Russom Woldemichael, owner and founder of shoe and leather goods company Barcon Getta, knows that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a great pair of shoes.
After being expelled from Ethiopia in 1998, during the Eritrean-Ethiopian war, Russom and his family were scattered throughout Africa. He and his brother Seare fled to Kenya before moving to Johannesburg, South Africa in the height of the Nelson Mandela presidency. There the Woldemichaels hustled clothing for three years as street vendors to make ends meet and avoid imprisonment.
“I was introduced to entrepreneurship based on a life skill, not a theory taught in school,” Russom says. After building a life from the ground up, eventually opening two clothing stores in Johannesburg, the Woldemichaels made a life-changing decision to migrate to Canada. There they would join their mother and uncle under a refugee settlement program that granted them a more peaceful life.
“When I moved to Canada, I worked as a carwash operator, and eventually got a job as a valet and a parking lot manager,” says Russom. “Johannesburg gave us the opportunity to be in business, but Canada gave us stability.”
Russom’s thirst for freedom and independence drove him to pursue a career where he could make his own hours. He worked in the auto and transportation industries for 13 years, including operating a small accessible transportation fleet under a contract with the City of Ottawa.
In 2017, the seeds were finally sowed for what would eventually become Barcon Getta. While conducting market research and travelling to Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and China, he discovered the world’s most dapper fashion houses were using the premium-grade leathers processed by Ethiopian tanneries instead of the cheap leathers used by many brands today.
By 2019, Barcon Getta received its first shipment of products from China, with its shoes and bags lining shelves at boutiques in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. But when the pandemic hit, grinding brick and mortar retail to a halt, it forced them to pivot and sell directly to consumers online.
Today, Barcon Getta’s product lines include high quality dress shoes, low cut boots, laptop bags, belts, wallet and leather accessories. What sets its products apart is not only that the leathers are sourced in Ethiopia, but all products are made by hand. Among Barcon Getta’s more popular items is their travel bag and a laptop bag that transforms from a laptop bag to a backpack. It’s this attention to detail and quality at an affordable price that has Barcon Getta gaining steam.
But for Barcon Getta, the vision was always bigger than shoes and leather goods; their mission is driven by social impact. The company’s overarching vision is to establish a cutting-edge manufacturing plant somewhere in Africa and create jobs to support the dreams of those who are in the position that he and his brother once were.
“By the end of five years, my goal is to have all products made 100% in Africa,” he says. “I don’t just want Africa to be the land of resources; I want ‘Made In Africa’ to mean something. If I make a lot of money, but don’t establish our manufacturing in Africa, I didn’t succeed.”
“For a lot of company’s, they want to create jobs in Africa to exploit resources and cheap labour. I want to empower the people, improve quality of life, and champion environmental sustainability, and I hope this is a standard other companies can emulate in Africa.”
For the Ethiopian-born, Eritrean entrepreneur there’s an even more personal vision of peace between the two countries he considers home.
“Economics can play a bigger role in reconciliation and peace”, he explains. “I don’t want to live in the trauma of the past. Eritrea and Ethiopia can work together.”