Often in business, finding an idea that is unique and that will resonate with customers can be hard. But in the case of Messaynesh Geberesilassie and her business Mela, she is tapping into the traditional handcrafted tradition of her home country to create a unique business opportunity in another marketplace - and she is winning new fans along the way.
LoA met with Messaynesh Geberesilassie this month to find out more about these beautiful products that are at the heart of her business.
What does your company do
Mela is a small scale, family-owned enterprise providing employment to a handful of artisans who produce beautiful traditionally hand woven 100% Ethiopian cotton scarfs and leather products.
"When I visited home in Ethopia, I saw the value of quality, handcrafted work that has been done by local artisans and a rise in demand for speciality products."
What inspired you to start a company
I have always wanted to own my own business to create economic opportunities for myself and my family. When I visited home in Ethiopia, I saw the value of quality, handcrafted work that has been done by local artisans and a rise in demand for speciality products. Creating a viable market for these goods serves to preserve this ancient tradition of beauty and craftsmanship.
Why should anyone use your service or product
Mela produces beautiful, unique, handcrafted quality products, 100% natural, chemically unprocessed products, therefore beneficial to our health and lifestyle. These items are not just fashion accessories, they are part of ancient art.
"Creating a viable market for these goods serves to preserve this ancient tradition of beauty and craftsmanship."
Tell us a little about your team.
We are a team of four family members, my job is to find designs and marketing opportunities to end-users. My cousin started the business in Ethiopia. Under her there arethree craftsmen who produce the cotton scarves, and my niece and sister are responsible for the leather products - finding suppliers, buying, making sure the bags are good quality, and shipping the products.
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey and do you come from an entrepreneurial background
Yes, I have come from an entrepreneurial background - my parents and brothers are in the building materials industry. The idea for my business was born when I visited home (Ethiopia) in 2013, and I saw a business opportunity with handcrafted products that are on rise. I have always wanted to have my own business and at that time I was looking at businesses for sale or buying a franchise. But I wasn't sure what kind of business I wanted to start and if it was the right choice for me - plus money was a big issue. With that in mind I looked for suppliers in Ethiopia. However, the kind of people and businesses I approached were already established and they were not interested in me. So I spoke to my family back home about my idea and what I wanted to do, and they told me my cousin (asmi designs) had started a business and she was already registered, so they said why don't you talk to her and see if you can work together. We spoke and we agreed to try them. When I got back to South Africa, my plan was to source the products, show them around and find people to stock them. I ordered scarves in 18 different styles and colours and when I got them I was so excited I thought to my self “this is it. I have a unique, beautiful, hand-made 100% natural product and I’m sure people will love them and I will find a buyer.” However, I went to boutiques, African gift shops, and not so much interest. I found a couple of people who took some on consignment but didn't actually sell any. I realised I was very wrong as things didn't turn out the way I had originally planned.
So I made a decision to try marketing the products myself to see if there was a gap in the market and customers for my scarves. My pricing was very reasonable, so what I did was I started going to different weekly and monthly markets in the local shopping malls and atevents. Saturday 8th March was the first day I went to a market in Morningside, Johannesburg, and I sold 6 scarves. I was so surprised and excited that I called my husband, told my kids and my friends, and they were all happy for me. That motivated me and I ordered another 20 scarves. Week after week in different markets I manage to sell my products, at the same time learning about doing business, plus people were giving me ideas and starting to place orders. For one year I kept going to different markets - some markets were very good, some were not so good, and this experience helped me to decide on how to position my products better. I realised that if I kept the quality and maintained the uniqueness of these beautiful scarves, they could become luxury products.
At the beginningof 2014 I visited a market called the Bryanston Organic and Natural Market. I loved it and I felt that this was the right market for my products, although I enjoyed going to different markets and meeting new people, I knew it was time for me to settle in one place. I went to the office and I asked how I could get in to the market as a vendor. They gave me a form to fill in, but I said I am sorry I can't fill in a form and just wait until you call me - I need to physically show you my products and I would like to do a presentation for you. I was very lucky because they agreed to my request, and at that time my husband had just got back from a trip to Ethiopia and had brought me samples of leather bags and some jewellery. As a result, I was accepted to the market based on the uniqueness and ethnicity of the products. Through this market I have met so many wonderful people who support me and I am grateful. Since that time, I have added a few other products to my range, and I am making bikini tops from the scarves, throw-overs, and ponchos. My plan is to add more variety to the range in the future.
"Mela produces beautiful, unique, handcrafted quality products, 100% natural, chemically unprocessed products, therefore beneficial to our health and lifestyle. These items are not just fashion accessories, they are part of ancient art."
What are your future plans
I want to open my own workshop in Ethiopia and open a shop here in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Also, to possibly collaborate with clothing and interior designers.
What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur.
The fact that I can do something that I love makes me happy and to be able to promote my culture and support the weavers in Ethiopia and other small businesses. Also, I can inspire my daughters to follow their own dreams, and to be there for them gives me the best satisfaction.
What is the biggest piece of advise you can give to other woman looking to start up.
I would say follow your dreams. It can be hard and it takes time and energy. If you have faith and believe in yourself you will find a way. Talk to people, share your idea, you never know what happens next.
Why LoA loves it
Many successful entrepreneurs will tell you that to follow your passion is a great starting point for a business. In the case of entrepreneur Messaynesh Geberesilassie, she is taking her passion for the traditional handcrafted products of her Ethiopian home and using it as the foundation of her business in South Africa. She is tapping into a growing interest in beautiful, authentic, sustainably produced goods that have a great back story, and her brand Mela is becoming synonymous with that ethos. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and editor-in-chief of Lionesses of Africa