While businesses struggle to raise funds, Ethiopian hand-crafted leather goods brand, Parker Clay says it is building a community of fundraisers. 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, and backpacks, 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 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 images 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. And we wanted to see how we could help change that false narrative,” Ian recalls.

During the trip, they met a social group that offered counselling and rehabilitation to Ethiopian women who had been sexually trafficked. The question of ensuring 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 move 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 adds.

Models wearing Parker Clay bags

80 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 present 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 for producing high-quality leather from its natural resources. These beautiful materials are exported to places like Italy and Europe, accounting for about 10 percent of the country’s total export earnings. Paradoxically, a significant portion of these hides ends up in landfills, underscoring the vast untapped potential for Ethiopia’s leather sector and fashion industry.

The leather industry represents a substantial 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 percent. Parker Clay recognizes the opportunity to make a positive impact on the continent. Each product is sourced and crafted by the people, for the people, with a commitment to environmentally friendly practices that minimize the ecological footprint while maximizing social benefits. “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,” Ian says.

A production process at the Parker Clay factory

Historically, manufacturing has been a key driver of economic growth for many countries. Nations like China, Germany, and South Korea have achieved robust economies by pivoting towards manufacturing. South Korea, once among the world’s poorest in the 1950s, transformed into a high-income nation by transitioning from agriculture-based to manufacturing-based industries, as well as from low-skill to high-skill sectors.

Nevertheless, projections indicate that by 2030, approximately 100 million manufacturing jobs could relocate from countries like China to new destinations. Ian, who recently attended a major Asian sourcing conference, observed a notable interest in Africa among Chinese investors and manufacturers due to its untapped potential. Africa’s contribution to global leather production currently stands at just four percent. Ian anticipates a significant global ecosystem shift within the next decade. Parker Clay’s investments in Ethiopia and East Africa reflect their enthusiasm for seizing the substantial scaling prospects in this region.

Parker Clay’s new factory based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Parker Clay’s new factory spans approximately 18,000 square feet and features an on-site café where 90 percent of the food cost is subsidized for its employees. Presently, the workforce comprises 200 employees, with women constituting 80% of this workforce. Many of these women were recruited from an NGO dedicated to rehabilitating women affected by 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 own a bank account.

In collaboration with a local bank named “Amharic” (which translates to “mother” in Ethiopian), Parker Clay has initiated financial literacy training and provided small loans to its employees. Additionally, Parker Clay established a training centre named the “Center of Excellence” in 2018. This centre imparts advanced leather production skills to both current and potential employees. Upon completing the training, participants receive a leather production certificate accredited by the Leather Institute of Ethiopia. “Beyond just paying above a livable wage, these elements ensure sustainability is well immersed in the work we do,” Ian says.

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 available resources and exceptionally talented, resilient workforce make these opportunities feasible. While challenges certainly exist, fixating solely on them obscures the inherent potential. Ian articulates this sentiment and emphasises that their motivation stemmed from recognizing this potential rather than focusing solely on issues. “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 personal. It is really connected to our hearts. We believe in Ethiopia and Africa’s potential and its ability to thrive,” he says.

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