China Is Turning Ethiopia Into a Giant Fast-Fashion Factory

Standing in a sunny office in Indochine International’s brand-new factory, Raghav Pattar, vice president of this Chinese apparel manufacturer, is ebullient. It’s November, barely six months since the Hawassa Industrial Park opened, and already he has 1,400 locals at work.

Pattar is shooting to employ 20,000 Ethiopians by 2019. “Twenty-four months ago, the land we’re sitting on was farm fields,” he says. “What country can change in 24 months? That is Ethiopia!”

Pattar is a bright-eyed émigré from India, with apparel experience in Bangladesh and Egypt. He keeps his pens neatly clipped in the pocket of his blue button-down oxford, and right now he’s gazing out the window toward the factory floor, where scores of women are sewing seams, stamping logos, and pressing out wrinkles for Warner’s underpants, a brand sold mainly at Walmart. “The government is very committed to us,” he says. “They had workers here 24 hours, day and night, to build this place. And there is no corruption. None!”

Hawassa Industrial Park did go up quickly, thanks to a state-owned Chinese construction company that banged out 56 identical hangar-size, red-and-gray metal sheds devoted to textile production in nine months, for $250m, according to the Ethiopian Investment Commission. But Pattar is effusing this way because he has a visitor, Belay Hailemichael, the soft-spoken park manager who runs the “one-stop” help center. Belay enables companies to snap up import and export licenses and executive visas and processes prospective workers. These are mostly women, who’ve taken long, dusty bus rides here from small villages and waited for hours to apply for jobs with a base salary of about $25 a month. The help center gives them a dexterity test and divides them into three categories: gifted “ones,” fated to work the sewing machines, and less talented “twos” and “threes,” who will pack boxes and sweep floors.

We’ve arrived at a new moment for the global apparel industry. This drought-afflicted, landlocked country of 100 million on the Horn of Africa is transforming itself into the lowest rung on the supply chain that pours out fast fashion and five-for-$12.99 tube socks. Lured by tax incentives, promises of infrastructure investment, and ultracheap labor, countries the Western world once outsourced production to, particularly China and Sri Lanka, are now the middlemen ramping up production here for Guess, Levi’s, H&M, and other labels. These industrialists like Ethiopia because the government wants them as much as they want cheap labor and tax breaks. The Hawassa Industrial Park’s inauguration is only the most recent part of a vast centralized scheme: Since 2014, Ethiopia has opened four giant, publicly owned industrial parks; it plans eight more by 2020.

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Pattar is shooting to employ 20,000 Ethiopians by 2019. “Twenty-four months ago, the land we’re sitting on was farm fields,” he says. “What country can change in 24 months? That is Ethiopia!”

Pattar is a bright-eyed émigré from India, with apparel experience in Bangladesh and Egypt. He keeps his pens neatly clipped in the pocket of his blue button-down oxford, and right now he’s gazing out the window toward the factory floor, where scores of women are sewing seams, stamping logos, and pressing out wrinkles for Warner’s underpants, a brand sold mainly at Walmart. “The government is very committed to us,” he says. “They had workers here 24 hours, day and night, to build this place. And there is no corruption. None!”

Hawassa Industrial Park did go up quickly, thanks to a state-owned Chinese construction company that banged out 56 identical hangar-size, red-and-gray metal sheds devoted to textile production in nine months, for $250m, according to the Ethiopian Investment Commission. But Pattar is effusing this way because he has a visitor, Belay Hailemichael, the soft-spoken park manager who runs the “one-stop” help center. Belay enables companies to snap up import and export licenses and executive visas and processes prospective workers. These are mostly women, who’ve taken long, dusty bus rides here from small villages and waited for hours to apply for jobs with a base salary of about $25 a month. The help center gives them a dexterity test and divides them into three categories: gifted “ones,” fated to work the sewing machines, and less talented “twos” and “threes,” who will pack boxes and sweep floors.

We’ve arrived at a new moment for the global apparel industry. This drought-afflicted, landlocked country of 100 million on the Horn of Africa is transforming itself into the lowest rung on the supply chain that pours out fast fashion and five-for-$12.99 tube socks. Lured by tax incentives, promises of infrastructure investment, and ultracheap labor, countries the Western world once outsourced production to, particularly China and Sri Lanka, are now the middlemen ramping up production here for Guess, Levi’s, H&M, and other labels. These industrialists like Ethiopia because the government wants them as much as they want cheap labor and tax breaks. The Hawassa Industrial Park’s inauguration is only the most recent part of a vast centralized scheme: Since 2014, Ethiopia has opened four giant, publicly owned industrial parks; it plans eight more by 2020.

Read full article