Building an environmentally sustainable organization that ensures gender inclusivity was part of Dr. Mitslal Kifleyesus-Matschie’s main mission when she established ‘Ecological Products of Ethiopia’ or Ecopia, in 2005, a for-profit social enterprise in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.
About 80% of people in Ethiopia derive their income from agriculture; however, farmers in the country are entirely dependent on prices set at local markets; have little awareness of how to add value to their produce and natural resources; and have limited access to the funding, training and equipment required for them to take a more business-oriented approach. In part, Ecopia was established to tackle these problems head on, by giving farmers access to the knowledge and tools necessary to add value to their environmentally sustainable natural products, and provide them with improved, technology-enabled access to markets.
The great potential for growth in Ethiopia is no secret. Mitslal saw a developmental gap that needed to be filled, and after six years of working closely with rural communities in different areas across Ethiopia, developing processing systems and products with international quality standards, she found that applying a value-added market based approach was the key to helping rural families, and especially women, in Ethiopia prosper.
There are over 11,000 Ethiopian organic farmers in Ecopia’s network, and they’ve trained over 1,000 farmers in processing skills and business development. This is because they are committed to producing and providing the highest quality services in organic food, beverage, cosmetics and herbal medicine. Currently they sell more than 20 food products and 19 hair and skin products in shops throughout Ethiopia. Ecopia’s organic products rely heavily on innovation in technology, transportation, management and logistics. In addition, they focus on being leaders in marketing and communications and invest in effective government relationship management. The company’s business is built on a co-creation model for the company’s products which are efficiently managed using mobile networking and e-commerce to streamline supply chains.
Gaining entry into small-scale supply chains in Ethiopia, particularly as a woman, has its definite challenges, given the fact that the industry is mainly male-dominated. Large-scale industry that attracts big capital investments is also becoming increasingly prevalent in the Ethiopian agricultural sector, further limiting the opportunities for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
Overcoming these challenges hasn’t been easy, however, Mitslal notes that as a female entrepreneur, being adaptable and persistent are vital qualities for success. Across Ethiopia, women are rising to these and many other challenges by building their businesses up from a strong grass-roots support network of women; in turn, this is inspiring a whole new class of female entrepreneurs.
In a blog post titled 7 Tips to Support the Next Wave of Women-led Innovation in Ethiopia, our very own Anthony Lambkin details the female entrepreneurial perspective in Ethiopia that aims to help increase the presence of female-led innovation in various roles in all markets throughout the country. Ecopia's rapidly progressing model, based on inclusivity of women, is helping the organization grow beyond a micro-level enterprise, and much of that growth is attributed to female empowerment. Currently, two-thirds of Ecopia’s employees and suppliers are women, with men mainly involved in a finance and training capacity.
Innovation is at Ecopia's core and they are working on-the-ground daily with Ethiopian farmers to improve their knowledge and understanding of new processes and technologies. However more of this work needs to be done to transform farmers into successful entrepreneurs. This influened Mitslal to get involved with the design of infoDev’s Climate Innovation Center in Ethiopia which will have a specific focus on sustainable agribusiness. After the the CICs launch in 2013, it aims to support and create new opportunities for women entrepreneurs across Ethiopia. Ultimately, more women entrepreneurs means more role-models, which can have a powerful transformative effect on the development of countries all over the world.
Photos courtesy of Ecopia