Sera Helsinki, curating a bold assemblage of ethically made carpets in Ethiopia, is paving the way for slow philosophy in the interior design field. Yet crafting lasting carpets is hardly the sole aim of the social enterprise: along the way, they help Ethiopian female artisans gain access to education and skills, enriching the quality of their lives. We befriended the founders of Sera Helsinki this March to learn more about their values and production ethos.
Words: Meri Frig
What makes the Sera Helsinki products ethical?
The heart of Sera Helsinki is in empowering the most vulnerable groups in Ethiopia. Anna lived with her family for five years in Addis Abeba and misery surrounded her everywhere. Women’s position is very subordinate compared to men’s. For example, 74% of Ethiopian women aged 15-49 are circumcised. There were beggars on the streets everywhere and the state of people with disabilities was hopeless. We wanted to do our part, so that we could change the lives of at least a small group of women for good. We educate women with disabilities to make carpets. We pay a considerably better salary for our employees, compared to what they normally pay in Ethiopia. At the moment, we employ 75 artisans, most of whom are blind. Many of them cannot read or write, and have been beggars on streets before.
Describe the journey of a typical Sera Helsinki item, from 'cradle' to the customer's home?
Small farmers in Ethiopia are very poor. Traditionally, they have sheep that graze freely. The sheep are sheared two times a year. The mothers of the families shear the sheep by hand. At dusk, they card and spin thread from clean sheep wool. Small thread bundles are taken to the local market, from which they are taken to Addis Abeba for carpet weaving. The thread is never handled chemically, it keeps its natural lanolin, which helps to remove any dirt from it. The carpets are woven and knotted in Addis Abeba. Making a knotted carpet takes a long time. For example, to manufacture a carpet of 2*3 metres in size, five people work for a whole month.
The Sera Helsinki products are fully transparent from beginning to end. The customers are sent videos and pictures of the manufacturing of their very own carpet. The carpet is delivered with a 'thank you' note that the artisans have signed in Amharic. The customer sees the different production phases of their own carpet, and knows exactly who have made it.
"The Ethiopian women have five children on average, so the consequences of our operations carry far already."
How would you describe the style the Sera Helsinki products represent?
The Sera Helsinki carpets are natural products – ecological values are important to us. Every carpet is unique, because every sheep is of different colour, and every weaver works in a different way. We have wanted to combine hundreds of years old Ethiopian handcraft traditions with Scandinavian design. The models of the carpets are minimalistic and timeless. Our carpet collection JUURET (roots) has got its inspiration from the Finnish nature – the source of inspiration is found in the name of the item: Kaarna (bark), Tuohi (birchbark), Jäkälä (lichen), Kide (crystal), and so on.
"We have wanted to combine hundreds of years old Ethiopian handcraft traditions with Scandinavian design."
What inspired and motivated you to build the concept?
Anna and Hanna have been best friends since their university studies. We both always wanted to take the side of the weak. We both loved interior design and design in general. After studies, Anna moved with her family to Africa. In Ethiopia, Anna got acquainted with the local handcraft culture and found beautiful, well-crafted carpets that she wanted to get to her own home in Addis Abeba. The carpets were unbelievable in use: you could just wipe off the blueberry jams and whipped creams after the children’s birthday party. From here we got the idea that with these carpets we could change the world.
"The carpets were unbelievable in use: you could just wipe off the blueberry jams and whipped creams after the children’s birthday party."
What were the main challenges you encountered along the way?
Our beginning was very challenging in Ethiopia. We met chauvinism and corruption. Our values were tested already in the first meters – we do not compromise one bit about how the women working for us are to be treated. Their working conditions and salaries were to be good, or we refused to cooperate. It was also challenging to teach fully uneducated women to produce our patterns, since they had not had mathematical education, and for instance, just using measuring tape was hard in the beginning. The challenges made us work relentlessly. The biggest motivator for us is to create new jobs in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian women have five children on average, so the consequences of our operations carry far already. Because of this, we find deep meaning in our work.
You also work together with some local and Finnish NGOs?
It became clear to us very soon that it is impossible for us to help and educate people with disabilities widely enough. In Africa, it is common to think that disabilities are a huge shame and disabled children are hidden at homes. Sera Helsinki teaches the carpet patterns and the quality that is required of carpets in the Western world. Many of our employees have never been to school. Mere professional training is not adequate, but they need to be helped more broadly. For this reason, we wanted to cooperate with Finnish and Ethiopian NGOs that have wide experience in fields such as this. With their help, we can also teach important basic life skills to people with disabilities. In cooperation with the organisations, we are able to scale our operations, and make it as sustainable as possible.
How does slow philosophy in the interior design industry compare to the movement in the garment industry (slow fashion)?
In our experience, in the field of interior design, this is lagging behind a little. We have discussed this topic with other similar actors, and their experience also tells that during the past five years there has been a big change: people are more and more responsible, and want to do good with their consumption behaviour. We are hopeful!