the shoes continued to be produced, the quality was assured.
But in addition to Covid, there was the Tigray war in the north of the country. Where this impacted us was that at one point the factory was requisitioned to produce rangers. Apart from that, from where we are based, Addis Abeda, we have not been so affected. The brand also lives according to African geopolitics and sourcing issues. For example, when you are told for two months that there is no production "because we produce rangers for the army". When you are told that "there is no more leather" because the tannery cannot import the materials or the dyes to make this or that leather. In the end, you are never at cruising speed.
"For example, when you are told for two months that there is no production "because we produce rangers for the army". When you are told 'there is no more leather' because the tannery cannot import the materials or the dyes to make this or that leather.
SAWA shoes have a rather vintage design, where does this aesthetic come from?
In Africa there is a concept called "Design for Industry". This means that if you go to a factory there with a product that is too complicated, it will also be complicated to industrialise it. That's why we started with a very simple product. Basically, it's designing according to what you can produce. For example, the Konjo model in the collab has very little yoke. There is an African inspiration in the sole with a texture inspired by local basketry. In addition to that, on all our models, there is a map of Africa under the sole.
Are your shoes sold on site?
Yes, we have a small part of the production that is sold locally. I would love to develop that, to produce and market in Africa, but I think it's Africa itself that is not ready. If you put our shoes, which are of great quality, next to a counterfeit Nike, whether in Algeria, the Ivory Coast or Cameroon, everyone will buy the counterfeit shoe. It's a question of notoriety. When we are known outside Africa, the African markets will surely ask for us.
"Everyone will buy the counterfeit shoe. It's a question of notoriety. When we are known outside Africa, African markets will surely ask for us. "
By the way, is the economic model you created between Cameroon at the beginning and Ethiopia today something you would like to develop?
For the production we will really stay in one country, because it is very complicated. To do again what we did in Ethiopia, it would take another life. There are stages that you don't want to start over. And I don't want to start all over again. Now that we are stabilised in Ethiopia, I can't even imagine going to another African country, and I wouldn't know which one. For me, Ethiopia is the best choice.
About the collaboration with OLOW, can you remind us how it happened?
I met Mathieu through Thomas Traoré, from Isakin. We exchanged saps and pumps. In the end, we do the same thing, on both sides of the Mediterranean. We're small-scale craftsmen, doing things on a small scale, but which make sense. We have a somewhat common background in fact. At one point, two or three years ago, we said we were going to do a collab, but it took a while because we're a bit "two of a kind". Mathieu had made a proposal, we had made a sample. It stayed on hold for a while, and then a few weeks ago, I told him that the shoe was ready, but I think he wasn't. Afterwards, we are organised like that, we may not have the precision of a Swiss watch, but we really do the things we like, otherwise we don't do them.
"We're small-scale craftsmen, doing small-scale things that make sense. We have a somewhat common background in fact. "
Finally, what would be the prospects for the future?
I don't make plans for the future, we live from day to day, according to the opportunities. Because every time we've done it, it's been a damp squib. It may not be very professional to say that, but that's our reality. We navigate from day to day, because we are not in a stable environment, everything can change overnight. I don't say to myself "in five years I'll be here and there", we'll see. We'll have to do the interview again at that point.