A Woman’s Message Not to Women

Nahusenay Girma was born in Ethiopia and educated in the United States, where she developed expertise in management and marketing. She has held management positions in the private sector, in both countries, and operated her own businesses at different times. In 2007, she formed the Optima Consultancy & Marketing Plc to partake in the business development in Ethiopia.

Nahusenay’s career, which has spanned three continents, a host of non-profit and international organizations, has lately arrived at the Association of Women in Business (AWiB). The Association, which supports businesswomen improve their leadership skills – essentially through effective networking and experience sharing – has become popular within the business circle for its Annual Award of Excellence. The Award, which the Association declares as a means to reach the larger society by supporting innovative business and community efforts, will see its second session held today. In this interview with BINYAM ALEMAYEHU, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, Nahusenay, the Association’s executive director, discusses about the 100,000 Br worth award and challenges faced by businesswomen in Ethiopia. Excerpts:


Fortune: According to recent studies, women in Ethiopia operate 65pc of small and micro enterprises. Their participation in manufacturing is only 26pc and rights to land use is even less at 19pc. Given household responsibilities, credit availability and other constraints, women are unable or unwilling to scale their businesses beyond a micro enterprise level. How can this change?

Nahusenay Girma: It has to do with the credit system. I say this because women have no collateral and they have no education. The credit system in this country is stringent and needs to be flexible. In other countries you can even have your project as collateral.

Another is education. Most women do not even know how to publicly present themselves. Plus they do not know how to put proposals together and they do not know how to push themselves forward either. One is culture.

Credit system and education need to change.

The other is the phenomenon with women. It probably is taken as bragging about yourself. We desist from talking about ourselves. Unless you do that, the banks and the lenders would not give you ears or put trust in you.

I hope Enat Bank, as a friendly bank for women, will do that and I think that is one of their programs, which really pleases me.

How will it change?

It will change when the credit system in this country changes.

Q: Although efforts by your Association have been in full swing to help as many women as possible develop their professions, those who benefit are, for the most part, urbanites with better educational access and less household chores. What about those at the grassroots level?

When established around three and a half years ago, the Association aimed at helping business leaders. That admittedly leaves a lot of them out.

We are much focused. Every month, we have a program, which is dedicated to developing oneself professionally or personally.

We believe that there is lack of leadership throughout Africa. Although in a limited way, we are trying to help women achieve leadership.

Q: But what specific activities have been carried out to help women develop professionally?

Every month we have a program. We meet at the Hilton Hotel. Recently, for instance, people like Zemedeneh Negatu, of Earnest & Young, were invited to talk about business climate in Ethiopia. He talked a lot about coming together and discussed at length about putting our resources together.

We really lack in that. May be, it has to do with culture or lack of exposure. But we really do not come together to share our resources. We need to create a system whereby people in the same business combine their resources without actually losing their individual identities.

This coming November, we have a program with the Alliance of Entrepreneurs Programs (AoEP) that was initiated by Hilary Clinton. They deal with the African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA).

We are doing that together with them to promote the idea of coming together. Basically, we create stage. We create agendas. We create needs.

We bring awareness but not only that. We actually show them how to do it. We provide conversational English programs for our members by native speakers. But it is not only a conversation-focused program. It is also thematic.

We discuss many different themes like what does it mean to be a woman. Leaders encourage participants to submit written essays. We have self-development programs. We also have human resource development program with nominal fees for members.

Q: For many, the remedy for the plight of women lays in affirmative action.  Would you see legislations requiring every business establishment to dedicate a certain portion of the share to women as helpful?

Affirmative action is helpful, I would say. It has registered remarkable achievements in many other countries.

But I want to say that it has to be well thought. It has some deleterious effects such as staffing institutions with incompetent people.

Affirmative action in the Ethiopian context may be a little different. May be, we can talk about enrolment rates. But, then, most women who go to colleges do not have support. Affirmative action has to be all-rounded.

This is to help women become competent. Ethiopia’s 33pc women’s ratio in Parliament is commendable. It is about helping women make decisions on their own. When seen in that light I do not think affirmative action in this country is supported in that sense.

Q: It is the belief of many that this engendered effort cannot see the light of the day without involving men behind women.

The Association is genuine in its efforts to encourage men to be part of the program. That is because the women’s issue is not to be left to a certain group only.

Men are also in it. It is the community’s concern. We are in it together. We have to see that we succeed together.

Q: Then, where is the problem?

The problem is we are not aware of it or do not know how to do it.  And that is, I think, where our Association can come in.

That explains why we invite men every month to our program. We actually call them “Minilikish” men. That is after Emperor Minilik II. His wife, Empress Taitu, was a formidable woman, partly because he helped her make decision in that much more patriarchal society.

She did wonders in this country as she was empowered by her husband. Our Association believes that there are a lot of such kinds of men out there. They come to support and encourage us.

We need more of them. My message is not really for women because they have gotten it loud and clear. It is rather for men. I would like to say to men. It is not about women; it is rather about us.

Q: Your association recently made a call for nomination of woman of excellence, receiving 37 nominations and interviewing 20 of them. You are about to announce this year’s winner out of your five nominees. Why should people be interested in the Award? Is it any different from the maze of awards one hears in the media?

This award is about the society. It is not a competition but celebration. When we screen those people, we actually do not nominate or judge them. We just facilitate.

It is about the community. But there has got to be someone who takes the award. We are not going to give out 100,000 Br to all of them. It does not make sense.

What makes it different? Whoever wins that money is required to give it to a non-profit organisation of her choice.

That is how the Association reaches the community at large. The winner does not keep the money in her pocket.

The award is about recognising women who are courageously but quietly serving their society by achieving colossal gains. They win against all odds.

We believe that their tenacity is exemplary. By recognising their talents and achievements, we present them to the public. These are people with courage, vision, compassion and generosity, qualities highly needed to make difference in this society.

Q: What specific criteria helped you to slash the 20 interviewees to five finalists?

I was really surprised by the number of nominations. Most women do not want to talk about themselves. They do not want to come to the limelight.

It is actually the result of public nomination. For a few of them, it is the second time they are nominated.

So we have a selection process based on four criteria. One is that the person should be a woman, who has attained high rank and utilised her position for a cause. She should be an outstanding woman entrepreneur who strives to build a great company or contributes to the success of other entrepreneurs.

She ought to be a woman who serves as an example of hard work and effective management. And she should be one who promotes community service.

In its design, the selection process was initiated as a two-phase process. The first phase was to shortlist 10 nominees from the 20 we interviewed.

This selection process was done by the Association’s Board. But we not only interview them. We also interviewed colleagues and friends as well as those who know them.

The second process entailed choosing the one woman who would get the award. This was done by enlisting external judges.

Q: A glance at the finalists picked by your association reveals that the award is focusing more on those in the non-profit or community work sector as opposed to women entrepreneurs.

The issue is, what is meant by business?

Business means purpose. It is living purposefully. Business does not necessarily mean getting involved in the financial sector, investment or entrepreneurship. Business means having a purpose in life.

Many people say, “You are business people. Why don’t you go for corporate women” First, they are few.  And second, it is about excellence, not about achievement. It is about integrity. NGOs are businesses. Unless they run their organisations as business, they are going to fail.

When we started this, quite a few of them were NGO leaders. But NGO is a business. Business does not necessarily mean for profit.

Where do you find those leaders? You find them where you nurture them. They are nurtured in international NGOs, local NGOs and civil service.

Q: Why is the Association not recognising some of the women entrepreneurs who have received international attention?

Yes, a lot of people are out there and they are not brought here. Our Association cannot do that.

No board member can nominate anyone. It is the public’s nomination. If those internationally recognized women are nominated; fine, we will take them. Some of them do not really know our Association.

There is hesitancy on their part to come to the award even after being nominated. Again to my surprise, some do not want to participate.

There are a few business leaders, who have been nominated twice. But they do not want to participate.

It is not that we do not give recognition or anything. But it is the nomination and the fact that some do not want to take part.

Q: How do you make the judges accountable?

It is a very difficult task for the judges. That is because it is extremely difficult to pick one out of the final five.

They are all so good and qualified. And life is about that. Few succeed to become millionaires or leaders.

We select the judges for their integrity and their ethics. We go out to people who know them, institutions where they have worked.

Then, we ask how respected they are. We also ask their contributions. We value them for what they have achieved and the kind of people they are. After all this scrutiny, we have reached the conclusion that they are accountable.

Published on October 27, 2013 [ Vol 14 ,No 704]



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