Founder and General Manager, Bahirdar Academy; Director, Ethiopian School Meal Initiative.


Frealem Shibabaw

Frealem Shibabaw, also known as Fray, was born in Addis Ababa and raised in Chagni, Western part of Gojam, where her father decided to pursue a commercial farming business, attending elementary and junior high school in Chagni. Frealem later moved with her family to Bahir Dar finishing her secondary school education at Tana Hayk. She then traveled to the US for her college studies and earned her first degree in Business Management. Frealem returned to Ethiopia with an interest to get engaged in real estate development, yet her journey would take her to another kind of development.

When her first child turned three-years, Frealem and her husband struggled to find the right school for him, finding none to their satisfaction in terms of safety, hygiene and sanitation. Confronted with this challenge and her desire to live in the Bahir Dar of her childhood, Frealem used this encounter to transform the challenge into an opportunity.  With the idea to start a private school in mind and at heart, Frealem and her husband forged ahead in starting preparatory work, though both had no idea in how to generate the initial capital. Then something extraordinary happened. Fray calls it, ‘divine intervention.’ The Government made special provisions of free land for those who invest in education. That gave Frealem’s plan a boost and the Bahir Dar Academy was birthed in 2001 with 50 students. In its current capacity, the school caters to 2700 students and employs 230 full-time staff members of which 65% are female.

The total investment so far has reached 80 million birr. Bahir Dar Academy is now named a model school by the Amhara Region because of its student centered set up and management style. The school is a safe haven for children where they are encouraged to become focused, vision-oriented and nurtured to realize their potential.  Hence, the students do extremely well academically.

In reflecting upon her past encounters that paved the path to a second social engagement, Frealem recalls that during one of her supervisory visits to the academy, she was stopped by a very determined five-year-old boy who shared with her that he was not enrolled in school as his mother could not afford the school fees. Frealem was determined to give such a courageous child the opportunity to continue his studies and soon after joining the school he proved that the investment on him was fruitful as he exceled in his studies well into the third grade.

However, as time went by, his performance started to diminish and it became a confusing matter for all who were excitedly involved in his development. His home room teacher started noticing that the boy was no more interested in school and preferred to sit by himself during breaks. One thing that puzzled the teacher was how fast he would run to the lunchroom and how quickly he would leave it thereafter.  She would soon discover that there was no food in the lunch box and the boy would come to school with an empty lunch box because his mother could not afford to put anything in it.  Frealem remembers how angry and devastated she felt when she learnt this fact.  This was the case that opened her eyes not only to his personal problem, which found resolution through her charity, but also to the nationwide nutrition challenges of school-aged children and the related effect of nutrition problems on their academic performance.

Based on that experience, Frealem began a prototype income-generating project that feeds school children in Bahir Dar and Sebeta.  Following research and discussion with various stakeholders, Frealem developed the Ethiopian School Meal Initiative.

Frealem’s third major social intervention that created opportunities for many women was organizing women entrepreneurs and establishing an association that supports their economic development.  She is the co-founder of the Amhara Region Association of Women Entrepreneurs that enabled her to share her entrepreneurial skills with many other women.

Passion in life

Although Frealem always knows that any kind of business she establishes contributes to the betterment of society at large, she believes above all investing in children is ultimately investing in the future.  For her, education is a key element to a secured life and schools are the right foundations where she chooses to contribute to bring about change in the life of generations.  She believes that the future of Ethiopia will be secured when we start off right.

Talking about her passion, Fray shares, “anything of social value that brings change to the lives of others is my calling in life.” She also believes that an empowered woman is a foundation for an empowered family, and hence an empowered society.

Achievements Frealem is Proud of:

  • Frealem is one of the founders and past President of the Amhara Region Association of Women Entrepreneurs that started in 2000 with only 60 members but has grown to more than 3,000 with four regional offices creating job opportunities for many.  During her tenure as a President, Frealem strived to ensure the Association’s sustainability by developing strong leaders amongst its members.
  • Frealem strongly believes in community owned and managed programs for that ensure sustainability. She campaigned to bring the government’s attention to this national program by creating “Model School Milk Projects” in two cities: Sebeta and Bahir Dar. The programs including daily rations of milk and bread (baked by the mothers themselves) to children up to kindergarten.
  • The project runs by the school community in collaboration with the city administrations and is considered a model.  Frealem, therefore, proposed this successful model to be considered as countrywide program to the Prime Minister’s Office which was accepted as “Ethiopian School Meal Program Initiative”.  A decision was made to incorporate this Initiative in the 2nd phase of the Growth and Transformation Plan.

Enabling Others:

  • Establishing a school is enabling a generation – providing education to students and enabling teachers to deliver quality education by providing them trainings and mentoring them is how Frealem is enabling generations.
  • By creating association of women entrepreneurs and creating enabling environment for them to operate as businesswomen, Frealem has pushed thousands of women to become their own boss.   Beneficiaries are not only women, but also family members and communities at large. The association was established and provided strategic benefits to its members providing access to micro finance without any collateral; convincing husbands to support and encourage their spouses in their endeavors, providing basic skills on business and financial management; access to land and ownership of a share company to women members.

Helping Other Women:

One of the unique features of the Bahir Dar Academy is that it provides a day care center for teachers allowing them to pursue career and family.

As a result of this initiative:

  1. Women teachers are not put in a difficult position of deciding whether they leave their jobs to be with their kids as most of them cannot afford nannies;
  2. Women keep their jobs and their income which impacts the family’s livelihood positively;
  3. Women are more confident and feel secure, thus, giving their best to their students;

Their babies grow healthy and strong because they are breast fed and have their mother’s attention the whole day.