By- Maceda Alemu
When I first moved to Addis Ababa and found myself meeting new folks every day through family, friends, coworkers, and other networks, I was used to asking people the simple question of what they do for work here. No one’s answer was ever simple; no one ever mentioned just one job. Regardless of whether they were full-time employees of a company or a full-time university student, everyone seemed to rattle off a slew of things they were engaged in. In fact, most people I encountered listed off three or four activities they were working on simultaneously. I’m not talking about hobbies they were pursuing for fun – people mentioned things they were actively involved in creating, starting up, or growing. They mentioned ventures that were focused on addressing different gaps and unmet needs they saw in their communities. I was impressed and excited by this entrepreneurial spirit I hadn’t encountered amongst young professionals in Addis Ababa during my previous visits. Additionally, they all seemed young. For this article, I’ll define young professional as less than 30 years of age. To me, it seemed people were in the junior stages of their careers and just getting experience; how were they doing so much despite that?
Originally, I assumed it was a coincidence that I just kept meeting people who were particularly motivated, hardworking, and talented. But after experiencing enough introductions, I noted this was far from coincidental – there was a clear pattern. It was exhilarating – and for me – a testament to the rapid growth of the country that people were not only trying to keep up with, but also contribute to. From day one, I was fascinated by and in awe of people’s serial entrepreneurial spirit. So, I had to learn more. I decided to do a bit of investigative work to get a sense of what was happening, how it was happening, why it was happening, and who was involved. First, I wanted to acquire a better understanding of what the landscape for economic growth and social enterprises is like in Ethiopia. Second, I wanted to know a bit more about the people behind some of the social impact entities and why they were motivated to start the businesses they did.
In doing research on the economic trends and growth happening in Ethiopia, I learned A LOT. I don’t have a background in trade, investment or economics but like I said, I was curious to know more. The first thing I learned was that the Ethiopian Investment Commission (EIC) won the 2017 United Nations Award for outstanding performance in “targeted promotion, facilitation, and execution of sustainable investment projects.” The EIC was acknowledged for “exceptional achievements in promoting and facilitating Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) that contributes towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” The EIC received this award because of its, “deliberate policy changes to promote labor-intensive industries that provide job opportunities for youth and create equal opportunities for women.” A recent World Bank report titled Global Economic Prospects declared that Ethiopia’s economy was the most expansive on the African continent in 2017 and the leading emerging market and developing economy in the world. Earlier in 2017, the International Monetary Fund declared Ethiopia the economic giant of East Africa. Lastly, the UN African Economic Outlook Report identified Ethiopia as the biggest recipient of private equity funds ($4.4 Billion) this year in the region of East Africa.
All the sources I took a look at noted that much of the successful economic growth happening in Ethiopia was due to the prioritization of public spending on local infrastructure development, the increased international attention Ethiopia was and is receiving for having an economy fertile for foreign investment, and the ever-growing population. Success, as measured by other development standards, such as Ethiopia’s ability to reduce the poverty rate from 55% in 2000 to 34% in 2011 and meet many other Millennium Development Goals by 2015, resulted in institutions like the World Bank committing more than $4 billion to Ethiopia’s development over the next few years. However, in light of all of these numbers, the one thing that was clear to me was that, although not explicitly stated by these organizations, Ethiopia is an emerging market for reasons beyond the numbers. It’s not only because government institutions are leading strategic investment efforts to develop the country (e.g., through policies outlined in the Growth and Transformation Plan I & II), but to me, it seems there’s a bounty of socially conscious individuals that recognize the power of the country’s diverse consumer base to influence the dynamics that could contribute to positive transformation of the country’s economy.
In my opinion, socially conscious individuals/influences are people who see what others consider an insurmountable problem as approachable. They look at such problems with an optimistic lens and are inspired to tap into unforeseen potential. Social influences operate and manifest their visions in various ways; they establish unique places or models of business focused equally on making a profit and increasing impact. These individuals see that many sectors still enforce arguably antiquated practices that don’t necessarily meet the demand of today’s population; additionally, these individuals recognize there are gaps in several areas of the economy ranging from access to certain skill sets, to resources, to partnerships that need to be addressed in unique and tailored ways depending on the sector’s context. Socially conscious influences introduce innovative ventures (in the form of incubator spaces as well as businesses) to promote engagement in investment opportunities across sectors ranging from agriculture (e.g., blueMoon), to textiles/manufacturing (e.g., soleRebels), to social entrepreneurship training (e.g., Xhub) to technology (e.g., iceaddis) to not only increase the country’s GDP or enable their own financial growth, but to make a tangible difference in the lives and economic prospects of individuals in society.
This made me think of a Ted Talk I recently listened to called “The Business Benefits of Doing Good.” In it, the Ted Talk Speaker, Wendy Woods introduces a term called total societal impact (TSI). She defines TSI as, “the sum of all of the ways business can affect society by doing the real work: thinking about their supply chains, working on their product design and manufacturing processes and their distribution. The real work of business, when done with innovation, can actually create core business benefits for the company and it can solve the meaningful problems in our world today.” Throughout her talk she used real data from a variety of sectors to highlight the fact that that when companies focused on TSI, meaning they incorporated social and environmental considerations into their business practices, they achieved higher margins, higher valuations and helped address some of the biggest challenges in their societies. Her concluding remarks could not have rung truer to the conclusions I was drawing from my own research, “We need to have business — both companies and investors — bring creative, innovative corporate strategy and capital to solving the biggest problems in our world. And when they do that innovatively, and when they do that with all their thinking and all of their strategy and all of their capital, and they’re creating both total shareholder returns and total societal impact, we know that we will solve those problems, both profitably and generously.”