Ethiopia travel diary: Day 3 & 4

How we made it in Africa publisher Jaco Maritz’s travel diary about his trip to Ethiopia for the 2012 World Economic Forum on Africa.

Monday 7 May 2012

The highlight of the day was the World Economic Forum (WEF) pre-conference press briefing at the Sheraton hotel. As I arrived workers were busy putting up a banner welcoming delegates to the event. The event officially starts on Wednesday afternoon with a welcome reception, but the real action will only take place from Thursday.

The purpose of the press briefing was to give journalists an overview of the meeting agenda. We also received the full programme as well as the list of participants. The two speakers at the press conference were Elsie Kanza, head of Africa at the WEF, and Mekonen Haddis, chief advisor to the deputy prime minister of Ethiopia.

As I paged through the programme I was severely hit by a ‘fear-of-missing-out’. There are so many interesting sessions, but many of them overlap, making it impossible to attend even a quarter of what is happening. Luckily some of the sessions will be filmed and posted on the website.

Looking at the list of participants, it was interesting to note how few Chinese business leaders and politicians will attend the WEF. Of the over 700 people likely to attend, only six Chinese delegates are listed. When considering how much talk there currently is around how the Chinese are infiltrating every sphere of business in Africa, I would have expected a greater presence. Maybe they are too busy doing actual work.

One Ethiopian journalist asked Mekonen Haddis why there are so little participants from Ethiopia’s private sector attending the WEF, compared to those from the public sector?

“What we believe is there should be public-private partnership … We really wanted the participants to be more from the private side than from the government side … As you know, in order for our business people to participate they would have to pay 3,500 Swiss francs. So … even though the willingness of our business people to participate was much higher [initially]; when it was time to register and pay the fees then the number reduced,” Haddis responded.

According to the WEF, registration for the Ethiopia event costs 5,000 Swiss francs (US$ 5,384) for non-members and 3,500 Swiss francs ($3,769) for members. While many people would probably like to have a stab at the WEF for charging exorbitant prices, I don’t think these rates are too bad. The majority of participants at this year’s event will be African, so it is not that business people from the continent are neglected. I anyway doubt if the Sheraton would be able to handle much more than the current 700 participants.

I will leave you with a photo of Addis at night.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Today I had a number of interesting meetings. The first one in the morning was with Yemiru Chanyalew, CEO of eVentive, an IT company with a presence in Ethiopia and the US. I’ve wanted to do an interview with Yemiru since we started How we made it in Africa, so it was quite a thrill to sit in the company’s boardroom. What makes eVentive interesting is that it outsources IT work for US companies to Ethiopia, where the job can be done at a much lower cost. Remember to look out for our full article on eVentive.

My second interview for the day was with one of Africa’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, founder and managing director of soleRebels, an Ethiopian footwear company. The majority of the company’s products are sold in the West. What makes soleRebels different from a normal shoe manufacturer is that all the products are handmade by local artisans. SoleRebels is also the world’s first Fair Trade footwear company. After the interview I had a coffee with Bethlehem and we chatted about a variety of topics – from China’s involvement in Africa, to expanding her brand to South Africa.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu inside the soleRebels retail outlet.

Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu inside the soleRebels retail outlet.

I’m also happy to announce that I now have my own driver, called Aseb, in Addis Ababa. What started off as a once-off taxi ride has turned into a longer-term working relationship – all thanks to the fact that Aseb gave me his business card (see below).

Aseb's business card

What makes Aseb a good driver is that he is very friendly and speaks good English. He is also quite knowledgeable about Addis and points out all the buildings that he thinks might be of interest to me. On our way to soleRebels he took me on a slight detour to the new African Union headquarters. The $200 million facility was entirely funded by China. A recent Reuters article says that the building “is a symbol of the Asian giant’s push to stay ahead in Africa and gain greater access to the continent’s resources”. Nevertheless, it is still impressive. The photo below was quickly taken out of the car window and doesn’t do the structure justice.

The new African Union headquarters.

My last meeting was at the Hilton hotel with Zahid Torres-Rahman, founding director of Business Action of Africa. The bar area was very busy, with many of the people in Addis for the WEF.

Tomorrow I will attend the Ethiopia Investment Summit, an event totally unrelated to the WEF. During the morning I will quickly nip out for an interview with Jay Ireland, General Electric president and CEO for Africa. Likely to be an interesting day.