“Made in Ethiopia”: Asset or Liability?

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By Becky Tsadik

My eyes widened. During sales call training at work, I had just witnessed a potential customer’s dismissal of our company. My manager had been speaking to the sales director from a Danish company that proudly imports high-quality products from around the globe Denmark boasts the world’s highest organic market share (13% in 2017), but demand is outpacing supply in the petite Nordic nation.

There are many possible reasons why the person on the other end of the line did not want to speak with my boss. Perhaps the company is not accepting new suppliers at this time. Perhaps they had imported from Ethiopia in the past and decided not to continue. Perhaps environmental impact concerns are so central to their ethos that they only import food grown in neighboring countries (although growing practices might represent a greater slice of food’s environmental impact than do transportation costs, or “food miles”).

Had the sales director remained on the phone, he would have learned that GreenPath Food is not only certified EU Organic–meaning that produce is grown without synthetic fertilizers and chemicals–but also is an “organic-plus” business. Being organic-plus means that the company utilizes regenerative growing practices preserve and restore soil nutrients; a portion of the company’s smallholder farmers use solar-powered water pumps; and, as sustainable agriculture and clean energy are core operating values, the company recently opened solar-powered facilities to receive and sort all produce. The discussion might have been on the business opportunity for this Danish company to command a larger share of the growing market by offering not only quality organic food (which currently comprises 15% of their business), but also food with an inspiring story and impact; produce with purpose.

“So, what now?” I asked my manager, briefly pausing my anxious internal dialogue about whether my time working in Ethiopia will help or hurt me on the international job market.

“We’ll try again tomorrow,” she said.

This experience sent me into a meditation on what more the private sector can do to build positive associations with the Ethiopian “brand.” What actions is the government taking—and are they effective? What are we doing as a nation? What can I do?

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Happily, Habesha Caleb Meakins is Co-Founder of an organization called Mella. According to its website: “‘Mella,’ meaning ‘solution’ and ‘altogether’ in Amharic, is a platform that exists to fuel entrepreneurship in Ethiopia.” Since 2017, the organization has hosted nearly two dozen “Mella Monthly” networking events at Bake & Brew restaurant in Addis Ababa, where Meakins and co-hosts interview entrepreneurs before a live audience of about 150 people. There is an entrance fee for each event, but the full recordings are later shared on Mella’s social media channels for free.

“We created Mella as a way fuel entrepreneurship in Ethiopia,” Meakins said. “The potential that exists in this country and the passion people have to want to make a difference within it is tremendous and can be harnessed powerfully when a community of like-minded people is cultivated. We didn’t imagine it would grow this big or we would get the names we’ve had, but it’s a sign it’s striking a chord in the city. We just want to keep growing it and doing more stuff to support the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the city and the country.”

May’s event featured Tadiwos Belete, Founder of Kuriftu Resorts and Boston Day Spa, and Selam Wondim, Co-Founder and CEO of Grohydro, a startup that is advancing hydroponic growing in East Africa.

Beyond hospitality and agriculture, Ethiopians innovate and thrive across many industries that serve both the local population and the rest of the globe. Thankfully, for every “no” or unfriendly phone call, there is a flattering Forbes profile, a popular TED talk, or a BBC spotlight on an Ethiopian tech entrepreneur. For Mella’s featured speakers, being made in Ethiopia is not a thing, it is the thing. Here are a few other noteworthy (women-owned!) local brands:

  1. Sabahar: handmade textiles, largely crafted by women, founded by Kathy Marshall
  2. Mafi: sustainable fashion brand by Mahlet Afework
  3. iCog Labs: artificial intelligence research and software development firm, founded by teen tech pioneerBetelhem Dessie
  4. soleRebels: fair-trade certified shoe brand founded by Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu
  5. BlueMoon: agribusiness incubator for young entrepreneurs, founded by Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin
  6. Lemlem: Liya Kebede’s sustainable fashion brand
  7. RIDE: the Uber of Addis, founded by Samrawit Fikru

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