Building A Community, One Bead At A Time - T&H Designs, Ethiopia

Tigist and Haimanot DamtewAndrea Kolb of The Next Women meets Tigist and Haimanot Damtew from Ethiopia, founders of jewelry design company T&H Designs, who were trained in the trade by the NGO Gemini Trust. Andrea herself is the founder of social fashion brand ABURY, one of the companies through which pieces of jewelry from T&H Designs are sold.

Tigist and Haimanot Damtew are twins. Already this fact would be worth a whole story, seeing that twins in a country like Ethiopia are rarely to be found. For poor families like the Damtew’s, who also have another three children, twins are twice the burden. They often get separated, or only one of the two children survives their early childhood.

However, Tigist and Haimanot were lucky. The NGO Gemini Trust trained the two girls in jewelry design. Their first pieces were sold in cooperation with the NGO; however, they soon founded their own company, T&H Designs, in 2005, when they were only 17 years old. The twins are almost too successful in their field, and since there is nothing like a copyright law in Ethiopia, their designs are replicated by local competitors. But Tigist and Haimanot take it easy: “First of all, we can’t do much against it. And second it just shows people like our designs.” 

In the interview, the Damtew twins share their story, their inspiration and their business aspirations with The NextWomen community!

TNW: Tigist and Haimanot, you are twins, young and successful entrepreneurs and fashion designers – from Ethiopia. You haven’t been brought up rich, but you made your way with strong beliefs and great ideas. After having attended a jewelry class, you started your own business aged only 17. What gave you the courage to go your own way?

T&HD: We believe in doing things, not just dreaming about them.

So every little step encouraged us, and the more our experience grew, the more confidence we gained, knowing we are going the right way and believing in our designs.

TNW: Since when does your label exist and where are you based?

T&HD: We founded our business eight years ago and are based in Addis Abeba, the Ethiopian capital.

TNW: You create jewelry – working with many different sorts of beads – where do you get them?

T&HD: We work with beads from Ethiopia as well as from Ghana, India, South Africa and Mexico. Through our jewelry designs, we were able to establish a huge network of friends around the world, who bring us beads when visiting Ethiopia. Others we bought on business trips, for example in Mexico and India. We went there for beading workshops and to meet and exchange with creative people from our field.

TNW: What makes your collections unique? 

T&HD: In our designs we mix traditional Ethiopian beads and hangers with beads from other countries, and thus create modern and fashionable jewelry. Each piece is telling its own story based on the beads we use; that’s what we like. 

Our jewelry can be worn by everyone – we create them for confident women of all ages.

They are very special, but still serve a universal taste. We can also create designs according to the wishes of customers, for example for weddings.

TNW: You are not only a role model for the youth in Ethiopia regarding entrepreneurship, but also for social consciousness. You have already taught about 100 women how to make jewelry and how to work with beads. This is amazing – when did you start the program and what is the impact so far? What was your intention to start with it?

T&HD: We started giving jewelry design workshops for women in association with the NGO Trampled Rose six years ago. The NGO treats fistula patients - that means women who are stigmatized in their community because of their disease.

Trampled Rose helps those women with medical treatment and educational programs. With our workshops we give them an occupation, help them to gain confidence again and develop a perspective for the future.

We wanted to give something back to the community, and especially to women. We were lucky and got trained in jewelry design by a NGO as well.

It makes us very happy to  have already trained  100 women, and we definitely would like to go on teaching.

TNW: You are very well connected internationally - how did you establish these connections?

T&HD: Through our work we often get in contact with many different people – from Ethiopia as well as from abroad. Our network is essential for our designs, since we get through it beautiful beads from different countries, which one cannot buy here in Addis.

TNW: What role do online sales play in your business at the moment? What are your plans for the future?

T&HD: Currently we do not sell anything online, but the Ethiopian Women Exporters’ Association (EWEA), of which we are members, would like to set up an online shop on www.ethwea.org in 2014, using Paypal as a paying system. Furthermore, we are planning to sell our jewelry in Germany and Europe through www.kissmeimhabesha.com presumably in 2014 as well.

TNW: Are you using social media? If yes, which media and for what targets do you use them?

T&HD: We use mostly Facebook, to stay in contact with friends and customers, get inspiration, and inform them about our new designs and developments within the company. You can find us on www.facebook.com/tandhdesigns. We also took a look at Pinterest, and are thinking about using it more constantly, especially to promote our designs. However, the internet here in Ethiopia is still pretty slow most of the time.

TNW: What is your vision for your company – where do you want to be in 5 or 10 years?

T&HD: We would like to expand our business and work with the women we trained in our workshops. Every single piece of our jewelry is handmade, so in order to grow, we need help to increase our production.

We dream of selling our jewelry in shops around the world, and are working towards this aim day by day.

TNW: What makes it special to be twins and also be working together? How does it influence your work?

T&HD: Being twins and working together is a great opportunity – we are so close, there is not much communication needed and we can trust each other blindly.

Being twins is probably the best basis for teamwork – we never argue!

And being in Ethiopia also helps us because twins are so rare; together we are a real eye-catcher and people remember us easily. This is sometimes a little bit annoying, but for our business it is definitely an advantage.  

TNW: What inspires you?

T&HD: The people we are working together with in our workshops, as well as fashion magazines, things on the media and our friends.

TNW: What was the best advice you have been given? 

T&HD: One of our best friends told us some years back that if we work hard, develop our skills, gain knowledge and believe in what we are doing, then we will be able to improve our lives and the lives of our family significantly. So far it worked very well!

TNW: What advice would you give to any aspiring designers from Africa?

T&HD:

Work hard, be confident for what you are doing and be happy about your work – and never give up.

Thank you so much for this opportunity!

T&H

The pieces of T&H Design are also available at ABURY’s store in Berlin, where young, international, handmade design finds a home and attracts European customers. Andrea Kolb is the founder of ABURY (www.abury.net) and conducted this interview with the twins.

Andrea Kolb is a marketing expert and social entrepreneur. In 2001, she founded the communication agency Calliope. Six years later, Andrea and her husband Bernd moved to Marrakesh and opened a city palace they had previously restored, the Ana Yela, a “Place of Inspiration” established as a hot spot for international thinkers.

Living there inspired her to create the social fashion brand ABURY. Under the positioning of “Beyond Fashion”, ABURY combines the desire for style and ethics, exclusiveness and sustainability in a unique and innovative concept.

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