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What the Social Enterprise World Forum in Ethiopia Was Like

I recently had the amazing opportunity to travel to Ethiopia recently for the 2019 Social Enterprise World Forum on behalf of my organisation, Enterprise Learning Projects, thanks to sponsorship from the SEWF2019 Bursary Fund (big thanks to the donors!). The theme was ‘Local traditions, fresh perspectives’ and over 1200 attendees came from 69 countries to convene around the theme of social enterprise.  It was the first time the World Forum event has been held in an ‘emerging economy’. The gathering was held in Addis Ababa, the capital of the oldest independent country in Africa (while it was occupied by the Italians, Ethiopia was never formally colonised). Ethiopia is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and is Africa's second most populous country with 110 million people. This experience has re-charged me and crystalised how powerful it is to join with others to learn and share as we work to create a fair and inclusive economy for all.

Learning About Ethiopian History

It was fascinating to learn about the history of Ethiopia while I was there. Before the conference started I was able to do a couple of day tours with social enterprise tour company Shebaland Tours. So many interesting insights including:

  • Ethiopia is on a 13 month calendar - so in fact, it’s currently 2012 in Ethiopia
  • Coffee was first discovered in the highlands of Ethiopia by a goat farmer (the goat ate some beans; farmer noticed goat was behaving strangely; farmer ate some… and boom! Coffee was born!)
  • Ethiopia had a communist government from 1987 to 1991 - by all accounts it was pretty bleak
  • Humans originated in Ethiopia and I was able to see the remains of the world's most famous early human ancestor, the 3.2-million-year-old ape "Lucy”
  • And oh so much more (think about a trip to Ethiopia to discover it all for yourself why not?)

Blue Nile Gorge + the original goat and goat farmer jumping for joy at their discovery!

Experiencing Ethiopian Culture

Food, drink, music, dance, coffee - it was such a treat to experience the richness of Ethiopian culture in the week I was in Addis Ababa

Some highlights included:

  • Eating curries with Injera - a flatbread with a slightly spongy texture, made out of teff flour
  • Sampling Tej - a fermented honey wine (with a high alcohol content!!!)
  • Learning the practice of ‘gursha’ (an Amharic word that means “mouthful”) -  the act of feeding someone else a mouthful of food in a gesture of love and friendship (this is how I ended up eating the delicacy of raw meat dipped in spicy chilli at an Ethiopian family’s house!)
Delicious curries with Injera, and a coffee roasting ceremony

Learning About Social Enterprises from Around the World

There are SO MANY inspiring people out there working hard to create businesses that are making an impact. Here are just a few examples of what truly is a global movement:

Social enterprise textile and fashion labels from Ethiopia including Wawi FashionSabegn and Paradise Fashion

Stay Native - a New Zealand Indigenous airbnb style platform

Noble Cup - a menstrual cup business on a mission to destigmatise menstruation with the tagline ‘Every Queen Bleeds’

Moringa Connect a business connecting over 2,500 small farmers to the global market for the highest quality moringa-powered natural products - like tea!

It was fascinating to learn about the history of Ethiopia while I was there. Before the conference started I was able to do a couple of day tours with social enterprise tour company Shebaland Tours. So many interesting insights including: Kim Lim for PichaEats shared how they created a food business to create opportunities for refugees in Malaysia (“We use food to tell stories”). She started with no background in entrepreneurship or hospitality, but with a strong desire to see lives changed for the better. “When you have a purpose and a vision and know what needs to be done, you can keep going” Pam Armstrong from Stay Native shared how their business emerged from a desire to create tourist experiences that foster real authenticity and meaningful interactions. They asked themselves, “How do we build a bridge so a healthy cultural exchange can happen?” She shared a powerful Maori proverb to express how people’s wellbeing must be paramount in the development of businesses. He aha te mea nui o te aoWhat is the most important thing in the world?He tangata, he tangata, he tangataIt is the people, it is the people, it is the people. Mike Curtin from DC Central Kitchen, a business that develops and operates social ventures that break the cycle of hunger and poverty in Washington DC, has had a long history in building and scaling social impact businesses. He spoke of the need to maintain a “productive impatientness” and an appetite for “relentless incrementalism”. He said “If we commit to working hard and commit to working together, we can show what can be done - we are practicing advocates”. I also loved hearing from Emma Kate of Brisbane’s Food Connect. She stated the plain truth that everyone interfaces with the food industry (we all need to eat!) and the question we should all be asking - how can we use food businesses to create a more just and equitable economic system?

Building Connections with Other Australian Delegates

There was a solid contingent of about 62 Australians who traveled over for the forum! It was amazing to meet with so many inspired and inspiring people, learn about their work and explore how we might amplify our impact through collaboration. Learning about how state-based practitioner networks are propelling impact was hugely motivating. Leading the way in Australia are the  Queensland Social Enterprise Council (QSEC) and the Social Enterprise Network of Victoria (SENVIC), with NSW/ACT and SA in the formation stages. I’m mobilised to support the emergence of an NT network and would love to hear from others who are similarly interested. The 2020 Social Enterprise World Forum will be in Halifax, Nova Scotia - follow along here for more. Thanks again to the sponsors who made this trip possible for me including Belinda Morrissey and The English Family FoundationPhilanthropy AustraliaSocial TradersSocial Change Central and Impact Boom, and all the other Australian delegates for being such good fun to take the journey with.
Laura Egan's passion is creating opportunities for people to achieve their aspirations through business. In October 2010, she established Enterprise Learning Projects (ELP), a social enterprise that works in partnership with remote Aboriginal communities to develop inclusive, creative and sustainable enterprise-based initiatives that support family and community goals. From the seed of an idea to piloting and facilitating specialist support, ELP works with individuals and communities to bring their ideas to life. Laura holds a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Commerce and a Postgraduate Certificate in Indigenous Studies.
Header photo by Aida Muluneh.
Jay Boolkin
Jay Boolkin

I'm passionate about positive social change and the power of social entrepreneurship to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. I believe that for-purpose business models can become part of the mainstream and I am enthusiastic about advocating for business models that are genuinely built around a social or environmental mission.

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