“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” – Mary Anne Radmacher
Custom Logo Shirts in Africa
For those of you that have hung in there with me over the past month as I have recounted some of the adventures I have been on over the past 38 years traveling the world making shirts, thank you for your patience! Above all, I hope these stories have been interesting, entertaining, and they have given you a sense of what it has been like building and growing Queensboro over the years. As I retell these stories, I am struck by how much the world, and Queensboro, and I, have changed. When I started back in the early 1980’s there was no such thing as the custom logo apparel business. Embroidery and Screen printing were little niche businesses mostly on the fringes of fashion. Today, the custom logo embroidered and screen-printed apparel business is a multibillion-dollar industry which is still growing rapidly. I am proud of the role I played in getting that started and feel in many ways the industry is still in its infancy.
As I stand here now at my desk, looking out at our team spread out and hard at work in our high walled, red brick former neck-tie factory, doing customer service, marketing, art, software development and sales, if I close my eyes, I can still hear the familiar sound of groaning of sewing machines (if you have heard that sound, you know it is a groan!) that used to echo off these walls. Today the sounds are much different. We are largely quiet as we talk softly on the phone and peck away at our keyboards, occasionally getting together for a meeting. There is still plenty of noise in our embroidery and screen print departments, but the daily noise coming out of our buildings is a whisper compared to what it used to be.
What will people be doing in this building in another 30 years? Living? Like many old industrial neighborhoods around the country, our neighborhood here is also changing – slowly, but steadily. Where will we be working? Where will anyone be working …
Lucy in the Desert with Diamonds
In recent years, our business has seen a shift in demand has moved away from cotton towards man-made synthetics, like polyester. This has led us explore additional sourcing opportunities in addition to our Indian relationship.
For better or worse, American trade policy favors certain African countries for this type of production, and this is why. A few weeks ago, I found myself on a flight out of Dulles Airport in Washington headed for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This was to be the first of a two-stop tour. After a few days in Ethiopia, I was off to Accra, Ghana.
This trip to Africa was a very different trip than my prior visit to Tanzania.
Where my last trip to Africa took about 30 hours in transit, this time I flew non-stop, and even though I was sitting in the last row of the plane, taking off at 10:00 in the morning and landing 13 hours later really wasn’t that bad.
For the $400 or so I paid for my ticket, it felt like a pretty good deal!
While wandering through the airport, I came across the book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari which had been recommended to me by a couple of people recently, including a friend I had dinner with the night before my trip. I picked up a copy not knowing too much about it, and it was a good choice. The book traces the history of mankind – Homo Sapiens – from its origins to the present day and as it turned out, I was headed for the exact place where it all started, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. By chance, my hotel was right next to “Lucy”, the skeleton of the oldest Homo Sapiens ever discovered. In the local language, they call Lucy “Dinkinesh” which translates into “You are marvelous”. She was discovered in 1974 by a paleontologist from Cleveland, who had Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on a loop in his tape recorder as his team dug in the Ethiopian desert. This is how the 3.2-million-year-old skeleton got her name.
Addis Ababa airport was a little dated, but it was clean and efficient. A new terminal is currently under construction. The city itself is modern, so it was surprising to see armed soldiers in great numbers on the empty streets. It was a Sunday, but it was also Independence Day, and a big opposition rally was planned for later in the day. That, we were told, was why the soldiers were out.
Addis Ababa is impressive in its newness and order. I hadn’t been on a sourcing trip in a few years. It was nice to once again see and hear new sights and sounds – to be in a new place. On this trip I was immediately struck by what Progress felt like. I was feeling that on many levels. Personally, Queensboro had grown a lot over the years, and the orders we were now placing were significant business for the factories we were visiting. Also, my youngest child has recently gone off to school, so the additional stress of being far away with kids at home was not weighing on me like it had in the past. This allowed me to relax a little more and be a little more reflective.
From reading Sapiens I was thinking of our hunter gatherer ancestors roaming these lands millions of years ago and how now, big buildings were everywhere. I also thought back to the early factory trips and the poor working and living conditions, and sometimes barely functioning countries and communities that were such a factor in all the workers’ lives.
And now here I was in Ethiopia, just a short walk from the oldest human ever found, in a modern African city! We were about to visit clean, modern factories producing garments made from technologically advanced man-made materials, assembled by computer enhanced equipment and staffed by progressive managers and a work force fully expecting to grow, learn and prosper. This was a community very invested in its future.
Driving through the streets of Addis Ababa, I felt that I was a long way from the garment district of early 1900’s New York City where my family got their first jobs in this country. And I was an even longer way from the villages in Eastern Europe where until the 1900’s my ancestors were separated into ghettos and not allowed the freedom so much of the world now takes for granted.
The actual factories we saw in Ethiopia were in a town called Awasa, which is a 45-minute flight south of Addis Ababa. It was a largely arid place, but as we were landing you could see expanding swaths of green where irrigation was spreading shade and sustenance.
The airport was remarkable for its lack of an actual airport. You walked off the plane and up a stone path right into the parking lot. It was charming, particularly considering the shadow of a brand new futuristically designed terminal being constructed nearby. In seeing the new construction, I was happy for the people of the area and the progress, but a little nostalgic for simpler times past. The days of exotic air travel to rickety colonial African airports were quickly fading into the past. I am looking forward to my next trip to Awassa and being able to brag about landing in the Awassa airport before there was one. A few old timers might nod, but most will probably just smile with indulgence for the old guy.
We drove to the factory in a pair of brand-new Land Cruisers. It was a very quick 20-minute trip on new, wide, smoothly paved roads. Before the roads were built, I was told the trip used to take an hour and a half. The ride probably would have been 10 minutes or less if not for a couple of herds of cows, crossing the road very much at their own pace.
The factories were in a brand new recently constructed $250 million industrial park. They were the most modern, technically advanced factories I had ever been in. Everything about the factory was progressive. Hiring, training, working conditions and the environmental impact of the entire enterprise were all conducted at the highest level of international standards.
The factory is owned by a Sri Lankan family that started in the 1930’s with a tailor shop in downtown Columbo, Sri Lanka that catered to the cruise ships that docked in the nearby port. The family is a great modern success story. Over the years, they have opened factories in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Vietnam and, most recently, in Ethiopia. A member of the family who was based in Sri Lanka was there to host us for our visit. He was in his late 30’s or early 40’s and looked like he just stepped off the streets of Madison Avenue. He was clearly very forward thinking in his approach to the factory and his business. He spoke perfect American English and talked as easily and naturally with us as if he lived next door. He had the same easy way with everyone else in the factory, from his management team all the way to the janitor. In times when such qualities seem quaintly old fashioned, he was a gentleman in his manners and bearing. He was respectful of the fact that many of us were older than him, but firm on what his factory could, and could not do. Easy and clear communication is always the most important requirement for any successful factory or business relationship, and the management team at this factory were all great communicators.
Our hotel in Awasa was on a big lake, and one morning I had a little time and was able to take a short boat ride. I saw some hippos, which, I was told kill more humans than any other animal (upon further checking, it turns out crocodiles are slightly more dangerous) and a lot of exotic birds. The hotel is owned by the famous Ethiopian marathoner Halie Gebreselassie. Ethiopia is, of course, famous for its long-distance runners. I had forgotten about that. “How strange.” I thought one morning when I saw so many people running in the park. I was told that in Ethiopia, people run the way in other places they play soccer or cricket. Halie Gebreselassie, as legend has it, started running to school when he was 10 years old. 10 kilometers back and forth. As a professional, whether by habit, design, or maybe for good luck, he always ran with a bent left arm, which is how he used to carry his books when he first started running to school. Haile won his last Olympic race in 2000, and his last marathon in 2012, and has gone on to become a very successful hotelier and coffee farmer. The hotel wasn’t deluxe, but it was very comfortable, and very nice. And as a nice reminder for how things used to be, which I actually kind of appreciated, the Internet was about 50% reliable.
We had a one-night layover back in Addis Ababa before heading to Ghana. Ethiopia had been colonized by the Italians before the war, and there is still a strong Italian culinary influence in Addis Ababa. We went to dinner that night, in a very hard rain, to a “hole-in-the-wall” old-school Italian restaurant in the older, less developed part of the city. We were told they made all their own bread and pasta and it certainly tasted like it. Complete with white tablecloths, waiters in tuxedos and photographs on the walls of the owners with famous people from all over the world, it was one of the best, and certainly most authentic and memorable Italian meals I have ever had. And it felt so other-worldly having this experience right in the middle of Ethiopia. We went to pay, and guess what? They only took cash! Nobody had Ethiopian money, and it was unclear how the situation was going to resolve itself. Somehow, we came up with a price in US dollars, and were able to cover it. Another crisis averted! I really hope I get back there some day, but I have no idea what it was called or how to get there.
The next morning, we took a 4-hour flight due west across Africa to Accra, Ghana. I got lucky and happened to sit next to the former Finance Minister of Liberia. She was very gracious about answering a thousand questions I had about Liberia and Africa. I learned a great deal, and I am sure she was glad when we landed.
The Ghanaian airport was brand new. I don’t think it had been open for more than a week when we got there. Spotless. It is a very interesting experience to be in a brand-new airport. I think everyone’s uniforms were even new. All immigrations and entry processing was 100% electronic. We knew we needed a yellow fever vaccination to enter the country, but it looked like maybe that memo never got to China. We saw long lines of Chinese people shuttling into the infirmary for their shots.
We were through the airport very quickly were immediately met by our Ghanaian driver. A few minutes later we were in another 5-star hotel in a very modern, growing city.
That afternoon we toured the city. While there were many new, very nice buildings that we saw, Accra is on the ocean and the waterfront is not quite industrial, because that would require industry. Instead, it is just kind of a mess, and overall not very nice. There didn’t seem to be much appreciation for what it could be, but I guess you call that potential. A few newer, unfinished buildings were popping up nearby, though. It was explained that in Ghana there is no real commercial mortgage industry, so people save up some money, do some work on their building, and then stop when the money runs out. Considering everything else I saw on my trip, it is hard to believe that this isn’t a solvable problem. I am sure that in a few years there is going to be a beautifully developed waterfront in Accra.
The factory we visited was not brand new and sparkly like the one we saw in Ethiopia, but whatever shine was lacking on the outside of the building was more than made up for by the warmth and energy of the people inside. One of the many things remarkable about this factory was their HR Director, Dorilyn Esi Agamah who, at the same time, was sweet as honey, but tough as nails. She was totally engaged in the happiness of every single worker in that factory and her effectiveness was obvious.
This factory makes our Queensboro AP3s, our best-selling 100% Polyester All-Purpose Performance Polo. Personally, I’m old-school and like 100% Cotton. I still love that original two-ply pique that was Queensboro’s heart and soul back in the early days of the company. But times have changed, and many of our customers now appreciate the easy care and never fade look of polyester, which is why this is now our best-selling shirt. I am proud, however, that the polyester fabric we use to make this shirt is dyed and finished with a highly technical, innovative process that uses virtually no water. It is the most environmentally friendly textile production process that exists today. The dyeing and finishing process used to make this this fabric is light years ahead of how we dyed cotton back in the old days.
I am also proud to be making these shirts in this factory, which pays an above poverty wage for the area. They also make sure that everyone who works there has access to healthcare, nutritious food, and the encouragement from all for educational and professional advancement. And if anyone ever has any problem, all they have to do is see Dorilyn!
I was told time and time again that a job at this factory was transformational for the people that work there. All of us who support them, including our many customers who have purchased these shirts, are fortunate to be able to contribute to this great story.
The Friday before I came home, I had a free day. The factory arranged for me to travel south of the city to visit “the castles”. I wasn’t sure what this was all about, but we had a very interesting ride out of the city and into the countryside. All around me were signs of progress. As far as the eye could see, new roads, new buildings and new cars were replacing dirt roads, ramshackle shacks and ox driven carts. Remnants of the old life were still clearly visible, but you could see things quickly changing.
A couple of hours outside of Accra we entered a charming seaside town full of winding streets bustling with shops and people. Eventually, we came to a big cliff overlooking the ocean, on top of which was a massive structure that looked like a combination of a castle and a fort. We paid a modest entry fee and walked inside and joined a tour group. We were in a small, unlit room and heard about how in that exact room, for up to 3 months at a time, up to 150 male slaves were held, waiting for the next ship to come and take them across the ocean. From this fort, they went to Brazil. There were no windows, no toilets and practically no ventilation. If it rained, the human waste would wash out of the room, but it didn’t rain often, and mostly the slaves lived in their own excrement.
On the other side of the “castle”, the women were kept. Their conditions were just as bad. Additionally, however, the women were also subjected to indiscriminate rape by the Fort Commander. We saw the path the men and women followed to the small “door of no return” which led out to the waiting ships. For every three who boarded a ship, only one would make it across. The ones that didn’t make it would be tossed into the sea without ceremony.
About 15 minutes away we visited another, even bigger castle. This one even had an old-fashioned moat and drawbridge. I believe there are over 40 such castle and fort sites that remain in Ghana. Once again, it was impossible for me not to think about how much the world has changed. With all our technology today, to think we used to rely on such a barbaric practices to mass produce cotton, sugar and other commodities. What a voracious appetite we have for those things that would lead us to behave like that! 150 years later, our needs are just as insatiable, but technology has enabled us to pursue them much more humanely and responsibly – all in less than a quick blink of an eye in the history of mankind.
I wasn’t sure why the visit to the castles felt like such a fitting end to my week in Africa, but as we headed back to Accra I reflected on all that I had seen over the past few days. The connection between the slave trade, the cotton industry, and my shirt business is tenuous, but clearly that is our lineage. It was a sobering thought.
Heading back to Accra that afternoon, I thought about reading Sapiens on the airplane on the way over to Africa. I thought about the skeleton Lucy and the Beatles, and what music sounds like and expresses today. I thought about how far advanced all the factories I saw were, both socially and technologically, compared to my early days in the business. During the week, I felt I had the entire span of time laid out before me, both personally and professionally, as well as for mankind in general. With the emotions of the castle business raw in my mind, it was an overwhelming feeling – a moment of clairvoyance permanently etched in my mind. I don’t know what it all meant. But it felt important. In the car, watching the Ghanaian countryside whiz by me, I felt caught in the massive and inescapable power of momentum, wondering where it was all taking me, and us.
Progress can be a wonderful thing. Considering all the technical challenges we have overcome over the centuries, it is hard to imagine we will confront a material problem we can’t ultimately solve. Progress does have its costs, though. And those are often harder to measure. Sapiens does a masterful job laying all of this out. For millions and millions of years, we hunted, we gathered, and very little happened. And then, almost completely out of the blue, we start farming, exploring, and asking questions. We began to understand all we didn’t understand. And then we set ourselves to the task of figuring those things out. Soon, we were printing books, sending men to the moon and had instantaneous access to everything important anyone has ever said, wrote, painted or sang. Plus, we can follow our food being delivered, street by street, right to our door. Hunting and gathering has been turned completely on its head, but are we any closer to answering the ultimate question of what it all means?
Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Merrily …
I got on a plane just before midnight in Ghana, and as I woke up, we were landing in Washington, DC. It was cold and there was snow on the ground, which was jarring because it had been hot in Ghana, and springtime in Washington when I left just a week before. In another couple of hours, it was spring again back in my hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, and there was my beautiful wife and perfect dog at the curb of our quaint little airport.
I was back in my bubble where things are very comfortable, and predictable. It was time to get back to work on my golf game and process the contrasts between the two worlds – the one in Africa with the castles, hippos and high-rises, and my life in Wilmington, where the sun usually shines, there is rarely any traffic, and, for the most part, because I’m the boss, people generally do as I ask. And I am left to wonder… have I just awoken from a dream or am I returning to one?