Reflections and Observations on Ethiopia’s: Economic Growth, Education and Leadership

An extreme excitement and anticipation of participants of June’s AWiB event peaked as the usually calm Hilton’s lobby was flooded. The entrance to Harar Grill indicated that something worth attending was about to take place, for onlookers.  The room came to life with early arrivals and the reception got warmer every second.  Those with reservation came in for a refreshment and interaction with fellow attendants. They began discussing the topics chosen for networking by organizers: What is your role in Ethiopia’s future? What is Ethiopia for you? Define a country?

Right before AWiB’s President introduced the speaker, a poem of Maya Angelou was read by Sara Yirga, AWiB Board member, in remembrance of Maya’s excellence.  The main reason was to draw the attention of participants that Ethiopians need to appreciate and recognize women of excellence within our localities, regions and nation. This was a good opportunity to remind everyone to nominate women with the virtue of excellence for the upcoming ‘AWiB’s Woman of Excellence Award.’ As AWiB strives to achieve promoting a culture of appreciation and recognition of our own, we need role models. like Maya, and we need to identify our Mayas’ out and celebrate them.

This was followed by a quick plenary discussion on two of the chosen networking questions: What is holding us from being a prosperous country and what are our biggest barriers?

AWiB found a very charismatic man that rocked the monthly program with his insightful observation about our country, Ethiopia, in terms of business, education and leadership and left the audience with an “aha” state of being.

Haddis began with a sense of humor and shared a little bit about his background.  “I grew up in Addis and my childhood dream was to be a football player for St. George club and if that did not work out, I wanted to be in theatrical business.  However, I took a detour and left to the USA.  I developed a new passion as I observed what it would take the then Governor Bill Clinton to prepare himself to run for presidency and did everything possible to make that happen.  Fascinated by the process, I thought that would be worthy of my carrier pursuit.  Learning and volunteering in college and work life, I took another detour after I met this – phenomenal family – Bill and Malinda Gates, who have inspired me with their generosity as well as their leadership.”

Haddis stated that for the last ten years, this family has given 30 billion dollars of their assets to others, mostly to mothers and children around the world whom they believed needed a better opportunity in life.   He joined the Gates Foundation in 2007 and stated that the couple love Ethiopia very much and they continue to support the development of the country.

Comparing about the country’s situation, Haddis said, “I left the country when there was a civil war, the education system was near collapse, the health figures were very poor, infant mortality rate under five was twenty percent.  It was the time that the country sought much needed foreign aid from everywhere: individuals, governments and institutions.  Based on the official statistics, however, today’s Ethiopia is relatively different.   No civil war, the primary education is 90% compared to 19% when I left, one of the health indicators (under five mortality was 20% but now 6%), access to clean water especially in the rural area was 6% then, but now is 49%, life expectancy was 43 years but today it is 63 years; per capita income was 120$ but now it is hovering around 400$, the poverty head count measured up was over 50% but now counted down to 29%.  The economic growth is ascribed as one of the fastest growing nations in the world.  This has commercial and promotional value for the outsiders to pay attention to Ethiopia. It has built confidence for the people, leaders, investors and others. The country is building its financial and technical capabilities; the railway system as well as constructing one of the biggest dam in the world are pros to show the country is heading in the right direction.”

However, Haddis stated that there is a significant gap in quality of goods and services.  The qualities of infrastructure; the transport, customs and logistics systems; the caliber of graduates who are ready for the workforce woefully show quality is missing.  We are glamourizing our city but the wholistic nature of a city is missing for we need open spaces, place for children to play, or space to breath in the midst of congestion.

Haddis’ reflections on the future of Ethiopia show that we are certainly heading in the right direction but a gap needs to be filled in to sustain the growth.  Haddis said, “Either we do things at the cheapest price possible, or we do things with people who do not have the skills to manage complex realities or we don’t actually value quality or worse yet, it could be the combination of these all.  The price we are going to pay in the future for the lack of quality will be huge.  The next phase of growth should focus on quality for we are integrated into the global market.  This requires sophisticated management skills, talented individuals who manage our economy and enabling system.”

If we are the great nation that we claim we are, which I truly believe we are, there are some fundamental things that concern me, said Haddis:

  1. Why are we still one of the poorest nations in the world in spite of the great history and great people?
  2. Why haven’t we created a single company that competes globally amongst big players?
  3. Why is the diaspora quieter and at times even disruptive when others are doing wonders for their country?
  4. Why don’t we have a single CEO Ethiopian descent in the fortune 100 companies?  Aren’t we capable of leading big businesses?
  5. Why is that in a country of brilliant women, that our entire leadership team is almost exclusively men, be it at the federal, state, local or diplomatic or global level, WHY?
  6. Why have we not produced a Nobel Prize winner, even a strong candidate?
  7. As much as we love football, our teams are not competitive globally, why not?
  8. Why is that we have to tear roads down after building them six months ago because they were planned incorrectly?
  9. Why is it that our agricultural outputs are one of the lowest in the world whereas the majority of people are dependent both for their income as well as livelihood?

Leadership at every level has a lot to do with it.  To keep the momentum of growth, the role of effective leadership and the importance of education that fosters developing critical thinkers for future generation will be crucial.

Commitment, hard work, respect for others and listening to their interest, giving people the benefit of the doubt, reading, learning, and absorbing a lot of information, respecting routine, and incorporating discipline are some of the qualities required in spite of all other things that demand our attention.

“When we talk about leadership, education plays a key role in making a leader.  Developed countries deliberately create institutions that create leaders, which we need to emulate from them.  There are 4600 universities in US, but the last four presidents of the country, the entire supreme court of justices of the country went to two schools, Harvard and Yale.  Same things with the UK, the four Prime Minsters’ of the UK went to two schools, Oxford and Edinburg.  There is a deliberate process by which countries produce their leaders.  This is about being selective and creative about leadership.”

Haddis emulated from the developed countries and opened a school called, ‘International Leadership Academy of Ethiopia – ILAE.  This is meant to create the next generation of leaders by selecting the best and brightest students from public schools and providing them the best unmatched education.  That is starting the process of creating the next generation of leaders, 60% are young girls and 60% of the faculty members are women. Students are nurtured to discover their purpose, challenged to think critically, empowered to set and surpass their own standards, and inspired to contribute to the leadership efforts of Ethiopia and Africa.

Looking at the future, Ethiopia predicated to be a middle-income country by 2025.  In monetary terms, this means, from 380$ to 1200$ per capita income.  What are the key factors to be able to reach what we have planned to achieve and sustain our growth?

  • We need to develop our knowledge base;
  • Institutions should produce skilled talents;
  • Be sophisticated in our understanding of the global economy;
  • Improve our work ethics;
  • Be flexible to adjust and rebound from our mistakes;
  • Be patient to see gradual growth and see greater heights. In the first year, Coca Cola company made 50$ working the whole year.  In the year 2013, they made 47 billion dollars. Bill Gates made 16, 000 $ in the first year of Microsoft’s business.  In 2013, it was 77 billion dollars.
  • Capturing the value of our products.  Ethiopia is a bystander when others come and grab the opportunities of its own products.  At times without us recognizing it.  Good examples are the perfume labeled Lalibela, and the Teff none ascribed to Ethiopia’s.
  • Benefiting from the full package of investments by China, Turk….
  • Encouraging new initiatives to be brands and go bigger and greater heights.  Bethlehim Tilahu, Kaldis, and Enat Bank are models to be celebrated at local as well as continental level.  In the process inspiring many young women to do many young women to do greater things.

Haddis concluded his observations and reflections with a bright vision, “When I see SoleRebels or Kaldis, I see the Coca Cola and Microsoft of Ethiopia.”

Questions and Answers are summarized below:

1)   Why was South Korea’s growth different from others which made it difficult to emulate?

The case of South Korea was on a different route because it was based on knowledge base.  They have done a lot of work to prepare for the transformation well in advance.  Theirs is knowledge economy, they have great institutions, they have great leadership and management skills, which were put in place prior to the transformation process. Once, they were able to implement the implementation, they managed to bring about the change within shorter period of time.  Most economists consider this as a miracle which no other country had that chance to start their timeline of transformation accordingly.  Ethiopia may not try to go that route because we start from different stances.  Koreas managed to accomplish the middle-income country path within six years for their initial basis was different.

2)   What did you do to push the agenda of having a city which has open space for its wholistic growth?

The idea of having condominium is a very good one that does not send the poor at the outskirt of the city.  So that is not considered a problem.  However, not having space or green area is a problem.  Haddis stated that though his ability was limited to what he could do, two of his friends and he had submitted their proposal to the late PM, to the Mayor and recently he learnt that an order was passed by the PM to stop the selling process of Ghion which may or may not be related to the proposal but if materialized, it would have increased the beauty of the country.

3)   Is it too late to incorporate quality?

The school initiative of ILAE was done for this purpose.  If fifty outstanding students are produced every year, the country may get its thinkers and leaders who are prepared to challenge the status quo.  It is never too late but we need to start from somewhere.

4)   Competition from China and Turk would force us to think collaboratively.  So what do you think about opening the country for foreign investors?

It is true that completion will enable us to think creatively to survive.  However, these companies are large enough with more than twenty years’ experience and backed by their government and banks.  Most of our businesses are not in the position to compete with these big players due to experience and lack of resources. So we need to think about different models to cope up with that.

5)   Quality starts at home and if we tolerate shabbiness in the way we live, that is extended in everything we purchase.

When we talk about building a nation, we are talking about quality is based on training so we go back how we are trained.  Schools are the basis for that.  Are the schools producing the best people in terms of engineering, construction, architecture?   So home is the beginning but schools are responsible to focus on quality to produce quality thinkers and doers.  So institutions and the public sector environment has a big role to play in this.  It requires knowledgeable and serious people to get together and think through in order to change the tide of quality issues, otherwise the cost is unbearable in the long run.

6)   Can we have original African stories of business?  Why do we have to emulate from Westerners instead of working on the Africa’s style.

Now it is becoming a global economy, not just the western world.  It is no longer the US or UK or China or Japan, it is about what are the most successful business endeavors globally and see how we can learn from that?  The logic is that, companies who reached their peak now started at the bottom. The path to prosperity is a very well-travelled and we can learn from them.  Whatever we call ‘African’, should be upheld high and we need to focus on the locals.  Our companies need to prosper and do well.  If we are confined to a small environment, we are not in a position to reach our height, nor can go global to go peak.  We need to grow indigenous companies to compete with greater ones.

7)   The former PM stated that we are using India’s model of producing many educated students.  Quantity comes first before quality.

If you notice India’s focus, it is true that they educated the mass and access to education was the primary goal.  However, along with that, there were exceptional schools created that produced quality thinkers.  For example Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) was a good example of that.  This was established 65 years ago.  Only top students could go there.  Students admitted in the IIT are broadcasted, celebrated and become news.  It was IIT graduates who boomed the IT technology industry of India.  There was a deliberate attempt to change the country whereas at the same time mass education took place.  This is the element that is missing in our country.  The IIT President once said, “I tutored my child, hired teachers for him, helped him to study hard but he failed the exam so could not enter IIT.  So I sent him to Cornell University.”  Hence, Haddis said, the parallel exercise of deliberate production of leaders is what is missing in our country.

8)   Sexism and corruption were mentioned and Haddis stated that corruption compromises our growth and hence it should be fought from different forefronts of supporting the civil servants, making adjustments in fair payment and distribution system and other things so that corruption would not deepen its poisonous root crippling our system.

9)   Leadership should be created.  Leaders should not come to leadership positions by accident.  People should be trained to be ministers, head of the media, and so forth.  Otherwise going forward will be very difficult.  We have to be systematic about the talents we are producing.

AWiB is very grateful to have Haddis to redirect our focus to quality for sustainable growth and development.

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