People like you are needed on this continent to take us to where we should be. Keep it up man!
Spend a few minutes with Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin and you will know that she is a woman of great substance. A truly soulful personality, she is ambitious, vivacious, and focused. Currently, Eleni and her team are in the process of building an institution that may completely transform the way agricultural commodities are traded in her native country of Ethiopia.
The implications of this endeavor are huge: among other benefits, it may effectively address Ethiopia’s age-old struggle with food insecurity. Armed with a Ph.D. in economics from Stanford University, years of research in international institutions including the World Bank and International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and lots of passion, Eleni has set out to redress failures in the current market system in Ethiopia where drastic fluctuations in food prices (mainly due to variations in rainfall) have made hunger and starvation a persistent looming threat to millions of people. This is the story of a visionary and inspiring woman. I hope you will enjoy reading it.
RK: Tell us about your upbringing. What was your childhood like and how do you think it has influenced your personality?
EGM: I was brought up in a very liberal environment. My parents always encouraged the personality to come out. I was always very active and they encouraged my gregarious nature. I remember early on, I was a tomboy; I refused to wear dresses, I would climb trees, ride my bike hands off, I would fall and scrape my knees and my parents had no qualms about that. Sometimes relatives would go to my mother and talk to her about me; they would say she needs to try to get me to look and act more feminine. And she would say, ‘No, we’ll just let her be.’ As a result, I always felt confident that whatever I thought I wanted to do was acceptable. I remember an incident one morning when I was seven years old, I decided I was going to do my own hair and I looked like a mess! I knew my ponytail was looking strange but my mother just said, “OK, ready to go? Get in the car, let’s go to school.” and I said to myself “Oh, she’s not getting upset with me!” I always remembered that and I remember the feeling that she was OK with what I decided to do with my hair as a seven-year old and that has been the pattern in my life. I felt my parents trusted me to do the right thing. As a result I grew up feeling very empowered and feeling like I was in charge of my own life. And that is a powerful feeling for a child, especially in the Ethiopian context where children are very much discouraged from expressing themselves and are told to keep quiet.
Another very important part of my childhood is, I grew up in many different countries – namely, Ethiopia, the U.S., Rwanda, Togo, Malawi and Kenya. I grew up in the four corners of Africa, and although I had a lot of sense of pride as an Ethiopian, at the same time I also developed a pan-African identity.
Third, from an early age, I was considered to be a leader. My parents repeatedly affirmed to me that I was going to do great things. They would say things like, ‘Look at the way she gave that presentation, she is going to be a president some day.’ Such statements, I realize now, are so important in terms of giving us a sense of purpose. When I was in the 8th grade I was already looking at where I would go to college and thinking of what kind of world leader I was going to be.
In addition to being exposed to different cultures, I was also exposed to development work at an early age. My father was the head of UNDP in the different African countries we lived in, and I would accompany him to various project sites. At the age of 15, I prepared a 10-year life plan – I decided that I was going to get a Ph.D. in agricultural economics, and I was going to be an African that would solve Africa’s poverty. So these exposures I got as a young girl and my parents' confidence in me, I believe, shaped who I am now and, in some ways, prepared me for the responsibilities that I took on as an adult.
RK: What need were you trying to address in establishing the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange?
EGM: My interest in this area started in 1984 with a general concept and the question, why is Ethiopia going through a famine? Like everyone else, I assumed it was because we were not growing enough food. So in the mid 1980s, my thinking was, as an economist, I am going to study why farmers don’t produce enough food and what they need to produce more of it. Then when I was in college, I came across a study that showed there was actually a surplus of food in the southern part of Ethiopia at the time of the 1984-85 famine, and that was a life-changing moment for me, which led me to focus on the issue of distribution and coordination of the demand and supply of food.
RK: You’ve conducted research in this area for several years. What events and circumstances led you to believe that it was time to go beyond research and operationalize your idea?
EGM: I started thinking and conducting research in 1985, and my premise was that food distribution was the problem along with inadequate production. Then in 1989 I went to Mali and spent a year working on my Masters thesis on coordination and transaction cost. In 2002-03, a food security crisis hit Ethiopia once again and I realized that I probably knew what it takes to solve this recurring problem, and I also felt like I had talked about it and had done enough research about it and that it was simply time to do something.
Actually, as early as 1996 when I was researching my Ph.D. thesis on Ethiopian grain markets, the operational and practical side of me started to emerge very concretely. When I conducted my survey and imposed on grain traders to respond to my questionnaire, they would ask me ‘You’ve come so far from where you live to get information from us. Why are you doing this?’ And I would tell them that I’m trying to find a solution to their problems and I would say that over and over again and that’s how I would convince people to participate in my research. I talked to hundreds of traders throughout Ethiopia. And everywhere I go, the people wanted to know what exactly I was going to do with all the information I was collecting. I would tell them, ‘I will write what you tell me, compare what you said with what others have said, analyze it, and I'll come up with an idea about what the real problem is, and I’ll try to find the solution to your problem. Once I find the solution, I'll try to convince people to take appropriate actions.’ Then they would say, ‘Who are these people?’ and my response was, 'I'm not sure. There are donors, the government, and maybe others. Somebody should be able to do something once I tell them what the solution is.' So to me, it was never clear who was actually going to take the necessary actions once the solution was figured out. In this way, I conducted my research, wrote my thesis and got an award for it and I went on with my life.
Then in 2002, six years later, I decided to return to Ethiopia to launch a follow-up survey. I went to the same sites where I did my earlier work, and as soon as I entered the market, the traders immediately recognized me and wanted to know what came out of the research I conducted a few years earlier. I told them I had written my thesis. Then they asked me, ‘What are you doing here now?’ I said I was there to do a follow-up study to see if things have changed, and to see if I can understand the situation a bit more. And they said, ‘Listen, before we agree to help you in any way, we want you to explain to us what you learned and what you did with the last study.’ So they decided to call a meeting; many of the traders I talked to in 1996 were there, and they said, ‘You went and wrote your dissertation and got your Ph.D., but what did you do for us?’ And I was blown away! I said to myself: I told these people the reason that I was doing this research was to change their lives and nothing had changed. I remember fundamentally being held to task by a group of traders.
So I realized then that my peddling the knowledge, writing papers, presenting them in various forums, and the idea that somehow, somebody will take that knowledge and implement it, was not likely to happen. So when I moved to Ethiopia to establish a country office for a Washington-based think tank two years after that incident, it was with the idea that we need to figure out how to translate some of the hundreds and thousands of the very good analytical work done by so many people into action. Thus I founded a program with the slogan, 'bridging knowledge and policy.'
In May 2005, I organized a workshop on the market situation in Ethiopia, where we built a consensus about the fact that we had enough information and that it was time to do something to start to redress the problem. I got key buy-in at that meeting from senior government officials, donors, and farmer representatives. After the meeting the government was ready to start thinking concretely about establishing a commodity exchange. At that point, I thought it was important that we take the lead in the process of designing the commodity exchange. This stage was beyond research, so I had to push my organization to go further and there was a major debate within our organization about whether or not I should be allowed to get involved in the designing stage.
So I started designing the exchange in 2006, and a year later I started to think about who would be responsible to implement the design that I was working on. The more I refined the design, the more I realized that there would be a real need for all the knowledge that I acquired at the research and design stages, and it seemed like it would be the wrong thing to do to hand it over to someone who does not know all the details of the project. So I made a major decision in 2007, which was that I was going to leave the research environment, which meant that I had to resign from my position with IFPRI, to lead the project in establishing the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. At that point, I was out of my comfort zone, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do. As I was explaining my decision to leave the research world, I said I would like to think of myself as a rainmaker. I think that’s what I am meant to be. Once I uttered the word ‘rainmaker’, what I needed to do became clear and very real to me and there was no looking back. Thus, I signed up to take full responsibility for the outcome of the project.
RK: What are the risks and challenges that you are facing and are currently dealing with?
EGM: First and foremost is that I may have the wrong idea; a commodity exchange may not be the solution to the problem of coordination in Ethiopia. I bring an outsider’s perspective and the solution that I am proposing is not home-grown, and there is a chance that I may not have understood the problem completely. I am definitely perceived as an outsider since I left Ethiopia at a very young age and lived most of my life outside of the country. The positive aspect of this is that, I didn’t have the baggage of having seen how things can go wrong and the different challenges that working in that particular environment can present. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and that probably was very good.
The second risk is that so much of the program's success depends on other people and external circumstances: the government’s will, commitment and attitude; on the private sector’s willingness to come forward, engage, and play by the rules; and also a factor is the global economy, financial shocks, weather shocks, etc. can all completely derail the initiative.
RK: You’ve said our dreams express what our soul is telling us. Please elaborate.
EGM: I believe that we dream because there is some truth within us that is trying to get out. Whatever we feel strongly about, if we are courageous enough to recognize and acknowledge it and fight for it, we find it is our life purpose. It is what we are here to do. The dream within us is always trying to manifest itself, but unfortunately so many of us suppress it. I believe that whatever we are guided to do, we should open ourselves up to.
What I’ve realized is that there is nothing more powerful than a great passion for what you do. It literally infects other people, and it pulls and sucks other people into itself. My team and I at ECX look at each other sometimes and say ‘What are we doing here on Saturday night at 11:00pm? We need to go home.’ And we agree we’re there because we love what we do. It’s more than a job, it’s a labor of love, and we talk about the concept of love a lot. It’s love of country but it’s also this idea that, if you believe in something, you should fight for it and give it what you have. What has been amazing to me is to see how what really started as something that was so important to me— I was willing to give up everything for it— has now become so many people’s path as well. It’s an incredible thing to witness that power.
Eleni Gabre-Madhin, Ph.D. is the Chief Executive Officer of Ethiopia Commodity Exchange. For more information on the Commodity Exchange, please visit the organization’s website at: http://www.ecx.com.et