Liya Kebede: Role Model

Silja Magg

Liya Kebede: “By saving a mother you can safeguard a whole family’s future.” (c) Silja Magg

Model Liya Kebede is focused on helping to create a better future for Africans through her foundation and her non-profit artisan scarf-maker, Lemlem.

Ethiopian-born model Liya Kebede, who was Estée Lauder’s first African model, continues to feature on the covers of Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire but this is just one part of her work. Over this past year she has been celebrating the 10th anniversary of her fashion brand Lemlem and her charitable foundation. Kebede has decided to bring her line and non-profit foundation together to increase the momentum in ‘giving back’, and help create a better future for Africa.

Why did you decide to create your foundation?
Liya Kebede:
In 2005, I became a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organization. I learned about the challenges involved in delivering maternal healthcare around the world. In Africa, there is a lot of fear around childbirth because the risk mothers face is high. No woman should die giving life. The complications suffered during childbirth are largely preventable and treatable. We need to prioritise maternal healthcare and direct resources to make the health system work for women, everywhere. By saving a mother you can safeguard a whole family’s future.

What solutions are there to help promote maternal healthcare?
You must connect women to a spectrum of services during pregnancy. And that means training midwivesand community health workers. Then there is the infrastructure: clinics and hospitals need to be equipped with reliable water, electricity and supplies, and women, in rural communities in particular, need transport in order to get to a clinic before labour begins. On top of this we cannot forget how many roles women juggle at home. When she is giving birth she needs to know that there is a support system in place so she can focus on her health and her newborn’s too.

How has your foundation tackled these issues?
We’ve been working with some terrific non-profits in Ethiopia and across East Africa to help train health workers, equip maternity units, and teach women about healthy pregnancy, childbirth and childcare. I’m especially proud of a partnership in Hawassa, Ethiopia, with the Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association, and local government leaders. We supported efforts to establish a Safe Motherhood Centre that has now assisted over 10,000 women to give birth safely. The maternal mortality rate at the centre is below one percent and usage of pre- and post-natal services has increased by over 20 percent.

Since 2015 we’ve been supporting Amref Health Africa, one of the leading non-profits based in Africa. We’re helping to champion its Stand Up For African Mothers campaign, which aims to train 15,000 midwives who could reach over 7.5 million women across six countries with maternal health services.Today, it is halfway towards meeting this training goal.

How did Lemlem start?
During a trip to Ethiopia, I discovered that weavers in Addis Ababa were losing jobs with the Westernisation of the clothing market. Everyone used to wear clothes that were handmade. There was a real local textile market: it wasn’t highly organised, but it existed. I saw that the art of weaving — traditionally passed down through families of artisans — was disappearing. And I wanted to preserve this beautiful art form and bring back good jobs for the artisan community; jobs that instantly change the dynamics within a family. Over our 10-year history, Lemlem has employed over 250 artisans and improved their living standard — the weavers and craftspeople earn substantially more than their counterparts elsewhere. Their salaries have gone up over 500 percent since Lemlem began  operations . On another level, we put a strong emphasis on corporate social responsibility: Lemlem partners with artisan workshops that emphasise social responsibility, subsidising employees’ meals, and encouraging savings.  On average, each Lemlem artisan supports a family of five so that today we estimate that over 1,200 people are positively impacted by our business.        

What was your approach in terms of product design?
I wanted to bring beautiful products with a modern aesthetic from Africa into the Western market. I love beautiful clothes and I knew there was a gap in the market for a boutique line that was made in Africa. I also wanted the weavers to feel proud of it. Over the years, we have pushed them to grow creatively and build their mastery in design, so much that some of them prefer, today, to work for Lemlem over any other endeavour.

Why did you choose to build a bridge between the company and foundation?
Recently I started looking at the ways the line and foundation could complement one another: it almost felt obvious that we could connect people who love the brand to our charitable mission. Today, five percent of online sales go to the foundation. We’re also launching a new women’s empowerment programme: Lemlem foundation will launch training sessions to help women artisans in Ethiopia build their technical skills and business and leadership abilities. We want to educate and empower women and help them have better job opportunities as the fashion industry grows in Africa.

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