The Market Disrupter
My message to society is to believe in women’s abilities. I was able to get here because my family believed in my potential and invested in me.
My StoryZaf Gebre Tsadik
I was born in 1955 in the small town of Debre Zeit from a hard working mother and father engaged in trade business. My parents were not educated but believed in education, enrolling me at Atse Libne Dingel elementary school. I loved school and studied hard to have high marks. I attended high school until 11th grade at Ethio-Evangelical College. Following the military coup in the 1960s, I was sent to Akaki to teach the local community as part of the national service “Edget Be-Hibret.” This experience gave me the opportunity to know the day-to-day life of my community intimately. After my national service, I completed 12th grade at St. Joseph School in Adama. I joined Addis Ababa University and studied pharmacy.
My mother always said that she was not surprised I became a pharmacist. As a child I was inquisitive about family members’ medications. She also told me that I took active interest in participating in any activities to help others. What I remember most about myself growing up was that I was very committed to my studies and more than anything feared scoring low marks. Dedication and fear of failure made me be persistent during my school years.
After graduating in 1980, I was hired by Debre Birhan Hospital as head of their pharmacy department. A few years later, I was transferred to Zewditu Memorial Hospital. Then the devastating 1985 famine struck. I joined Catholic Relief Services and traveled throughout Ethiopia to distribute medication to the affected communities. I loved my job and did it with utmost dedication. The male-dominated industry or the culture which frowns upon a young, professional woman leading others at work did not intimidate me. The traveling needed to distribute medication at times was not easy, but I tolerated it as I knew what mattered most was people got their medication. After Catholic Relief Services, I transferred to Desert Locust Control organization for Eastern Africa and served as regional research officer. I used this opportunity to travel the world and participated in trainings and workshops, learning new things and expanding my network.
With the change of government under the mixed economy approach a new directive was put in place allowing pharmacists to hold a license. This gave me the opportunity to have my own pharmacy business. I established ZAF Pharmaceuticals PLC in 1991. Initially without resigning from my post, I used my lunchtime and after-work hours including weekends to do market research and approach potential customers.
I remember drafting several letters and knocking on every embassy door asking them to work with me. My efforts paid off and I was able to establish a working relationship with the Chinese Embassy. On most days traveling back and forth on foot was required to facilitate any
communication with the economic council section at the embassy to secure a partner. The embassy helped me in translating letters and eventually in securing suppliers.
The main business activities of the company includes but not limited to: Import and distribution of safe quality medicines (human and veterinary); medical supplies and medical equipment; import and distribution of infant formulas; represent and advise interested suppliers in all governmental tenders. At present the company has a market authorization to import and distribute more than 300 different medicines, medical supplies, and equipment from different multinational and generic companies. A company I started alone now has 180 workers and a registered capital of 71.4 million Birr.
When I learned of the great demand for capsules beyond Ethiopia, I pitched my business idea to different parties and was able to recruit two Chinese investors. Together we constructed and opened Sino Ethiop Associate (Africa) PLC, the only capsule producing company in Sub- Sahara Africa to date, creating job opportunities for 180 Ethiopians. Today, ZAF Pharmaceuticals exports to Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, bringing in much needed foreign currency into the country.
Two additional business ventures joined ZAF in recent years. These companies are Masbez Packaging PLC with a capital of 9 million Birr and 20 employees producing custom-made pollster foam for capsule packaging, and ZAFUNA Mining PLC with a capital of 5 million Birr and 22 employees currently engaging in mining emerald in Guji zone.
Kindness, hard work, commitment, professionalism and empathy are the values that help me execute my vision. I am driven to make better healthcare solutions more accessible. During my tenure at Zewditu Hospital, I recognized the devastating effect of not having access to medication. I used to go out of my way to search for and secure medication for free for patients who did not have the means to afford it. The experience made me realize I had to become a major player in the industry to make an impact.
Today, ZAF has earned the reputation of being a major player in Ethiopia in stabilizing the market. We not only import and distribute to wholesalers but with an aim of cutting through price addition on different levels, we have established working partnerships with government and private hospital pharmacies to supply all items that we import directly. This strategy is aimed in reaching the end user in a short period of time and minimizing the impact of the cost of medicine. It is my policy not to increase price based on the current market trend despite what others in the same sector might be doing. I am proud to have earned the name “market disrupter.” On several occasions, the Ethiopian government has awarded our company for enabling it to stabilize the market through availing medication at a lower price.
Apart from playing a major role in stabilizing the market, through an agreement with government controlling bodies, ZAF Pharmaceuticals in line with its corporate social responsibility provides free insulin to 200 diabetic patients. The patients residing in Awassa and
Adama, selected based on their economic standing, receive free supplies of insulin every month. This program has been running close to 10 years.
I am grateful and proud of my 30-plus year relationship with my husband which is based on love, mutual respect and support. Apart from my parents, my husband takes the major role in creating an enabling environment for me to be successful. He believes in me and always supports my ideas and decisions. Together we have raised three successful daughters. Our eldest is operations manager at the British Petroleum headquarters. The middle is a medical doctor and the youngest studied economics and graduated with great distinction and was recruited by Earnest and Young as a financial consultant. It gives me pleasure to see that I have been able to invest my time to raise independent, hardworking, and successful women. I am fortunate to have had the financial means to invest in my daughters’ education and to enable them to step ahead.
My investment in education does not stop here. Every year through Corporate Social Responsibility (CRS) Initiatives, we provide school materials to students in September. Every year I sponsor 10 to 12 university students until graduation mostly women. My aim is to make sure students do not drop out due to financial problems, especially female students resorting to harmful activities to earn money. It is satisfying to see them graduate.
I believe in discipline and hard work. Teamwork is the central pillar in my organization. Through meetings and consultations, I insure the right information is shared and responsibilities are delegated. In the companies I manage, hard work is recognized through different incentives. Being able to progress in the career ladder and through different packages accessing financial compensations has enabled the company to recruit and retain loyal staff. I make sure to take time to assess my employees to get to know them. Using my personal finances, I upgrade their skills and promote from within. When doing any activity, I make sure my staff is aware of the details, strategies and reasons for my actions. I always think about sustainability and groom leaders within the company. Heads of our representative offices for international partners are managers who joined the company as junior officers.
Having faced different gender-related discrimination as a woman, I make certain women are treated as equals. The majority of my staff is women and out of eight in management, four are capable women who can succeed me.
My dream for Ethiopia is to be peaceful, to have the chance to develop our economy to have sustainable development and for people to have access to affordable healthcare. I believe I am on the right track with my business ventures in putting my dreams for my country into action.
My message to society is to believe in women’s abilities. I was able to get here because my family believed in my potential and invested in me. My supportive husband did his part as a partner and father. There were many failures but I never gave up and persisted until I found a way to move to the next level. A woman can and is able to do anything a man can. A country that does not include half its resources (the female population) cannot progress.
What do they say about Zaf?
Zaf played a major role in giving me the opportunity, assigning me different responsibilities, monitoring my performance and nurturing my growth. Though very demanding, she never asked anything she was not willing to do herself. She leads by example and gives us the chance to be part of the operations and strategies agreed upon. Zaf is a formidable leader with extensive knowledge of the business, lived experience, sharp intellect, humility and has impressive people skills. We learned from her early on not to be greedy or profit from challenges created by lack of access, failed policies, corruption, or simply poverty. I have come to see over the years the major role Zaf played in stabilizing the market of pharmaceuticals of the country, a role even challenging for a government. Through her, I am able to see the power of an individual to make a difference at that level.
– Elias Tenkir, a colleague at ZAF Pharmaceuticals PLC
Zaf demands professionalism and discipline. She is encouraging. She has invested hours to direct us in getting the details of the trade and handling it with confidence. Zaf has enabled me to be her right-hand and empowered me to independently manage her office. I never knew as a woman I was capable of doing what I do now. While she invests her personal time and finances to coach and mentor women in her company, she also uses her personal experience to stress the reality of inequality in business and society to male colleagues.
– Dina Haile, personal assistant
Zaf is my second mother. When she saw us begging on the streets in her neighborhood 20 years ago she stopped and asked why we were there. My two sisters and I lost our mother and were forced to beg to support our daily laborer father. After hearing our story, she assisted my father in gaining employment to have a regular income and she fully took all responsibilities in raising us. Once we were under her care, all our basic needs were met, but above all we were given love and made to feel valued. She never negotiates when it comes to education. We were sent to school and she closely followed our progress, encouraging us and provided support we needed to score good grades. She raised us to realize we are individuals worthy of love and care and a right to have dreams and access to equal opportunities with men on everything. My sister and I have gone on to attend higher education and have graduated with BA degrees in marketing and accounting. I am working at Ethiopian Airlines. She always told us how proud she is of us and says we are her proudest achievements in life.
– Tigist Ayelign