Feminism and women’s empowerment are not limited to women occupying senior positions in business or academia. Inspiring women do not necessarily have to be professionally successful leaders and attract public attention. Nevertheless, finding more and more women at the executive level of economic institutions should be celebrated as a notable achievement. The women we would like to introduce to you today in our third text of the series on “10 Inspiring Ethiopian Women” are among those who have achieved success in different ways and in different areas of the economy, always keeping in mind not only their own happiness but also that of others.
Eleni Zaude Gabre-Madhin is an Ethiopian economist and former executive director of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX). She was born in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and grew up in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, among other places. She began her academic career, after finishing school with honours, at Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in Economics, followed by a master’s degree in the same subject at Michigan State University. Eleni went on to earn a PhD in Applied Economics from Stanford University.
For several years, her professional interests focused on agricultural markets and food distribution. As a researcher for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), she investigated why there were shortages or droughts in many years or regions, and surpluses in others. In 2004, she moved back to Ethiopia from the USA to take charge of an IFPRI project on improving Ethiopian agricultural markets and policies. Her role was to coordinate an advisory board that formed the ECX. Eleni Gabre-Madhin was the driving force behind the development of the commodity exchange and became its executive director in 2008. She considered the ECX as an opportunity to open up Ethiopia’s agricultural market, increase farmers’ productivity and make Ethiopia less vulnerable to food crises. In 2013, she founded eleni LLC, a company that aims to establish more commodity exchanges in African frontier markets. Eleni Gabre-Madhin has been honoured several times for her work. For example, in 2010, the Ethiopian newspaper Jimma Times named Eleni “Ethiopian Person of the Year” for her research and development of the ECX, in 2012 she won the Yara Laureate Prize for her commitment to sustainable food production and distribution with socio-economic impacts, and the African Banker Icon Award.
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is also a founder and successful businesswoman who is committed to moving the discourse on the African continent away from the issue of poverty and instead bringing up Africa’s entrepreneurial spirit, social capital and economic potential. Bethlehem was born in Zenebework in 1980. She attended primary and secondary school, studied accounting at Unity University in Addis Ababa and graduated in 2004. Back in 2005, she founded soleRebels based on an idea that had arisen during a workshop. Bethlehem’s goal was to provide ecologically and economically sustainable job opportunities for her community in her shoe business, using Ethiopia’s artisanal talent and natural resources. Over the years soleRebels grew, the manager established collaborations with international mail order companies and sold the shoes in thirty different countries worldwide.
In 2014, Bethlehem started a new project and founded The Republic of Leather. Similar to soleRebels, the company for luxury leather goods combines ecological and economic sustainability and thus contributes to a rethinking of the leather goods industry. In addition, The Republic of Leather follows customer-based principles, allowing customers to have a choice in design and production. In 2017, Bethlehem launched Garden of Coffee, a coffee roastery that hand-selects and –roasts Ethiopian beans, allowing its customers to live and celebrate coffee according to Ethiopian traditions.
Bethlehem Alemu uses the attention she receives from her entrepreneurial successes to dispel the narrative of the African continent being dependent on external aid whilst on its way to liberation from poverty and towards greater prosperity. Instead, she wants her businesses to be an example of how Ethiopians themselves can shape the international perception of their country.