Making Kids a National Priority: Fray Shibabaw pushed & pushed & pushed!!!

“I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.” ~Leonardo da Vinci~

It takes focus, courage and passion to create a movement as huge as making kids societies’ responsibility in a society where all children seem to be invisible. Frealem (Fray) says there is no other but and is getting her way. People are listening; society is listening; above of all government is listening.

Fray who has made kids her business says it is not about poverty reduction but taking care of our children is about developing our nation as grand as it could be…we will be talking in trillions not millions. If Fray has her way and she will, we will get there. AWiB banks on this woman’s tenacity, focus and conscious leadership.

We can’t lead a nation or even sustain an economy where those who must take the mantle are half starved and stunted, Fray asserts. She started her campaign a few years ago leaving her flourishing business (to a system that she created and operates like a smooth machinery) to work initially using her own resources to give substance to her argument. She argues that every developmental strategy that doesn’t include kids will not be sustainable –so she says–  from other nations’ experiences, history or research, a nation that doesn’t stand for its children will not run faster or walk straighter. It marches on same ground singing the same old song and getting nowhere. As a responsible citizen, one who considers community first, Fray spinning her web slowly, meticulously and quietly lends voice to the voiceless.

Push… Push… Oh, it’s another girl!  Yes, but another child to add to our human capital.

Let’s talk numbers:

1. Today, more than 2 out of every 5 children in Ethiopia are stunted.

2. As many as 81% of all cases of child undernutrition and its related pathologies go untreated.

3. 44% of the health costs associated with undernutrition occur before the child turns 1 year old.

4. 28% of all child mortality in Ethiopia is associated with undernutrition.

5. 16% of all repetitions in primary school are associated with stunting

6. Stunted children achieve 1.1 years less in school education.

7. Child mortality associated with undernutrition has reduced Ethiopia’s workforce by 8%

8. 67% of the adult population in Ethiopia suffered from stunting as children.

9. The annual costs associated with child undernutrition are estimated at Ethiopian birr (ETB) 55.5 billion, which is equivalent to 16.5% of GDP.

10. Eliminating stunting in Ethiopia is a necessary step for growth and transformation.  Source: “The cost of Hunger in Africa”: UN World Food Program (WFP).

Growing up in a privileged family but also going through the turmoil  Derg regime, Fray’s firsthand experience in forced settlement triggered by war, drought and famine that left 450,000 dead (official figure) shaped her desire to inquire and understand more about development and what it means? How does a nation develop? What is required for a nation to develop and what are the most important aspects of development? What do we need to consider when we think of nation building?  The forced settlement solution was shortsighted with utter disregard for the human psyche: children in the north, mother in the south and father probably in the east of the country left the children venerable and unprotected to fend for themselves. The children became helpless, confused and not much understanding of what’s going on. Fray witnessed this human tragedy for some came to her city in Bahir Dar mostly the kids. Curious by nature and much focused, Fray wanted to do something about such human negligence that takes an enormous toll on humanity. This has become the image that has stayed with her and followed her even in her business life.

Fray is a successful business woman who has received numerous awards for her business acumen but for every award she received there had been a nagging feeling that got in the way of her celebration. She attributes that to the unfinished business that was imprinted in her at young age about the human aspect of development. When she felt it was time to pursue her dream, she latched on to it…no hesitation, no contemplation. She packed and left her business albeit in good hands and her life as she knew it.

Her curiosity about development didn’t stop there. As a doer Fray mastered Development studies. Through her exploration of her academic works or life experience, she crystallized her passion—social and security systems–how do we make sure our children grow without any fear?

A social system as the interrelationships that exist between individuals, groups, and institutions and forming a coherent whole & security—as living without fear of any kind in life, a system that protects citizens. But Fray focused on children and their food security. At the core of food security is access to healthy food and optimal nutrition for all. Food access is closely linked to food supply, so food security is dependent on a healthy and sustainable food system.

Fray being practical and methodical brought it back the issue to Ethiopia’s particular case  for contextualizing the issue of systems brings the desired effect quickly and effectively. She wanted to explore why such system is lacking in Ethiopia?  It became clear to her that we don’t have such system not because of lack of resources but low capacity and the absence of knowledge.  Political stability is important she says but Ethiopia has been stable politically for the past several years and even though we need more of, there is a healthy curiosity and debate in the nation. What’s missing Fray says is the healthy debate that would bear fruit to the issue of community involvement and commitment to the betterment of society as a whole and specifically to children.

From all the contemplation that this concerned individual dwelt, she thought of better to start with the children hence the  journey to “Sustainable school meal programs in Ethiopia public schools”.

The meaning of development in Ethiopian context must be human development specifically children’s development. To secure children’s security is to secure our future. The current situation dictates the children are not adequately fed, their brain is not developing, their quality of life hence our quality of life is highly compromised” Frealem Shibabaw

Ethiopia’s 41% of the total population is under 15 years of age. As a development work, this should be our main focus. We don’t have intact social system.  Fray’s argument is the mind set of how we see children must change. Children are societies’ responsibilities. We need to agree on this concept before we start any developmental work. In our society, kids are neglected worse than our elders…the concept of a dime a dozen so why worry about them. That’s because we don’t understand what kids do for our society. The central goal of our development should be for the wellbeing of children. When we do that Fray stresses, we begin real development. This in her opinion is not about school feeding but how we see children. When kids grow up, they, above all serve their nation not their parents. Parents are a vehicle for the children’s life but the responsibility must fall on society as a whole. We have to have a deeper understanding when it comes to the young generation…infants…children. Who do children belong to? That should be the debate the nation must hold!

Yes, Ethiopia will be wealthy but for whose benefit? To serve who? What does wealth mean? What is the end goal of wealth…is our national interest protected?  Are our kids protected?  We need to define who is the beneficiary of this wealth? If your wealth doesn’t belong to your children…it means nothing Fray argues.  The ultimate goal  of wealth must be to make sure our community is safe; the old are taken care of and the kids grow up to be responsible citizens…

Because of the enormity of the problem: high dropout rate, susceptibility to illness, abuse…etc…etc… Fray chose to focus on their health and mental development that could be stunted by malnourishment.

Fray’s proposal to the Ethiopian government is to adopt a proposal presented by her team as the school meal initiative to be part of the Ethiopian Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). She boldly presented her argument that kids at this stage need food more than ‘bricks and mortar’. She says they are better off learning under the tree but well fed. To say that to a nation that is building schools at a neck breaking speed could be considered borderline insanity but Fray had their ears and won their hearts! To convince key officials is what Fray considers as great achievement. Indeed it is enormous!

To convince the officials was one thing but to take it into action required King Solomon’s wisdom and Fray’s tenacity. The concern  from the government side was  how to feed all the millions of them and make it sustainable. Fray asked the panel if she came up with sustainable model, would they be open to the idea?  Fray went to task.  She has been thinking about kids all her adult life and by this time she had the clarity to pursue the project and the sense that this model had to be practical, at the grass root level and self-sustaining.  So, the central issue here was how to implement affordable feeding program that can be utilized and maintained.

Fray started asking questions and visualizing a simple model that could be impressive and impactful. “If the wealth of the world is under my control, what would I do?”  What are the skills we have we can bring to the national level?  The answer came to her in a very obvious way…of course mothers, women: with all their undervalued skills of improvising, managing, maintaining and their genuine love for their children.

She reflected for long on the relationship of: Food—-mothers—–children — Food—mothers—children

Next step:

1. Utilizing Local skill

2. Something that doesn’t require technology, machinery or electricity (power)

3. Income generating

Local skill, no machinery, income generating. After contemplating many ideas she came up with better option. Something that has high Nutritional content and a drink….It is milk…milk it is!

To purchase milk for distribution would  not be cost effective and milk because of transportation and mishandling can easily be spoiled. Why not bring the source to the school.  This model’s motto is “ Bring the food to where our children are, they should not go look for food”.

Whole milk has a high nutritional value and is filling. One cup of whole milk can sustain a child for the whole day.

The pilot project started in four schools in extremely poverty stricken areas. The first school was funded from Fray’s personal resources; the next three school milk projects were funded by Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA).

90% of milk producing cows are not healthy therefore affecting the wholesomeness of the milk. The cows must be healthy. Full time veterinaries are in every location to monitor the cows’ health and productivity. A healthy cow gives more milk.  This project proved more than anything milk production is highly profitable. Other dairy farms are not monitored but these cows in all four schools are daily monitored.  The milk is iodized to add to the nutritional value. Sugar is avoided.

A cup of milk with a loaf of bread was the magic pill. The project became very successful, profitable. The school sells the over production to the neighborhood. And with the money earned another meal—a loaf of whole grain bread became part of this meal program.

One of the four schools, Mulugeta Gedle supplies a cup of milk daily to 700 kids. The school produces 105 liters daily. In two months, the school saved 47,000 birr in their account.

This model has been proved a success and was presented to the government.

Community transformation aspects:

  • Dropout rates went considerably down, some areas 0% dropout
  • Teachers became motivated because now they see students eager to learn
  • Created jobs for women
  • Community (school) psychological impact is immense. No more giving up on life because now they understand they can overcome their perception of poverty. A sense of hope and possibility in the community has been observed
  • Wealth creation for the community

All these  results were observed in one year term project. These experimental schools can  in five years provide lunch and snack every day for every kid—a sterling accomplishment and the answer to Ethiopia’s transformation— developing citizens to be creative and productive.

Teachers and those involved in the project go through two days Transformational leadership training.  This program teaches them they can only teach a healthy child…nothing else. It quantifies to them the cost of ignorance…as the saying goes, if you think education is expensive, try ignorance. They get the message.

Armed with these facts Fray presented a concept note on the national school feeding strategy plan to the government and submitted a proposal to take this school meal initiative to a higher level—to create a sound social system for all children nationwide — to establish a public institution funded by tax payer’s money. Ownership must belong to the community and government. This  Public institution will be charged to formulate clear polices and strategies.

A task force selected from 7-8 ministries by the ministry of education was formed to study this proposal in detail and to come up with the implementation strategy. This task force travelled to Brazil to visit “Center of Excellence against Hunger”  and to learn the experience of others.

With the school meal program implemented nationwide, the opportunities are huge:

  • In order for this to work, the decision makers have to be the mothers. This must be their call, their movement…for the Ethiopian women. “No child will go hungry” must be their slogan
  • In five years, all elementary schools nationwide will get a cup of milk at the minimum.  This is not wishful thinking but proven
  • We don’t have cows that yield high production. High productive cows must be imported from countries such as Holland or breeding company must be established; another huge business opportunity. With highly developed breeding businesses, Ethiopia in ten years could be exporter of high breed cows
  • There will be high demand for  cow feed. Cow feed with other seeds such as corn (abundant in Ethiopia) will be added which thousands of farmers can be hugely benefited
  • With all the milk the schools produce, there will be a need for many processing plants within the community  for cheeses and other dairy products.  If the dairy farm is strongly developed, the farmers can take over…this could happen in 10-20 years
  • Meat will be affordable
  • Leather industry will grow
  • The dairy farm model will revolutionize the food industry

What would be the author’s role in this immense development?

To continue working on the social system design –intact social systems– to secure children’s future and the nation’s future; perhaps to be involved in guiding the institution.

Any concern she may have?

Not much she responded; perhaps the huge potential may make some stakeholders short sighted and could be open to corruption.

She stresses that’s why the decision makers should be women because of their children, they have a bigger stake in this model. She encourages all women associations to work for this to happen…ultimately, it’s about our children and about the future of our nation.

Fray concludes “my understanding of life is that it is too short and that I have a choice how to live it. This is what I want to do and how I want to do it. This project gives me a reason to get up in the morning…a breath of fresh air –the answer for my existence. Truly, deep down, I work for myself, it is not even for the children.

AWiB asked Fray what will be written on her tombstone

A woman who truly knew what she wanted to do and she chose to do it.

AWiB would like to change that to “Frealem Shibabaw, she lived for her conscious”. 

Share on your socials!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *