Salem Kassahun of Salem’s Ethiopia – Practicing Business with a Conscience
Centred, comfortable in her own skin, sitting in the colourful Salem’s Ethiopia compound, affectionately giving a little girl, an employee’s daughter, some snack: that is how I found Salem as I paid her a visit. And to me, that is a representation of who Salem is: a creative social entrepreneur empowering Ethiopian artisans, and envisioning a future in which Ethiopia’s beautiful crafts, art, and its artisans, become recognized all over the world.
Raised by Strong Women
Born in Addis Ababa, Salem was raised by her great aunt, a nun. Indeed, her parents separated when she was just six months old. But out of the negative, Salem reflects, the positive comes in the form of a blessing. Her aunt believed in education, and raised Salem, as one of many children (including cousins and uncles), in a private boarding school, while also feeling cherished and appreciated. She recalls growing up with women, ‘strong women’, she asserts, and this enabled her to become assertive, not submissive or ‘broken’ as a human being. Her family, she explains, did not have wealth, but ‘every hole was filled with love.’ Looking back, Salem sees how those years shaped her sense of self, and developed her faith in God, wanting to give back for all that she had received.
Reflecting on what brought her to the work she does now, Salem quotes a citation from the scriptures, this being: ‘Much is expected from those given to’. Indeed, what drives her work now is the awareness that there are many unprivileged people who deserve a better chance in life.
The Seeds of ‘Salem’s Ethiopia’ being Nurtured
Once grown up, Salem left for the States, got married and had three children. When returning from the States in 1993, she nurtured her hobby of making dry flower collections, pillow covers, basketry and jewelry. Salem used to support the community through the Gemini Trust Projects, as well as the potters in Kechene. She also co-founded the Designers and Artisans Bazaar, which is enabling to affirm and raise in value the work of artisans in the city and country. This Bazaar now is held twice a year, offering all ‘made in Ethiopia’ items, unique art and craft from more than 100 artist/ producer groups. Being part of this enabled her to be familiar to this sector and market.
When Salem’s own children grew up, some thirteen years ago, she decided to turn her passion into business, and that was the birth of ‘Salem’s Ethiopia PLC’. It all started by working around one single table from home, and with one sole employee working with Salem, creating handicrafts. The business grew progressively, producing jewelry and textiles, and later, baskets. Now the business employs 50 artisans, 35 of which are women, coming from Kolfe, Bahir Dar and Axum.
A Social Enterprise
Salem’s Ethiopia emphasizes the value of heritage: ‘In Ethiopia, whether one is rich or poor,’ she says, ‘in one’s house, one owns a ‘gabi’ [traditional hand-woven cotton shawl/blanket], clay pots and baskets. We are born with these artifacts, and we die with them too.’ Salem sees how being surrounded by these beautiful and practical handicrafts as a ‘rich and joyous way of life’, impoverished by the advent of factory products.
Salem’s has a mission of serving through being a socially conscious business, striving to have the triple bottom-line, including ‘people’ and ‘the planet’, and not just the profit.
At the same time, Salem emphasizes that the aim of the company is ‘not to sell stuff, but to sell experience.’ Indeed, as one walks into the Salem’s Ethiopia compound, green and welcoming, one can walk to the spinners, weavers and jewelry-makers, chat with them, and see them in action. The visitors thoroughly enjoy this experience.
A core value of Salem’s is fairness, thus it being a fair trade company. Fairness extends to expressing care for the employees, ensuring they are being paid fairly, and work in a reasonable work environment. Women/ mothers are encouraged as employees (‘Mothers can’t afford not to work’, she shares with concern: ‘Many people don’t have enough to live on: rent is expensive and even goods are expensive’.) Care with employees is also expressed by protecting their rights, and having them on payroll, and by sponsoring three girls, the employees’ daughters, and supporting with educational material.
With Salem carrying out the quality control, and constantly bringing in new products and ideas, Salem’s products now sell in local bazaars, and are exported to the UK, Spain, France, the US and Canada. There is a desire to keep on growing as a business, but for now there are space limitations to do so, after the expansion of space for more women to work on the present compound.
Pearls of Wisdom
When asked what her three biggest points of learning, Salem reflects and shares:
‘Firstly, listen to people deeply, and understand their joys and challenges. Know their story, and they will relate to you in a different way. Secondly, love what you do, and that will give you the energy to persevere and overcome any tedious administrative or bureaucratic challenges you may face on your project.
Thirdly, be prepared, through your work, to know your people and society. Many women, young and old, bear many children and then face socio-economic problems. Poverty begets poverty, begets poverty. Let’s think of new ways to change this, and inspire our women to change mindset, so that they can have more ambition in life’
Hence, it is through this learning that Salem is dreaming a future where more children are given a chance in life through good tutoring and education, preferably through the boarding school system: ‘It’s only when some children leave their environment and have new experiences and exposure, that they can change their thinking and lives,’ she explains. Salem dreams to change the life of young people so that they can become prominent individuals and make a difference.
When asked, ‘what is your message to all those working in your sector?’, her answer was: ‘We’re in this together: let’s do it. If you do this work, do it well. We have the responsibility to instill good habit and dignity to this work, as well as work ethics.’
Her message to women is: ‘Be strong and follow your dreams. As a woman you are beautiful, powerful in a subtle way, and can nurture society, through nurturing thinking.’ She adds that for a woman, faith is important: people come and go, but our relationship with God stays. For Salem, this faith can keep one rooted and successful.
I was moved by Salem’s presence, humility and strength. Salem is highly respected by many, as well as members from the international community. By some, she is defined as a dedicated Ambassador of Ethiopia’s beauty and history, and a conscious business-woman.
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