Kathy Marshall: An inspiring Advocate for Ethiopian Artisans in the Hand Loom Sector

Spend  a few hours with Kathy Marshall, in the welcoming Sabahar P.L.C. compound, and you will surely leave feeling inspired, hopeful, and with an expanded mind, full of  innovative ideas.

A voice for Ethiopian weavers, in a decade, Kathy has nurtured a business which employs 74 artisans, who produce high quality, exportable silk and cotton products. The lives of such artisans have been uplifted through such a stable employment too.

Kathy is committed to sustainable development, representing Ethiopian weavers in the international arena, and bringing an authentic Ethiopian product to 15 countries, through Sabahar’s 40 clients. At the same time, she shows up as a very present and radiant lady, so humble and amicable.

What is the secret behind her leadership and the impactful work she is generating?

Learning from a Family Heritage of Spinning and Dyeing

Kathy grew up in rural Northern Alberta, Western Canada, on a farm where her grandmother taught her to spin and dye wool yarn. Following her husband’s work in the agricultural sector, Kathy then moved to Ethiopia in 1994.

Having a background in development, Kathy joined Oxfam Canada in 1996, where she served till the year 2000. What followed was a series of events that led her to founding Sabahar P.L.C.. The first one was the coming of her daughters in her life, Maisha in 1996 and Gelila in 1998, inspiring her to create something in the country that they would one day own. Kathy was also starting to look for new ways to support development in communities, beyond the approach of not-for-profit organizations, through co-creating  sustainable employment and more equal relationships as partners in development.

Sabahar was thus born out of the desire to provide a sustainable development solution through employing the country’s artisans, and through the well-known Ethiopian practice and heritage of spinning. Spinning indeed, is a labour-intensive skill, found at household level and for women raising families. In addition, more high value and quality spun products can be easily exported, Kathy argued. And if spinning is an available skill in the country, why not spin silk, and not just cotton, both spun in an innovative way?

Thus, through cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture of Ethiopia, Kathy started having access to silk cocoons grown in the Melkassa Research Station. 

The Sabahar Journey

The Sabahar investment license was acquired in 2004, and Kathy recalls how she spent the first four years of her business learning the art of spinning, and also having supplies of silk cocoons from a Sikee Women’s Development Association project located in Alem Gena. The work was happening in her own house, with one weaver and a number of women spinning, dyeing and finishing the woven products, as well as a loom, and the employment of people. The business started growing and space was rented close to Mexico area in 2005, to accommodate the 15+ staff.

What followed is history, with the purchase of land in Mekanissa, Addis Ababa, where Sabahar is located now. Kathy remembers being stretched by this, effecting payment for the land from a loan from her family. From a staff of 20, Sabahar gradually grew to the present staff capacity of 74, 42 being women and 32 men. In addition, the company employs 60 weavers located who work full time from their own homes in Jemo and Laphto. The company also collaborates with cooperatives in Shiro Meda and the city of Arba Minch.

Finally, in 2015, Sabahar hired an extension agent directly, thus increasing silk production.

The Pride of Working at Sabahar

When walking around the Sabahar compound, and visiting the staff in the various departments (spinning, weaving, dyeing, finishing and administration), one senses a positive atmosphere, in the midst of very productive, results-oriented work. Indeed, Kathy tries to encourage this positivity, as well as thankfulness, and a sense of responsibility.

A great asset for Sabahar seems to be its management too. ‘Sabahar has great people in management,’ says Kathy, ‘We tackle problems together, and we innovate.’

Another element Kathy is grateful for is having buyers, whom she defines as ‘committed clients,’ clients who wish to work with a fair trade company like Sabahar.

A Champion for Artisans

Kathy is aware that in many societies such as Ethiopia, artisanship is still an undervalued skill. Kathy’s vision is to see artisans’ place in society elevated, their lives changed, their children having a good education and access to health services.Holding such a  holistic view, Sabahar has held training programmes for the staff’s family members as well, through a partnership with Women in Self Employment (WISE).

Initiating a Positive Movement to Benefit Hand Loom Artisans

{gallery}Kathy Marshall – Hand Loom:::0:0{/gallery}

When asked what’s next for her work and Sabahar, Kathy wishes to see silk production as a growing viable sector market in Ethiopia: ‘Demand of silk in the world is growing, but production is decreasing,’ she explains. Thus, she sees the export of Ethiopian silk thread as having great potential for the country.

Another commitment of Kathy’s is to see Ethiopia’s hand loom sector being nurtured and protected. At present, she notices the great interest in Ethiopia’s mechanized garment sector, with safety standards put in place. The question is, is there a plan to strengthen and/or create an organized system to ensure the export of Ethiopian hand-made textiles grows too?

To illustrate this, Kathy referred to the well organized and supported fashion sector in Ethiopia. In the same manner, she wishes to see more coordinated efforts in the handicraft sector.

There is a third dimension to Kathy’s thinking that one can learn from, and that is to promote the ‘Slow Clothes Movement’, and stopping the culture of the consumerism-induced ‘throw away clothes’, which are often produced in exploitative and unethical production processes.

As admirers of her work, we trust that many like-minded partners will join her in this powerful vision for the hand-made textiles sector in Ethiopia and beyond.

At the end of our tour and conversation with Kathy Marshall, we left feeling grateful for her staff’s commitment to preserving and celebrating the rich weaving tradition of Ethiopia, combined with creating respectful and ethical work opportunities for marginalized people.

More information on Sabahar is found here: www.sabahar.com and https://www.facebook.com/SabaharEthiopia/?fref=nf

For more information on the Slow Clothes Movement, visit http://truecostmovie.com/

From the AWiB Team

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