1/2013
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Ethiopia: From queens to business tycoons

Emergence of successful business women in Ethiopia – a historic perspective.

Johanna Maula

One of the interesting features in the recent decade of rapid and broad-based growth in Ethiopia is the emergence of a new class of successful business and professional women. Whilst the traditional roles of women in Ethiopia have in many ways been subordinate and they still form the majority among the landless poor, there is evidence that women are increasingly grabbing the chances of being part of the expanding economy. In the same vein, women make full use of and invent new opportunities provided by the internet age.

Impressive growth rates in the Ethiopian economy

Over the past decade, the Ethiopian economy has been growing at twice the rate of the Africa region, averaging 10.6 percent GDP growth per year between 2004 and 2011 compared to 5.2 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Bank in 2012. Ethiopia has, hence, during the past decade been one of the fastest growing non-oil producing economies in Africa and among the fastest growing economies in the whole world. The government has proudly talked about double-digit figures although critics are somewhat more sceptical. High annual growth since 2004 was, nevertheless, sustained in 2011, though predicted to be at a slower rate in 2013. Macroeconomic challenges have, however, given rise to high and persistent inflation. An expansionary monetary policy has been one of the main culprits and a tighter monetary policy is represented by a bid to bring inflation down to single digits.

The five-year Growth and Transformation Plan, which aims to foster high and broad-based growth, is expected to expand employment opportunities by emphasising the development of small and medium-scale industries. Significant progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has nonetheless so far failed to generate adequate employment opportunities especially for the youth.

Growth has been broad-based, with the services and the industrial sectors growing at the highest rates. This momentum is expected to continue in 2013, albeit at a slower pace. The government has been pursuing prudent fiscal policies which have focused on boosting domestic revenue mobilisation and reducing domestic borrowing.

Powerful rolemodels

The World Bank attributes this impressive economic growth mainly to agricultural modernization, the development of new export sectors, strong global commodity demand, and government-led development investments. Two and a half million people in Ethiopia have been lifted out of poverty over the past five years as a result of strong economic growth, bringing the poverty rate down from 38.7 percent to 29.6 percent between 2004/05 and 2010/11. Hence, the Government target to reduce poverty to 22.2 percent by 2014/15 is according to the World Bank “ambitious but attainable”.

Consistent with the development experience of some of the recently successful countries, particularly in East Asia, Ethiopia follows a strategy of increasing exports to facilitate growth. Growth of goods exports has mainly been driven by volume growth across a variety of product groups, implying that Ethiopia is increasingly diversifying its export base. In fact, Ethiopia is one of the few large, land-locked economies in the world that exports more services than goods.

Young Ethiopian girls from a rural village near Diredawa 2008.

With its huge and rapidly growing population of estimated 86.5 million in 2012, the second largest in Africa, developments there are of crucial significance for the continent as whole. When at present, the mean years of schooling for adults are only 1.5 years in Ethiopia – considerably less for women – and its gross national income per capita still mere $ 971 and the life expectancy at birth 59.3 years (UNDP 2012), it is obvious, that the country has a yet long way to go to reach even middle-level income status, not to mention improve the lot of its female citizens.

However, one of the interesting features in the recent decade of growth in Ethiopia is the emergence of a new class of successful female entrepreneurs which has not been discussed much. Whilst the traditional roles of women in Ethiopia have in many ways been subordinate and they form the majority among the landless poor, there is evidence that women are increasingly grabbing the chances of being part of the rapid growth of the economy and that they, in the same vein, make full use and invent new opportunities provided by the internet age.

Indeed, some of the most successful entrepreneurs in Ethiopia today are female. They form powerful role models for other women in Ethiopia and elsewhere. Gaining greater understanding about how women, even in those harsh conditions that have prevailed in Ethiopia during its thousands of years of history, it should be possible to focus also on the most efficient ways to support their development efforts. Yet, throughout the Ethiopian history, there have been remarkable women who have risen far above their compatriots on politics, power and economic influence.

This article discusses three among the most prominent Ethiopian business and professional women today. At the same time, it is argued, that whilst the new class of female entrepreneurs might be a new phenomenon in Ethiopia, women there have since the time of antiquity been in the core of the dramatic historic events that have shaped the Ethiopian society to what it is today.

Traditional image of Ethiopian women

Poor, oppressed, ravaged by wars and natural calamities, famished, illiterate, and starving, with multiple skeletal children and in urgent need of emergency aid. These adjectives are what most Westerners would attribute to Ethiopian women. Thinking of Ethiopia, one easily remembers the haunting images of wars and famines, of skeletal figures in search of food and shelter, shaggy, barefoot guerrillas and military in their torn fatigues, and the eerie landscapes of bare mountaintops and desperate deserts.

Even the statistical evidence pointing to the poor status of Ethiopian women is solid. For instance, the UNDP Human Development Report 2012 lists Ethiopia as one of the least developed countries when it comes to women’s literacy, economic power and political representation. In the combined Human Development Index Ethiopia ranks at the 174th place out of the 187 countries with comparable data.

Remarkable Ethiopian women in history

The Queen of Sheba ‒ an exotic and mysterious woman of power ‒ is immortalised in the world's great religious works, among them the Bible and the Koran. She also appears in Turkish and Persian paintings, in Cabbalistic treatises, and in medieval Christian mystical works. In Ethiopia, she is called Makeda and her story is a part of the country’s official history writing and explains the origins of its royal family that ruled for 255 generations, with Emperor Haile Selassie as the last representative in power.

As for the queen herself, her history remains an enigma. Whilst for some she was a woman of power, an adoring mother and a mysterious lover, she at the same time was also a founder of nations and, paradoxically, for others a demon with a cloven hoof. Yet, her importance to the Ethiopian national ethos, and the status that women through her crucial role can proudly refer to, cannot be overstated. Makeda remains one of the great Ethiopian heroes, her story a powerful unifying factor in the country’s thousands of years of unique and fascinating history.

The most dramatic personality of the medieval era in Ethiopia is a mysterious woman, the Queen Judith or Gudit, who attacked Aksum towards the end of tenth century. There are different explanations regarding her background and origin. Yet, it is known that under this formidable chieftain, the Hamitic Agaw people attacked Aksum, raged much of the ancient city, overthrew its last king, killed the royal princes, thus interrupting the Solomonic line – and tried to uproot the Christian religion.

Today, Gudit is mainly remembered as a monster; she was a heathen whose armies destroyed every Christian church that they came across. However, according to Graham Hancock, who has written widely about the Ethiopian history, she can also be seen as a champion for the Hamitic people who had long been dominated by the Semitic inhabitants of the highlands. The latter had for a very long period formed an aristocracy that ruled over the Hamitic Agaw people. Judith – Gudit brought an end to their domination and this led to that the secular power shifted southward from Tigray into Wollo and the Agaw people were integrated into Abyssinia.

There are few events in the long and ornate history of Ethiopia that would bring such immense pride to Ethiopians as the glorious battle of Adwa in 1896, where their fighting spirit, deep patriotic feelings and loyalty to the Imperial family brought united Ethiopians victory against the invading Italians with their technologically much more advanced weaponry. In the short term, the outcome seemed to be an unparalleled success for Menelik II and Ethiopians.

Yet, less focus has been placed on the central role of the Empress Taytu, who was directly involved in the battle-field, following the Emperor Menelik to the front line and in many ways advising and coaching him in his decisions. Similarly unsung has remained the contributions of peasant women and followers, who through their work, providing and cooking food, tending to the ill and wounded, and releasing men to concentrate on fighting, played a crucial role in the ultimate success in the battle-field.

Empress Taytu and her husband Emperor Menelik marched to the battlefront in Adwa in 1896 and played an important role in bringing about the defeat of the Italians. According to various historic sources, Taytu had organized thousands of women, including Zewditu, her step daughter and later empress (1916–1928), and Azalech, her cousin, and strengthened the defence lines by supplying water and taking care of the wounded. She was also a military tactician whose participation had helped to bring about the defeat of the Italians at the Battle of Mekele a month before the Battle of Adwa. Ethiopian women had, thus, a reputation to uphold in defending the national cause.

During the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in 1935 to 1941, a significant indigenous resistance movement, the Patriots Movement, emerged in 1936. The nature and impact of this resistance is reconsidered by highlighting aspects of its role in “redefining Ethiopia”, its internal policy and its position in the global community after the start of the Second World War. The resistance movement was based on the ideals of restoring national independence and preserving cultural identity. Little has been discussed about the role of women in the resistance movement. Yet women’s organisations as well as individual heroic women – Ethiopian and foreigners ‒ played a considerable part in fighting the Italian fascism and terrorism.

After the invasion in 1935, whilst the prospect of conventional war gradually faded, the spirit of resistance persisted. A different attitude of defiance and ways of attacking began to surface from many quarters, especially spurred by the Italian atrocities in Ethiopia. Virtually the entire membership of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Women’s Volunteer Service Association (EWVSA) and the Black Lion Organization, as well as many other small groups of individuals, appeared at the forefront of the resistance. Their activities ranged from direct assaults on top Italian leaders to providing all-round underground support to the Patriots in the villages and mountains.

The Orthodox Church, which was historically an integral part of the Ethiopian state, began to play a pivotal role in broadening the dimensions of the resistance. The Church took it as an everyday obligation, inside and outside the church, to renounce the incursion of Italian invaders in a free country with a sovereign state.

However, also the participation of women in the resistance was crucial. It is difficult to estimate their real military contribution but their supplementary support activities, spying and sabotage actions in some instances were decisive. (Mrs) Woizero Shawaragad Gadle had turned the EWVSA, which was under the patronage of Princess Tenagne-Work, daughter of the Emperor, into a clandestine movement of resistance. The women in this association were involved in scores of activities, ranging from supplying bandages, clothes and ammunition bought or stolen from Italian troops to the Patriots in the field, to giving shelter and forging pass papers for the active Patriots to travel inside enemy-controlled territory. Some of the women gathered military intelligence and a few even planned military operations.

In the countryside not only did women prepare quanta (dried meat), kolo (roasted cereals), besso (instant cereal powder) and various other dry ration foodstuffs, but also sharpened swords and shuttled between the zones of operation and their houses. According to various descriptions, they also sent down from various slopes avalanches of stones, unafraid of the shower of bombs that were coming down from the air, and some women actually fought on the frontline. It was customary for married couples and young boys to join the resistance army and often find themselves far away from their homes for years, and many married couples were participating continuously in the patriotic resistance. There are also reports of very young girls in some instances taking part in the battles.

Emergence of successful business and professional women in Ethiopia

Today, one of the most prominent Ethiopian women is definitely Mrs Mulu Solomon, a respected and experienced business and professional woman who currently works as the President of the country’s Chamber of Commerce. Before becoming the president of the private business owners’ association, Mrs Solomon was a member of the Directors Board for the local Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce. She has also worked as a manager at Almeta Import Enterprise as well as an entrepreneur and a business consultant. Mrs Solomon is also sharing her experience to the academic world by serving as the Chair of Entrepreneurship at the Addis Ababa Institute of Architecture and Building Construction (EiABC).

Fortune’s “women to watch”, “Africa’s most successful women” as well as “Top 20 young African power women” lists all attest to the achievements of Bethlehem Tilahun, a young dynamic business woman. Her company, SoleRebels, which produces eco-friendly handmade shoes that are being sold in 55 countries via a number of international stores as her business grows from a start-up capital of USD 10.000 in 2004 to USD 1 million in 2011, is hailed by some pundits as Africa’s answer to brands such as Nike, Reebok and Adidas. Her fair trade business model continues to support local community and her ambition is set at expanding her revenue to USD 20 million in the coming four years. Ms Tilahun has been particularly successful in utilising the possibilities of online marketing in promoting her brand and products, and as such, is a perfect example of the possibilities offered by the internet age to young entrepreneurs.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu was born and raised in a small, impoverished rural community in Ethiopia where most of the locals were unemployed whilst several of them possessed remarkable artisan skills. This observation drove Bethlehem Tilahun early on to ponder on ways through which she could transform the skills of her community members into a sustainable enterprise.

By 2004, with start-up capital from her husband and members of her immediate family, Bethlehem mobilized artistically-gifted members of her community and founded SoleRebels. The footwear often features a strong infusion of ancient Ethiopian culture with subtle undertones of modern, western design influences. Practically all SoleRebels shoes are redesigns and reimaginations of the famous Selate and Barabasso shoe, a traditional recycled tire sole shoe which has been worn by Ethiopians for a very long time. (The Selate and Barabasso shoe was famously worn by Ethiopian rebel fighters who vehemently opposed Italian forces from colonizing the country and that’s where the name SoleRebels emerged from. Here we can see a linkage and also a certain homage to the earlier generations of Ethiopian women.)

SoleRebels footwear are hand-crafted by Bethlehem Tilahun’s staff of over 100 people strictly using Ethiopian craft practices such as hand-spun organic cotton and artisan hand-loomed fabric, and the company sources all of its raw materials locally. These include recycled, weather-beaten tires and an assortment of locally-sourced natural fiber ingredients. The production process is zero carbon production and very eco-sensitive.

Today, shoes under the SoleRebels brand are sold in over 30 countries around the world and through various e-commerce sites like Amazon and Endless and through its own e-commerce site. The company was among the top 5 finalists of the 2011 edition of the prestigious Legatum Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship, where one of the criteria for the finalists was that their companies had proven annual revenues of $1 million – $15 million. SoleRebels has also opened up a retail outlet in Taiwan and has franchise proposals for Canada, Italy, Australia, Israel, Spain, Japan and the United States among other countries. It is estimated that revenues from Sole Rebels retail operations will hit the $10 million mark by 2016.

As a consequence, Bethlehem Tilahun is now one of Africa’s most recognizable female entrepreneurs. In 2012 she was selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and won the award of “Most Outstanding Businesswoman” at the annual African Business Awards organized by African Business Magazine, as well as being named the “Most Valuable Entrepreneur” at the 2011 Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW).

Mrs Gizeshwork Tessema is a visible person in the Ethiopian business scene.

Mrs Gizeshwork Tessema is a dynamic entrepreneur who has started her operations in 1994 with importing vehicles and renting road works and construction machinery in Ethiopia. In early 21st century she successfully added a travel agency (Gize Travel and Tours) as well as construction business into her array of entrepreneurial activities. Her main field at present is, however, maritime transport and freight and her enterprise is one of the main players in the country in this area. Her enterprise, Gize Logistics, now employs some 150 people and is in full expansion. Among her clients are the African Union and several international businesses that she represents in Ethiopia.

Mrs Tessema is an outspoken and highly visible personality in the Ethiopian business scene, and her interviews and commentary are often found in the local media. She has also represented, as the head of delegation, her country in several different international gatherings related with logistics and shipping. It is noteworthy that many of Mrs Tessema’s activities fall in the service sector category and that she is very well versed also in the internet based marketing of her services that cater to a wide and international clientele.

Mrs Gizeshwork Tessema has also continued to give back to community. She is highly involved in promoting Ethiopia to the worldwide diaspora communities that are looking for investment opportunities in the country. She is also sponsoring activities for women’s empowerment and promoting education in Ethiopia.

Conclusions and summary

Ethiopia has in the past decade become a shining example of rapid expansion of the economy and growth in Africa. The government has aimed to emulate the models of export oriented growth that have been successfully used in East Asia. Growth has been broad-based and is expected to continue in 2013, albeit at a slower pace. At the same time, the government has been pursuing prudent fiscal policies which have focused on boosting domestic revenue mobilisation and reducing domestic borrowing.  The impressive growth is mainly attributed to agricultural modernization, the development of new export sectors, strong global commodity demand, and government-led development investments.

The economic expansion has also opened up new possibilities for women to enter successfully in the business sector. The successful women entrepreneurs are found in various sectors, such as services and manufacturing, and they have been able to fully utilize the possibilities provided by the internet age to make their brands, products and services known globally.

Whilst the status of women has traditionally been low in Ethiopia, and they still lag behind the men when it comes to educational attainment and form the majority among the landless poor, there have throughout the history been highly talented and successful women in Ethiopia. Women have led the country, taken part in various wars and indeed, contributed to the very national ethos and unity that has created the country itself.

Dr. Johanna Maula is a specialist on socioeconomic and cultural development in Africa. A native of Finland, she has lived in ten countries in Europe and Africa. She has worked for the United Nations, the International Labour Organisation, African Development Bank, and the European Commission. She received the President of AfDB Annual Excellence in Gender Award in 2009 and the Finnish government’s Annual Information Dissemination Prize in 2008. Her book “The Jasmine Years” was published in 2012 (see review in this journal).

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Photos: Johanna Maula

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