Why foreign-educated Ethiopians are returning home

In 2011 business executive Blen Abebe visited her country of birth, Ethiopia, for the first time in nearly 20 years. She grew up in the US and her memories of Ethiopia from the 1990s were of an under-developed country with poor infrastructure. She had built her career working in investment in the US with companies such as Morgan Stanley.

Michael Tesfaye Hiruy returned to Ethiopia to start an IT consultancy.

Michael Tesfaye Hiruy returned to Ethiopia to start an IT consultancy.

“I first came to visit Ethiopia in 2011 and noticed the country was undergoing a heavy transformation process and the changes were apparent everywhere from the massive infrastructure projects to the overwhelming construction developments all over Addis Ababa.

“That for me was a wakeup call, I needed to be involved and be a part of it,” she says.

These days Abebe works in Addis Ababa as vice president at Schulze Global Investments (SGI), a private equity firm focused on emerging markets. In 2012 SGI launched the Ethiopia Growth and Transformation Fund and has invested in several local enterprises.

Returning home

She is one of many Ethiopian young professionals heading back home after spending years living and studying abroad.

Some left for studies and opportunities, others fled in the 1970s when an oppressive communist government took over. And some children were adopted following the international media coverage of the 1980s famines. Now many are moving back home to help build one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

Michael Tesfaye Hiruy spent 14 years in France and worked with the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission. He returned 14 months ago to start Andalem, an IT consultancy in Ethiopia. Having seen the transformative effects of technology in Europe, 34-year-old Hiruy was motivated to promote the development of an IT ecosystem back home.

Like Abebe and Hiruy, many returnees are opting to start their own businesses or work for foreign companies setting base in Ethiopia. At SGI, for instance, most employees are Ethiopian-Americans, says Abebe, and their mix of international and local knowledge comes in handy when dealing with potential investees.

“The fact that you look Ethiopian and speak the native language means the locals can relate to you,” she explains. “We have had deals that we closed partly because we were on the ground and were more relatable to the locals than other private equity firms. And it makes sense, as most of the family businesses have been passed through generations, so they wouldn’t necessarily trust or be willing to work with you before they get to know you.

“That is why Schulze Global ensures it has people who know both the foreign and local culture.”

Competition for jobs

However, many of those returning are finding it difficult to get jobs.

“As more people living abroad are trying to move back, there are high numbers competing for the same jobs. And it’s not just Ethiopians. Non-Ethiopians as well are trying to come here so competition is intense,” says Abebe.

Fitting into Ethiopia’s business environment after spending many years working in a developed economy is also not easy. UK-educated Samuel Getu says he faced difficulty getting his employees to be fully productive at work. Getu left Ethiopia at age 13 and spent 12 years abroad where he studied for two degrees. When he returned home Getu joined his family’s conglomerate, Get-As International, which is involved in the FMCG, real estate, transportation and hospitality industries.

Different work ethic

“I had to again learn the culture here and understand how people’s mentalities work,” says Getu. “You see, in London if you gave an assignment to an employee you know it will be done in time. But here you have to chase people because they can fail to deliver for no reason. So I’ve devised ways how to approach people and get them to be more, even fully productive.”

Abebe says she needed to make “serious adjustments” due to the different work ethics and general work atmosphere.

And although fitting in was a little easier for returnees who visited Ethiopia constantly during their stay abroad, they too still face challenges.

“I was never disconnected from Ethiopia. I know the business environment well because during the 14 years that I was in France I used to come here every year,” says Hiruy. “But when you work in the private sector in the west there is this pressure of profitability and everything goes fast. You need to re-adapt when you come here. This market is completely different and you have to be patient.”

Nonetheless, Hiruy urges Ethiopian professionals still working abroad to return home to harness the many opportunities opening up.

“I have been telling all my friends to come back because you can feel the impact of your work here,” Abebe concurs. “In the US I worked for big firms like Morgan Stanley and I was just one of the many.

“Despite working on complex projects at the bigger firms it is impossible to know your contribution to the bottom-line numbers, but here I can feel the direct impact for the country, for the company and for our investors.”