Ethiopian shoes carve out a niche in Yemen
Next to his shop, there are dozens of other shops near this busy commercial center, selling Ethiopian-made footwear just like Abdu. As Abdu sees it, he and his neighboring vendors are offering a “high quality product at a reasonable price.”
Their product is unique in Yemen they say, where a demand for cheap sneakers made in China seems to be growing and although the vendors say business could be better, they are trying to build a customer following.
The footwear in these shops is distinguished by its natural leather, a product well-known in Ethiopia thanks to its large wealth of livestock and animal husbandry. According to statistics compiled by Ethiopia’s government, there are a combined 90 million cattle, sheep and goats in the country. Historically, leather has been a major source of income in the country. In addition to its manufactured footwear, the country is also famed for its leather jackets, coats, bags, belts and wallets.
Although animal rights groups have criticized consumers for encouraging the global trade of leather, countries like Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia and India all import the raw product from Ethiopia
A worker in one of the cluster of footwear shops, said more and more Yemenis are buying from him, not just the nearby Ethiopian community that frequents the area due to its proximity to the Ethiopian restaurants and the country’s embassy.
“I have had Yemenis customers for more than eight years,” he said.
Both men and women run the small stores that offer everything from sandals to dress shoes to women’s fashion styles.
It isn’t hard to see the pride the shoe vendors take in selling a product from their home country, saying it rivals global brands.
“Most of our customers return to us to thank us for the quality of our goods and to buy more products again,” said a 40-year-old shop owner Mutahar Al-Hijazi while sitting in front of his stock of shoes as traditional Ethiopian music plays in the background.
Hussein imports his footwear from major Ethiopian manufacturers that were established during Italy’s brief occupation of the country between 1936- 1941.
A Yemeni taxi driver, Anwar Al-Haidari, started buying the Ethiopian footwear a while ago and is now hooked.
“I used to buy shoes manufactured in China that would only last for two or three months, but I’ve bought Ethiopian ones that have lasted many more months,” he said. “The price difference between them is not that big despite differences in the quality.”
But Abdu and other Ethiopian sellers’ goal of really branding themselves in Yemen hasn’t quite taken off yet. They hope their business will grow even though they know they are up against a globalized market with international brands backed by huge marketing campaigns. But, the vendors say they will let the shoes speak for themselves.
“When [people] hear about [Ethiopian footwear] they don’t believe in its quality, but when they use it, they realize its uniqueness,” said a customer, Mohammed Al-Hababi.