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How Parker Clay is democratizing Africa’s fashion industry

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While businesses struggle with raising funds, Ethiopian hand-crafted leather goods brand, Parker Clay says it is building a community of fundraisers. That is because instead of a traditional series A round, the brand democratized its funding round by allowing members of its community to invest and become shareholders at Parker Clay. “We wanted our community to know they too can be part of what we are building,” says Ian Bentley, the CEO of Parker Clay, who co-founded the company to create dignified employment for Ethiopian women.

Parker Clay is a certified B Corporation that manufactures handcrafted leather goods in Ethiopia. They make premium leather bags, wallets, totes, backpacks, and more, blending function and style with sustainable fashion and economic empowerment. They are also one of the largest exporters of finished leather goods in the world. Since 2014 when it was founded, Parker Clay has been a brand about community whether it is in its manufacturing process or dealing with its consumers. “We stand on the beautiful African Proverb that says if you want to go fast, go alone. If you wanna go far, go together,” says Ian. Little wonder when it came to fundraising, they opted for a community round rather than a traditional series A round, to democratize the opportunity. “We’ve seen how significant the power of community is. So we want to show the world that we can all benefit from this,” Ian says. For a minimum investment of $500, anyone can be a part of what Parker Clay is building. “We’ve had even prior investors put additional capital into this round, and some people who maybe have never invested in this type of thing before are investing in Parker Clay.” But Parker Clay’s funding approach only galvanizes the entire brand’s story.

The Parker Clay team in Ethiopia

Ian and his wife first visited Ethiopia in 2010, a time when pictures of African women and their starving child(ren), littered magazine covers and news headlines. Such pictures were practically synonymous with the word Africa. However, “when we got to Ethiopia, we saw the beauty of the country, the people, and their resilience instead. And we wanted to see how we could help change that false narrative,” recalls Ian. During the trip, they met a social group that offered counseling and rehabilitation to Ethiopian women who had been sexually trafficked. The question of how to ensure these women did not return to that lifestyle arose. After Ian and his wife adopted their daughter, they returned to California, USA. A year later, the Bentleys sold everything they owned in California and bought one-way tickets to Ethiopia to work with the social group and help create job opportunities for women.

In 2014, a year after the Bentley’s moved to Ethiopia, a factory in Bangladesh, called Rana Plaza, collapsed and killed over 1100 people. The tragedy stirred up intense conversations around fast fashion and the wheels behind it. People wanted to know, where are my products made? Who’s making them? What kind of conditions were they in? “And there we were in Ethiopia looking for ways to create employment for these women,” Ian recalls. “Yet, we also wanted to do it in a way where we could create really beautiful products,” Ian added.

Models wearing Parker Clay bags

Eighty percent of Ethiopia’s population depends on agriculture. They farm and keep livestock. It is a respected occupation in those communities. The hides from the livestock presents an economic opportunity for the farmers. hides can be used to produce leather, which is a valuable and versatile material that can be used to make various products, such as clothing, footwear, accessories, furniture, and automotive parts. Ethiopia has a long tradition and reputation of producing high-quality leather from its natural resources. These beautiful materials are exported to places like Italy and Europe, accounting for about 10% of the country’s total export earnings. But a lot of the times, many of the livestock hides end up in landfills resulting in a waste of resources. can also reduce waste and environmental pollution. This means that Ethiopia still has a vast potential for developing its leather sector and fashion industry as a whole. Leather production is a huge market. GlobeNewswire, estimates that the global leather market size in 2021 stood at USD 419,300 million and is set to reach USD 708,700 million by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 6.2% . Parker clay sees the opportunity to keep the impact on the continent. Every product is sourced and produced by the people, of the people and for the people. “We try to ensure we use the most environmentally friendly practices. That way the environmental impact is minimized. But then the social impact is maximized, “says Ian.

Production process at the Parker Clay factory

Historically, manufacturing is really where a lot of countries scaled their economies. Countries like China, Germany and South Korea that shifted their economy to manufacturing-based, are home to the strongest economies in the world. South Korea, for example, went from being one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s to becoming a high-income country in the 1990s by shifting its economy from agriculture-based to manufacturing-based, and from low-skill to high-skill industries. However, estimates show that by 2030, 100 million manufacturing jobs will be leaving countries like China looking for a new home. “I was just at one of the biggest Asian sourcing conferences recently. When I mentioned to these Chinese investors and manufacturers that we were based in Africa, it was interesting to see the number of them looking to Africa because they know of its potential,” Ian said. Currently, Africa accounts for only 4% of the global leather production. “I think in the next 10 years we will see a dramatic shift in the global ecosystem. And we are very excited that Parker Clay was able to invest Ethiopia and East Africa where we know there is a significant opportunity to scale.”

Parker clay new factory based in Adidas Abba, Ethiopia

Parker Clay’s new factory is about 18,000 square feet. On-site, there is a café where the company has subsidized 90% of the food cost for its employees. Currently the company houses 200 employees, 80% of which are women. The majority of those women were hired from the NGO working to rehabilitate women out of trafficking and prostitution. Many of them are experiencing their first long-term contract type of employment at the company. It is also the first time many of them are owning a savings bank account. Hence, Parker Clay partnered with a local bank called Amharic – the Ethiopian word for mother- where they provided financial literacy training and offer small loans to the employees. In 2018, the company started a training center called our Center of Excellence. Here employees and potential employees can get trained in advance leather production. At the end of the training they get a Leather production certificate, which has been accredited by the Leather Institute of Ethiopia. “Beyond just paying above a livable wage, these other ingredients ensure sustainability is well immersed in the work we do,” said Ian.

Africa is a land of opportunities. With a young and dynamic population using technology to solve some of the continent’s biggest challenges, the continent is at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution. “The opportunities are significant, the materials available and the workforce is incredibly talented, resilient and ready to say yes to these opportunities. Sure, there are challenges on the continent, but if you only look at the problems, you won’t ever see the potential. And that’s really what we were driven by,” said Ian. “We want to continue to be the largest exporter of finished leather goods and put African fashion very strongly on the map. For us, it’s very personal. It is really connected to our hearts. We believe in Ethiopia and Africa’s potential and its ability to thrive.”

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