Over the past decade, Ethiopia has achieved high economic growth, averaging 10.7% per year, establishing the country among the fastest growing economies both in Africa and in the developing world. Ethiopia, with a population of more than 109 million, is quickly becoming a hot spot for entrepreneurs with hundreds of Ethiopians who have been living abroad, returning to the country, following reforms made by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. The appointment of Ahmed in 2018 and the changes he has brought about, which saw him honored with the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, have given the country a lot of energy and optimism.
Ahmed’s government aside from seeking to establish common ground between the 80 different ethnic groups in Ethiopia has focused on economic reforms to help liberalize the economy and make the country an attractive business destination in Africa. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the country’s internet environment which is largely controlled by one government-owned telecom, Ethio Telecom, making it susceptible to government shut downs. Despite this a whole herd of young and not so young people are doing incredible things and Ethiopia’s large and entrepreneurial diaspora populations, with strong ties to Silicon Valley, are also providing a bridge to capital and real capacity for its early-stage ventures.
Besides the government, the United Nations, World Bank and Alibaba, are encouraging Ethiopians through entrepreneurship programs, especially women and youngsters, to start their own startups in an effort to curb unemployment. Reports indicate up to 80% of all new jobs are created by startup businesses compared to existing businesses.
Ethiopia is one of the leading countries with women entrepreneurs, perhaps this can be attributed to the recent election of the first female President of Ethiopia, Ms. Sahle-Work Zewde. There are two types of female entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, those in a rural environment who want to supplement their family income and tend to take small loans of less than $300 mainly for agricultural purposes. The other type of female entrepreneur is an urban entrepreneur who focuses on a tech-based startup or one that empowers vulnerable women.
Since 2011 potential entrepreneurs are finding a place to hone their skills at IceAddis, an innovation hub that provides consultancy, mentorship, professional support and a 24-hour co-working space with internet access. IceAddis also offers a six-month startup accelerator boot camp with 40 graduates to date.
Ethiopia seeks to bring about broad-based structural changes required to steer the economy on a rapid growth trajectory towards becoming a middle-income country by 2025, although the current COVID-19 pandemic and locust infestation will surely slow this down. The most important and vital step the government can take to ensure they meet this goal is to open the internet up
Join one of our tours to Ethiopia and chances are you will meet one of the amazing entrepreneurs listed below as part of our program.
Ms. Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, owner of soleRebels, makes beautiful shoes and she makes them in Ethiopia with zero carbon omissions and local materials. Her story is amazing. She grew up in an impoverished area of Addis with very few jobs. She decided early on that she was going to change things and in 2005 after graduating from Unity University , a private university in Addis, she convinced her grandmother to let her open a workshop on her land. From a small space she began creating footwear based on traditional Ethiopian footwear. She has managed to bridge the African/West divide by combining local products including recycled tire soles (her trademark) and locally sourced fibers with more western style designs. From this humblest of beginnings, Bethlehem has built SoleRebels into the world’s fastest growing African footwear brand and the very first global footwear brand to emerge from a developing nation. SoleRebels is the first African consumer brand to ever open standalone branded retail stores around the globe with stores now open in Germany, Greece, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan and the USA (Silicon Valley). “Roots. Culture. Tyres” is the motto printed on the walls of every SoleRebels store. Named by Forbes Magazine as one of Africa’s most influential women, Bethlehem recently began a new venture, a coffee store chain named Garden of Coffee. She plans to open 100 outlets in China by 2022. In her own words, “We are changing as a country. There is a lot of hope and lots of dialogues and discussions around what’s happening in Ethiopia.”
If there is not a store near you, you can order on-line with free shipping at www.solerebels.com.
Ms. Tseday Asrat
Kaldi’s Coffee, coffee shop chain
Tseday Asrat is the founder and managing director of Ethiopia’s largest coffee shop chain, Kaldi’s. Ethiopia’s coffee is world famous, dark and rich, the Arabica beans are savored by coffee connoisseurs around the globe. Coffee is part of every Ethiopian’s life and Ethiopians love their coffee and have always reserved a special place in their hearts for roasting their own beans carefully selected at the Merkato market from small kiosks or street-side markets. Traditionally, Ethiopians have taken their coffee at home, drinking slowly, with only close friends and family. They roasted the beans on the spot, part of an elaborate coffee ceremony that remains an important part of Ethiopian culture.
As day-to-day life has changed that practice is not always practical especially for those on the move. Recognizing this change, Tseday saw an opening in the market for combining Ethiopians love for coffee with their need for speed and convenience. She had often accompanied her Ethiopian Airlines pilot husband on trips to the US and was amazed at the success of Starbucks and brought the concept back to Ethiopia. She called her chain “Kaldi’s” named after the shepherd who, according to Ethiopian folklore, first identified coffee after watching the reaction of his goats who had been grazing on a coffee bush. The Kaldi’s coffee shops clearly draw more than a little inspiration from Starbucks – the logo, green aprons, and decor of the coffee shops – will be familiar to anyone who has visited a branch of the Seattle-based chain. Did she feel guilty about stealing ideas from Starbucks? “Not at all”, she apparently replied. “After all, they stole our coffee.” Established in 2005, Kaldi’s success has been resounding with more than 38 coffee shops in the country.
As the company grew in size Tseday faced an unexpected problem with consistency in the coffee and milk products which led to customer complaints. Like a true entrepreneur, she faced the problems head-on and started her own supply company. Now the product quality is consistent across all branches and in an unexpected positive outcome, more jobs were created through the company she founded, Loni Agro, a dairy producer, milk processor along with a roaster which also buys coffee on the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX). Today, the company employees about 2,000 coffee loving Ethiopians and there are plans to continue opening more branches.
Ms. Samrawit Fikru
Hybrid Design Plc and RIDE, ride sharing app
“Necessity is the mother of invention” is certainly the case when it comes to the creation of RIDE, a ride sharing app similar to Uber, created by Samrawit Fikru. Before becoming a tech entrepreneur, Samrawit was a computer programmer and software developer who often found herself staying late at the office. When she went to get a taxi, it took forever to find one late at night and the drivers would charge double the day time rates. On top of this, she did not feel safe getting into a taxi with a driver she did not know.
At the age of 22, having identified the gap in the market, she took $2,000 of her own savings and started Hybrid Design, a software and applications developing company. Shortly after, the company introduced RIDE, a transport and booking platform in Ethiopia that is phone-based just like Uber. RIDE started as an SMS-focused request in 2014. For those first two years, as with many startups, there was little to no profit. By 2017, understanding the need for a revamp, she single handedly relaunched RIDE where users either use an app downloaded to their smartphone or call into a call center to schedule a ride 24 hours a day, 7 days a week including holidays. To get a RIDE, users now only have to dial 8294 (or TAXI on a keypad) or download the RIDE app from anywhere within Addis Ababa to use the service.
RIDE is now used by tens of thousands of users and has had 50,000 downloads on just the Google Play Store. Like Uber, the app provides the driver’s picture, vehicle license plate and side numbers and brief information on the driver. RIDE also does not charge surge pricing during popular times of the day and amazingly 90% of its staff are women, this in an industry dominated by men.
The launch of RIDE could not have come at a better time. The general opinion is that Prime Minster Ahmed will want to begin removing the traditional blue taxis that have been plying the streets of cities across the country for as long as 60 years with newer, more fuel efficient taxis. As a result of extremely high tariffs, Ethiopia has one of world’s lowest rates of car ownership and people rely on car-ride services to a great extent for their transportation needs. This offers a great opportunity for RIDE to really make an impact.
Ironically some of the same taxi drivers who used to charge her double to get home are now working for her!
The sky is the limit for RIDE! In November 2019, Samrawit met Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey who later Tweeted a photo of the two of them and tagged Elon Musk saying “She’d love to introduce Tesla to Ethiopia!”
Ms. Kisanet Haile Molla
Deamat, agriculture connectivity and grocery delivery app
In 2018 entrepreneur Kisanet Haile Molla started Deamat bringing tech to the country’s food supply. Deamat is a platform which allows users to buy and sell vegetables, fruits, herbs, cereals, injera bread and meat. Basically, Deamat connects smallholder and commercial farmers with individual consumers and larger buyers, creating a more structured market where farmers can cut out the middleman and sell directly to their customers. With a population of over 109 million people, Ethiopia is potentially a goldmine for e-commerce.
Raised by single mom who unexpectedly passed when Kisanet was seven years old, she was raised by her six brothers and sisters. But the family recognized the value of education and Kisanet graduated with a civil engineering degree from Gondar University, in the center of the country’s agricultural belt. Kisanet had plenty of time during her studies to look at the logistics of the agricultural industry in Ethiopia and recognized a specific gap in the country’s food distribution system. The lack of transport infrastructure and inaccessibility of the market made it difficult for smallholder farmers to directly sell their products to users or customers. Instead they were forced to work with middlemen brokers who bought the products at low prices from the farmers and then sold them at significantly higher prices to the end users. Kisanet’s partner, Merhawi Fissehaye, a computer programmer and now her co-founder worked with her to create a simple application that implemented their goals – to connect small farmers with people who wanted to buy their produce –whether a restaurant or family. It was a win-win situation – the farmers received a fair price for their produce and the end user got fresher produce at a lower cost. Deamat makes their money by adding small commissions to the transactions. Farmers and buyers can use their phone to select the agricultural products they want, they pay with their phone and then Deamat arranges the delivery.
Kisanet readily admits that there have been many challenges that they tackle head-on as they arise. Besides looking for investors, the biggest hurdle has been that the concept has been slow to catch on, but Deamat is aggressively targeting restaurants, condominiums, hotels and small shops to expand their customer base.
Take a look at the Deamat website at www.deamat.org. It gives an interesting and informative glimpse into the production and pricing of the Ethiopian agricultural market. In true entrepreneurial spirit they are now catering to those sheltering at home!
Mr. Getaw Mekonnen Cherinet
Tulip Addis Water Filter
Almost 31% of the Ethiopian population relies on unprotected water for their daily needs. That’s 33 million people. Getaw Mekonnen Cherinet, founder and manager of Tulip Addis Water Filter, was a small land owner in Ethiopia, who saw his workers getting sick because they did not have access to clean drinking water. Bottled water was too expensive and there were no low cost filter systems in place. Getaw saw a need and designed an inexpensive ceramic water filter and thus began Tulip Addis Water Filter.
Getaw’s story is amazing. When he was a university student during the Ethiopian Civil War (1974-1991) the government passed a law requiring all university students to go into military service. In order to avoid the service, Getaw escaped to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in the northwestern region of Kenya, where food and water were provided, but not much else. He was a model resident and the camp, run by the UNHCR offered him an opportunity to travel to New Zealand through one of their sponsored programs to study and develop business skills. During this time Getaw attended university where he focused on classes taught in the business school. He was particularly interested in issues of international trade where he learned the importance of networking skills.
He returned to Ethiopia and with the savings he had accrued in New Zealand decided to invest in some farm land. It was then that he saw first-hand the labor costs associated with his workers not having access to clean water, a problem that simply did not exist in New Zealand. He remembered the filter systems he had seen in people’s homes during his time in New Zealand and decided to see if he might be able to raise the capital to begin his own production company. In his research he came across a Dutch company called Basic Water Needs and partnered with them to create Tulip Addis Water Filter, a private company that sells low-cost ceramic water filters and a siphon device with a ceramic element to quickly make safe water from unsafe water.
Initially the products were manufactured in India and, in addition to Ethiopia, were sold by other partners in at least half dozen other countries. However, Getaw had always wanted the production to take place in his home country and, in late 2019, construction began in Debre Birhan on a plant where the products will be manufactured. The plant will employ 60 local Ethiopian workers with plans to make up to 500,000 filters per year in two models. A 13 liter model will be sold for 700 Birr or $22 and the larger 20 liter model will be sold for 1,000 Birr or $31. Although considered a low-cost product outside of Ethiopia, the filters are still unaffordable to many low-income workers and Getaw is working on finding ways to continue to bring the cost down. Many of his customers are NGOs, including Rotary International and the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, who give the filters away at no cost to the recipients.
Even today after all his success, Getaw feels being a refugee still influences his life. He was the first investor to hire refugees in Ethiopia and he regularly hosts entrepreneurial sessions giving Ethiopians confidence and new skills which, he hopes, helps them to be productive members of society, to earn their own income and to live their lives with dignity.