May 4th AWiB monthly event – Negotiating through Ethiopian Business Culture – recap

The May 4th AWiB monthly event began with the host Meti introducing the evening’s topic “Negotiating through Ethiopian Business Culture”. The first guest Aster Solomon, CEO of Mosaic Hotel, owner and manager of many businesses and a founder & Board Member at Enat Bank was introduced as an expert in navigating through the Ethiopian business environment. The second guest Kathy Marshall is the manager of Sabahar, Handmade Ethiopian Textiles that works with traditional weavers and producing fair trade artisanal clothing and fabric to international markets.

Aster Solomon began her presentation defining culture and its impact on business citing time management, honesty and loyalty in the Ethiopian business context. She listed lack of transparency, commitment, non-assertiveness, poor team work and ethics. She insisted that in her experience there’s no sharing of risks or benefits in the work place and lack of skills, motivation and ambition among the work force. She also stated that the Ethiopian labor law is weak and not conducive for businesses.

Her negative assessment included people’s unwillingness to work for private companies choosing instead to work for large or international corporations. She also mentioned flaws in policies especially within the education system resulting in under qualified graduates.

Aster recommends young people to get a quality education, be hard working and persevere. She also emphasizes the potential role religious institutions can play in influencing young people to become more ethical. She said young people should have discipline, a strong culture, be hard working, thrifty, and well-educated.

Aster urges speaking openly about the business culture, following that statement with “I don’t trust employees so I do not invest in them”. She claimed there aren’t any legal safety nets protecting her investments and she can easily shut down the business and move on.

“I like to work with women but they have a lot of problems when they get married or have children” she stated. Her company is now trying to organize childcare services to battle what she regards to be the cause of a decrease in efficiency.

She also stated that she doesn’t rely on references of applicants when filling a vacancy. “I don’t trust them” she said, admitting it might be part of her own bad business practice.

She summed up her presentation by stating that the Ethiopian culture is not conducive to work. She thanked her family for the support they provided, contributing to her success. She then asked why Ethiopians residing abroad are more successful than those living at home. An audience member later offered that perhaps it’s because there are more opportunities available abroad especially in higher education, referring to her own tenure in the US.

Kathy Marshall began her presentation with a beautiful video on weaving, showing the colorful dyeing, spinning, weaving and finishing process. The vibrancy of the hanging fabrics was a refreshing change after the W/zo Aster’s tirade that left this writer disheartened.

Kathy used to work in NGOs until she decided to move into the private business sector, deeming it to be a better approach to change. Sabahar, a textile factory was established in 2004 to show the world the beautiful skill and workmanship that goes into producing Ethiopian fabric. Targeting the high end international market and using basic traditional equipment available in the country, Sabahar aims to create high-end goods. Kathy was unsure if she could comment on the Ethiopian culture and its effect on business and instead referred to her values as a Canadian. Her business philosophy is based on trust, the necessity of win-win scenarios and personal sacrifice for the common good. After stating that she loves what she does and the people she works with she continued to state the challenges her business has faced over the past decade.

Poor team work skills and inability to be strong decision makers compromises the active roles employees should be taking in the work place. Sabahar organizes frequent team buildings and empowerment trainings, creating a supportive space to make decisions and evening the playing ground. Kathy also mentioned the challenge with implementing a system of rewarding good work and promotions, stating some employees feel uncomfortable earning raises or promotions and becoming different from their coworkers. She said there are social pressures that may be unique to Ethiopia to assimilate and create fear of being rewarded.

Another challenge Sabahar mentioned was the lack of documentation and proper guidelines in regards to policy information for new businesses, especially the lack of transparency on regulations for foreigners. The little attention the public sector receives, especially pertaining to the development of technical skills, difficulties in the exporting process, the challenges of maintaining a supply chain and having consistent and reliable inputs regularly available has forced Sabahar to create multiple contingency plans.

Finally, Kathy stated, Sabahar has had a lot of support even though the company structure isn’t exactly what the Ethiopian government looks for in manufacturing and textile companies. This was followed by a question and answer session. A question about fostering good relationship with employees and creating a system that allows for good communication and productivity was asked. Aster answered that creating a system is always a struggle and she had difficulties with supervising employees and work details that constantly require her attention. She expressed her fear of employees leaving ‘once they get what they want’. The labor law, Aster stated, is in their favor, allowing employees to [receive whatever they deserve].

Kathy admitted that implementation and follow up for such a system is difficult but it was important to her to create a safe space where employees’ voices are important. By implementing a Kaisen Continual Improvement system for the past 6 years involving everyone in decision making, holding weekly meetings without management, choosing team leaders and coming up with solutions together, employees have come to foster feelings of personal responsibility and ownership of the work they do. She stated putting the people ahead of profit margins and respecting the workers’ choices has been a positive system. Transparency with profit and leveling with employees on how their personal input contributes to the larger picture has allowed a company with almost zero turnovers.

Aster stated that, especially in her International School she owns and manages, trainings to improve the skills of employees to the extent of sending them abroad for higher education are offered to highly promising employees. Aster’s previous claim of not giving much attention to employee development was not addressed.

Meti’s final question to both guests asked what they would have done differently if offered the opportunity to go back to the moment they started their businesses. Aster replied that she would focus on self-development, going for her MBA, broadening her business into other sectors, working with banks and taking loans would be the changes she would have made.

Kathy stated that importing equipment for the dyeing process, learning more about how to run a business, becoming more aware of vulnerability and careful with the value chain would be improvements she wishes she had made earlier. Focusing on creating even more social impact, strategic product development and adding value to Sabahar’s product are things she would change in retrospect.

Meti then thanked the guests for sharing valuable information and sharing their experiences. She said she learned about ethics from Aster and the importance of sharing information from Kathy and ended the evening’s discussion by urging every attendee to spread the word about the AWiB Effect and May Forum to be held on May 25th at UNCC.

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