“Womanhood is not a Challenge!”

Gizeshwork Tessema

Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Gizeshwork grew up dealing with her own version of ‘the woman’s challenge’. Yet, she identifies them not as such but rather as experiences that may bring forth opportunities.

Gizeshwork founded Gize PLC—a logistics company, about 25 years ago—and is also a contributor to the World Bank’s Doing Business Index as well as member of the United Nations Global Compact—a community of 8,000 CEOs from all over the world that convenes once a year to chart innovative ways for entrepreneurship for a better world.

She is a familiar face in the business scene as well as spearhead of the fundraising committee for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), for which she has taken a keen interest in as it is a project of pride for her and the nation.

Entrepreneurial and making business from solving problems from her start, she is of the firm belief that one should not stay put with accomplishments but rather always push for more success. From a stationary to a travel company and from construction inputs to freight and logistics services, Gizeshwork has made her living and name in Ethiopia’s business sphere as a strong woman that overcomes her problems by providing solutions to her customers and clients—and gaining financially from it. She gave an audience to EBR’s Addisu Deresse on her experiences as a woman, an entrepreneur, and one that assumes roles in global institutions.

Is womanhood a challenge in the business world?
Womanhood is not a challenge; it is an opportunity. I am not saying this because I’ve never had challenges of my own; I have been through a series of challenges. When working at an agricultural institute in Jimma, I was bullied by men. They even asked to marry me and did everything to make my life difficult. I had to flee and join Addis Ababa University but even then, I received death threats from men who wanted to marry me. Again, I had to flee that and went to Dubai. Even there, the woman I worked for was negotiating to sell me to a man. I had to flee that challenge, too. So, when I say it is not a challenge, it is not without understanding that there are challenges. But I deny them and never let them control me.

In Dubai, I studied management and logistics at this institution headquartered in Amsterdam. But life in Dubai was not for me in many other ways. So, I had to come back.

Having returned, I remember once taking a walk around Meskel Square and witnessing commotion around the Oromia Finance Bureau. I just entered the office to find out they are in dire need of typewriting machines but couldn’t find anyone to deliver. I went around looking for typewriter suppliers and ordered. I told them that I don’t need any profit but requested they use my name when importing the machines. They agreed and I delivered without extra cost to the bureau.

I also remember another story of this tender floated by Chefe Oromia for the delivery of 25 vehicles. I did not have the money then but I still delivered the vehicles. This, by the way, sold my name to the insurance sector to the point of introducing me to Eyesuswork Zafu, the preeminent player in the sector. That introduction then led me to the path of the Chamber of Commerce. Further, when Ermyas Amelga wanted to sell shares of his bottled water company, Highland, people recommended me to do promotion works because of my working relationship with the private sector.

So, the reason I am telling you all this is that womanhood is a challenge only if you understand it in that way.

How did you think of establishing Gize PLC—one of the oldest freight logistics companies, at a time where Ethiopia’s international trade was not that significant?
Yes, Gize is now more than 25 years old. It was established out of necessity and initially as a travel company undertaking simple tasks of booking and ticket purchases for foreigners and others. I was in contact with this one non-governmental organization (NGO) for which I did various printing and other works. Through them, I was introduced to more foreigners. They would all complain of how they could not find anyone to arrange their travels. So, I just got the license for the travel and logistics business. That is how Gize was established. Now, of course, Gize is a freight logistics company that handles logistics all over the world.

Businesses are shouldering heavy burden due to security and the pandemic. How are you coping?
Logistics is a line of business that is highly impacted by political unrest and other undesirable developments. But, one thing I have learned from experience is to not depend on one line of business. Whenever a new idea pops up, I obtain a license and take it forward. We have licenses for numerous businesses. That is how we have survived for more than 25 years over the political and security shakeups in the country.

I believe I am an innovator, and this has helped. You have to be able to forecast what is going to happen months from now and not be caught by surprise. You also have to update yourself and stay on top of things.

One of our licenses permits charter air transportation while others involve freight forwarding, transit, logistics, and shipping. We can also involve in the travel and tourism business. Currently, for example, we are promoting Ethiopia as a hub of conference tourism. We are doing lots of things around the world in this regard.

We supply asphalt binders or bitumen for road construction. Then we have our medical supplies business inspired by pandemic-induced challenges. Finally, we are in the construction machinery sector—both rental and sale. You don’t just have to be in one line of business; that is how you resist shockwaves when they happen.

During the great challenge of Covid-19, we took over the logistics of Somaliland. Their ports were shut down; we managed their imports and logistics. You have to be fast and on top of things as a business player. One thing I am proud of is the intermediary business role we had between Canada and the Ethiopian central bank during the minting and transportation of the one Birr coin. The coins were imported under our name. I am also one of the founders of Goh Betoch Bank, the first mortgage bank in Ethiopia. Simply put: stay on top of things and diversify.

The government is opening logistics up for private investment. What is your take on that?
I don’t say tell this to foreigners because I love my country but it is all a media circus. I am one of those highly disappointed by the government. They said they would license us as multimodal operators. We opened up our offices, hired employees, and waited for five years. It is all a lie. There is nothing on the ground and all I see are obstacles to not involve us in the sector. You have to own a ship to be a multimodal operator which is a very difficult thing for an Ethiopian. It is also impossible to engage in the business jointly with foreign investors because only the government can manage containerized cargo. If companies cannot manage containers then how do they claim that they have opened up the sector to private investment? They have taken the business way before they gave it to us.

I have been in an advisory panel to the Prime Minister, particularly on privatization matters. We have been arguing against the need for opening up before giving the chance to Ethiopians. It is just talk.

Not just particular to the logistics sector, how do you see the idea of macroeconomic liberalization in general?
Of course, I am one of those who would like to see mega-private investment. But it is sad to know that those who are going to come in might kick us all out. Why can’t we strengthen our own private sector first? This is a nation of brave people; a nation of educated and hardworking people. We first need to create the environment to fully utilize our potential before just opening it all up for everyone. Opening up has helped economies but is not always the case; it has also hurt economies.

Also, don’t ever think they are going to come here and share some wisdom of doing business. We are witnessing it with the Chinese; they don’t let Ethiopians anywhere near the important stuff. They want Ethiopians only for the labor.

How do you evaluate the role of the Ethiopian Freight Forwarders and Shipping Agents Association (EFFSAA) during these tough times and in the sector in general?
To be honest, it is poor. There are lots of issues of transparency surrounding elections of board members and other engagements. Individual businesses are bigger than the association; I am bigger than the association. I am the one on the ground always directly engaging. Even when foreigners come looking for info into the country’s logistics, they speak with me. I cannot say it is an association that has led us through anything.

You were a contributor of the recently-discontinued World Bank’s Doing Business Index. What are your views on it?
These indexes are ways for the West to arm-twist other nations. Look at the single window service indicator; it doesn’t work in Ethiopia. Here, the government has to go through a lot of documentation before giving you a license or supporting you in any way. So, how are you going to go through all of those documents in just a couple of minutes before moving on to the next step? It just doesn’t work. By the way, I love my country and consider these things when I contribute to the index. Everything is not black and white as they expect them to be in their indicators.

How do you evaluate the general environment for doing business in Ethiopia?
You can do business in Ethiopia. There is no doubt about that. With all the challenges you witness all around, you can still earn. The weather is good and you can easily create networks. This is a country which should never go hungry if there is an interest to change. You have to focus on yourself. Yes, there is a lot of corruption and bad business habits everywhere. Many are not business people; they are just gamblers. Yes, this is a business community full of people who corrupt bank presidents to access loans and flip it into profit without doing a basic thing. Still, you can be a business person with principles and make it.

You are also a member of UN Global Compact. Tell us about that.
The UN Global Compact is a community of 8,000 CEOs from all over the world. There are called-for characteristics which members have to possess. These include fighting corruption, empowering women, having entrepreneurship traits, seeking the benefit of others beyond the self, and many other such character traits.

At their first meeting in Ethiopia, I remember Zemedeneh Negatu lecturing how banks should be aware of transactions above ETB200,000 to which I strongly opposed. The compact’s CEO then approached me and invited me to be a member. I was allowed free membership after refusing to pay the fee.

We have a meeting once a year in New York which is a platform of thousands of CEOs to discuss business, entrepreneurship, and the bettering of the world through these things. I was once one of the 100 selected out of 8,000 CEOs to meet with Hilary Clinton when she was running for president in 2016.

You also have been visible on issues related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Tell us about your role there.
The idea of GERD is just something I liked from the beginning. I always remember all those stories in my family that ignite my inner wish to accomplish its construction. When it was first launched, I wrote a letter to Bereket Simon asking him directly to involve me. As I was good at marketing, I offered my skills and experience in marketing for the good cause. They declined my offer; some even mocked me as insane.

Later on, Mekuria, the then Minister of Construction and Urban Development, put my name in some list of people to work on promoting the idea. I went on to people in the private sector asking for their donations for the project. I was able to raise ETB260 million. Unfortunately, if you are proactive it could easily be interpreted as an intention to grab power. I know there is that sentiment wherever I want to help my country as much as I can. I don’t care. I just keep doing what I can.

Logistics is a global business. How do you cope when there are challenges that seem to be beyond your control like the recent container shortage?
Everything is an opportunity. During the container shortage, for example, there was this Indian company that once wanted to rent containers to my company. I contacted them directly. It brought me opportunities that I did not imagine. In Ethiopia, all cargo logistics is handled by the multimodal scheme. Ethiopian ships just carry things back and forth, without being managed with the appropriate expertise and with little involvement of the private sector. These cargo containers are managed only by the government. That is why it hits home every time there is a problem elsewhere.

China is now the most powerful global trade option. Is that an opportunity in your line of business?
Yes, the Chinese effect is well felt and, in many ways, beneficial. In the Ethiopian economy, the Chinese have shed positive light on the idea of engaging in manufacturing. They are offering a whole lot of alternatives in global trade, too. But, as someone who loves her country, I just hate their attitude. It is just not comforting to know and witness how your fellow citizens are treated while doing business. Many of the Ethiopian business community is uneducated, making things even worse. But now, that proposition as the primary option in global trade is shifting a bit to Turkey.

Government seems to be interested in regional integration. What are your views on that?
It is going to be challenging to put into practice. First, each of these countries is not focusing on themselves and what they are doing wrong within their own territories. They need to allow the freedom for businesses to flourish within their own territories. In our country, it seems as if they are working towards more of a Chinese economic model. For example, my efforts to be an agent for a Covid sanitizer has taken one year. In Dukem town, we were licensed to engage in the business of melting iron. Having finalized everything, they just came and arrested our employees for reasons beyond me. Now, the case is at the federal court.

Integration is possible when you also work on cultural relationship. However, the government can just let the private sector operate, which might make things easier.

Tell us about your study at Harvard.
Yes. In 2016, Harvard sent me this offer to attend one of their classes via LinkedIn. They interviewed me via Skype and I joined the class. I attended the training along with CEOs of giant tech companies like Apple. They called it the Business Executive Class. As the only Ethiopian there as well as the only one who actually built a business from the ground up, I can say I have done very well.

How much is your business worth?
I cannot tell you that. When I promote my business outside of Ethiopia, I like to say it is worth USD4 million. The figure might change when promoting myself locally.

Anything you want to say at last.
Yes, for the government. I still want to call them out on the need to support the private sector. The government needs to capitalize on public-private partnerships which has helped a lot of other economies. For the private sector, I think we should also consider the idea of loving our country more and that drive to want to help it beyond just making profits. Thank you.EBR

10th Year • Apr 2022 • No. 106

Addisu Deresse

EBR Editor-in-Chief

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