Mulu Solomon: The Woman Who Wants to Die Empty

Last December, Mulu Solomon rose to the helm of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association (ECCSA), becoming the organization’s first female president. During her brief time she has worked to smooth relations with the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association (AACCSA), facilitate discussions on Ethiopia’s plan to join the World Trade Organization. She has also been working to improve Ethiopia’s business climate. After a recent visit to Handwerkskammer (HWK), a Chamber of Commerce based in Berlin, Germany, she sat down with Amanyehun R. Sisay, Executive Editor of the Ethiopian Business Review (EBR) Magazine, for an exclusive interview to talk about the latest progress of ECCSA.

EBR: The relationship between ECCSA and AACCSA has been strained over a building both of you are using. Has that improved under your leadership?

W/ro Mulu: It has improved. A joint program has been started to design ways to work together, to cooperate, to synergize resources, knowledge and serve the business community in a better way. The first joint management training and consultation to improve our relationship, while supporting the members specifically and the business community at large, was conducted recently with promising and encouraging outcomes.

Other than AACCSA, the remaining 18 Chambers and Sectoral Associations which are members of ECCSA are young and need more Training in vital issue such as mobilizing resources; what is being done to improve their skills?

We have already started training our members in the areas of utilizing technologies including advanced software with the help of HWK and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). We will continue this effort.

When Ato Eyesuswork Zafu was elected president of ECCSA, the Chamber organized a farewell dinner for the outgoing board and provided them with a logo of the ECCSA as a gesture to recognize what they had done. An official medal was also made to Ato Getachew Ayenew, the departing president. Did you continue this tradition when you came to office in December 2011?

Actually this culture of thanking outgoing board began long ago in AACCSA before ECCSA. We organized a farewell dinner party for the outgoing board and provided them with a medal made with the logo of ECCSA. We did not let them just go; we also invited them to work with us closely. Actually the important issue is not handing out medals or hosting a dinner but creating a real heartfelt togetherness by seeing the big picture that is promoting the cause of the private sector and enabling the chambers do what is expected from them as an institution. We are working to build organisational (institutional) depth not trying to promote certain individuals or looking good for the media; instead we are developing an organisational culture with a positive attitude and that is the most vital thing we can do.

Ethiopia has applied for accession to the WTO and at the moment, there is no functioning private sector reference centre serving the business community in the process; why has ECCSA not established such a centre?

ECCSA has started establishing a WTO Reference Centre in cooperation with the ITC [International Trade Centre]. It has supported its members for instance the Meat Producers and Exporters Association and Oil Seeds and Pulses Producers and Exporters Association in establishing the same type of reference centre with the help of ITC. It will continue to do the same for other members of the Chamber.

Different workshops have been conducted to create awareness among members including regional and city chambers on WTO accession and Ethiopia’s membership negotiation process. We have asked the appropriate government officials to establish a think-tank group to provide input to the negotiating body on diverse issues such as intellectual property rights, rules and regulations on goods and services. This is to help the government incorporate the current realities on the ground and the future concerns of the private sector about each and every issue while negotiating.

In 2007 ECCSA had developed a strategic plan that remained unimplemented. Then again in 2009, a new 80 page program was developed for the period 2009/10 – 2013/14. You have now gone two years into implementing it. Where do you stand today in terms of achieving the goals?

Part of the strategic plan for every year is revised and has been implemented. So far it has been successful every year. However, I believe we need to do something new or creative apart from the routine operations. And I am sure we will come up with something new.

What has ECCSA achieved through the UNDP supported program of “Enhancing Economic Growth Project”?

UNDP support has got three components. The first is Public Private Dialogue (PPD) which supports in undertaking research – research on issues related to PPD and other issues not related to PPD such as study on establishing Chamber Academy, Identification of National Business Agenda was done. The PPD studies emanated from those Agendas. The other is the trade and investment development and promotion – e.g. Trade fair organizing, development of exporters guide and business directory were made possible by their support. The last one is building capacities of member chambers through the provision of hard wares, soft wares, and training on association governance, business development services, project planning and others.

ECCSA considers the establishment of the Pan African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PACCI) and the decision made to move the seat of the continental body from Cairo to Addis Ababa as one of its achievements, what have you done since the headquarters of PACCI came to Addis?

Once PACCI was moved to Addis Ababa, ECCSA has provided a furnished office; a provisional director and liaison officer; council meeting have been conducted three times to help it function and grow in the right direction; The Director of PACCI has been introducing the continental chamber to regional and international organizations like AU, UN agencies. Several other works have also been done. All these happened because of the commitment of the Director and also the support of ECCSA.

Many companies have complains such as on tax issues, the requirement that new and even small companies have to purchase cash register machines when they often do not have even enough start up capital to purchase them; There is also the regulation that compels private banks to use 27 per cent of the amount they advance as loans to buy bonds with a three per cent interest rate, while they pay five per cent interest rates for deposits; And the problem of clearing goods from dry ports lately. Do you plan to initiate discussions with the government to solve these problems that stained the business climate?

ECCSA’s Public Private Partnership forum is undertaking research and meeting with the government about vital issues that the business community is concerned about. So far two meetings have been conducted; one on tax and another on customs and logistics. At the moment, there are two upcoming meetings on trade license, registration and tourism, which are postponed due to current situation. Most problems will be addressed as per the priority request and approval of the business community itself.

By any measure the 1960s 70s were the golden days for the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber accomplished notable achievements like strengthening the private sector and promoting investment. Do you think those were the “good old days” or can we expect even more?

Actually at the time of the emperor businesses like commercial farming were starting to grow and flourish. Coffee exporting was also successful. Later at the time of the socialist regime, though chamber of commerce membership was mandatory, there was not private sector as such. Since the current government came to power, a policy to introduce a free market economy was designed. The empty handed private sector has started struggling with so many problems and is still trying to come out of the vicious circle of problems such as lack of finance, collateral, knowhow, technology, working space, and market access.

What do we do to take the business community out of such problems? The first thing is we need to continue our public private dialogue to create more enabling business environment. Secondly, we need to work in creating a vibrant private sector which focuses more on being part of a solution than being part of a problem. And also create a visionary, ethical, creative private sector, which individually or jointly can solve its own problems. We need to create a private sector which can be competitive locally and internationally. How can we do it? It is by focusing on the bigger picture; by creating full understanding among members of the private sector itself and with other stakeholders.

We will take the Chamber forward to the next level. That will happen by bringing incremental and positive change in the attitudes and activities of the private sector, initially by changing ourselves, by freeing ourselves from our mental imprisonment. When attitude is changed positively, everything is simple. We have a strategy and I am sure it will happen, since nothing is impossible.

In the light of increasing complications of social problems, a chamber of commerce is expected to promote the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility. ECCSA has remained far behind in this regard; do you have any plan to change this?

ECCSAshould help its own existence before helping others. It needs to support and strengthen its members so that it becomes a strong and competent chamber which can undertake all sorts of responsibilities.

That is why one of its major plans is to strengthen itself and its member chambers and sectoral associations.

Within its limited capacity at the moment, we have started working on creating a more ethical business society, creating awareness to stop illegal migration. I believe ECCSA will undertake its corporate social responsibilities in areas like environmental protection, children’s, women’s and youth’s rights, disabilities and other issues, well in the near future.

You usually defend equal rights for women. However we do not see you often in organized women’s rights advocacy organizations, do you have any reason?

I have a very busy schedule. So I can not involve in everything even if I would like to. But I still support associations on issues of human rights, peace, environment, disabilities, literature, entrepreneurship, chambers of commerce, etc. I believe it is good to allow others to serve too. I always appreciate the efforts of my sisters and brothers. Otherwise, if they need me badly, I am there for them to the best of my abilities; as I want to die empty giving all I have to the society.

After you left Alemta Impex PLC, you have established the Right Vision International PLC; can you brief what this company does and how it has evolved?

Right Vision was established as “New Vision”. But before its registration, I realized that all new visions may not be right. Thus, I wanted my vision to be right. We established the company because I have a vision to work on people, to help them change their attitudes. And also wanted to do what I like to do and be my own boss.

At the moment Right Vision International is involved in consultancy, training and export. The consultancy and training programs are on business, management and social issues. We also export textile, garment, leather and leather products and accessories.

How would the Business Community remember the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi? He once said that the private sector in Ethiopia is the fruit of the policy of his government.

On behalf of the Ethiopian Business Community and myself, we are all very sad. His passing away at the age where he could serve much better, learning from experience is more saddening.

Regarding the private sector, prior to the current government the country was led by command economic policy. So there was nothing as such a vibrant private sector. It is the government under the leadership of Prime Minister Meles who put the policy of free market economy in place, which is one major step forward for the revival of the private sector.

We wish the Late Prime Minister’s soul to rest in peace, and strength to his family, friends and to the Ethiopian people.

Could you tell me about your recent visit to Germany?

The HWK assists ECCSA in tax advisory services. So the visit was to review that and see forthcoming initiatives. We were also interested to see areas where we can learn from them. In this regard we have noticed how strong University-Industry partnership in Germany raised the industrial competitiveness of the country. We have also seen that Germany’s Chamber Establishment legislation require business entities to be member of chambers. This has built the financial and technical capacities of Chambers. We have also learnt these and a lot other issues which we will try to emulate step by step.

A final comment is welcome

I believe the business community of Ethiopia will soon fully change its attitude positively, and will prove that it is the – base, corner stone and the engine for the growth and development of the country. I believe that peace will prevail in the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people, Africa and the world soon.

My last message: Let each of us do our part. Then, there will be nothing left undone and there will be no one to blame.


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