Albanian shoe producer takes bold steps to adapt to coronavirus

By Lucia Sconosciuto

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EBRD, Italy and EU help EFA Solution improve management procedures

Thinking about what to wear during lockdown has certainly not been at the top of people’s priorities. As a consequence, the garment and shoe industries have taken a hit worldwide.

Albania is no exception. With the economy highly reliant on exports of clothing and footwear to Italy’s fashion businesses, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is likely to have a major impact the country’s economy.

According to Reuters, garment and shoe production for foreign clients provides jobs for up to 70,000 people and accounts for up to 42 per cent of the country’s exports.

At EFA Solution and its sister company ProDyn Albania, a solid client base and reliable service have helped them to stay strong during the crisis. With support from the EBRD, Italy and the European Union (EU), the company had robust foundations and efficient management systems in place, so it could swiftly adapt to the new reality.

EFA Solution’s founder and CEO, Etleva Laro, is a dynamic young woman with a clear business vision and great ambitions for this family business. Its high quality work attracts clients from Germany, and the United Kingdom.

“I was passionate about the opportunity to build my own company, to employ and improve hundreds of people’s lives and to bring progress and innovation to the shoe industry, which in my country follows a bit of an ‘old school’ model,” she says.

A mere year and a half after establishing EFA Solution, which offers intermediary trade services in the shoe production sector subcontracting local producers, Etleva launched ProDyn to directly produce higher quality footwear with her sister Irena, who has been in the industry for 15 years.

At this crucial stage, Etleva crossed paths with the EBRD and its Women in Business programme. In Albania it is funded by Italy, which supported this particular project, and also by Luxembourg and Sweden.

To tackle the multiple challenges she faced, Etleva was paired with a local consultant with whom she worked on improving the organisation of the business and adopting best management practices. The priority was to create internal guidelines with well-defined procedures in HR, warehouse management and production processes.

The result was a streamlined approach which included production at ProDyn and quality control at EFA Solution. Both companies’ staff were trained on the new procedures, and almost 900 employees are now covered by higher health and safety standards. The company clearly benefited from the changes, with an enlarged client base, including new, very well knownGerman companies, and an increase in annual turnover of 31 per cent.

With a bigger company and plans for a new facility, Etleva embarked on a further project with an EBRD-trusted international adviser, this time to focus on annual planning, quality management and efficiency. This project is currently under way, funded by the EU’s Western Balkans Enterprise Development and Innovation Facility.

While the coronavirus has temporarily put on hold some plans, it neither stopped the factory’s work nor prevented orders from Germany for the summer season.

“We took all measures prescribed by the government and health institutions,” explains Etleva. “Our people come first: this is an absolute imperative. We reshaped the production line to ensure 2m distance between each worker, everyone uses Personal Protective Equipment and, most importantly, we have maintained close communication with our staff, including through a weekly newsletter and a daily morning message to keep up morale.”

Etleva also swiftly decided to start producing medical protective clothes. “This not only provided a short-term solution to compensate for lower orders in the shoe business, but diversified our business in the medium and long term. Medical gowns are the best hedging strategy at this time. We got a vote of confidence from our two newest German clients and secured orders to produce at least 1 million gowns in a month.”

While the company currently focuses on single-use gowns, it is carefully watching this new market segment for additional opportunities, she adds.

What does she think of the future of the garment and footwear sector in Albania? With her clients facing 30 per cent drops in demand, the sector will take at least another year to get fully back on track, according to Etleva. But she maintains an optimistic outlook – and with good reason: “In August we started production for a new British client, one of the biggest shoe companies in the world.” 

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