By Maceda Alemu- Part One
In conducting research on my second set of questions, I learned that Africa currently has the youngest population in the world; the World Bank estimated that nearly 200 million people on the continent are between the ages of 15 and 24. I had to think about what this statistic meant for Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa with more than 105 million citizens. The British Council released a report last year titled The State of Social Enterprise in Ethiopia. The report concluded that Ethiopian social enterprises are not only young (in the sense that they are relatively nascent) but their leadership is also young. The report stated that of the more than 130 enterprises surveyed, 75% of the social enterprises had started operations in 2010 or later; almost 50% of the founders and members on the leadership teams for these enterprises were under 35 years of age. This confirmed my theory that many of the socially conscious entrepreneurs I was meeting here in Addis Ababa were young. But I still wanted to know more about the social conscious individuals and how they were really having an impact? So, I decided to interview some of these young and ambitious social influencers.
I had the chance to speak with social influencer Hermella Wondimu, founder of Drop of Water. She shared some context about what inspired her to open an impact driven organization. Growing up in her particular community in Ethiopia, she had the good fortune of being able to access clean water. However, as she got older and entered university, she began to realize how many Ethiopians were deprived of potable water to use for drinking, cleaning, and irrigation. As a student, she started an initiative to increase people’s access to clean water sources. This initiative led her to co-found the NGO Help for a Drop of Water, now known as Drop of Water. The organization’s mission is to put an end to the Ethiopian clean water supply crisis. Currently, Hermella, her colleagues, and several university student volunteers are working to help the most underprivileged communities in rural Ethiopia get access to clean sustainable water sources.
Blayne Tesfaye, the Co-Founder and Managing Partner of TruLuv Granola in Ethiopia also made some time to chat with me about her entity. In our conversation, she said she wanted to “create something of quality and value that would also enable [her] to work with and empower folks through employment and training. [She] also wanted to support a sustainable supply chain by sourcing ingredients from Ethiopian farmers/cooperatives and will continue to do this as [TruLuv] grows.” For her, the most important part of being a social impact enterprise is building that social impact vision into the business’s mission and having it influence how the business operates on a daily basis. For example, through her business, she prioritizes partnering with other social impact-oriented entities such as Teki. Teki is a paper bag company that “uses a business model based on the balance of environmental action combined with the creation of sustainable employment dedicated to women with disabilities.” Their products replace plastic bags and their employees use locally sourced recycled raw materials to create environmentally friendly shopping bags.
Another dynamic social influencer I had the chance to connect with was Biruk Hailu, co-founder of both Lomi Books and Meda Chat. He explained to me how for both products, “the intention was to create a sustainable ecosystem of suppliers (authors, small businesses…) and consumers (readers, users…). By creating supplier and consumer-focused products, we ensure our products can evolve with their needs and thus ensure accelerated growth and social impact. Change starts within and we want to bring about that change. ” Lomi Books is the first and only digital bookstore and publishing platform of its kind. Through it, Ethiopian authors can legally publish their books for free; Ethiopians and others from around the world can buy e-books at an affordable price and read them on their smartphones, tablets, or computers. With Lomi Books, Biruk and his team have been able to solve a major cost issue that discouraged authors from publishing books and hindered readers from buying them.
Biruk’s other venture, Meda Chat, is the first and only financial technology platform of its kind in Ethiopia. It integrates social media and payment technologies into a single app becoming a tool for every point of the users daily contact with the world. Biruk and his team co-created Meda Chat because they noticed that many Ethiopians lack basic access to a savings account and other financial planning tools. Biruk explained, “By signing up with Meda Chat, users automatically open a legal bank account with which they can save, transfer and pay for things from a single chat screen. In addition, the app is localized to the Ethiopian user so people can chat and interact using their own language (it currently supports Amharic, Oromifa, and Tigrigna).”
Feleg Tsegaye, founder and CEO of Deliver Addis, Ethiopia’s first and leading online restaurant delivery service is another individual using technology for positive social impact. When we spoke, he explained that by introducing a food delivery service platform he found a way to not only engage people with technology but also to connect people across demographics. He explained the diversity of Deliver Addis’s beneficiaries accordingly, “The customer benefit is pretty clear in that customers just have more options to choose from and have to do less work to get their favorite meals delivered to them. Restaurants benefit from significant boosts in sales by having access to customers that are further away and may not have the ability to be physically present in the restaurant. Our driver pool has benefited tremendously in that some of our drivers have gone on to purchase their own motorbikes from the work they do with us. We then rent bikes from them, when necessary, which provides them with another source of income.” Through technology, Deliver Addis has provided many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with access to new clients and increased profitability. This has allowed SMEs to hire more staff and provide additional jobs that they weren’t able to afford before. Moving forward, Deliver Addis plans to roll out initiatives that will have a positive impact on the environment and promote more sustainable packaging practices.
Yoftahe Manyazewal, founder of Happy Being and Khul spoke with me about the meaningful social impact he’s had through Khul, the social enterprise platform he founded. In Geez, Khul means abilities or possibilities. The Khul Holistic Development Center is a space where people can come and receive education about how to improve their overall health and wellbeing. Yoftahe believes Khul offers services to train others in positive practices of self-engineering. Through the services offered at Khul, Yoftahe hopes to help people better understand the body-mind complex and recognize the power of this natural technology. By helping people understand how humans function as a result of the relationships between the body, emotions, and the mind – he is certain people will recognize the power they have to solve some of the most fundamental and pressing issues in our society. He believes that more often than not, the daily challenges we face stem from individuals overlooking the importance of human wellbeing. He ended our conversation by saying “Khul is a team of possibilitarians. We aspire to have impact across a multitude of stages in both the local and global context. We want to inspire and create platforms to promote self-engineering in societies where each and every individual practices self awareness in their communities.”
In an insightful interview with Hellen Kassa, co-owner of Bake and Brew, a coffee house/restaurant and multipurpose co-work space in Sarbet, she explained that she co-founded Bake and Brew because “we wanted to offer a community space and food options that we just couldn’t find. We also wanted to create a positive work environment where we are pushing ourselves and our team to constantly grow.” I asked her how a restaurant could be a social enterprise. She mentioned that beyond being a coffee house/restaurant that serves quality food, Bake and Brew has been a space for different organizations to host events. In the last few months it has hosted several community events ranging from public lectures, to professional development talks, to career networking events, to art + photography exhibitions showcasing the work of unique local talents. She also explained that although Bake and Brew hasn’t been open for very long, she and her partner are already thinking of ways to grow the impact of the business, “our current team is the building block of this vision so we are also consistently prepping and pushing them to think past their current roles and tasks. We really want them to feel empowered and take ownership at a deeper level. We’re all working together to learn more so we can do more.”
What I learned from the individuals I spoke with is that many people are genuinely trying to do more than just get in on the action of this seemingly lucrative period of expansion and growth in Ethiopia. The business and entities people talked about were thoughtful and often encompassed a multi-pronged approach for making a profit, creating employment opportunities, providing people with access to formerly inaccessible resources, connecting people with one another in new ways, as well as repurposing materials to produce locally made and low cost products. Despite my overwhelming optimism for how good I think the future of Ethiopia will look because of the social influencers serving as change makers, I recognize this is not the reality for everyone. Also, this article is flawed and far from perfect in that it strictly focuses on what I was able to learn about the circumstances for social enterprises in Addis Ababa, which is not reflective of the situation in other cities across this richly diverse country. The data and information I had access to also limited my ability to offer a more critical, nuanced, and in-depth examination of this landscape and its trends. I think an interesting follow-up article could be a piece countering some of the ideas and assumptions I’ve made. It would interesting to do more research about who is being left out of this renaissance period and examine what efforts are being made to make this accessible throughout Ethiopia.
In conclusion, for the folks I have had the pleasure of meeting so far and learning from, I commend you all when I say it’s exciting and promising to hear the way you speak of your ventures. I feel you and the others you work with truly capture the essence of social impact and entrepreneurship. When done thoughtfully and intentionally, its primary function is to address the sources of social inequality by empowering individuals and communities to create, cultivate, and redefine what inclusion and successful growth for all looks like. It has made me think more critically of what my role is in all of this. Seeing the multitude of ways people are creatively contributing to society has made me think twice about how I can and should spend my time in Ethiopia. I am thinking of how I can do more both through the fellowship and beyond the fellowship, to have a positive impact in and outside of Addis Ababa. As I continue to lead, serve, and grow through EDF, as a young professional, and as a member of the Ethiopian community, I will actively look for ways to maximize my ability to empower others. For all the social influencers out there, continue inspiring others!