Culture December 3, 2016
Driving toward the 2016 Ethiopia-USA Trade Investment Forum in downtown Los Angeles, I pass by dozens of black marble buildings with glinting glass, stopping at a red-bricked icon of California history. Inside the warmly-lit halls of the California Club, Ethiopian government officials and business owners mill about.
Notably, there are many women in attendance, several of whom were responsible for organizing the international forum. It is wonderful seeing so many educated Ethiopian women present, considering the 2009 UNESCO statistic that 82 percent of Ethiopian women over the age of 15 are illiterate (compared with 58 percent of men). I had the pleasure of interviewing one of these female role models, Feben Yohannes.
Feben Yohannes, an Ethiopian-born former model, entrepreneur and Chief Marketing Officer for ANOC World Beach Games San Diego, was a key player in organizing the event. The forum was a call to American investors to show that the African country not only a safe choice for international investors, but also a smart one. Ethiopia is now developing its natural resources, industrializing and investing a strident 25 percent of its gross domestic product in education.
“Education gives you options,” Yohannes explains. “It’s going to be a tremendous positive impact on our girls.” Education molded the life of her family like clay, allowing her mother Desta Hagos to become the first female professional artist in Ethiopia. Hagos’ journey as an artist began in the fifth grade, when one of her works was submitted by a teacher to a global youth art competition. “She has a lot of firsts,” Yohannes says as she smiles. “I am so proud of her.”
Having a well-educated and ambitious mother like Hagos allowed Yohannes to become the accomplished woman she is today. And with the new policies being implemented by Ethiopia as the government begins expanding vocational schools and public universities, many other girls will begin to share the same experience, including her activist and model daughter Delina Dilargachew.
Yohannes originally left Ethiopia for America in the year 2000 and did not return until 2015. Upon her return, she has noticed a demonstrable change. She says that although Ethiopia is “made up of really strong women,” there are still gender equality issues in more rural villages. But this tide is now beginning to change. “The numbers [of educated people in Ethiopia] are hinting toward women over males going to school,” Yohannes says. “Especially high school.”
Since her departure, Yohannes noticed other new changes. She emphasized a boom in new infrastructure, saying, “[There were] roads upon roads, neighborhoods just popping open because of infrastructure and road access.”
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Ethiopia, a country which was careful during the conference to boast rich natural resources and an economy based in agriculture, also reported having access to the cheapest electricity in Africa. Currently, in the process of constructing the Renaissance Dam (which will have the potential to generate 6,000 megawatts of power) Ethiopia is investing in infrastructure with the end goal of increasing the industry’s contribution to its overall GDP.
Historically speaking, this has proven dangerous.
For instance, a boom in industry has often come at the price of environmental health and sustainability. Rapid industrialization like that of Ethiopia – whose economy has shown double digit growth for the last twelve years – can pollute rivers and contribute to management oversights. But unlike its predecessors, Ethiopia has been careful to learn from history.
Featured panelist of the conference and ENTITY CEO Jennifer Schwab noted, “I forsee it as the gateway to Africa in the next decade or two, and everybody in America should recognize that if you want to do business in Africa, Ethiopia should probably be your first look.”
Ethiopia is making every effort to develop its country with a focus on sustainable progress. The country – which formerly ranked 126 out of 127 on the Education For All’s development index – is now making historical strides in opening the minds and opportunities of young men and women. Through an investment in its children, and an invitation for the United States to join, Ethiopia ensures that there will be many more educated, empowered young women just like Feben Yohannes in the future.
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