Mehdi Slimani,40 years old, french-algerian, living between Paris and Addis Ababa Graduated in finance and worked in finance in Brasil and China before creating Sawa in 2009 Sawa is a fashion brand which has taken the challenge to fabricate shoes in Africa. All the added value benefits the Continent. Sawa has just the courage of its opinions and marketing choices.
France is such a great country to grow up in. I am now 40 years old and since I am a father I kept asking myself, “What would have been my live if my parents would not have immigrated?” I am from a poor and analphabete family, there is no escaping away from the fact that it is not the best mashup to success. France really treated us like its children and whatever can be said the french motto “Freedom, Egality, Brotherhood” is meaningful. Today I have the best of the two worlds… culture…I am lucky!
Were you always political in your thinking or did you come from a family and a community who thought that way?
At home my parents were not in politics and political communities have never attracted me. In other words I am not in dogmas. Today I am what I am thanks to life experience.
What does SAWA stand for?
SAWA is a project focusing on made in Africa premium sneakers. We buy our materials in Africa and we transform them into finished products on the Continent so that all the added value benefits the Motherland.
You firmly believe in the “Industrial Revolution” for Africa to move forward. What do you mean by this and how do you think it should come about?
If you look back in the History, Industrial Revolution started in the UK then US, Europe and Asia. It seems that nobody in these areas complained about getting a job, creating a family, accessing to consumer society, etc. So why should it be different for Africa?
What was the biggest challenges you encountered doing business in the vast continent of Africa?
I started SAWA in Cameroon. Sawa is born in Cameroon and was about to die there. As a matter of fact we had to face the high level of corruption in the Douala Harbor. You have to know that everybody in this harbor is blood thirsty and has totally forgotten the sense of reality. At that time we were importing rubber from Egypt and laces from Tunisia. Unfortunately these two countries decided to take the streets and make the Revolution. So our delivery totally stopped. In a nutshell we totally failed in Cameroon but I have never lost the hope. I found the energy to stand up and go to Ethiopia, a really great country with great people. I would not be surprised if this country doesn’t become a world reference in the next decade. In Ethiopia everything is much more stable and reliable. The history of Sawa is a sum-up of what is Africa: corruption, political instability and hope.
We definitely agree on the idea of “charity” when it comes to Africa and beyond as we both detest the idea of the condescending “terms” of selling products under the guise of charity…”portion of the proceeds” or “buy one and send one to blah blah blah”… How would you advise those “do gooders” to actually do good?
Selling products under the guise of charity is neither ethical or loyal. First this is not ethical because we can not accept that clothes, shoes or even health of people in Alger, Addis Ababa or Dakar depends on a Saturday afternoon shopping of people in Paris, New York or Tokyo. Second it is not loyal and misleading for consumers. Can you imagine that some people are shocked while reading our on line “about section”? I have even received mails telling that I should be ashamed to speak like that as an African and I should consider giving products for free to my african brothers. In other words these “do gooders” are stealing our voice, they have set the wrong standards. Honestly, I can only advise them to stop their cheesy brainwashing.
Why does it matter to you that Sawa’s brand logo is “Made in Africa” and what does that stand for?
“Made in Africa” is our brand statement, a kind of motto we wanted to put forward on our products. It is the base of our motivation and the unique solution to development.
Love the photoshoots done & produced in Africa… how do you go about that?
On the top of producing our shoes in Africa, we are doing all our communication there. Our internet site has been developed by an Addis Ababa based web agency, all our photoshoots are done by local photographers, we never lose an opportunity to keep it Continental.
What does the word “activist” mean to you?
Maybe it is about giving a concrete action to ones point of view. How many people keep on saying Africa is the future? How many people are moving so that Africa becomes the Future ?
What advice do you have for those young talents who might get galvanized reading this?
I would have loved inventing the motto “Impossible is Nothing” but Adidas did it first.
What was the best business advice you have received?
If you want to make business, you have to accept being cheated!
Where do you find inspiration?
I am always impressed by the designers telling that they found inspiration watching a bird or eating an apple. I do not have this supernatural skill. I am quite a low tech person and I always go for the easiest way to produce (I like the “design for industry” concept).
This week I have listened to Chuck D (his new song “Mine Again”), French-Malian hip-hop artist Oxmo Puccino ( his new song “Une Chance”) and Lili Boniche (Arabo-Jewish music).