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Women-Empowered Business: From Start-Up to Success
November 10, 2021

Mandela Washington Fellow Semhal smiles for the camera at her business, Kabana Leather.
Semhal Guesh, CEO of Kabana Leather.

As a CEO with over 100 employees and chairperson of a consortium of 12 small and medium-sized businesses, Semhal Guesh has the blueprint for business success. One of her businesses, Kabana Leather, is a leather goods store and manufacturer based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. When asked who she credits for motivating her to work hard and strive for success, Semhal said it is her father. She said, “I was raised by my strong single father. Growing up, my dad supported me in every idea I brought home, even though we had little. My father encouraged me to work hard and to be a positive change in society and my country. I believe he was instrumental in forming the way I view work.” Semhal is a 2021 Mandela Washington Fellowship alumna. Her educational background is in architecture; however, she uses her architectural design skills to create unique products for Kabana Leather. 

Semhal’s journey to entrepreneurship was not her original career plan. Working with leather started as a hobby. As her hobby developed, Semhal hired a woman to help her with Kabana Leather. Seeing the positive impact it made on the woman’s life motivated her to turn Kabana Leather into a full-time business where she could create opportunities for other women and other vulnerable members of her community. Currently, over 80% of Kabana Leather’s employees are women, a statistic that is hard to match in Ethiopia’s male-dominated workforce, Semhal reported.

A woman holds a purse from the business Kabana Leather beside a green plant.
A product offered at Kabana Leather.

After Semhal launched Kabana Leather, funding was her biggest obstacle. She initially invested her own money into the business and started working from her mother’s living room until she was able to rent a small space in a garage. As Semhal recounted: “Family and friends purchased from me until the business started to make money. When I received my first export order, I boldly asked the leather raw material supplier to give us leather on credit by showing the PO [purchase order] I had. The same goes for the machines: I only had one machine. I went to a local machine supplier and asked for machines to get by credit. Later, my friends pitched in with some money as I expanded into markets. A bank loan was not possible without collateral, and trust was very low back then for young female business owners with startup businesses. But this never stopped me, and I believe the hurdles have made me strong.”

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ethiopia, Semhal was forced to shift her business strategy from focusing on the international market to focusing on the local market as cross-border trade was interrupted. She said: “At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, my company struggled. We were 100% focused on the export market until the arrival of COVID-19, testing us financially. Subsequently, our target market partly shifted to the local market.” Semhal did not give up and adapted and embraced new strategies to secure funding. “I started writing to donors for support to retain jobs. Luckily, the Mastercard Foundation responded to me and they selected SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises], where I drafted a concept for funding. This resulted in a consortium of 12 SMEs that I led; we repurposed our manufacturing factories to produce face masks [to help prevent the spread of COVID-19] and other PPE [personal protective equipment].”

When asked how she leads hundreds of employees, Semhal pointed to good management and leadership plans of action. She said: “First and foremost, we invest in our team. Our production staff undergo intensive training and internships to ensure minimal supervision and additional coaching when they get on board. We also have a well-experienced senior management team, majority having about 10–12 years of experience. This team ensures operations within all departments run smoothly. Lastly, we pay our staff livable wages and offer some benefits, like six months paid maternity leave and a day care facility at the factory. This has significantly reduced our staff turnover, thus preserving institutional memory.”

If you are interested in following Semhal Guesh’s journey as a business owner and entrepreneur, you can connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. Follow Kabana Leather on Twitter and Instagram.
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