Upskilling local workers is high on Huajian International Shoe City (Ethiopia) agenda
Driving approximately 30 km out from Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, the city's Eastern Industrial Zone comes into sight. The vast area is home to some 20 Chinese-invested companies, ranging in diversity from shoemaking, textile and garments to automobile, steel, cement and packaging.
Huajian International Shoe City (Ethiopia) Plc, a subsidiary of the Chinese shoemaker Huajian Group, is the largest employer in the zone.
Demis Degef, a 27-year-old Ethiopian known locally as "Shanghai (also the name of China's economic center)," has been with Huajian for six years.
Speaking fluent Chinese, he told ChinAfrica that he has learnt a lot since joining the company. "Apart from advanced shoemaking skills, I have learnt the Chinese language and culture, management skills and Huajian's corporate culture," said Demis, now a production line supervisor. He received a year's training at Dongguan, south China's Guangdong Province, where Huajian is headquartered.
Behind him, thousands of workers dressed in the company's green T-shirt uniform are busy cutting, gluing and stitching quality shoes on the production lines.
Demis said his Chinese moniker was given by Huajian Group's legendary Founder and Chairman Zhang Huarong, who built the shoemaking empire from scratch in the 1980s.
According to Zhang, a personal call for more investment by the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi during a visit to China in August 2011 is what initially motivated Huajian to invest in the country.
The company's increased investment in Ethiopia has seen the exponential success of shoemaking become one of the most important pillars of the China-Ethiopia partnership.
Besides, against a background of China deepening its reform and opening up, some Chinese producers are shifting part of their production lines to Ethiopia to tap new markets. Huajian has also taken advantage of this.
Founded in 1996, the Huajian Group, one of the world's biggest manufacturers of women's shoes, makes shoes mostly for the U.S. and European markets for brands such as Guess, Nine West and Naturalizer.
Receiving ample support from both governments, the group's Ethiopian subsidiary opened in January 2012. Currently, shoes made by this factory accounts for more than 50 percent of the Ethiopian footwear export value, which also facilitates such viable spin-offs as leather processing, transportation, and logistics.
The factory now makes about 3 million pairs of shoes annually. Its footwear exports exceeded $80 million by 2016, according to Zhang Yunqi, General Manager of the Huajian International Light Industry City (Ethiopia).
The Huajian International Shoe City (Ethiopia) provides jobs for thousands of locals
Responding to a question about whether Huajian's management style is too tough on local staff, Zhang Huarong said managing employees effectively creates the necessary conditions for developing skills in the footwear industry. He said when the factory was first established, the productivity levels were far behind those of China as the shoemaking industry was completely new at the time. In order to change this, great efforts have been made to improve productivity and quality through training.
Huajian offers each person, from floor staff to higher management personnel, a chance to be trained and promoted. New workers without manufacturing experience are given hands-on training by experienced mentors. Local staff who excel, like Demis, are given the opportunity to train in Huajian's headquarters in China to learn about corporate culture and management skills. These staff return to take up managerial positions.
Employee benefits include a free shuttle bus service to and from the factory and free meals. Huajian's stable employment and competitive salaries are attractive to local youth. Demis' monthly salary of about $800 as a member of management has long been the envy of people in his neighborhood. He said a continuous stream of people come to the factory looking for work, while there were always relatives and friends asking him about opportunities there.
Zhang said the good corporate culture, good training system and attitude to share with other people are what people are attracted to, adding that with these corporate attributes, one can build a good company in Africa.
As chairman of China's leading footwear manufacturer, Zhang has a bold ambition. He plans to make Ethiopia a global hub for the shoe industry within the next decade and be a key contributor to the country's economy.
Likewise, the Ethiopian Government hopes to enlarge its production capacity cooperation with China by attracting more Chinese manufacturers, and help the country take off economically.
Mulugeta Tiruneh, head of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, said the country's low labor cost and favorable environment for business offered attractive incentives to Chinese investors.
Huajian's latest project, the Huajian International Light Industry City (Ethiopia), is a 126-hectare industrial park launched in the vicinity of Addis Ababa in April 2015, which cost 3.2 billion yuan ($480 million) to build. It is expected to generate annual revenues of about $2 billion and create about 50,000 local jobs by 2020.
"We should make full use of our own capacity advantages and advantages of production factors locally to achieve international capacity cooperation," said Zhang. He believes this will not only improve the company's global resources allocation, but also promote Ethiopia to keep mutually beneficial development going forward.
Due to Huajian's Ethiopia factory operating under a high division-of-labor system, workers can skillfully complete the full shoemaking process of leather cutting, bonding, sewing and modeling and produce more than 8,000 pairs of shoes daily.