By Elias Gebreselassie
In Capital Newspaper, Tuesday, 22 November 2011, Addis Abeba, Ethiopia
Twelve year old Bethlehem Dessie captivated participants at a panel discussion of Entrepreneurs and experts organized at the Addis Ababa University, College of Management, Informatics and Economic Sciences, Eshetu Chole Hall.
The eighth grader, who originally hails from the city of Harar, was a surprise inspirational guest at the event. She has four patents in technology innovation, while she is also engaged in various social activities like helping homeless people. Some of the patented innovations are her own creation while some are other people’s invention which she has adapted for local use.
Bethlehem told the audience that she is a software programmer who started her activities with her father by downloading phone memory when it was still a novel idea and then upgrading it to a mobile shop before relocating with her father to Addis Ababa.
She wants people to learn from kids her age that are doing special things like Hana Godefa the Canadian eleven year old girl of Ethiopian ancestry who is well known in both countries for her humanitarian projects such as collecting pencils for school kids in Ethiopia and contributing bonds for the Grand Renaissance Dam, or Hana Girma an eleven year old girl from Harar city who was a special winner of the Ethiopian Idol for her Opera style singing skills and melodious yet powerful voice.
Bethlehem added that she sees ‘people looking to go to countries like the USA through DV lotteries but that, considering Ethiopia’s potential, it should be the reverse and entrepreneurship can make that possible,’ to the applause of the crowd.
However, Bethlehem also noted that she has experienced frustration, like the six months it took her to patent her innovations at the Science and Technology Commission.
Another point which endeared Bethlehem to the crowd is when she said she studied in a government school, although her parents can afford a private school because she believes it’s a learning institution that should not be taken lightly.
She summarized her presentation by showing her ICT Mobile Internet Bus Project that can be used for the rural population in power point presentation. She is finalizing a contract with Metal and Engineering Corporation (MeTeC).
Not yet finished with her projects, Bethelehem explained to the fascinated crowd that she is developing an Amharic software to be used specifically for agricultural related purposes.
Bethelhem also said that Ethiopians should reject fatalism, fight for reduction in transmissions of Carbon Monoxide (CO), Green House effects and Global Warming.
Affirming her belief in technology she continued saying it can easily be used in an Ethiopian context. Wireless technology can help in a range of uses, from national security to pilot security as well as banking, libraries and networking.
‘Radio took 30 years to have an audience of 50 million people, TV 24 years, Internet four years and Facebook two years, Bethlehem said in her concluding remarks.
Another Bethlehem, with the family name Tilahun is the founder of the award winning ‘SoleRebels Company’, which turns old rubber tires into shoes for mostly European and US export. She gave a video presentation about the company which was founded seven years ago, saying; “SoleRebels is about roots” with the aim to become the “Nike of Africa” and build a factory that’s solar powered.
The company sells its products through its online store and its boutique in Addis Ababa. SoleRebels presently has 75 employees up from five it had when it first started operations.
‘My home area is known for its cotton production but doesn’t have market for its products and when I started my business with my husband and brother we decided that the raw materials should come from Ethiopia,’ Bethlehem told the appreciative audience.
She added that this kind of business doesn’t necessarily need a high amount of capital or migration to another country to become a reality.
However, she said, they should provide a suitable retail location, and be prepared to take risks together with the challenge and stress of delivering on time and presenting a quality product. They also must know what people want from goods they are purchasing.
Bethlehem says innovation is a must in these difficult economic times.
Her products weathered the economic storm because, while the competition comes from China, her company is completely Ethiopian. She says this is an advantage by itself, in addition to a strong supply chain, respect of worker’s rights and having products that are stylish, fashionable and original.
She said it took two years before she could find a strong market for her products. Initially, she only received USD 2,500 worth of orders. The Moderator Assegedech Woldelul Vice president of Admas University agreed with Bethlehem’s method of success and said businesses like this will help Ethiopia join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Assegedech on her part has launched her book on entrepreneurship and women in the past week.
Another of the inspirational speakers was Zelalem Woldemariam of Zeleman Production, a self taught documentary filmmaker, who is in the process of producing a short film with Focus Features Studios. Focus Features, a subsidiary company of Universal Studios, is a film company known for famous films such as the Pianist and BrokeBack Mountain.
Zelalem started by thanking his former advisor who was in the audience and explained that he studied film and commercials for a long time working for someone else at first. He says you need to start small to achieve big. The company began with five workers and today has 25. He made his first film, ‘The 11th hour’ in 2005. Zelalem has so far won nine international awards for his films.
While the renowned Entrepreneurship Expert and trainer Doctor Werotaw Bezabih informed the audience about his life struggle to be an entrepreneur and satisfy his entrepreneurial desire from his teacher’s diploma in the early Derg Miltary rule to his current state as Doctorate Degree lecturer and millionaire who plans to become a billionaire soon.
Werotaw also said that currently he’s opened an institution called “Genius” which plans to have one million Ethiopian entrepreneurs or “Bekele Mollas” by august 2030. Bekele Molla is the late famous Ethiopian Entrepreneur known for the hotels chain he built around Ethiopia.
He further added that education is only 10 percent ingredient of success while the traits of “value, motive, ethics, standards, attitude and belief” are what are required to become a successful entrepreneur.
The event opened with the key note speaker Ermias Amelga of Access Capital telling the mostly AAU student audience that in order to be an entrepreneur they have to embrace failure as part of success, avoid impeding cultural clichés and know that not all of them can be entrepreneurs.
The event concluded with an award for the winner of most Valuable Entrepreneur of the year which went to SoleRebels company founder Bethlehem Tilahun.
Accepting the award Bethlehem said she had won many international awards before but this award is special to her because it’s the first from Ethiopia.