Hyena men and Ethiopian young entrepreneurs

April 2, 2009

A couple of months ago I went to Eastern Ethiopia with my friend Simon Biltcliffe. It was mind-altering in many ways, not least because we travelled from London to the eastern region, near(ish) to the Somalian border and back to London in four days. Economy all the way, I might add.

We landed in the middle of the night in Addis Ababa, took a small plane across the highlands to Dire-Dawa then travelled by jeep to Harar, passing vast herds of camels and a few hitch hikers with AK 47s on the road – destitute demobbed soldiers abandoned after the abrupt withdrawal from Somalia, a footnote to the Bush-sponsored ‘war on terror’. Fifteen hours after leaving Heathrow, we drank coffee, picked from the bush, roasted and ground before our eyes by a group of kids who might just hold the key to Ethiopia’s future. That’s what Simon had brought me to see, and that’s why I’m telling you this.

Manufacturing coffee at Webmart Business School, Harar

Manufacturing coffee at Webmart Business School, Harar

Simon Biltcliffe is a new age print farmer. His company – better described as a Posse – Webmart, brings buyers and sellers of print together. Webmart (turnover £37 million and rising) is fuelled on can-do, adrenalin and the principle that you make a lot of money if you save people money. Old school Quality, Service, Value empowered by peer-to-peer high technology enables turnarounds and transaction cost savings that would give RyanAir a run for its money (without the sweary CEO and leery attitude towards customers and suppliers). Planned philanthropy is embedded in the business model. Because. That’s why kids in a forgotten region of the horn of Africa were wearing yellow T shirts, learning how to use computers and how to build sustainable 21st century enterprises.

Hyena man and friends

We watched a shaman feed wild hyenas with strips of meat hung on a stick (from his mouth) at dusk outside the ancient Medina walls of Harar, one of the holiest cities of Islam (85 mosques)and erstwhile home of Arthur Rimbaud (he was an arms dealer when he wasn’t a poet). There was nothing remotely Disney about those beasts, the true entrepreneurs of the plains. Contrary to popular belief, lions feast on what the hyena packs leave behind. The Hyena man ekes a living with tips from passing travellers and a stipend from the elders – appeasing hyenas must rank among the most dangerous and unusual of council jobs.

Only 16,000 tourists came to Ethiopia in total last year and very few westerners make it to Harar. Sir Richard Burton (pervy Victorian adventurer and translator of the Kama Sutra, not the Welsh actor) was one of the first westerners allowed into the medina in the 1870s. He stayed a week. A Rastafarian called Solomon showed us round the back alleys (there weren’t that many front alleys). He remembered Geldof fondly – said Bob had stayed for five days back in the ’80s, loved it but hadn’t been back. He asked me about his wife and kids. I didn’t elaborate on Peaches or poor Paula. The Rastas aren’t favoured on account of their worship of Haile Selassie, but Christians, Muslims, Hyena men and folks with sidearms rubbed along together just fine, as far as we could see, contrary to dire western rumours of Islamic militancy and religious conflict.

Ethiopia's natural resources

Ethiopian natural resources

All were united in their need to work out how to survive another day. We had cash, food, shoes. We were lucky. We travelled further east, to Babile, a predominantly Somalian refugee township, where the lucky folk had cut up tyres on their feet. Most kids were missing one or more parent. Some were HIV orphans, others were victims of someone else’s pointless war. Although it rains for three months a year, water is scarce and agriculture is neolithic. The Chinese are building a pipeline and digging wells, but somehow it hasn’t happened yet. Women and kids slave as they have always done. The lucky ones have something to do. Babile’s cash crop is Chat, a mild hallucogenic leaf which men chew to give them energy and help them forget. Nothing much happens before the noonday chat wagon arrives, then men squat, chew and mill about. Our driver, somewhat alarmingly, was an Chat afficionado. He gave me some leaves to try: it would have been rude to refuse. The journey back to Harar was mellow.

Sustainable business ethics, Harar

Business 101, Harar, Ethiopia

Webmart Business School pays young people to come to learn computer and basic business skills. Even this tiny stipend helps the students and their families – often without parents – eat regularly. The logic and business plan is compelling and ambitious. Given the hurdles to development, it is pointless to sustain stone age subsistence farming practices. You can dole out metal hoes to replace the wooden ones and bring the people into the 18th Century, but Ethiopia needs and deserves access to 21st Century trading and management leadership. And it should be homegrown. The sleekest people driving the biggest trucks were UN workers and NGOs. The only difference between them and the wonderful kids we met was circumstance of birth and access to international aid money. Unchannelled Aid anchors subsistence, dependence and, sadly, enables corruption. In itself, it is as pernicious and harmful as Chat.

In partnership with Alchemy World, a small but perfectly focused social entrepreneurship group, Webmart is funding the development of a cadre of students who can seed a self-help culture in a country which has no shortage of beautiful and intelligent people, but precious little in the way of luck and natural resources. Back in Addis, we watched Obama’s inauguration on TV. Africans were uncritically proud. We met an Alchemy graduate who had made $400.00 in the last month from her nascent travel business. Her father makes $37.00 a month and needs to support a family of seven. Reed Elsevier have given her a stand at World Travel Mart in London in November, and support Alchemy with free advertisements. I for one will chip in for her expenses.

The maths are simple. 1000 Alchemy graduates could permanently transform the lives of tens of thousands of people. If they are obliged to emigrate they get upskilled jobs when they do. If they stay, they have the nous to exploit the undoubted human and natural resources of this extraordinary country. The investment has to be better than waiting for the next sack of UN rice or the Chinese water that never quite makes the last mile. What’s in it for Webmart? Absolutely nothing, apart from knowing that selling that print run just might have changed the lives of people who deserve a chance to help themselves.

John J Kelly.

PS. If you want to help, contact Simon Biltcliffe or Alchemy World.