Amde Akalework: A life in leather

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Ato Amde Akalework, 74, has been immersed in the leather industry since his youth. He is often described as a smart and detail-oriented manager who knew every inch of the business. We are sitting in his office in a residential area close to St. Bisrate Gebriel Church in Addis Ababa for this interview.
A man of deeply ingrained honour and integrity, he treated others with deference and respect. His physical presence— robust, elegant, sparkling eyes, – makes you relax under the force of his affability.
When I met Ato Amde, it was shortly after his return from France, where he goes for an annual visit. “The first time I went there, I must have been nine. It was for a medical check-up. My heart was beating and pounding so hard and loud and when I had a check-up, the physicians suspected that it was a cardiovascular disease. My uncle, Teshafi Tizaz Aklilu and his wife, Madame Colette brought me to Paris. It turns out there was no problem and my heart was perfectly healthy. The doctor told us that thin people were blessed with feeling our heartbeats more easily than people of average weight.” Yet this occasion became the first introduction to country that Ato Amde Akalework would grow to love.
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In his office hangs a collection of historic black and white family photographs, including that of his father and uncle who were executed on November 1974 along with 62 former ministers, generals and dignitaries by the military regime. Amde is the son of the prominent official in the imperial government, Akalework Habtwold, who rose from humble background to eminent government positions. Ato Akalework served as Ethiopian ambassador to France (1958-62), Minister of Justice (1969-74), Minister of Agriculture (1962-66), Minister of Education (1947-55, 1967-69) and the first African President of the UNESCO General Assembly (1960-62). Amde’s uncle, the Sorbonne-educated Aklilu Habtwold assumed a more prominent role, from Vice-Minister in the Ministry of Pen to Vice Minister and full Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1943 to 1957 and Prime Minister from 1961 to 1974.
Amde had generally enjoyed a privileged upbringing, attending the French school, Lycée Guebre-Mariam, following the family tradition. When he was14 years old, he followed his father to Paris where he had been appointed ambassador. There he would spend three and half years.
In Addis Ababa, young Amde recalled spending those years shuttling between different relatives, as his father and uncle took turns to look after him. They both instilled in him a passion for hard work, punctuality, respect for all occupations, and the importance of discipline and duty.
Amde is quick to share a colourful anecdote about himself and his uncle Aklilu’s bond. On weekends, Amde used to drive Aklilu to Hora Lake in Debrezeit town and Langano. He enjoyed swimming in the lake. “My uncle didn’t drive a car,” he says.
At the end of high school, he took an exam, baccalauréat, and he was given grant by the French government and a little supplement by the Ethiopian government, he went to Lyon to study architecture.
Amde became one of the many Ethiopian youths in France in the mid-60’s, seeking to earn a French degree. The students would emerge as vocal on intellectual and political debates on their nations’ modernity, nationhood, and monarchy. Some of them such as Daniel Tadesse, Haile Fida, Neged Gobeze, Fikre Merid later formed the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement to fight the feudal system. “Though I didn’t care less, some of the students viewed me with distrust, because the positions of my father and my uncle in the imperial government. They were suspicious of me. They thought I would spy on them when I came to some of their meetings,” Amde says.
The adjustment to architecture study was a rough one and he found it rigorous, and demanding. “Mainly because they didn’t teach us drawing at Guebre-Mariam school,”
He gave up the architecture study, in the meantime, in 1965 he would meet someone working for Dofan Handbag Co., distinguished manufacturer with large factories in Paris, Grenoble and New York City. “He brought me into contact with the people of this company, who informed me of their interest to set up a crocodile leather tannery in Ethiopia and suggested the possibility of working together. I agreed and I was happy to get a job before finishing my studies. But I told them that I knew nothing about the leather production. They arranged for me to take a crash course in their leather tannery in Normandy for a year, which allowed me to gain expertise in the leather-based work. Then I attended Institut universitaire de gestion des entreprises (IUGE) in Lyon and I studied leather tanning and leather craft activities. Because, I believe one has to have the sound knowledge and expertise before embarking on a certain task,”
Upon return to Ethiopia, Amde engaged in leather work, becoming general manager of the Dofan tannery, which was located in Mojo and the head office in the Patriots Building opposite the Parliament House in Addis Ababa. He recalled that being in this trade as it was called koda faki was “a generally despised occupation. Hide workers were considered as possessors of the evil eye. My grandfather was not impressed and even he said he would not see me again,”
There were not many people who were trained in the industry, Ato Amde says that was the main challenge, thus he had to select ten young men from high school and sent them to Normandy, France for on-the-job training. With the trained young men, the company performed better, boosting production and sales.
However, the Nile crocodile came to be listed in the Washington convention as threatened and consequently prohibited specimen in world trade in 1973. That’s when he turned his attention to sheep, cow hides and crocodile breeding farms. Shortly after the military takeover in September 1974, the company was nationalized and the named changed to Mojo Tannery. For Amde and his family, this period proved tough and tragic as his father, uncle and two cousins were executed in November 1974. For almost two decades, his uncle Aklilu’s and his father Akalework’s were discredited, their long years of their dedicated service to the country discounted, the result of the country’s strong man, Mengistu Hailemariam’s hatred and his totalitarian control. However, after the collapse of the Derg government, their reputation was partially rehabilitated and the young people started paying attention, Ato Amde says.
Even though life under the socialist rule was difficult, Ato Amde continued working first as department head of the commerce sector and later Export Manager supervising and overseeing all leather exports in the then state owned Ethiopian Leather & Shoe Corporation. The export division brought him to different parts of the world, continuing to explore the major markets, offering international perspective with local flair.
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(Ato Amde with the former French president Jacque Chirac.)
Ato Amde these days is running his privately held company, Habtewold International, named after his grandfather, still finding ways of reaching target audience to the still unexploited leather industry. He has a long time association with Alliance française in Addis Ababa, of which he has been its president for the past 16 years. “It is a voluntary work. The Alliance is one of the very biggest Alliance Française in the continent and we have 3,000 students per year,” he says. There’s a story to be told in what he does. A unique and charming story.

Arefayné Fantahun
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3 Discussion to this post

  1. Rebecca says:

    Excellent Work keep up thé excellent Work you are Doing!!!! Your stories are all well selected and interesting!

  2. I am very Pleased to read about Ato Amde’s performance in the business he loves. In any business, the love and the passion, blended with integrity and respect for customers are very important for success. Amde has the mastery of all these prerequisites. The writer has defined Amde very well. Hats off for Amde and wish you more success. Regarding his uncle,the late honorable Aklilu HabteWold was a brilliant politician of his day, well remembered not only by Ethiopians but also by members of the International Community for his performance to manage the Eritrean case. Unfortunately, he and others who served Ethiopia on many fronts were victims of egregious Human Rights violations carried out by Mengistu and his followers, ill equipped to lead their families let alone a Great Nation like Ethiopia. Mengistu a functional paranoid schizophrenic man and his colleagues most of them group thinkers, continued for years to kill many more men and women including the youth and the educated on whom the Nation invested on. Many more had to run away for fear of Mengistu’s brutality. Certainly, Mengistu and this colleagues damaged Ethiopia and Ethiopians permanently still palpable for those of us who observed the madness of Dergue.

  3. Amde ! we all admire your great job! You. are a good example to all Ethiopians !

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