1. What was your first job?
Immediately after I graduated from university, where I did my first degree in economics, I joined the Bureau of Finance, which is a public organisation. I worked there for two years and seven months as a budget expert.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
The liquidity issue. The Ethiopian financial ecosystem is a bit different. It is localised; there is no foreign investment in the financial sector and there are only Ethiopian nationals that are allowed to operate in the financial sector, so capital is a problem. There is not enough investment in the financial sector. These days, banks are penetrating this market to mobilise savings but they are not all lending into the [farming] community, [for example]. So this community has a serious capital shortage to fully deploy their land for better productivity. There is serious demand for loans. We are trying to mediate borrowing from the commercial banks, and then lend to these farmers because we cannot mobilise enough savings, [while] competing with the commercial banks.
So the farmers are net borrowers, and we have difficultly mobilising enough liquidity to finance farmers. So that is our major challenge.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career?
Microfinance, especially in a country where capital is a problem, addresses the needs of very poor households and farmers. When I joined microfinance it was like serving my own needs because when I finished high school – in a rural area in a western part of Ethiopia, where I was born – my father was a retiree with little pension income. My brother and I finished high school at the same time and… [my father] didn’t have enough money to send us to university in the capital Addis Ababa. So he used my mother’s ring as collateral to borrow from a money lender to send us to university.
He was a kind guy who committed himself to teach all his children. We are nine in the family and two of us already have a PhD, and I am pursuing my PhD. All of us, except one, have a degree.
4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
When I joined microfinance [initially] at an NGO, the founder of that NGO was an ex-Ethiopian Airlines employee. He was from the rural area as well… and he used to say 10 birrr [US$0.40] in our hand does not have the same value as it does in the hands of a poor farmer.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
We are becoming successful. We now have about $25m [in loans] which started from $25,000. We are serving about 142,000 active customers with 37 branch offices (and 23 rural outlets) and about 500 permanent employees. So it is a success in a country where employment and capital is a problem.
So what makes me successful is that I am committed to this business. I work as if it is my child. I consider Wasasa Microfinance as my child. I do not have any demarcation between my personal and business life. I am just there to help this organisation grow and serve its purpose. So the commitment is there.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
On the job!
When I joined this organisation I had about six years’ experience at a junior level. I joined directly from a credit officer position to becoming a general manager, if you don’t want to call it CEO as it was a small organisation back then. I didn’t have that much management experience. Of course my first degree was in economics, which doesn’t add that much to management. But all of us, because of our cost consciousness, we have not invested much in training – and are learning by doing. We know we have to use the resources we have very carefully. Even when we open additional new branches, we borrow from one branch until the [new] branch has a sizable portfolio to manage on its own. For 10 years there was no swivel chair in Wasasa Microfinance’s offices. I was sitting in a [hard] chair for 10 years. In our eleventh year we built our own head office and furnished it with new chairs, tables and things like that – only after we had proven ourselves successful.
7. How do you relax?
I don’t relax much. I have continued my education and I have a family (I’m a father of two). I went back to school to do my MBA. With any spare time I have, I work on the construction of my own home. I have been busy between family and work, but wherever there is room, I spend my time with my family.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I’m not much of a morning person. I have to drop my children at school before I go to work, but then I stay late in the office, especially now that I am driving 24kms every day through traffic. Our office is on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. So I try avoid the evening traffic and the earliest I will leave work is 7pm.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
I look for answers that [display] real commitment to serve. It is not easy to find, but I look for people who want to grow with the organisation.
I like to ask [potential employees] what their future plan is.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
You should have purpose. You shouldn’t be driven by shortcuts to success, and instead face the real challenges. Also, have the heart to serve the people who are really suffering.
Amasalu Alemayehu is the co-founder and CEO of Wasasa Microfinance, a microfinance institution in Ethiopia. Since 2000 he has grown the company to 500 employees which serve 142,000 active customers across the country. The above Q&A has been slightly edited for clarity.