WOMEN OF EXCELLENCE 2022
AWiB proudly presents the 2022 Women of Excellence (WOE) nominees. Every year, since 2012, we celebrate outstanding Ethiopian women who serve their communities and country relentlessly and tirelessly. This year, we bring you 4 phenomenal women who not only achieved greatness but also exhibited excellence in their works. Please save the date to celebrate these exceptional women on Sunday 30 October 2022 at a Gala Dinner at Sheraton Addis
Dr. Teguest Guerma
The Mother of Mavericks
“I have learned in life it is not easy to get what you want. It takes a lot of dedication, commitment,hard work, risk taking, and some luck here and there to make your dreams come true.”
Few find their purpose in life at a young age while others, later. Luckily I found my life’s calling as a result of my birth situation. During the time I was delivered, my mother had complications and I caught a severe infection. We were both in critical condition. The doctors had to make difficult choices and decided to save her. Yet my grandfather didn’t give up on me so easily and fought hard for my life. In time I was able to beat the infection and survive. Though my survival was a miracle, being in Addis Ababa where there was better medical services played a major role in my survival. This is a privilege most women in Ethiopia do not have; many mothers and children die during birth because of inadequate maternal health care.
I grew up hearing my birthing story, so I took it upon myself to find a way to help women who otherwise do not have access. Becoming a doctor and helping women wasn’t only my dream but it was also my mother’s. My mother always wanted to be a nurse, but her dream was cut short when she got married at a young age. She always saw her dream in her children and sought for us to be doctors—three of her four daughters became doctors.
I was the star of the family until my younger brother came into the picture. I was so jealous, it became the drive for my success; I had to beat the competition. I would do everything to get approval and attention from my parents—from being an excellent student to being a devout believer. Being the eldest, I was also responsible for my siblings. This served me well later in life. I learned children need more than clothes and food… love from their parents.
My father was a soldier with ranks and took his obligation to his country very seriously. Growing up in a soldier’s home, we had a very strict yet privileged upbringing. I attended Lycee Gebremariam School. I had a sheltered upbringing that cost me a lot later life. When you are always given everything you become weak to take on challenges. I went to France for my college studies and reality hit. All 19 of us who qualified for higher education were like a flock of sheep lost from home. Upon arrival, we were impressed by the light and the beauty of the city but life for us wasn’t as glamorous as the looks. To make matters worse, I had to part from the flock to another city as a loner. For the first time I had to fight for what I wanted—to be with my friends. I was told I had to wait months to rejoin, but I persisted and my request was granted. This experience taught me if I want something, I have to fight for it.
France was in the middle of a revolution, which made our stay in college unbearable. There was no structure and most classes were missed because students protested daily. That made it difficult to pass the medical school exam. We all failed and had to retake it. I passed, but my result wasn’t good enough to get me into medical school so I was sent to dental school. Because my desire was to become a medical doctor, I withdrew from dentistry.
I have learned in life it is not easy to get what you want. It takes a lot of dedication, commitment, hard work, risk taking, and some luck here and there to make your dreams come true. When I lost my scholarship in France I had to make ends meet. I worked as a janitor at a hospital. The job was very difficult, especially for someone who is used to being taken care of. But I kept looking for other options to continue my education. Senegal presented a better option. Senegal was not only affordable, it had become an institution that changed my life for good, hence I always advise the youth to take risks and persevere to achieve their dreams.
The first four years of my college I had to work multiple jobs including translation at diplomatic events. I got a break when I met the foreign minister, who helped me attain a scholarship. In the eight years I stayed in Senegal I completed my medical degree and specialized in infectious disease. Senegal is also where I met my husband and had my first baby.
We had to move to Burundi because of a teaching post my husband landed, but I had difficulty finding a teaching job. I looked into practicing medicine and started working in a hospital where I came across my first HIV/AIDS case. I understood the disease was not going away soon, so I started working relentlessly to make sure people were aware and receive treatment despite the discrimination.
My work on HIV in Burundi was very difficult because the government was denying the prevalence of the disease in the country. The government was so adamant in its denial to the point of imprisoning those doctors who campaigned for awareness and treatment. During this difficult time, I encountered marital problems. Upon my decision to leave the marriage and take my children, my husband managed to prevent me from taking the girls. I had to make the difficult decision to leave the country, move back to Ethiopia and leave my girls behind. I learned in life you have to make difficult decisions to move forward.
I wasn’t sure what I would be doing when I came back to Addis. I always wanted to work for the World Health Organization (WHO), but I also understood with my limited experience I would not qualify. In order to get what I wanted, I had to reach out to my network for opportunities at the United Nations (UN). It so happened WHO was actually taking young doctors to work on the HIV pandemic. My experience and research on HIV/AIDS landed me a consultant job, which kicked off my long career in HIV/AIDS and the UN at 35. The first assignment took me to Congo upon which I rejoined with my girls as their father changed his mind realizing I can stand on my own and be as successful. So I started my journey to Congo with great pride along with my kids as a single mom. This journey made me understand that there is a price to pay for a woman to gain her freedom and achieve her dreams, but it is something worth fighting for.
Since then I extensively worked in Africa and Southeast Asia, including as a country representative for WHO and Regional Advisor of HIV/AIDS for the Africa Regional Office. I also represented the Africa Region of the WHO at the UN headquarters in New York City. I promoted African health issues, notably HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, which significantly contributed to their inclusion into resolutions of the general assembly and the Security Council of the UN.
UNAIDS’ 3 by 5 Initiative was a global target of putting 3 million people living with HIV on life saving antiretroviral treatment by the end of 2005. This initiative heralded a breakthrough to the access of HIV treatment in resource-limited countries, saving millions. During the first years medication was only available to the people who lived in developed countries. We fought hard for the prevalence of treatment at affordable prices for developing countries. It wasn’t an easy fight as it was a fight against some huge pharmaceutical companies. We were able to negotiate for the medicine to be produced in India with low cost and avail for developing countries. I am very proud to have been part of this effort and to have saved millions of lives.
During my time at WHO I had faced multiple biases against my gender and race. Being the only woman in the room often, I had to fight to be heard, to be promoted, as well as for my rightful place as a leader. I was given assignments nobody would dare touch but was successful as I thrive on challenges. My obstacles taught me to be kind, patient, forgiving and build a strong will to follow my dreams.
Through time I learned that WHO serves the agenda of donor countries even though it should have been an independent institution striving for equitable delivery of health care service. We had to fight with our supervisors to make the right and ethical decisions that could affect millions of lives. Case in point: a research showed there is a 20% chance for people with HIV to survive if treatment is started earlier; also one of the medications has toxicity. The director at the time asked me to shove the report under the rug. This was beyond my conscious to follow through and I fought for the report to be made public. So remediation was taken, saving many lives.
During my service at WHO, I received multiple awards, recognitions and built lifelong friendships. The bureaucracy and the unethical practices were beyond what I could bear, so I retired early and left after 21 years of service. I was ready to go back to Ethiopia to fulfill my longtime dream of serving my country. Yet another opportunity knocked on my door the same day I left. I was asked to take the Director General position at African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF). I was the first woman and black person to take this position.
My work at AMREF gave me a huge satisfaction as it focused at the community level. The organization took a sustainable approach in the most disadvantaged communities, bringing tangible and long-lasting changes. Although the organization worked in African countries, it was led by foreign nationals until I became the director. This fact was difficult for many to accept and I had to prove myself, designing strategies for success. One of the strategies was to collect more funds from the African office than the European offices so we become less dependent. I took a social enterprise approach and shifted airplanes owned by AMREF to do commercial work, bringing income to the organization. We raised the annual fund from 50 million to 140 million in a short time. And the funds collected from Africa surpassed the amount collected from the US and Europe, giving us the upper hand. I was able to accomplish in a short period what they struggled to do in years and left AMREF to pursue my dream. The job paid well, which helped in my next project, “Ledeg Midwifery College.” It was time to return home after 42 years abroad.
Before I started building the college, I had to bring my siblings on board to let me use the family land that was intended for a hotel. They agreed and the college became a reality that also fulfilled my mother’s dream.
The unbearable bureaucracy and corruption in Ethiopia would make one lose hope. But I was determined to make my mother’s dream and mine a reality. Besides, the hurdles throughout my life prepared me to take on this new challenge. The hardest part was I didn’t understand the corrupted culture and took the straight path. At times the obstacles seemed unsurmountable, but I pushed through, focusing on the bigger picture: making maternal health care a reality.
In 2015, Ledeg Midwifery College, named after my mother, opened its door to deserving young women. The school provides midwifery education to high school graduates who couldn’t afford to continue their study. Some confuse midwifery to delivery nurses yet they are very different. Midwives are partners for women throughout their lives. Our midwives are taught to be a support for women on making decisions on early marriage, educate them on young age pregnancy and its complications, provide prenatal care, delivery and postnatal care for the children, and serve women up to menopause.
Ledeg midwifery empowers young girls to lead a purposeful life. It teaches students to lead their lives with integrity and responsibility. The girls are expected to go back to their community after they graduate and provide service. My aim is to eliminate the incidence of women dying while giving birth due to lack of health services. I understand the problem is huge and we have a long way to go, yet I believe we have to start somewhere. So far 80 students have graduated from our college. We recently opened a clinic to support our college and ensure its sustainability. I serve as the director of this institution.
I recently discovered writing—something I never thought I had in me. I wanted to share my story, experience and wisdom to the young generation so I wrote a memoir. ትሙት ግድ የለም (“Timut Gidyelem”) is written for young women hoping they will learn from my success and failures. Going forward I see myself advising the nation on policies.
What do they say about Dr. Teguest?
I met Dr. Teguest in 1994 in Botswana when she was assigned as WHO representative for the country, said Ato Worku Behonegn, country director for SNV Ethiopia. At the time I was management advisor for SNV Netherlands Development organization. I had multiple opportunities to work with Dr. Teguest because our institution works on health and gender. Dr. Teguest is a person who leads a purposeful life. She is an exemplary leader who is persistent, hardworking, and dedicated. I was around through the entire process of establishing Ledeg Midwifery College and know the challenges she faced. She persisted and faced these challenges because she understood what she was doing for these girls is far more important than the challenges. She always has service to society in her heart. It is important to tell her story and there is a lot for young girls to learn from her life.
The first assignment took me to Congo upon which I rejoined with my girls as their father changed his mind realizing I can stand on my own and be as successful. So I started my journey to Congo with great pride along with my kids as a single mom. This journey made me understand that there is a price to pay for a woman to gain her freedom and achieve her dreams, but it is something worth fighting for.
Coding Life Away
I was born and raised in Harar until I was ten, attending a school called SOS. I began coding when I was nine years old. When I was eleven, I relocated to Addis Ababa. I joined INSA in order to improve my abilities to code. I moved to Bahir Dar in ninth grade on a project with Bahir Dar University until eleventh grade. Attending different schools—both private and government—gave me different perspectives on life.
I am the founder and CEO of iCog Anyone Can Code (ACC). I launched the ACC initiative in collaboration with Ethiopia’s first AI and robotics lab, iCog Labs. The ACC curriculum focuses on developing a generation of problem solvers and logical thinkers by teaching students essential 21st-century skills such as coding, Internet of Things (IoT), and robotics. I am a software developer by profession, but now that I am operating a firm I am more interested in management. I consider myself a tech entrepreneur. My focus is expanding technology education.
My father encouraged me to study as he didn’t have the opportunity. He built a dedicated study area in the back of his store and I used it daily after school until he closed his business. Having been exposed to computers at an early age, I began to realize I could make money with it. My father always said that if one wants to pursue something, it must be profitable. I had to sustain my passion financially. I was ecstatic when I found I could make money doing what I enjoy. When I was 10, I partnered with the Harar Education Bureau to teach coding at various government schools. When I went to ASTU for an event, someone approached me and said, “You taught back in Harar, and now I’m pursuing my career in computer engineering because of you.” I may not see immediate benefits, but it is a matter of giving people the opportunities I have.
My exposure to different environments coupled with my father’s guidance shaped who I am today. He always encouraged me to focus on my education, and when I entered the computer field, he fully supported me. He moved to Addis with me when INSA sponsored me to work with them. The INSA project gave me the space to nurture my passion.
Technology is my passion, but teaching is my primary interest. I believe in technology and the power and freedom it can give, especially to young people. The flexibility that comes with knowing how to use technology motivates me to work harder and push the endless possibilities. I have many hopes for my nation, but all I can do is hope to contribute to the extent that I have experienced.
I was fortunate to have computer access at such an early, age and experiencing different activities such as piano lessons and taekwondo expanded my horizon. I had access to the Internet as well. As exposure to new things broadens our minds, my dream for my country is for children and young people to get access to knowledge.
I want computer laboratories in schools to be widely accessible. When I started my company, we used a comfortable work area to brainstorm and expand our ideas. My desire is to establish a similar safe space for people to become innovative in every endeavor. Since technology is becoming an integral part of every day, I aim to offer spaces and chances for young children to learn about technology.
My organization is my instrument for accomplishing my vision. iCog-ACC was a project of iCog Labs for five years before becoming a firm. An experience I encountered when suggesting to develop software for businesses in Merkato some twelve years back, they had no knowledge of what I was referring to. It’s difficult to show others what has not been before.
I use my company to equip and educate children. I am involved in activities such as training young people in different high schools, waiving payment for those who cannot pay by seeking a source of funding. We collaborate closely with the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders to identify and reach out to high-performing kids from public schools in order to provide them with free education. So far, the project has reached more than 25,000 children.
The school bus project extends education to rural areas and gives the children a general insight into technology. Girls in rural areas need special attention, and my company is working on addressing this gap. Since I was a child, my ambition was to build an ICT bus that traveled throughout Ethiopia teaching locals how to use computers while gaining indigenous knowledge. Even though building IT infrastructure everywhere would be costly, I realized a mobile classroom outfitted with the necessary equipment would be less expensive. Fortunately, I discovered an organization that assisted me in implementing this project. Teaching coding to girls in rural areas means teaching a whole country. All this came from my deep-rooted passion for change.
We started our first summer camp in the United States two years ago. It is vital to demonstrate the caliber of African talent. We are exporting talent, and our Africans are training foreigners. As a result, I envision it expanding even further and reaching more countries. It creates more work possibilities while supporting the entire job ecosystem. It is in line with my passion and aspirations and what I want to do. I am uncertain if my focus will shift, but educating others is what I want to do right now. The bottom line is we are creating a community of individuals interested in technology and creativity, and I believe my firm is an excellent vehicle for what I want to do.
Building a strong, self-sufficient team is one of my greatest accomplishments, and we’ve been through a lot together. We’re still constructing and maintaining. I believe the corporate culture we’re creating is excellent. My vision is understood and supported by everyone on the team, but my ambition is greater. My obligation to my team is to elevate the bar. In a country where youngsters constitute the majority of the population, I feel there is more to be done.
I am blessed with a conducive environment. My friends are extremely supportive. Recently, a children’s book called Rebel Girls featured me. I had always wanted to be in children’s books, but I never anticipated it would be on this grand scale.
I am still learning what it means to be a woman. A mother is a primary source of knowledge when one is growing up, and I did not grow up in that sort of surrounding. I became aware of it as I grew older, recognizing my feminine side. My team consists majority of women. My father was protective of me, so I was not exposed to the bias and stereotypes against women until recently. I started realizing that most of my team is comprised of women because men are intimidated by women leaders. Thus, this understanding of femininity is starting to impact the woman I am becoming. In addition, I believe in kindness. Honesty comes from being able to listen and urge others to try new things. Growing up, there was no one to look up to; I needed to forge my own way. I am still studying and comprehending the feminist idea. My female companions teach me. The importance of female friendship cannot be overstated.
We have interventions designed exclusively for women. We are now training around 500 women. My company was a member of the Girls Can Code program ran by the US Embassy. I started as a teacher, and then my company implemented the project. I am focusing on empowering women by creating a safe space for them to grow. I aspire to become the mentor and leader they would be inspired to become. I encourage others to explore technology because it part of our lives. When it comes to the youth, everyone tells us they know better for us, but that is not the case. We live in a different world and we have different challenges so let the youth take the lead. I do not tell my students what to do; rather provide the tools to build their own solutions. Leaders in the community must facilitate opportunities for the youth to give solution to their own problems.
What do they say about Betelhem?
Betelhem has been featured on prominent websites such as Wikipedia, CNN, and UNICEF. While CNN named her “the youngest pioneer in Ethiopia’s fast emerging tech scene,” other sources referred to her as Ethiopia’s leading youth technology entrepreneur. In 2019, she was named one of the young African innovators to watch by Quartz Africa. Betelhem’s legacy showed its peak when she had the chance to meet Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey. Dorsey stated about Betelhem on his Twitter page, “Likely the most incredible soul in all the world. Pure joy. Appreciate you!”
UNICEF featured Betelhem and described her as a self-taught developer who has subsequently created five software products that she has patented. A digital library, a virtual laboratory, a document and inventory management system, and a DNB locator are among them (named after her family initials, the locator is an application that maps irrigation systems and can be used by agricultural experts). She created “Askual,” a digital learning network connecting kids, parents, and instructors with other students.
Founder and CEO of iCog labs, Getnet Assefa, says Betty is deeply interested in giving the opportunity she had when she was ten to all children in Ethiopia. She wants to provide a tool for youngsters and change her country and also Africa. Indeed she’s accomplishing her goal with little help from my company or me. I believe she is a technology icon in our country.
Getnet made a point that people in Ethiopia do not understand technology’s importance and is perceived as a luxury. Betty is rising above these limitations to change such perceptions. She survived the pressure of not being taken seriously and pursued her dream. She found her vision and a way to make that happen. Leadership and management skill is needed.
On the other hand, she faced external influence through big offers with a better lifestyle and salary abroad. She said no and kept working on her passion. Ethiopia needs a hero in every sector, especially a woman. Moreover, Betty is a female hero showing the next generation what is possible.
Etsabek Taye, an operation lead in iCog-ACC, describes Betty as a robust and optimistic leader, friend, and giver. Her other colleagues agree with Etsabek when she says Betty reflects all the good characteristics one would like to see in a person. Her knowledge, depth, and curiosity made her one of the most outstanding leaders. Her colleagues understand her vision and are motivated to work with her toward achieving it. She inspires her team by actually working hard rather than bossing them around. Most of her team comprises women who are mentored and coached by Betty. She is an inspiration to all Ethiopian ladies, raising the standard and challenging our community’s perception of young girls.
The Innovative Educator
“Being an educator in Ethiopia is very challenging, but it is even more rewarding.” – Menna Selamu
An Addis Ababa native, I was born and raised right here in the city. My childhood was extremely pleasant and I often look back at it fondly. I was raised by my grandparents for several years before I moved to live with my father. The relationship created is one I cherish and credit for shaping the person I am today. My father was an interesting man. He devoted most of his adult life to study and teach law; he was a professor of law at Addis Ababa University. His legal background influenced my upbringing heavily. I was encouraged to always have my own opinion and be a free thinker. However, my opinions would have to be backed by figures and facts. I would spend endless nights researching topics and debating with my father, a habit I now use to run my business. I consider myself to be open-minded, critical and research oriented–all traits I acquired from my father.
I attended Lycée Gebremariam for my primary and secondary education, making me trilingual. I was very much into academics, excelling in Math and Science. My love for reading instilled by my father was one of my identifiers as a child. I would read anything and everything I could. My curiosity was often quenched by the sci-fi movies I loved to watch.
I joined Addis Ababa University to study engineering. Engineering was never truly my passion but in the classic Ethiopian narrative, I had good grades and an appreciation for mathematics so it was the obvious choice. Before graduating, I was offered a job at a company called InfoTech. I worked there for a year and a half, quickly climbing the corporate ladder and landing a management role. My time at InfoTech sparked my appreciation for leadership roles. It also introduced me to some like-minded people who are still in my circle. I met Serkaddis Seifu, my long-time business partner and co-founder of Flipper, at InfoTech. After my brief stay there, I decided it was time to go out on my own and try something new. In 1998, Serkaddis and I opened a company called Flipper Computer Aided Learning Centre. The Centre was intended to act as a supplement to children’s primary education. We would teach kids about Math, English and basic computer literacy.
Even in my early twenties, I saw myself as a leader first and an entrepreneur second. Luckily, I was able to combine those two roles very early on. I had a vision of what I wanted to do. I knew that the education sector was my passion. I wanted to make it my profession. Even now, when asked what my passion is, I always answer “transferring knowledge.” I prefer the term “transferring knowledge” to “educating” because the former implies that the learning process is two directional. I learn from my students as my students learn from me. Transferring knowledge allows the audience to take the information, make it their own, and expand on it.
We had about thirty students at the Centre aged 4 to 15 and six employees. It took us no time at all to realize that these kids did not need supplemental help but the basics. We noticed that they were having trouble grasping basic math formulas and we thought that was a good reflection of the national education curriculum. We swiftly understood that we need to be primary education providers. Thus, we transformed Flipper Computer Aided Learning Centre to Flipper International School in 2000. Initially, the school had a hybrid curriculum of both Ethiopian and British influences at the primary education level and broadened from K to 12 grade. Flipper has grown into an institution with over 480 employees and 2100 students. Flipper was the first school in Ethiopia to get foreign direct investment (FDI) partly due to our impeccable financial and external auditing records. The FDI was used to attracted equity investors who smoothly exited. In 2016, Flipper gained foreign strategic partners which amicably put the founders as minority shareholders. In 2018, Flipper was acknowledged as a Cambridge Assessment accredited school which allowed us to raise enough funding to acquire land for the school. Flipper currently has a 17,000 square meter campus. Through the process Flipper transformed into an institution that can outlive the founders. Sustainability has always been a cornerstone of our business model.
During my 24 years of working with Flipper, I took several courses on pedagogy, curriculum creation and education. Although engineering was my background, I made it a point to know the ins-and-outs of education on a formal level. I also earned my MBA from University of Liverpool.
Anything to do with knowledge is a passion of mine but also a huge responsibility as it affects all of our futures. My ultimate vision, my eternal dream is better education for Ethiopians. I want a better literacy rate and more access to reading materials in Ethiopia; I want people to develop the habit of reading. Quality education, I believe, will encourage everyone to make more informed decisions. As a consequence, we as a nation become tolerant and accepting. I believe Flipper has contributed to the quality of education which fulfils my vision for my community.
Flipper International School actively works on nurturing young minds and making the youth inquisitive and curious. Flipper changes our tomorrow by working on today. The impact it has on the kids and the positive effect on the families of the employees make all the hardship of building an institution worthwhile. I would love to see this approach to education applied in government schools, for educating the young is a pillar of any functioning society.
What sets Flipper apart as a business is our continued work on sustainability. In a country where most businesses are sole enterprises, Flipper has been a continuous partnership between Serkaddis and me. One of the questions I am asked often is, “How do you work with another female for so long?” I am always puzzled by that line of questioning. I believe that women are inherently collaborative beings. A woman of character will lift others with her, not tear them down. If women are in competition amongst themselves, it is often a result of scarcity and a skewed system. Flipper is a success story unlike any other in Ethiopia. It is the story of two women, working together toward a certain goal, sharing struggles and burdens to come out on top. Generally, I say that a woman-owned business is more likely to succeed as women are more detail-oriented. Additionally, the overarching risk aversion exhibited by most women makes us extremely thorough– a great trait for a businessperson. Of course, it follows that if one woman running a company is good, then having two women run it is even better!
Certainly, Flipper’s most distinguishing trait as an Ethiopian business is our tangible commitment to sustainability. Serkaddis and I wanted to make Flipper an institution. We decided that the next step for us as a business was Flipper’s acquisition. This meant stepping down from the core management roles and becoming minority shareholders. We were acquired by Sana Education, a Moroccan company. Again, this was another first in the Ethiopian education sector. I can confidently say we are innovators and pioneers in the Ethiopian business arena.
As a female entrepreneur, the complications of being a woman are not lost on me. Thus, I have always made it my priority to uplift women in any way I can. We pride ourselves in having a management team where women are visible. Flipper gives priority to women during the recruitment process; over 70% of employees are women. The School affords a longer maternity leave than legally required. We encourage new mothers to continue breastfeeding, allowing flexitime. We also provide free education for children of the staff.
“I was fortunate with opportunities and good fortune should be shared.” – Menna Selamu
In 2019, I was amongst the 22 who started Eneho Fikir, a charity that helps 240 children with their education and job opportunities. I am currently the chairwoman of the board of directors. My husband and I support less privileged families within Addis Ababa. My three children volunteer at Eneho Fikir in different capacities.
Becoming a minority stakeholder in Flipper gave me the time needed for other ventures. I have now turned my attention to Ethiopia’s healthcare sector.
What do they say about Menna?
Mahlet Worku, a long-time friend and the manager of Eneho Fikir, marvels Menna’s organization skills, resourcefulness and her commitment to her vision. Menna is positive, inspiring. She is loving and lovable, always generous with her help. Menna will always be my emergency contact. As a leader, Menna is firm but still listens to others. She is calm and not emotional. She measures twice, cuts once. Menna has a unique ability to differentiate business and personal relations and treats me like an employee when appropriate.
Menna is not a lawyer, but she could definitely fool anyone into thinking she is, says Bahakal Abate, legal counsel to both Flipper and Menna. She is thorough; if you ask her about a detail in the 80-pages memorandum of understanding, she could quote the paragraph and law that was used. Menna is steady and level-headed and has a certain detachment that makes her an impeccable decision maker. Because Menna is so hands-on and detail-oriented, she has the ability to creatively find solutions. For instance, with the 2016 foreign investors’ involvement in Flipper, Menna was able to research and suggest a legal strategy that provided added protection for Serkaddis and herself. Interestingly enough, my law firm now uses that particular strategy with other business transactions. Menna’s business acumen is commendable. Her ability to be so forward thinking is a mark of innovation. Above all else, Menna is a people’s person. The tact with which she manages all of the different stakeholders is truly exemplary.
Menna moves with vision, never goes with the flow, says Seffa Abdula, Flipper’s external Chief Financial Officer. Menna is aware of the power and use of expertise on her team that she utilizes throughout her business planning and execution. She values knowledge which makes those working with her appreciated and valued.
Menna continually updates herself. Her love for software and all things digital make her a force to reckon with in our increasing technological world. Menna is motivated by knowledge gaps to become an expert in that field. You would think Menna is an accountant the way she understands numbers in her business.
“My philosophy in life is SIMPLICITY. I truly understand that the world we live in is very complex – but I strongly believe that it can be tackled by a clear and open mind, a personality that thrives to make a difference.” – Menna Selamu
The Lightening Rod
“I believe that it is every one of our responsibilities to share the socio-economic burdens of women for the general well-being and prosperity of society.”
I came into this world as the seventh daughter of my parents in 1952 in Eastern Oromia in a small village called Deder. My father was a ‘balabat’ (local leader) and had a total of 38 children from different women. He had sincere respect and value for women and, contrary to popular belief, none of my brothers were exempted from household chores. Although illiterate, my father served as a traditional lawyer during the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie, and the relevance of education was impressed upon him. I remember him emphasizing that despite his wealth, his only legacy to us was education. We grew up with the understanding of the need for education. His influence pushed me further toward my purpose.
I started my educational journey at one of the local elementary schools. Unfortunately, all of the schools in our town taught only up to the eighth grade; anyone who wished to continue had to move to Dire Dawa, the closest city. The unavailability of education justified the need for girls to stay at home and help in the household or worse, get married at a young age. My siblings and I were amongst the very few with advanced education because of our father. I left for high school in 1967. I was a strong competitor with multiple double promotions along the way. After high school, I went on to pursue pedagogical studies because I believed that was the best way to give back to society.
Right after high school, in 1971, I started my first job as a teacher in the Rurso region, a small town that is 26 Km from Dire Dawa. I served for a year then was transferred to Sabian School for three years. I left for La Gare School and taught for about 20 years. I am proud of my students who excelled; among them is the mayor of Dire Dawa, Kedir Ali. As a teacher should be, I was able to shape the way children think and influence their future in a positive way. Later in life, I joined Women’s Affairs and worked in Capacity Building. While there, I was dismayed by the high rate of early marriage and harmful traditional practices in the rural areas. There were 38 elementary schools in those areas and only two extended up to eighth grade. The majority of female students were married off before they finished middle school. It took me back to my childhood; I just knew I had to do something about it. I arranged an open discussion with the locals to tackle the issue. I realized the community didn’t understand the value of educating women. In addition, the girls never had role models who would entice an ambition to learn. The need for household help and earning dowry exasperated the problem. But even if parents willed, they weren’t financially capable of sending their daughters away for years. So my team and I began educating the community about the importance of inclusiveness. Surprisingly, many families were convinced to send their daughters to schools.
In 1999, at the eleventh Conference on Education held in Hawassa, I heard about how people in the south were constructing boarding schools for girls who didn’t have places to stay. I thought it was a brilliant idea and decided to bring the same project to my community. I took action immediately and proposed the idea to the regional government of Dire Dawa, clearly explaining the problem, mitigation methods, and plausible options. The mayor and cabinet members, some of whom were once my students, accepted the idea readily and the construction of the hostel on 2,000 hectares of land began under the Bureau of Education. Everything was working miraculously! The first batch of 47 female students from those rural areas came to pursue their high school education. I remember one of the girls had an infant with her as a result of an arranged marriage. She was such a fighter and a brilliant student (currently, she is in the U.S.A. for her graduate studies). But just before we could even take a breather, the great flood hit Dire Dawa destroying the entire city including our hostel and so many resources. The needed support for rebuilding was slow coming. We had to continue with the basic donation we received such as mattresses, pillows, and cereals to sustain us. But we preserved and managed to rebuild.
UNICEF was our ally for the first ten years. Then, the regional government took over with minimal funds. In the 14 years of existence, more than a thousand girls including those with disabilities have been sheltered in the hostel to pursue their high school education. The hostel is more than shelter, offering tutorial and guidance. I bring together volunteer tutors for those struggling with their studies. I always instill in my students to have a vision and to realize their potential so they can reach magnificent heights. They are taught numerous life and soft skills they need in their lives. They are mentored about womanhood and their basic rights to life and education.
Once the girls finish high school, many further their education; those who didn’t score enough points to enter university go into vocational/technical colleges. Even in universities or colleges, I encourage these girls to stick together and continue the sense of sisterhood and culture of supporting each other throughout their stay. There are support groups to welcome new girls from the hostel when they join their universities, familiarize them with the environment, and provide tutorial support to girls in need. I find this to be a very effective support group because no girl has ever dropped out of a university. Some have gone to pursue their graduate and post-graduate (doctoral) degrees at international universities. I am so proud of what the girls have become. They are serving their communities and country as health extension professionals, police officers, furniture workers, journalists, school teachers, university lecturers, researchers and so much more. “One of my proudest moments was when I saw one of the former hostel students at the House of Representatives representing her region and advocating for women’s rights to education. I had tears of joy. Great moments like this remind me of my purpose and the need to do more.” My students are now my ambassadors and advocates for women’s education. They preach the importance of women’s education wherever they go. They vow to aid the hostel financially, to encourage and mentor current students.
“I am not just pro-women’s education; I am pro-education. I believe from the bottom of my heart that education sets a person free.” There was a time when I came across two teenage boys abandoned by their families. I couldn’t take them into the hostel because it’s an all-girls hostel, but I managed to convince the administration of a local technical college to give them a room to stay and I provided meals daily throughout the four years of their studies. Now one of them is a communications officer at Women’s Affairs and the other works at Ethiopian Electric Power.
It is unfortunate how most women in rural areas are illiterate with little to no awareness of their basic rights, which make them easy targets for manipulation. Their illiteracy is a hindrance to understanding their basic rights to legal advice and may sign away their ownership to inheritances. They get physically, emotionally, and psychologically abused by their husbands. When they finally decide to seek justice, they face other men who do not relate to or understand their pain. These women needed a woman who could relate to their pains and still be able to give them legal assistance. Although my background is not law, I have an in-depth knowledge of the Holy Quran, by which the Shariah Court is administered as well as the fitha biher, hence, the Women’s Bureau appointed me to be a women’s representative.
I was the first woman to have been legally appointed by the Shariah Court as a representative for women. I assist women in tasks as simple as registering a case, following up on lawsuits, and appeals. I have received numerous threats from the husbands of these women. But I persisted to help hundreds more. I also encourage these women to be financially independent. We organize volunteers to teach these women reading, writing, and basic mathematical operations. They also learn different ways to enhance their crop production and provide them with market linkage with hotels and merchants. For women living in urban settings, we help them establish small startups in the khat, spices, and injera business then connect them to a network of suppliers and buyers, expanding urban agriculture and horticulture as a sustainable source of income. Most are now successful entrepreneurs. We are currently working on an organizational reformation to create a well-established and steady structure in order to sustain the hostel and its service.
What do they say about Amina?
I knew Amina when she was my social studies teacher in La Gare elementary school, said Kerima Ali, Vice Chairwoman of the Regional Chamber of Dire Dawa. I remember her to be very diligent with her students. We met again when I was working as a school head and she was working at the Ministry of Education as the directorate. Amina is self-initiated, proactive, easy-to-communicate with, charismatic, and resourceful. She made it her calling to unleash the potential of those neglected women and girls in the rural areas. She understands the power of women’s education to transform a community. Another thing I admire about her is how she does her job with passion and never expects recognition from others.
Amina is someone who understands the true value of education and strives to create an impact by educating the youth said Tirusew. I should know as I was one of them. I started as a guard for the hostel, and through her encouragement and support—both materially and psychologically—I was able to continue my education from where I had stopped. I just earned my MBA. Her impartiality and peaceful approach to things make her ideal as the go-to person in conflict resolution. She is exceptionally loved and respected for her deeds and influence. Her approach is strategic and diplomatic and is the reason for the success of her students. She should be thanked for opening doors of opportunities for numerous young girls. Because of her, countless girls in rural areas now have role models.
I was with ‘Eteye’ Amina from the conception of the hostel project, said Yiftu Abas, President of the Federation of Women. She has embedded the essence of service in me. She has taught me invaluable lessons: time management; negotiation; persistence; dedication; and commitment. She is successful in channeling the generosity of Dire people toward a cause with a long-lasting impact. Her legacy is in the thousands of her students and their families’ lives. She is a person of peace, love, and prosperity.
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