Interview with Samuel Gebru, a young promoter of Economic Development in Ethiopia

By Helen Ngoh on October 20, 2011

Samuel Gebru is a young Ethiopian leading a movement for the positive transformation of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Global Initiative (EGI) envisions “the collective prosperity of Ethiopia and Ethiopians worldwide, enabling sustainable economic development through projects that produce efficient results.” In this interview, Samuel tells us about EGI, its BuildEthiopia Conference and his opinion on what Africa needs to do to encourage more economic development.

Please introduce yourself
My name is Samuel Gebru. I am a 19-year-old Ethiopian born in Sudan (in 1991) and raised in the United States. I’m fortunate to say that my childhood, both in Sudan and in the United States, was great. I grew up in a nice working neighborhood of Khartoum. Similarly, in Cambridge, I have been lucky to have the things I have always needed. I am a proud product of the Cambridge Public Schools and the Cambridge afterschool programs at the Willis D. Moore Youth Center and the Cambridge Community Center. Currently, I attend Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota expecting to attain a B.A. in Political Science.

Tell us a little about the Ethiopian Global Initiative
The Ethiopian Global Initiative (EGI) is an international nonprofit organization that I founded as a 13-year-old. In December 2004 I watched an Oprah Winfrey Show program on maternal health in Ethiopia. After some thought, I worked with other young Ethiopian Americans in the Greater Boston Area to establish the Ethiopian Team in April of 2005. We worked together to raise funds for the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa and this was our way to support efforts to cure women with childbirth injuries.

On October 22, 2006, I founded the Ethiopian American Youth Initiative (EAYI) but struggled with a clear mission. In June 2010, EAYI changed its name to EGI and began operating with the support of students and professionals throughout the world. In the words of its mission statement, “EGI combines and captures the social and intellectual capital of students and professionals for the transformation of Ethiopia” by undertaking social and economic-focused projects in the country.

Does EGI plan to support local Ethiopian microfinance institutions and social entrepreneurship training programs? What impact do you expect your support to have in the business sector in Ethiopia?
EGI has plans in 2012 and 2013 to begin engaging with local microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Ethiopia. MFIs are particularly important to Ethiopia’s rural development as cash-strapped farmers are usually unable to take traditional loans. Social entrepreneurship and MFIs go together especially since MFIs can assist social entrepreneurs in attaining the necessary funding they need. There is a need to cultivate social entrepreneurship and innovation in Ethiopia and EGI’s project development team is exploring various options for us to engage in Ethiopia’s economic development. We hope that our impact will be powerful especially as we hope to work with marginalized youth and women in our economic programs, whether it is providing technical assistance or funding.

One of EGI’s products is the BuildEthiopia Conference. What is goal of the conference?
The BuildEthiopia Conference is our annual conference and it is designed to unite anyone and everyone who is even remotely interested in Ethiopia’s development. By providing a forum for the exchange of ideas and experiences, we hope to identify three major aspects. Foremost, we want to recognize what is working well in Ethiopia now. We want to shed light on the “best practices” because many of these are unsung achievements. Secondly, we plan to identify the political, social and economic challenges facing Ethiopia’s long-term development. In doing so, we hope our participants are both honest and candid in their observations and opinions. Most importantly, and the third aspect, is that the BuildEthiopia Conference will encourage participants to seek solutions, and solutions that particularly utilize their individual and collective social and intellectual capital.

Why have a conference about Ethiopia in the U.S.?
The United Nations Development Programme indicates that between 1980 and 1991, Ethiopia lost over 75% of its skilled workforce. The brain drain, not unique to Ethiopia or Africa, has impacted the growth of Ethiopia tremendously. Much progress could have been achieved and goals could materialize had Ethiopia’s skilled professionals not left the country due to political and economic calamities. As a result, much of Ethiopia’s “brain” is in the United States. Our goal is to help plant the seed in the minds of students and professionals to go to Ethiopia and partake in its historic development. The best part is that we don’t work with Ethiopians solely. Many non-Ethiopians participate in our programming because they also realize the importance for states like Ethiopia, that are rich in resources, to realize their full potential and contribute to the global economy.

The conference will have sessions on economic development. What kinds of discussions will go on in these sessions?
In our Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development plenary session, we want participants to examine how social entrepreneurship can have a positive impact in the economic development of Ethiopia—and throughout Africa. Social entrepreneurs and their initiatives are widely regarded to as a positive force for change. We want to examine why this is the case and how gaining a profit and making meaningful contributions are not mutually exclusive.

In your opinion, what does Ethiopia in particular and Africa in general need to do to encourage economic development?
Africa’s governments need to instill a positive work ethic amongst the schoolchildren while they are in their elementary years. Primary education is very important because that is the age when a child’s mind absorbs everything. If young children are taught to think critically and “outside of the box,” they will grow up examining their surroundings and constantly exploring ways to improve their community, country and continent. Ethiopia’s development challenges are not exclusive to Ethiopia, but can be said of much of Africa.

Economic development also rests on the respect of human rights and the rule of law. Most foreign entrepreneurs won’t invest in Africa if there is political instability. Governments in Africa, including Ethiopia’s, need to provide for social entrepreneurship and economic development through the education curriculum and by ensuring that the political system is there to support long-term and sustainable economic development.

Is there anything you would like to add about EGI, the BuildEthiopia Conference and business in Africa?
EGI’s project U.S. College Students for Ethiopia (USCSE) is another program that works to reverse the “brain drain.” U.S. College Students For Ethiopia provides college students from the United States the opportunity to intern with Ethiopian-led organizations and engage in a community service project empowering local youth. USCSE also works to tackle the shortage of a skilled and educated workforce in Ethiopia by bridging the communication and access gap between U.S. college students and Ethiopian organizations. USCSE sent its first class of U.S. college students to Ethiopia last summer, and we are looking forward to a 2012 program that will be just as successful.

How can VC4Africa members reach you?
VC4Africa’s members are encouraged to get involved in our work. We have many projects and are constantly in need of volunteers and donors. One quick way to reach us is by email at action@ethgi.org. We also encourage people to find us on social media and at our official website.

Thank you Samuel. We applaud your efforts to mobilize network, knowledge and resources abroad and for helping to build a bridge back to your country Ethiopia. We also appreciate your emphasis you place on education and the need to better educated younger generations. We hope your conference is a success and look forward to following your continued progress.

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