I recently set out on a mission to find successful women who are transforming their African communities. To make this challenging task more exciting, I decided to visit countries at the lowest rank of every World Bank economic index. With the help of old friends from Queen’s, I mapped out an itinerary that took me from Toronto to Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Along the way, I met many amazing people, and I’d like to share the especially inspiring stories of two women, who are “taking Africa by the horn.”
I arrived in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa one evening mid-June thoroughly confused. According to my watch, it was 8 pm and a translucent darkness had fallen over the city. However, the taxi driver who picked me up at Bole International Airport had tried to convince me that according to Ethiopia’s orthodox calendar, it was actually 2 pm on the third day of a month called Sanni in the year 2004. Out of sheer bewilderment, I stuck my head out of the window of the cab to clear my head and enjoy the cool breeze sashaying through the city as pedestrians darted dangerously between cars.I was in Addis Ababa to interview Bethlehem Alemu, the woman with the fastest growing brand in Africa. I met her at the flagship shop of soleRebels, a multi-million dollar shoe company she started in 2005. In a neatly decorated room surrounded by loafers and flip-flops, I discovered that Bethlehem grew up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Addis Ababa. Fueled by a strong desire to create employment opportunities there, she assembled community artisans to start manufacturing shoes out of old car tires.
As demand for her climate-practical high-quality shoes soared, she expanded her operations to employ 200 local artisans and began exporting Ethiopia’s eco-sensible shoes to Europe, North America, and Asia. With a simple dream to better the conditions in her community, Bethlehem Alemu has been able to build a highly profitable business that has earned her accolades and awards at home and abroad.
After a week in Ethiopia, I boarded a plane to South Sudan, the newest African country to gain independence. As the plane began its rapid descent, my heart rate quickened. I did not know what to expect of a land that had been under the ruthless dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. For decades, the two regions engaged in guerilla warfare until South Sudan seceded and was recognized by the world on July 1, 2011. Since gaining independence, thousands of South Sudanese have returned “from exile” to rebuild their homeland. As I strolled through the streets of Juba, the capital city, I saw signs that South Sudan is ready for the world.
The roads are lined with wooden kiosks out of which petty traders sell phone cards and food items. The city is filled with construction workers hauling cement to build houses and hotels supported by the influx of foreign investment. However, by far the most impressive evidence of progress I saw was in a little yellow house with a white sign that read “The Roots Project.” This non-profit organization was established by a young girl called Anyieth D’wol to teach trade skills to underserved women in South Sudan.On the sweltering hot day that I visited the Roots Project, Hargeisa, the manager, was helping a group of 20 women with their handiwork. With children strapped on their backs and spools between their toes, the women delicately threaded beads into necklaces which they would later sell in the markets. The women use the income they earn to support their families and help start their own businesses. Although Hargeisa and her team may not be on the same financial platform as soleRebels, the success of this outreach program lies in its commitment to rebuild a country by empowering the most marginalized sector of its population.
I left Juba with a deep sense of optimism that with people like Hargiesa leading the way, South Sudan is being steered in the right direction.
Bethlehem and Hargeisa are just two of the amazing women I met during my three-week expedition across the Horn of Africa. Each of them demonstrates that with minimal resources and unwavering resolve, a single person can change lives and transform communities – even countries.
This article originally appeared in the Queen’s Alumni Review 2012 Issue #4