Confusion or Contribution: The Case of Ethiopian Diaspora

Confusion or Contribution: The case of Ethiopian Diaspora was presented on October 6, 2016, at AWIB monthly event, Hilton. Lidet Tadessse, the moderator, introduced the three prominent Diasporas panelists who are investing, working and participating in the growth and development of Ethiopia.  The three panelists were Gigi Sebsibe, Founder, Interior Motifs &Design (IMD) PLC, Zemedeneh Negatu, and Managing Partner & Head of Transaction Advisory, Ernst & Young and Mesfin Ayenew, founder and Senior Partner, Mesal & Associates Engineering consultancy / Board of Ethiopian Diaspora Association.

The panelists started by sharing their personal stories and experiences , the opportunities, contributions and challenges that Diasporas face.   This event was attended by a mixed audience of diaspora from various countries as well as non-diaspora, AWIB participants.

Experience as a diaspora:

Gigi considers her experience in Ethiopia nothing but a reward. She continues, “rewarded to have been met by generous locals without  much resistance towards me. I established my own business as Interior Motifs & Design (IMD) PLC and now growing to become furniture manufacturing company.’’   Although, she’s experienced as a business woman in managing and leading a company, she had to learn to adjust to the new values and ways of communication with her employees, partners as well as customers. In the furniture making industry, at least in her own company, where the majority of her employees are male, to curve the barrier of her high expectation and leadership,   she had to devise a communication strategy and adjust the way she runs her business.

Many diasporas compare their experience here in Ethiopia to their life in US, UK  etc.   She advises, “we all need to manage and /or avoid unrealistic exceptions. Unrealistic expectations are the way to fail. Expect the worst and set yourself for a surprise.” She also suggested that it is our personal responsibility to do our homework and be better armed to face quite a number of challenges. Some challenges are not unique just to the diaspora but challenges to be tackled by everyone at national levels. She recommended that it would be very helpful to have an information packet or kit ( the information kit may include information regarding  about the steps to take to process a yellow card, for example, where to go for resources and  the rights and responsibilities of diasporas).  The packet can be handed in at the immigration office when diasporas come to process their yellow card.

When the second panelist, Mesfin  decided to move back about 5 years ago, he came prepared and planned as to how  and what he wanted to do  and his involvement in the development of Ethiopia. As an engineer with extensive knowledge and experience in the US, he knew and wanted to make a difference in his expertise– the field of construction and engineering. He always had a deep concern about the quality and safety of building constructions in Ethiopia and he wanted to be part of or do something about it.  He then established Mesal & Associates Engineering Consultancy that consults on code based construction: inspections, safety and quality, calamities resistance buildings. He wanted to add value in the Engineering field giving extra attention to the quality and safety of constructions done in Ethiopia. Mesfin is also an active board member of the Ethiopian diaspora association.

As a board member for the Ethiopian diaspora association, he highlighted that the Association  was established with the aim of meeting the needs of the growing number of Ethiopians and Ethiopian Diaspora residing abroad or already returned  and interested in contributing to Ethiopia’s development.   The office involves in policy initiatives, and legislation that helps to enhance diaspora engagement, liaisons with Ethiopian government to encourage the participation of the Ethiopian Diaspora in investment and knowledge and technology transfer. The Ethiopian diaspora association serves as a voice of the diaspora and has almost 1000 members.   

Zemedeneh, third panelist, a prominent finance and investment banking specialist and highly involved in the policy and diaspora matters stated that the diaspora has a substantial contribution towards the overall economic growth and development of Ethiopia. Remittances from the Ethiopian Diaspora in 2015 reached $3.7 billion according to the Ethiopian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. (Source: EBC) Approximately 6% of GDP!  Which was more than the overall country export revenue. “There are over 3000 diaspora enterprises operated in Ethiopia.  These enterprises are the second highest job creators and employers next to the government,” he added.  Diaspora contribution and involvement is positively impacting the growth and development of Ethiopia not only in investment but also in knowledge and technology transfer.

Zemdeneh gave an example of his own company diligently working in the transfer of knowledge and technology by mixing and matching local recruiters with that of Ethiopian diaspora professionals. The result was impeccable in creating a platform for knowledge and experience sharing. Also, there is a huge support from the government regarding the Ethiopian American Doctors Group where about 250 prominent physicians are building World Class Referral Hospital in Addis and the group have secured the land and construction due to start soon.  The referral hospital is not only going to bring more revenue to the nation but also our nation and continent will benefit from high standard medical care.

Therefore, the diaspora is significantly contributing to the growth of the Ethiopian economy, participating in poverty reduction, investment, knowledge and technology transfer.

What specific benefits does the diaspora policy provide?.

The Diasporas policy gives various benefits which differ from sector to sector and type of investment or business. Some can get tax-breaks on profit or on machineries, imported materials etc. The Diaspora association has information regarding the policy and you can check

Why are some Diasporas contributing to a nation-wrecking or playing a destructive role?

The panelist recognized there are quite some Diasporas who seem to mix or misunderstood Diasporas participation in nation building and their own political view. It is the lack of separation between the two(one’s own political view and economic participation). One can have a different view from government and still contribute to the growth and development of Ethiopia.  Despite our differences with the government, we should thrive to engage with the right community and be part of the growth and development of Ethiopia.

What are the services of the diaspora association?

The association plays a vital role in advocating and policy lobbying and provides services such as general information, legal advice, information about licenses,  etc.  One of the achievements of the association, in collaboration with other stakeholders, is the enactment of Diaspora Policy in 2013. The diaspora policy encourages and creates a conducive environment that will enable and benefit Diasporas to return and be part of the growing economy. Any diaspora and returnee can be a member. 

The diaspora policy is a great start but better and integrated policy and better diaspora engagement which could even contribute to the development of the country is in the works.  The diaspora association is now focusing more on the knowledge and technology transfer across all spectrum. The association believes that it is critically important to better engage and encourage the participation of professional Ethiopians returned or thinking of returning.

In conclusion, the diaspora has a great role in the socio economic growth of Ethiopia. It is important to realize that whether we have a different political view or have reservation towards the current government, whether we invest in our country or not, Ethiopia is on the right track of economic growth and transformation. We have seen an increase in international investors from china, USA, UK, India etc. If one wants to participate in creating employment and building a nation, the time is now or passing. As time passes, the barriers to come back and invest or participate in building the nation gets harder. It is important for any diaspora to be involved in the best possible way.

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