The entrepreneurial scene in Egypt has been flourishing for the past years, and against all odds, Egyptians are determined to turn their visions into a reality, setting the bar very high for competitors.
What is really exciting about this entrepreneurial boom is that it is not limited to a certain field; many youth are even exploring untapped, risky industries. A perfect representation of such a daring spirit is Amira Motawea, founder and sole designer behind “Elia”, a home-grown footwear brand.
Armed with a profound passion for shoe design, combined with her academic background in marketing and her e-commerce experience, Motawea was up for her biggest challenge yet: tapping into an industry that is considered non-existent because of the imported products and international brands monopolizing the footwear market.
Motawea shares her journey, giving us a look into the Egyptian footwear industry.
Can you explain the concept behind “Elia”?
“Elia” is an Egyptian footwear brand founded in August 2015. It all started as a passion for design and innovation while staying true to our authentic identity. The Egyptian culture and history will always remain the main inspiration behind this brand.
It has been my passion to design for as long as I can remember. I have always had this way of restyling footwear either by coloring them in or adding bits of jewelry to make them unique. This drive is what encouraged me to achieve my dream of having my own line.
After making the decision to take your passion to the next level, what did you do?
I wanted to design shoes but I had no idea where to go and what to do. I started by searching for places that taught shoe design in Egypt, but I found nothing that fit my needs. Then I started looking for, and found, online design courses and sketching tutorials that made me feel like I could actually make this happen. I wanted to translate my sketches into wearable products. It took me a long time to find factories that would produce my designs.
Have you ever reached a moment when you thought that you could not continue? How did you get past it?
The beginning was the hardest part as I got demotivated the most when I just started looking for factories to produce my designs. I almost lost hope when I could not find the quality I wanted, and if it was not for the support I was getting from my family, friends and my mentor, Mr. Sameh, I am not sure if this brand would have been established.
We have many skillful craftsmen in Egypt. Finding them, however, might be a challenge. How did you tackle this issue?
I figured that the best thing to do was to learn the techniques myself. Although I could not find an established institute where I could learn and study footwear design, I managed to find a shoe factory that agreed to give me a three-month training.
When I think back now, I believe that spending time at this factory was far more beneficial than any institute I would have gone to. It gave me a behind-the-scenes look into the industry and I became aware of what can and can’t be manufactured in Egypt.
How did you find the factory and what would you say you learned about the industry from there ?
I would walk around the streets of Alexandria, my hometown, hoping to find workshops and asking shoe makers if they could teach me, but I only found places that specialized in shoe repair. After that, I started looking for factories instead, and finally by luck, one of the factories I came across agreed to train me.
The factory owns one of the well-known shoe brands in Alexandria. Mr. Sameh, the manager, was super helpful and supportive, and was eager to pass on his knowledge as he saw my potential and he wanted new talents to create modern designs that would compete in the market.
There, I learned the various types of leather used, the glue needed for each material, as well as the different accessories. I also became familiar with the different machines included in production, like those for sewing, cutting, splitting or repairing, as well as machines used for polishing, finishing and those specialized in sole making. My training also included learning pattern making and other practical techniques that are used to create handmade footwear.
I benefited greatly from Mr. Sameh’s knowledge. He worked in Turkey for 15 years in various factories, and his main concern was that, even though we have some of the best craftsmen in Egypt, we are lacking the technology needed.
I remember that most of the employees at the factory were men between the ages of 20 and 50, unlike in clothing factories, where the majority are women. I believe that this is due to the fact that this craft is much harder than it seems, as the workers need many safety precautions, like certain clothing, equipment, ear protectors, face masks, gloves and safety spectacles.
Knowing that we are behind in technology, were you tempted to decide on producing abroad?
I was tempted to do so, but I found out after conducting market research that most of the raw materials used abroad are made in Egypt, and so I challenged myself to use all that I have here and make the best out of it. We have a lot of resources that we are not using efficiently, for instance, we have factories that manufacture diverse types of soles, and despite that, most of the soles we have in Egypt are imported.
However, I had to import certain material as I was seeking higher quality, like some of the accessories, including zippers and clips. Also, I occasionally import certain types and colors of fabric that I need for limited-edition pieces.
How do you see the quality of the resources and raw materials available?
One of the main challenges I faced is delivering the high quality I seek. It took a year to pick factories with the highest quality in terms of equipment used.
Searching for raw materials was also quite time consuming. All of “Elia” products are made of genuine leather, while the market is full of fake leather and it was tough to figure out the difference between them at first, as I did not have any experience at the time.
Getting used to going to Bab El Shariah, the hub for raw material and accessories needed for shoe-making, was a challenge on its own.
Factories are usually associated with mass production. Do you mass-produce?
At the beginning, I was torn between creating limited edition products and positioning “Elia” as your everyday shoe. I want the brand to be recognized locally and internationally someday, but without losing its uniqueness to the customer.
The factories were very strict at the beginning with the minimum quantity order, but I managed to find one that agreed on a certain quantity as a start, and I will increase the production gradually according to the demand.
How do you see the local footwear market in Egypt?
Local footwear has huge potential as I am witnessing emerging designers nowadays. I believe what is missing is that we do not have proper workshops that teach design and shoe-making in Egypt, whereas it is a university degree in other countries.
What is ironic is that many of the international brands, like Zara and Massimo Dutti, manufacture their products in Egypt because we have cheap labor, yet experienced workers. This proves that we have potential, and that is why we need our country’s support. We need to have organizations that teach, support and fund new talents, especially when an industry has the potential of generating revenue for the country in the future.
After becoming aware of the gaps in the industry, is there anything you think young designers like you can do to help?
I struggled at the start to find someone who was willing to pass on the knowledge, and I hope I could make it a bit easier for other aspiring designers. That is why I am planning to open a workshop that teaches design and shoemaking that I hope can turn into an accredited degree in Egypt.
The economy plays a major role in every industry. How has the increase in prices affected “Elia”?
Prices have affected my brand greatly, as the material we use is expensive and it was challenging at the beginning for Egyptians to trust an emerging brand that is relatively not cheap compared to imported shoes.
In your opinion, why are Egyptians recently becoming more drawn to the local brands?
The Egyptian consumer is smart. I was certain that if they tried the brand, they would automatically recognize the high quality fabric used and appreciate the unique designs. Why would Egyptian customers choose international brands when they can buy locally with these same qualities?
What are your customers usually most content about?
Customers love the uniqueness of our designs and they can tell them apart from any other brand. Also, the product is known for high quality and comfort.
Do you have a formula for success that you would like to share?
I do not believe that there is a specific formula for success. Just follow your heart and turn your dream into a reality.