Abrham Girma, 16, a ninth grader, lost his father when he was very young. With the passing of his father, life was very unkind to him and his mother. Though he has a strong desire to learn and in spite of his best efforts to earn money polishing shoes, he faced a continual struggle to remain in school and not become a dropout. It was not easy but his luck changed in 2012. Sunshine Philanthropic Foundation’s Agena School opened its doors for him and many more impoverished children in the southern regional state.
Established in 2010, the Foundation is a subsidiary of Sunshine Investment Group and provides crucial support, investing millions of Birr each year not just to help thousands survive on a daily basis. It also inspires them for a better tomorrow, through education and training. The school where Abrham attends is only one of the three the Foundation opened and run with more than 40 million Br investment in Nekemte, Oromia; Axum, in Tigray and in Agena in Southern region.
It is a philanthropic approach Sunshine Foundation has adopted in helping people acquire the necessary knowledge and skills needed to make it in life, rather than a quick fix for social problems. The Foundation’s objectives are not limited to running schools for orphans who have lost their parents to HIV and Aids, and providing other destitute children with formal education. It also runs a care centre for senior citizens who have no one to care for them.
Behind the Foundation is Samuel Tafese, 55, president of Sunshine Investment Group, who has proved his devotion to helping out those less fortunate. But a more organised effort in charity came after the company’s first commercial building, which makes around 15 million Br annually, was constructed on Africa Avenue (Bole Road). He and his wife of 30 years, Fetlework Elala, decided to direct all the income generated from the building directly to a fund with philanthropic ends.
Though the founders of the company are basking in their meteoric rise in fortune and the success of their firm today, Samuel had a completely different upbringing as a child.
He came from a very humble background, where his parents repeatedly struggled to pay tuition fees for him and his siblings. They were so destitute, that when Samuel reached grade eight, he was kicked out of school. His parents did not have the means to pay the eight Birr monthly tuition fee. Samuel, as the first born of a family of five, started helping out his aging father with work and learned his trade. Soon, his father had to retire and the burden of providing for the whole family fell on the still delicate shoulders of the young Samuel.
Despite the enormous challenges and the seemingly insurmountable tests life presented, Samuel put on a brave face and overcame his deprivation. He managed to save 500 Br and became self-employed; he took roof repairing and painting jobs; building his reputation in the small projects he contracted and expanded his social and business relationships, thereby earning him a nickname, Sami-Ashenda, (a reference to his fine work in roof repair).
He was not to remain there though. In 1984, Samuel obtained his first business licence as a grade nine contractor, after a very good friend gave him 10,000 Br, which was required as a down payment to receive the licence. As is often the benefit of hindsight, Samuel, never imagined that the company he had founded three decades ago could achieve its current heights.
The Group recently announced a 3.2 billion Br investment for the development of two world-class hospitality facilities, in franchise with Marriott and Hilton, the latter in the lakeside town of Hawassa, 276Km south of Addis Abeba. The enormous amount of investment announced by Samuel comes after the company inaugurated sub-Sahara Africa’s very first Marriott Executive Apartment Hotel on the same day, completed at a staggering price tag of well over 900 million Br. This is the first international hotel franchise for a domestic company, and the fourth brand for Addis Abeba. The upscale hotel property, on Jomo Kenyatta Road, is the latest addition to the growing size of the Group’s capital and assets, which stood well over a billion Birr last year, as Sunshine celebrated its 30th anniversary.
In spite of the remarkable success Samuel has achieved and the tremendous wealth his family has amassed over the years, his humble beginnings and poverty-ridden roots have not been lost on him. The schools, clinics, underground water development projects, social welfare donations and other charitable activities Sunshine has conducted over the years speak volumes about Samuel and Fetlework’s prime examples of wealthy people giving back to their community. What is perhaps peculiar to Sunshine is that its founders and shareholders have established a foundation dedicated to furthering humanitarian causes in society, responding to social ailments, going beyond providing short term relief for peoples’ problems.
“Philanthropy is a quest to solve the underlying causes of problems,” according to Sleshi Molla, lecturer of philosophy at Semera University.
Philanthropy is similar to charity in the sense that both provide assistance to the needy, says Sleshi. But he argues philanthropy is fundamentally different from charity, given the fact that “charity is all about solving individuals’ immediate problems for a short term out of compassion or emotion, whereas philanthropy aims at the long term to enables them have a better shot at life. The ‘Fish’ analogy – ‘Give a person a fish, they will relieve themselves from hunger for a day; teach them how to fish, they will feed themselves for a life time’ – is a good example to highlight the similarities and differences between charity and philanthropy, said Sleshi.
Sunshine Foundation supports destitute children who fail to achieve scores for university admission, with vocational training such as crafts in metal and wood, as well as hair and beauty care, according to Helen Samuel, daughter of Samuel and Fetlework, and chairwoman of the Foundation. Helen took over the Foundation’s leadership two and half years ago, right after she returned from her studies in Boston’s North Eastern University, in international business management.
Since its inception, Sunshine Foundation has financed construction of the Nekemte School in 2010 with an outlay of 11 million Br. The school’s current population is 360 students, with its Grade 12 students having successfully passed the national higher education entrance exam last year. Another school the Foundation runs is the one that Abraham attends in Agena. This school cost 18 million Br and provides partial boarding services to more than 400 students.
A similar school in Axum was built at a total cost of 11.5 million Br and is providing education to 350 students, including Ma’ereg Niguse, a 17-year-old 12th grader who lost his father at an early age and was forced to do several jobs to make ends meet. Ma’ereg’s education suffered as a result of missing so many school days to support himself and his family. Joining the Sunshine school four years ago, he has been receiving a monthly pocket allowance of 200 Br; in addition to the uniform the Foundation supplies him and others every year.
Sunshine Philanthropic Foundation spends more than 680,000 Br on support payments for students such as Abraham and Ma’ereg, salary for teachers and administrators, teaching equipment and other expenses. The annual expense of running the schools, involving all their support programmes, has reached more than eight million Birr, according to Helen. The Foundation has just finalised the purchase of more than 90 computers, at discounted prices, from Computer Aid International, to be distributed across these schools.
Building and running schools for unfortunate children is just one aspect of Sunshine Philanthropic Foundation’s mission. It is currently constructing a retirement centre for senior citizens who have no place to go or no one to look after them in their old age, with a 40 million Br investment. The Foundation has received a 30,000sqm of land in the eastern part of the capital, from the Addis Abeba Administration; when completed, the facility will provide shelter for 400 elders, Helen told Fortune.
Though Helen believes the Foundation is doing a remarkable job in providing education for orphans and poverty stricken children, she passionately feels that children who are living with HIV have been overlooked by the Foundation. As part of her five-year plan, Helen is approaching other philanthropic organisations that provide care for children with HIV, to work in partnership.
“I’ve been born into privilege,” Helen told Fortune. “But we need to give disenfranchised people the opportunities for a better life.”
She has a family business under expansion, thus profit is also rising.
“The contributions it makes to the philanthropic activities will also be expanding,” said Helen.
Yet, Samuel would like to see an expanded approach to philanthropy well beyond the horizon of his network of companies. As more and more large corporations grow in the Ethiopian economic and business landscape, he wants to see big companies adopt values of social corporate responsibility. His company took the initiative to commission a study worth 170,000 Br, exploring the possibilities in the cause and submitted their findings to the Ministry of Labour & Social Affairs (MoLSA). Samuel said they have also been talking to major players in the Ethiopian financial sector about a structured mechanism where every year a certain amount of corporate income would be used to finance philanthropic causes to help the poor. Samuel sounds upbeat that within the coming two years, corporations in the country would walk the talk, in financing philanthropic activities.
“I don’t want to see children working to make a living instead of going to school,” Samuel said. “Nor do I wish to see elders begging on the street.”
He and his family have managed to make an impact, through the commitment of Sunshine Philanthropic Foundation, enabling thousands of destitute children to have a better chance in life. Abrham and Ma’ereg are few of them who have been off the streets, pursuing their education, despite challenges. Sunshine has shed brightness in their once unfortunate lives. They both aspire to join medical schools and help society in their adulthood, finding cures for illness.
Fetlework Elala, VP, Sunshine Investment Group
Helen Samuel, chairwoman, Sunshine Philanthropy Foundation
Constructed at a cost of 11.5 million Birr, Sunshine Philanthropy Foundation’s Axum School provides education and support for 350 students.
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