An Interview with Eyob Bekele (Desta Owner and General Manager). This blog is an excerpt from our 2018 Impact Report.
According to Eyob Bekele, the General Manager of Desta PLC, “The Impact Angel Network’s investment keeps us on our toes and helps us stay focused to achieve the direction we want to go.”
What direction is that? The family’s vision is for Desta to compete internationally and that vision is coming alive as part of a company expansion in a town called Butajira, outside of Addis. “Our current factory was never designed to be a garments facility, but Butajira is,” Eyob continued. “To increase our ability to compete with any company worldwide, we need a proper setup and Butajira is the answer. The first shed is completed, training workers have started and, in the factory, we have set up four lines.”
The Bekele story is a classic story of transition. “My family wanted to enter into manufacturing after many years of trading. Our father has always wanted us to be internationally competitive and to do so, we knew we needed to move beyond trading,” Eyob said recently.
“We were initially importers of plastic shoe soles from Italy, among other things, and we decided to start manufacturing plastic shoes and shoe soles in 1993. We slowly added new elements to our manufacturing including laces and cords. Then in 2010, the plastic shoe market was saturated, and we decided as a family that it was time to move on to a new market. At the time, the Ethiopian Government was encouraging people into horticulture and textiles because of the competitive labor market we have here. Because we already had the cord business we chose textile and garment and moved into knitting cotton fabric. Initially, we shipped the greige, raw cloth we knitted at Desta to Italy, but that market quickly closed as the Italians found they could get competitive, fully dyed fabric in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, at the time, we started getting orders for garments. We would make the fabric, outsource the dying, cutting and sewing and then ship the finished products to Italy. But that business had its challenges including really long lead time and in some cases compromised quality from all the outsourcing. Since we were already getting orders, we decided to enter the garments business fully in 2012. In 2013, we set up a few lines, began training workers and started to take more orders. We quickly realized when we made the garments, the knitting we could do did not justify the machines, because much of the finished fabric still needed to be imported. So we closed the knitting department and focused on garment production only. Then we started to expand. American and European buyers came and the more they came, the more we expanded. Our customers thankfully love us. They know we are committed to delivering no matter what.”
Eyob believes that sustainability must be the backbone of Desta. “We will not achieve our plans without sustainability. Whatever Desta does should have a profound impact to support the social and environmental ecosystem”. I want all stakeholders from investors to buyers to employees to our neighbors to feel like Desta is the right choice. Our workers have to feel like it is their company. When we are fully operational at Butajira, we will be able to achieve that including zero liquid discharge. We may even be the first to implement wastewater treatments related to garment production in Ethiopia. We will even have zero discharge related to human waste, and we will have rainwater collection at the new facility.”
There are many things Desta does to help employees know they are part of a family including visiting their workers at home. “Their social problems are our social problems. We try to go and have a discussion with each worker. If they have a problem, we support them as much as we can. We provide a sustainable income so they can support their families. We work to create a friendly, family environment. Our workforce is typically ages 18-25 so, I believe we should be seen as parents or older siblings to them. We do a lot of soft skills training including, in some cases, training people to use a toilet, and how to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases”.
“We are committed to hiring people with disabilities including the deaf. We have a family member who has a disability, and we feel like just because you are disabled doesn’t mean you cannot work productively. We aim to employ 30-50 workers with a disability at any one time which is about 5-10% of our labor force.”
“The women in Desta’s workforce play a significant role from the bottom to the top of the organization. About 90% of our workforce are women. A few have started as a cleaner and are now in management. We take women empowerment seriously and invest in soft skills,” Eyob said.
Renew Capital is an Africa-focused impact investment firm that backs innovative companies with high-growth potential. Renew Capital manages investments made on behalf of the Renew Capital Angels, a global network of angel investors, foundations and family offices who seek financial returns and sustainable social impact. For the latest on investing in Africa, subscribe and follow us at our social links below.