The Genteel
April 16, 2021



Bamboo, a member of the grass family, is one of the fastest growing plants in the world and has a number of different uses, including for cooking and medicinal purposes, and as a construction material. Ethiopia is home to 65% of Africa's bamboo plants and has been worked by Ethiopian craftsmen since the 19th century. Ethiopia's abundant bamboo piqued the interest of many foreign investors, and a few years ago, as trade relations between Ethiopia and China intensified, the first bamboo manufacturing factories began popping up in Ethiopia using machinery brought into the country by Asian investors. With bamboo products starting to be mass produced, what would be the fate of local bamboo craftsmen?

Colombo with youth from
the Bosco Children's Association 
(Photograph courtesy of Luca Colombo).

Milanese architect Luca Colombo is one of the few foreign designers in Ethiopia still interested in traditional methods of bamboo manufacturing. Supported by organizations such Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (an organization offering solutions for sustainable development), he is training local Ethiopian artisans to exploit new techniques of working bamboo into original designs, shapes and uses.

Destination: Addis Ababa. Colombo's adventure Ethiopia's capital began five years ago, up until which time he had been working as an interior designer in Milan. As part of a cultural project sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he moved to Addis Ababa to teach the history of art at the Galileo Galilei Italian high school. Since then, he has worked with many Italian associations, including the Bosco Children Association. He has also worked with Regina Abelt, the German wife of Negasso Gidada, the ex-president of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. In Abelt's art laboratory, he not only trains experienced Ethiopian craftsmen, but also Ethiopian-Italian youth that were placed by the Italian Centre for Children Aid, an Italian international NGO that facilitates the adoption of Ethiopian children by Italian families. Colombo teaches how to work bamboo beyond just weaving it together; he teaches how to transform, paint and assemble bamboo into a variety of useful and refined products, including boxes, baskets, vases, shelving, desks and various types of decorative items.

My mission is to use natural or recycled materials to meet practical needs by producing useful goods in a society of nomads and tribes...

Far from his hometown, Colombo found Addis Ababa to be an open-minded culture ready to embrace new methods of exploiting bamboo. "Ethiopia is an under-developed country which has to be modernized as much as possible. My mission is to use natural or recycled materials to meet practical needs by producing useful goods in a society of nomads and tribes, as well as a caste of rich people and short-stay tourists," he explained.

Colombo's Fold & Go collection consists of compact, foldable bamboo containers that can be used at home or the office. The collection matches his Desk Organizer products - colourful pencil boxes and purses made of bamboo. As Colombo's financial and human resources are limited, his products are destined for local markets or art galleries in Addis Ababa, rather than overseas markets. The products are especially popular with the Ethiopian middle-class who purchase the original products to furnish their luxury houses equipped with Arabian couches, fancy tents and satin bedspreads. He has also created solutions for the so-called "new nomad" - students and workers who frequently travel. Colombo's New Nomad System is a multi-functional interior decorator - a versatile bamboo structure combined with rigid paperboard containers that can be used in variety of ways, such as boxes whilst travelling or even as desktops, shelves and stools.

"Even though Ethiopia is still a poor country, it has a high potential economic growth thanks to its natural resources or eco-friendly materials that can be worked by local artisans, not only the most common bamboo, but also terra-cotta, glass, leather, recycled paper and plastic bottles," Colombo says. "I just need to improve their knowledge of design with a bit of history of design and practical tips to make the final product more attractive and sellable, by turning it into a useful and colourful object, ideal for any circumstance and any social class."

New Nomad System
(Photograph courtesy of Luca Colombo).

Finding traditional materials is not difficult in Addis Ababa and Colombo gets his supplies from an incredible place: Merkato. It's the biggest market in Africa and its name originates from the time of Italian colonization in 1935. While governing Ethiopia, the Italians conceived of an ambitious urban plan which was only partially completed due to the arrival of the English in 1941 during the Second World War. According to the plan, the city of Addis Ababa was to be divided into separate areas corresponding to different social classes: government officials, businessmen, labourers and the rest of the population. After de-colonization in the mid 1940s, Addis Ketema, the western area of the town became a plaza, a sort of trade center. It's a "town in a town" where you can buy traditional fabrics, natural fibers, bamboo, leather, hand-made products, metals and other sacred objects. Everything is recycled and sold, even used plastic and glass bottles. "If you walk around Merkato, you can see some artisans sitting on the floor hammering used metal objects into sellable products. And it's a bargain even for the middle-class people who buy goods at very low prices compared to the ones in the modern shopping centers in town," says Colombo.

Colombo is very focused on instilling the idea of hand craftsmanship and original design in Addis Ababa, which is why he was recently involved in the Ethiopian Engineering Capacity Building Program, a project promoted by the Ministry of Capacity Building to support businesses in Ethiopia by preparing skilled bamboo workers. "People are not disciplined, deadline oriented or used to long term plans here. Everything slowly happens by chance. You just think, in Amharic [the official language of Ethiopia] the future tense doesn't exist; they only use present tense with an idiomatic expression meaning 'if God wishes.' I honestly wish design culture could help Ethiopians to stand out one day."

Luca Colombo's website:





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