Ethiopian Women in Design

Just what is design? What makes one a designer? What types of design facets are out there?

The first inclination was to write about one sector of design and interview a few women involved in that specific type of design. With further research though, and when pondering the idea of what designing entails, it was apparent that AWiB would cover more than one specific discipline of design, venture out into different types and find out what some women are involved with in designing.  What are they willing to share in and what can we learn from their stories of challenges and success in their individual fields of design?

AWiB chose the following women who are involved in different types of design. All chosen to be interviewed are those who have gone through the process of making a name for themselves, building their brands and are part of the female pioneers in each of their profession. Each female has stories that can be of inspiration and that may shed light on the hardships and the fruitful delights of each field.

It’s easy to think of design as a simple concept. But in fact, it is not. Design in its entirety involves so many elements that have to be considered. A designer is someone who—either by education or by passion—has a deeper understanding of these elements and produces endless creations from graphics and spaces, to shoes and clothes to cake. Design is truly a boundless form of art work. And accomplishing designing as a business takes a certain kind of self-determination and discipline.

Beautifying Our Spaces & Enhancing Interiors
Salome Dagnachew || Interior Designer
~ Baroque Interiors and Events ~

Salome Dagnachew
Salome Dagnachew

As the only daughter, Salome grew up in a house full of boys with a mom that was crafty with her hands. The parents were civil servants and the children were always expected to be doing something at home; no one was allowed to be idle. Her parents brought her up to believe she was equal with her brothers and that there was no reason for her to act in any stereotype that females are subservient to males. This element made her quite assertive in getting what she wanted and pushing forward for what she believed in. She remembers her mom was always creating something out of anything in the home, always concerned with the beauty of the home she grew up in. Salome became interested in the aesthetics and the ergonomic use of space at an early age, fascinated with interiors for as long as she can remember.

“For as long as I can remember, the layout of any space has always been my fascination, how people choose to place any furniture in any give spot, how their home accessories have specific placements, how light and texture creates different moods for different people and different spaces, work or home. This has become more than my profession now, but my inner most passion.”  ~Salome

Salome was always rearranging furniture placements, and all the accessories around her home, organizing not just hers, but her parents’, and her siblings’ wardrobes as well. She traveled abroad often due to her husband’s job and thus got countless opportunities to see different places and how people of various cultures choose to design their work and living spaces. The experiences further fueled her interest to venture into design as a discipline; she reveled in the diverse lifestyles and design concepts she was exposed to on her journeys.

Salome is the founder of Baroque Interiors and Events, a design studio. The studio mostly focuses on commercial designs for office and hospitality use. Baroque strives to project a company’s image by elements in their design incorporating an ergonomically efficient workspace. Salome’s extensive experience with interior design allows her to go deeper into the process of design than the basic placement of furniture, accessories and use of wall paint or wall papers.

The creative process, for Salome, involves immersing herself in the personality of the space she is about to design. Really understanding the identity of the client and what they gravitate towards as far as their style choice is key to her design process. She reflects upon the space’s actual function to select the appropriate choices of colors to be used while considering the effect of light and contrast of the space. Her curation of picking and choosing furnishings, window treatments, accessories and flooring, and so on, is a direct reflection of what she believes consists of her clients’ wants and needs for the space in question. She enjoys the process of contemplating how she will create the room’s sense of rhythm to allow a cohesive blend of elements working with one another in the space.

“Many businesses claiming to be interior designers have emerged throughout the years,

most of them with no accreditations or actual educational background, that so many details go unnoticed. The particulars and specifics of a space’s design are often overlooked. To me details are important; small details make big differences in interior design.”  ~Salome

It’s been 10 years since Salome officially started her interior design profession and opened Baroque. She was never inclined towards being a business woman and never thought of being an entrepreneur. Her perspective changed one lucky afternoon, she says, in Djibouti. Socializing on the work trip, through a random conversation she volunteered to rearrange an office space for a person she met on the trip.  Upon her proposal to do so, the person immediately offered to her to do his whole newly-built, four-story building. She remembers how her confidence, although scared her at the moment, became a thrilling challenge she chose to pursue. With no actual accreditation at the time, she took the offer and resigned from her position at GIZ. She took the project and ran with her ideas, creating such an excellent result; it was her starting point into her interior designing journey. She later enrolled in the British Interior Design College program, shortly thereafter receiving her Masters in Business Administration from the University of Greenwhich.

The second opportunity Salome took to try out her passion was by offering to design a real estate sales office for free. Hitting her three-month promise she made to finalize the space’s design, her creation once again proved to be much appreciated and valued for its exceptional result. Since then, she’s used her networks to create a name for herself without once having to actually advertise her skills and expertise. She prides herself in knowing that her merit speaks for itself, never having to promote herself. Throughout the decade of her interior design journey, she has faced many a challenge. Working with men in the field of construction, while hired as an interior designer for any given project, proved tasking. It was hard to be heard at times by foremen, construction workers, and even some architects who believed that the term or notion of interior design as a specific field of study should not be considered important or relevant, let alone adhere to taking orders from her. She managed her way through the nuances by maintaining her confidence in her work and her firm attitude towards their actions.

Salome feels Ethiopia has a long way to go to accept Interior Design as an actual field and profession to be accredited and recognized as such. Even though there are a few Interior Decorating courses offered, it is being confused with Interior Design, which in itself is a discipline that requires specific knowledge. With no regulatory board available in the country to develop appropriate policies and guidelines for the field, it makes the acceptance of the profession as legitimate difficult. Currently, furniture designers, event organizers, and even architects and the like can claim to be interior designers with no actual educational background.

With the Covid-19 pandemic upon the globe, Salome ventured into a food delivery company that specifically offered high-quality, organic, healthy and nutritionally studied and tested meals during the first wave of most staying home throughout the country. She turned the business into a restaurant and tried using the space to throw networking events for architects and designers but was not pleased with the results. She was saddened by the lack of cooperation among people in the fields. This only fueled her want to create an association geared towards providing a source of field-specific community support. She is now working with the university that her daughter received her Interior Design degree from abroad. She is trying to create networks and communications channels with the university’s teachers and professors in hopes that with the collaboration of the Ministry of Education, both can create a standardized educational system and curriculum for the field of Interior Design.

Edible Art
Fitsum Desta || Pastry Chef
~ The Cake Studio Addis ~

Fitsum Desta
Fitsum Desta

Fitsum, owner and Head Pastry Chef at The Cake Studio Addis is well re-known for her specialty in creating cutting-edge cake designs for different sorts of events.  Although graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Information Systems in Australia and then working for various firms around Australia as a Business Analyst, her heart was always in experimenting with baking. Fitsum was always spending her free time in the kitchen creating different baked delicacy and enjoyed the design element of it all. She decided to listen to her heart and pursue her hobby even further. She completed an intensive training in Melbourne and earned her Pastry Chef title.

Fitsum took that leap of faith and started working at top bakeries in the city until she decided to move back home in 2015. It took her a year after moving back to fully establish her business. She opened up a small baking studio and continues to focus on creating extravagant cake designs based on her clients’ wishes for various events from birthdays and weddings, to corporate events and other various celebrations. Fitsum transforms her clients’ desires into pure sugary and all-edible works of art.

One of the primary challenges Fitsum faced was convincing people to let go of the traditional “torta” cake concept the country was accustomed to. Explaining to people what the molding and sculpting of cake entails was tricky as most people hadn’t encountered and couldn’t comprehend such edible art. She faced, as so many women do worldwide and definitely in Ethiopia, the challenges of proving herself as a business woman in the presence of sexism. She does believe that things are changing as women are being firmer and more assertive about attaining their business goals, but she still feels the change is slow-coming.

In her field of work, one of Fitsum’s struggles is getting premium ingredients due to the shortage of foreign currency. This led her to travel abroad and get some of the more pressing items needed to successfully execute certain details of design and meet clients’ requests. She hopes soon in the coming years the industry would have matured enough and become one recognized as a business needing a system that assures that people in this field can attain a consistent source of quality products required for the work. Another element she truly wishes will become a reality in the near-future is more females being involved in this industry and have talented Ethiopian women Pastry Chefs be part of the higher tier in pastry kitchens, coming up as leaders in this industry. She believes—even though happening slowly—more and more women are entering the industry, showing off their creative works, and people are beginning to notice.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia has not yet created any associations or institutions that are of a support system to specialty chefs like Fitsum. The few training schools in Addis are not comprehensive enough to act as a place of support. Nevertheless, Fitsum continues to gain motivation and strength to continue her rigorous training and expand work experiences abroad.   Family, friends, and her sheer internal drive on a daily basis, always pushing herself to continuously learn and improve her techniques and aim to do better for each new project, keep her relentlessly molding her craft. These are the reasons Fitsum now envisions and is working on plans to establish a culinary school in the near-future to share her expertise from years in the industry.  She will create a space of support for those interested in the culinary arts.

“What drives me is my love to succeed in whatever task I set my mind to.
I love seeing what I have imagined come to life.
I love seeing my clients’ faces light up
when they experience what I have made for them.” ~Fitsum

Fitsum’s advice to young women and all interested in this field is to always start small, to learn the craft inside and out; to not be discouraged by the lack of extensive training that is unavailable in the country. Use what you have and the resources already available, and challenge yourself. Use the Internet, read about the profession, and train yourselves with online courses, free videos and such. Don’t be afraid to experiment and make mistakes; learn from where you are. And always remember to practice, practice and practice some more to refine your skills.  Fitsum said her door is always open for anyone with questions or seeking guidance in the culinary arts field.

Beyond Clothing Design
Jennet Lemma || Apparel Designer
~ Gaber Wear ~

Jennet Lemma
Jennet Lemma

Jennet was born and raised in Addis, went to school at Lycee Gebremariam, and moved to the U.S.A. to continue her studies. She graduated with a degree in accounting and accumulated an extensive background in finance. She lived there for 12 years working in corporate America, working for big-named Fortune 500 companies in various positions from business management to internal finance audit departments. Through time, the mundane 9 to 5 routine no longer satisfied her and she began to feel as though she wanted to do more with her life.  Her heart began to look back home. She did a lot of soul searching and found herself wanting to create a business in Ethiopia with a societal impact.

Taking her business management and financial skills back to Ethiopia, Jennet decided that the garment manufacturing sector would be something she could really see herself involved in. She believed whatever business she chose to venture in would have to be not just sustainable, but one she could give back and possibly influence her community through. After some time looking at different options in Ethiopia, she decided to go with textile and manufacturing. The actual designing of fashionable clothing was not the core of her goals; she wanted to be able to manufacture basic attire on a large scale to make available at affordable prices to the mass.

Jennet eventually established Gaber Wear—“Gaber” meaning “bright beginnings” in the Ethiopian Guragigna language.  The garments and manufacturing company opened in 2016. She remembers the real hustle it took, going to government offices to get different documentation signed off, license approved and so on. Being a woman, she says, always made it difficult to have a simple task taken care of on a timely manner. She had to remain assertive and firm in everything she asked for and persistent in requests.  She never fell coward to some of the many provoking instances she faced as a woman trying to complete her tasks. She maintained her confidence, pushed through and demanded respect every time. In certain offices, it was very frustrating for her to always feel she was not being taken seriously only because she is a woman.  This was somewhat a new experience as she had gotten accustomed to a Western way of more appropriate manners in approach and interactions in terms of gender relations.

Once Jennet established her company, Gaber Wear, she made sure to implement policies that were geared towards workplace ethics and conduct especially since she focused on hiring mostly women. Having worked for so long abroad, she wanted to make clear lines of boundaries of communication that needed to be drawn in the workplace. She participated in a training from the worldwide-known institute called the International Labor Organization (ILO). During their training of sexual harassment in the office, the sessions were visually incorporated; this made a lot of her employees very uncomfortable and shy towards the topic, but she was sure to make them understand its importance. She specifically assured her upper management department and supervisor-level employees were thoroughly aware of her strict implementation of these policies.

Unfortunately, Jennet was not able to find actual support group systems in place for women in her field of work. There are associations available, but they focus more on the supporting the industry at large and are not specific to gender-related issues. The garment manufacturing realm is saturated with a high number of male business owners and key players. She did, however, find AWiB to be a great resource of networking for women in business and leadership in general, which helped her in the sharing struggles and challenges faced as women in business.

“Keeping in touch with women involved in any business
and allowing yourself to open up to your challenges and obstacles,
and listening to advice and experiences shared are key to your success”  ~Jennet

Although women are well known to be in the fashion and design industry, adding manufacturing to it proves a little harder; systems are not in place in Ethiopia to make the process of attaining such a venture easy for females. Jennet wishes there were more gender inclusive types of initiatives to lift some of the challenges women face in the sector. For instance, in exploring the financial aspect, access to finance for women in Ethiopia has yet to be improved.

“The design and garment industry is a very important one for Ethiopia;
it’s one that Ethiopia should lead because we can not sustain an economy
with an import-dependency industry. We should be able to be manufacturing
our own clothing and there is obvious growth in the government’s efforts in bringing
direct foreign investments based on the textile industry. I believe in a future here in Ethiopia with more women in the sector at the manufacturing level.”  ~Jennet

“My people,” Jennet says of her staff behind the brand, Gaber Wear, are who continue to give her the drive to go on with her company. She’d like to call her business a social enterprise because at the core of the team’s mission, is that in whatever they do, they do something that creates an uplifting impact on society. Being able to create everyday-wear pieces that are affordable and of Ethiopia textiles is one of Gaber’s many goals. Just knowing that she has been able to pass the pandemic’s hit on the economy and somehow keep her staff of almost 100 people on salary has been Jennet’s motivation to continue forth.

Jennet’s dream is to expand her stores and eventually have her staff be owners of branches throughout the country. Her one advice for others looking to get into the field or considering this business as a journey—or anything else in life—is to always remember to remain a student. She believes with the way the world is now, everything is at our fingertips. Anything can be looked into and reached via online searches, thorough research, and self-educating.

Venturing into Fashion Design
Kidist Dawit || Fashion Designer
~ Elite African Wear ~

Kidist Dawit
Kidist Dawit

Kidist grew up watching her grandmother and mother always sewing and knitting. She began sketching clothing designs at a young age, and by the 8th grade was creating rather detailed sketches and well-thought-out clothing designs. The two elders were always teaching her different techniques of embroidery and sewing. Her mother wanted to learn how to use a sewing machine so she could create bedsheets, duvet covers and other fabric-related accessories for their home, and to also make available for sale to those close to her. Once enrolled in school, the mother showed Kidist and her sister everything. Eventually, her older sister decided she would follow her mother’s passion and opened a small workshop in the back of their house.

Kidist never considered going into design as work but found herself always interested in the field. All through high school she designed all of her friends’ uniforms that her sister sewed up for her. She continued to create custom designs for herself and her friends. She opened up her event planning company after being an outsourced event planner for various companies and events. It worked well until Covid hit, and her event planning business slowed down considerably. As her savings began to dwindle, she looked for different ways to get out of the pandemic’s rut and took out her sketch book once again to do simple therapy designs for herself. She had a friend send her some material from Kenya and designed comfy outfits, as she saw fitting for the time in which everyone was in lockdown. It created traffic as she began getting orders from her family, friends and others through her online ordering platform and social media postings.

Kidist’s first challenge was where to find the capital to bring more fabric to fill orders from the support she received. She approached a close friend and asked for a personal loan in order to start this new venture. She could see that, if she would just persist on and believe in the bigger picture of what could result, she could actually make this a highly fruitful business. Her friend loaned her enough money to fly to Kenya and bring back a variety of material. In less than six months she was able to make a name for herself.

Using her already known event planning company name, Elite, Kidist officially launched her Elite African Wear design line. She has created custom-made outfits, dresses and basic clothing out of fusing Ankara fabric with Ethiopian-made cotton attire such as t-shirts, sweat pants, hoodie sweaters and even couture designs. She continues to create different pieces for individuals including children, and is open to take orders from companies. She had always been amazed at how large, major fashion and design shows are thrown, and the chaos behind-the-scenes in the making of it all. And that excitement—the excitement of actually making it herself as a designer—is what keeps her going. After being in event planning for most of her career life, having to come to a standstill due to Covid proved to be hard on Kidist. But she chose to use the challenge as a time to recreate herself and move forward in a new way.

“I want my work to take me around the world.”  ~Kidist

Kidist’s second biggest challenge is finding access to quality cotton, an Ethiopian material that she can fuse her designs into. Her third major challenge is getting quality finished products from the sewers that she outsources her work to; not being able to have the right people with the similar passion working behind the scenes, creating the image that she truly wants for her brand. But she continues to persist and is finalizing her required documentations to attain a loan from the country’s local loan and savings initiatives for small business owners. Kidist plans on opening her own small workshop where she can monitor employees who can sew and create the exact types of products using details she requires to reach the quality standard of her brand.

“Believing in yourself is everything; self-discipline and confidence is everything. You have to keep that image of your end goal in constant sight; take the risk in yourself.

Nobody else will do that for you but you. Face your self-doubt every day, remember why you started out and believe you will reach that vision of yourself. It’s the only way.”  ~Kidist

Designed to Expand Networks

To plan and conceive what does not exist is design.  To bring to life what exists in one’s thought is design.  There are countless forms of design and experts:  architecture to industrial designers; fashion to engineering designers; game to graphic designers; lighting to sound designers; software to user interface design designers…the list goes on.

The interior designer, pastry chef, apparel designer and fashion designer who shared their stories with AWiB have commonalities.   The Ethiopian women designers demonstrate determination and discipline which brought them to their spaces of advancement.  They are confident and firm.  They took leaps of faith.  They network.  It is understood that in sharing experience—particularly with most types of designs mentioned as somewhat new to the nation—being open about struggles and choosing to see challenges as opportunities to pivot is the way to prevail.

Design your network including these creatives with entrepreneur spirits.  Connect here:

Baroque Interiors & Events
Contact: +251 115 580 083
Facebook: Baroque Interiors & Events
Instagram: @Baroque_ethiopia


The Cake Studio
Contact: +251 930 007 766
Facebook: The Cake Studio
Instagram: @cakestudioaddis


Gaber Wear
Contact: + 251 966 205 139
Facebook: Gaber Wear
Instagram: @gaberwear


Elite African Wear
Contact: +251 901 002 311
Facebook: Elite Events PLC
Instagram: @elite.goods

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