Ethiopia - Anywhere Road Blog

By Christopher Beisswenger, Selamta Volunteer

Ethiopia is the only place on my itinerary that I have visited in the 15 years prior to this journey. The three weeks I spent there in 2007 led to years of involvement, in various capacities, with the organization at which I volunteered. Selamta Family Project is a network of children’s homes in the Bethel neighborhood of Addis Ababa that unites orphaned and abandoned children with marginalized women to recreate lasting and stable family units. Although I have stayed up to date on Selamta issues since my last journey to Africa, I have longed to return to Addis Ababa to experience the spirit and hope of Selamta and the vibrancy of Ethiopia once again.

An added benefit of revisiting Ethiopia was that my mom would be meeting me there. As a board member of Selamta, she was also excited to see the children again and help the organization however she could. It had been a couple of months since I had seen any family members, and I wasn’t sure how long it might be after I left Addis Ababa. I was excited to take any opportunity to catch up with her in my travels.

Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is a city of about 6 million people and 4 stoplights. I’m exaggerating the scarcity of traffic controls a bit (I think), but it certainly isn’t a place where you can expect to have your hand held. Nothing comes easy in Ethiopia. Preparation of injera (the spongy, pancake-like staple of any Ethiopian meal) takes days and requires years of practice. A car will cost you dearly due to the 300% tax on vehicles, and the alternative for most of the city’s population is a network of old vans packed to 300% of suggested passenger capacity. If you want some new shoes, they have good deals at the Mercado. But you probably wont find them in the largest open-air market in Africa.

These are a few of the items that locals might have on their lists of frustrations, but the reality is that much of city’s population doesn’t have the luxury of bemoaning minor inconveniences. They are facing monumental, life-threatening struggles such as devastating disease and hunger with an empty playbook of solutions. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and it almost feels like whatever you do to try to help is just a drop in the bucket. But you have to start somewhere.

Selamta Family Project serves 130 children, which is tiny when you think of the millions of orphans around the country. What they are moving towards is creating a scalable model, which, if successful, could reach a much greater proportion of those in need. Representatives from relevant Ethiopian governmental organizations have recognized Selamta as the best model for orphan care in the city. Other children’s homes have sprouted up based on the Selamta framework. It will take time, maybe generations, but it is certainly worth the effort to rebuild these families and equip young people with the education and support mechanisms necessary to thrive and, hopefully, to lead.

Ethiopia is a challenging place for sure, but there are also countless reasons to love it. I have found Ethiopians to be some of the most gracious people anywhere in the world. They welcome visitors with incense, popcorn and wonderful coffee ceremonies. They tend to be modest; even the super rich wear old suits and drive simple cars. They speak quietly and thoughtfully. They are amazing.

Around Addis Ababa there is plenty to do, but you will have to look a little bit harder for entertainment than in your average European or American city. One of our translators for the Tuck project named Betty ended up being a great friend to me and was nice enough to show me around the city. We went to an art show at the luxurious Sheraton Hotel featuring some of her classmates and teachers at Addis Ababa University. We saw the skeleton of Lucy, the world’s first human, at the National Museum. We brushed our teeth with little carved sticks like the locals do it. Most memorably, we watched the sunset over the city from Entoto Hill.

Getting out of the city is advisable, both in order to keep your sanity and to catch a wonderfully different side of Ethiopia. One day, I set out with the Tuck group to see Abay, a natural formation described as the Ethiopian Grand Canyon. On the long drive through the countryside we got a dose of rural Ethiopia, which contains 83% of the country’s population according to UNESCO. It’s not an easy life for the rural population by any means, but there did appear to be tranquility in their simply constructed villages and beautiful surroundings. As for Abay itself, we enjoyed a breathtaking view from atop a skyscraper height waterfall.

Ethiopia has some funny quirks that I came to enjoy once I got past some of its more overwhelming and/or alarming characteristics. Grown men wear jelly shoes, a type of footwear usually reserved for grade school girls in the states. When speaking to an Ethiopian, he or she will take sharp intakes of air that serve the same purpose as nodding one’s head in conversation. Rather than take it for its intended “I’m listening”, I thought my conversation partner was gasping in horror at first. Also, I found the music videos to be some of the best entertainment out there. In one of them, a man was hard at work farming when a homely young woman entered stage left to deliver a sports drink to her beau. The gentleman sipped the refreshing beverage, offered a toothy grin, and then the two of them shimmied in unison for an awkwardly long time. Great stuff.

Comparing the Addis of 2014 to the 2007 variety, I was encouraged to see some changes that I perceived as progress. Immediately upon arrival, I noticed some of progress’s most visible manifestations – huge buildings. With more than a hint of pride in his soft voice, my taxi driver pointed out a slew of shiny new edifices. Also, the frequency of requests for money was far lower than when I was last there. It used to be that I would expect at least a small group to follow me and ask for cash or food as soon as my pace slowed beyond a slight jog. I didn’t experience that this time. Another thing that struck me was that I barely recognized Selamta’s neighborhood, Bethel, after an intense but seemingly well thought through construction spree. And passing below the metro line construction was a reminder that the city is addressing its deficient public transportation (a Chinese company is building the metro system for the city, which is a bit scary given that folks in Addis buy rusty old hardware from the Mercado rather than new Chinese-manufactured hardware of a comparable price point).

Tuck Global Consultancy Project

I arranged the timing of my Ethiopia visit so that I would be there at the same time as a group from Tuck School of Business tasked with providing recommendations to the Selamta board on a number of issues. 2014 was year 2 of 3 for the Tuck Global Consultancy (TGC) project. The board asked this year’s group of five for guidance on how to help Selamta children transition into successful, independent adults. The board also wanted the team to think about how to ensure that mothers receive proper care once the children are grown up and living on their own.

I offered to help the team out however possible. I was thrilled to be included in the vast majority of activity for the first week and half (out of three) before some pressing budget needs required that I shift my attention to other work.

In order to create a recommendation as to how a youth might transition out a family home, we wanted to start by making sure that we understood the academic and professional options for a young adult. Prior to our arrival, the TGC team and Abel, Selamta’s Ethiopian Director, arranged a packed schedule of meetings with representatives from primary and secondary schools, universities, vocational training schools, other children’s homes, government organizations and Selamta itself.

What I learned in these interviews extended far beyond what I had initially thought to be the scope of our research. We delved deep into the complexities of the Ethiopian family structure, education system and demographic trends, and we spoke at length about economic, political and religious issues. Also, we got a window into the dreams and expectations of the Selamta children, mothers and employees during our discussions with them. Some of the conversations got quite emotional and served as reminders about the mission of the organization and why we were there in the first place.

To illustrate some of the topics of research, here are some examples of the questions that a Selamta child might have as he or she moves from carefree primary schooler to independent, successful young professional: What do I want to do when I grow up? What sort of education and/or training will be required to get there? To whom can I talk about careers? Realistically, what career path is achievable? I am six grades behind because I wasn’t attending school while I was living on the streets. What does that mean for my future? What is the passing score needed on the grade 8, 10 and 12 exams (this changes by year)? If I don’t pass, do I go to vocational school or a short-term training program? In which vocational program will the government place me? Will I be ready to decide on a career if my test score is too low for the next level of schooling? If I am in the tiny portion of the population accepted into a government university, what score is required to be matched with my desired course of study (students are matched to a major by the government based on the student’s score and the country’s perceived skill needs)? How long after graduation will it take to get a job? How much will an apartment cost (real estate prices are rising by 25-30% per year in Selamta’s neighborhood in Addis Ababa)? Is my Selamta mother expecting me to support her once I have a job, as would be the case in many other Ethiopian families? Is she banking on the support of her religious community (Ethiopian Orthodox or Muslim, mostly) after I leave home?

As you can see, there was a lot we needed to learn.

In addition to the wealth of knowledge we were able to glean from our interviewees, seeing and participating in the interview process itself was tremendously valuable for me. In the time I spent working in mergers & acquisitions, all of the information I handled was very sensitive. To simply call the expert on the subject was normally out of the question due to confidentiality concerns. In a consulting context, the interviews they conduct are a critical part of the process. To see the way the TGC team approached this part of the project, from the interviewee selection process to the pre-made interview guides and subsequent synthesis of results, was a fantastic experience.

The team worked hard to move from data aggregation phase to analysis phase to recommendation phase (disclaimer: not official B-school lingo) in the matter of only a few weeks. I am incredibly grateful for the unique chance to have worked with such a bright group on this type of consulting project. It made it even more gratifying that we conducted the work on behalf of an organization that has been very important to my family and me.

Selamta budget

About half way through my three-week stay in Ethiopia, I switched my primary focus to the 2015 Selamta budget. There has been some turnover in Selamta leadership recently, and there was a pressing need for review and planning around the organization’s financial condition. I was to work with the staff to check and refine the existing 2015 budget.

I braced myself as I opened the budget excel file, expecting flashbacks from my banking days of indecipherable client models and lonely all-nighters in my cubicle. After a few fleeting New York City pangs, I recomposed myself to see the condition of the budget. Actually, it was quite thorough and well organized. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I worked for most of the remainder of my time in Ethiopia on what bankers call “due-diligence”. First, it involved going line by line to make sure that the file mechanics are working correctly. If you start analyzing numbers only to later realize that something that is supposed to be added is actually being multiplied, then you will have wasted time. Or the user might never catch the error and could base important decisions off of incorrect information.

Next, I worked with Abel, the Country Director, to understand and refine assumptions around the 2015 budget. We addressed questions such as: How much of a rent increase should we assume for 2015? How many students will be at university, and how much pocket money will they need per month while they are there? What programs are we offering for the children, and what do we expect the participation and cost per child to be? These are questions that Selamta will always have to ask and to which the answers will always be changing, so we worked to come up with a framework that would allow some flexibility to rework assumptions in the future as necessary.

The process was surprisingly therapeutic for me. Creating the financial models and discussing each part of the business in detail was what I liked most about banking. Taking complex problems, breaking them down into smaller and smaller pieces, and then rebuilding the pieces to form a comprehensive picture is a rewarding process, and I was happy to be able to help out a bit in this endeavor. Also, after dealing with constant uncertainty and chaos on the road for five months, it was quite rewarding to input numbers into little boxes and have something reasonably logical and orderly come out.

As my time in Addis wound down, I started to think about the next phase in my journey. From the research I had done, India would be possibly the most uncertain and chaotic place I would go. In Ethiopia, it was an incredible blessing having a purpose for my visit. I would have struggled to be there without having a way to help, and it felt nice to use some of what I have learned for a good cause.

For more of Christopher's journey, follow his blog here.