By day, Daniel Adonai consults for a software company; his younger sister, Yodit, studies for a business degree. But whenever they can squeeze in some time together, this proud Eritrean-Canadian duo teams up to sell jewelry, clothing, and accessories steeped in their family’s tradition and modeled with youthful style.
Since they started in 2016 with their online side hustle, East Africana, the Adonais have built a community around the brand, particularly among the Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, Sudanese, and South Sudanese diaspora. They have shipped more than 2,000 necklaces and chokers, dresses and knit beanies with the map of Eritrea, plus other items, and Ethiopian-born supermodel Gelila Bekele is among their customers.
We caught up with Daniel and Yodit in Toronto to hear their story, which is lightly edited below, and to find out what it’s like to run a business with your sibling.
Shopify: How did you get the idea for East Africana?
Yodit Adonai: It started with our mom. We were talking about buying jewelry and saying how it was so expensive, and our mom said it would be so cool if there was an online website where you could order East African jewelry. And then my brother was at a dentist —
Daniel Adonai: I went to my dentist, who’s Eritrean, and she said, “I have a wedding to go to, but I don’t know where I can find jewelry.” When she said that, it was like a lightbulb [went off] because of what my mom had said. And I thought, “Oh my God, we can do this.” I went home that day, I told Yodit and our mom about it, and I ended up buying the website that same day.
Shopify: What made you want to start this venture?
Daniel: We were both born back home, so we have a cultural attachment to Eritrea. I was 12 when we left and Yodit was 7. We grew up in the Eritrean culture, and we wanted to promote cultural pride. We’ve had people order dresses from our website to wear for their graduation, and that’s so amazing.
Shopify: What was it like at the beginning?
Yodit: This was my first experience. I knew the amount of work that needed to go into this business because I saw my brother, who owned another business at the time, and how much work was required to make it successful. I’m in school for business, but starting a business is completely different. It’s been a very good experience.
Daniel: We were kind of doing everything, so we weren’t just learning about marketing—it was the whole thing. How do you run a business? How do you manage your website? How do you do the shipping? We import products from Ethiopia. How do you manage suppliers?
Shopify: How has managing East Africana changed since you launched?
Daniel: Yodit and I did all the work—we answered every email in the beginning because we needed to understand our customers. It became more clear that we needed to outsource some of the stuff, so we hired freelancers. We’ve outsourced the shipping, too.
Shopify: How has your community responded to East Africana?
Yodit: Everyone is happy that we started this site and that we are promoting East African culture. It’s been very positive. Every time I’m at Eritrean events, everyone stops me and asks, “Aren’t you East Africana?” At a three-day festival in Toronto that’s huge in our community, everyone there knew I was part of East Africana. My face is on the website. It’s still kind of weird.
Shopify: What have been some of the exciting moments in the business since you launched in 2016?
Yodit: The first customer!
Daniel: You never forget the first one. We got our first sale when I told one of my Eritrean friends that we had launched, and she posted it on her Facebook and her friends bought from us.
When we hit 500 orders, and then when we hit 1,000 orders, it was like, “Whoa, this is real. This is very exciting.” We’ve had a lot of orders for weddings.
Shopify: What’s it like to work as a brother-sister team?
Yodit: A lot of people can’t see themselves working with their siblings. It’s not that bad. When we argue, it’s not that serious…I enjoy working with my brother. He has a lot to teach me, and I take what he says.
Daniel: I love working with Yodit, especially when it comes to designing stuff. I’ll explain something vaguely, and she’ll understand what I mean, and I’ll love the result. We’ve been working together for over 20 years!
Words by Jacky Habib
Photographs by Brandon Titaro