“Business Needs Peace.” – Ethiopian Business Review

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Aster Solomon
Chairperson, Addis Ababa Hotel Owners

Born and raised in Addis Ababa, Aster Solomon is a pioneering businesswoman who introduced geographic information systems (GIS) to Ethiopia through a company she founded with a colleague. Information System Services (ISS) was founded in a rather bold move by the entrepreneur at a time when not a lot of people were able to use computers and when government offices were using typewriters. She is also the owner of Mosaic Hotel as well as New English Private School, one of the leading private schools in Addis Ababa.

Aster’s leadership roles extend from the Addis Ababa Hotel Owners Association to the city’s Chamber of Commerce. She was elected to chair the board of directors of the metropolitan hotel owners’ association in September 2021. She is also one of the founding women of Enat Bank, the first and only women-initiated and -led financial institution in Africa and the Middle East. She has been an active member of the board of directors of the city’s chamber for several years. In this interview with EBR’s Addisu Deresse, she shares her multi-disciplinary involvement in various sectors as well as her experience in being an entrepreneurial woman.

Tell us about your education and business career?
After completing my elementary and secondary education in Addis Ababa, I studied for my first degree at Haramaya University. After completing my higher education, I was assigned to a job that I did not like as the administration at the time assigned graduates to jobs. I declined the assignment and went out searching for my own job. Finding one proved to be nothing but impossible.

During the Derg regime, there was no private sector as such. The government, or the public sector, was the only employer. And in government offices, you couldn’t find a job until someone working there left their post, which is a rarity. As my struggles continued, I eventually found a job at this office that works on drinking water supply.

As much as finding a job was a relief, it was short-lived. I was not the kind of person that would settle for just one job. I wanted to do something of my own on the sidelines. Imagine how hard that would be in a country where the idea of being one’s own boss did not even exist. There were literally no opportunities to tap into.

I had to turn to furthering my education through post-graduate programs. Even for that, there weren’t many options. Then came a competition in which the winner would have an opportunity to study abroad. That winner would be me and I thus went on to Switzerland.

Once there, I joined the wrong program and studied geographic information system (GIS). It was a time when the world had not heard much about GIS, let alone turn it into a business in a country like Ethiopia. Yet, that is exactly what we did. It was a time where even the capital didn’t have that many computers and government offices were using typewriters.

Having returned from Switzerland, I obtained my license for Information System Services (ISS)—the name of the first company I established along with one other colleague. Having founded the company, we have been able to expand the use of GIS, mainly in government offices. Land management services offered by various city administrations were the benefactors of the numerous trainings we provided.

The Addis Ababa Land Information System is one of the many works we did with the government. We have also done a series of projects with the private sector, NGOs, and regional UN offices. It is a very difficult but highly interesting job.

As I continued to work with foreigners on many projects, I would notice a complaint about the shortage of hotels from these colleagues. That is when I decided to join the hospitality sector and established Mosaic Hotel in 2015.

I also established New English Private School about 17 years ago. The school which began with its first branch around the old airport area now has six branches in Addis Ababa.

Where do you think the inspiration comes from?
I think the inspiration comes from my mother—a hard-working woman. I know I am not as hard working as her. She did not attend modern schooling but she reads a lot and so her imagination is limitless. My mother never liked sitting around and wasting her time. She would do anything to improve her life and income. When she raised me, she told me how self-sufficiency is important for anyone. A girl must especially be able to support herself. She also argued strongly against marriage before economic independence. As a child who lost her father early on, I spent most of my time with my mother. I guess she has a lot to do with the entrepreneurial spirit that is in me.

What would you advise women when it comes to entrepreneurship?
Challenges facing women are not only typical of our country; it is everywhere around the world. In Ethiopia, there are some cultures with the highest respect and regard for women, which I sometimes wish could be the mainstream thinking towards women’s empowerment. Women facing too many challenges is not good for men, too. I don’t believe a world that is not comfortable for women can be comfortable for men.

That being said, I think women don’t have to be caught up in this victimhood claim. They have to always realize that they have enough potential and if matched with the right opportunities can transform their lives and that of their families. They always have to tell themselves that they have the potential to create a better world for themselves and their families.

Your reality begins in your belief system. Women need to know the power of education, the power of knowledge. They also need to know that knowledge can be gathered from both formal and informal education. The idea of man versus woman exists only until you are economically independent. Gender doesn’t matter once you meet those economic goals.

What is your business principle?
If you don’t know it, don’t do it! Before anyone starts a business or even thinks of starting a business, one needs to have sufficient information about what the business is. Businesses solve problems! If you don’t understand the problem fully, the solution you are planning to sell will not work. In our country, there is this fashion of doing things just because other people are doing them. This is a bad business decision; it’s a recipe for failure. I understand there are challenges in countries such as ours regarding information gathering. You may not be able to collect everything that is necessary to fully understand the problem and the business. Yet, one must try their level best.
Also, if you are not interested in it, then don’t start it. Try to do what you love, or learn to love what you do.

Wasn’t it scary to establish ISS at a time when people didn’t talk much about computers?
It was scary. Now, when training young people and talking about MS-DOS, they think I lived during the dinosaurs’ era. Most government offices and those in the private sector became automated after we started the business. We always knew that computers were about to take over—that was inevitable. There were many signs that computers, and hence, GIS would be the future. But promoting GIS and convincing people, and especially the government, of its benefits was indeed challenging and it took some time.

There were no platforms like professional exhibitions—like the ones we are having now—to promote our business to others. It was difficult to explain—both to educated and uneducated people—what GIS is and what benefits it brings. But, we did it with passion, my partners and myself. We faced all the challenges knowing that the idea would take over sooner than later. Now, almost all major government offices use GIS services to manage data on natural resources and other related services.

Why do city administrations still struggle with land management and other such services, despite the use of GIS?
Technology is one thing, but surely not everything. There is always the human element in the successful implementation of any system. In this case, there is the awareness and interest towards implementation. GIS is different from other software in that it brings transparency, providing efficient monitoring and evaluation options. It also cannot be easily manipulated. It is definitely successful in planning, mapping, and managing natural resources and other aspects of governmental services. In that, it is irreplaceable. Again, you need to have the interest and awareness in wanting to maintain these standards in the provided services.

What was Covid’s impact on your hotel business?
Covid’s impact is on the entire world, not just our country; it hit the hotel and tourism sector hard all over the world. In other countries, there are numerous economic tools which governments use to ensure their industries survive such shocks. Most of those economic tools are not much appreciated by the government here.

However, as President of the Addis Ababa Hotel Owners’ Association, we tried to discuss on the challenges with the government and banks. Later, few relief packages were introduced in terms of relaxing taxes and liquidating the industry so that employees could be retained.

At Mosaic Hotel, we tried to focus on the domestic market. We introduced a few packages that could attract this particular market. We also revised prices on some of our older packages. The impact is now easing. We cannot wait to go back to what was a normal business routine.

How do you see the impact of the conflict and the ensuing diplomatic stand-off?
I think the conflict as well as diplomatic and media attempts to tarnish the country’s image affected our sector worse than Covid. The impact of the pandemic eased once the vaccine was introduced. But, the impact of the conflict is a lot harder.

As President of the Addis Ababa Hotel Owners’ Association, how is the group leading the sector through crises?
The association was established in 2005 and the previous leadership has achieved a lot in strengthening the sector. I believe I joined the association’s leadership at a challenging time. I also understand that such times are exactly the reason we need such associations.

There are numerous complaints from hotel owners, especially at this trying time. This is understandable and we are trying to work with the government on their worries. Relief packages for the sector and various measures taken by the government and banks are parcel to our efforts to lead businesses through these challenging times.

As one of the founders of Enat Bank, do you think the bank will survive the potential liberalization of the sector?
Enat Bank is one of the pleasant challenges of my business career. The intention was to establish a financial institution oriented towards women and for the benefit of women. There were some who discouraged the idea while others were so encouraging and saw how the idea could actually work for both for men and women. Enat was established around the time when the central bank increased initial capital requirements to ETB500 million from ETB75 million. That, by itself, was a challenge. After it was established, I worked on the board of directors for the first six years and left the position for other strong women.

The opening up of the financial sector has been in the public domain for so long with no effect beyond just the talk. Now, of course, there are some tangible signals that it might be on the horizon.

Compared to potential entrants into the local market, our banks are very small. Enat is no different. I don’t know what the current board of directors is thinking—they might consider merging with other banks with the same vision or they might have other ways for the way forward. But I am sure they are deliberating on the matter.

How do you see the decision to open-up the financial sector from the Ethiopian economy’s perspective?
We cannot remain isolated from the rest of the world. Of course, some neighboring countries have benefited from opening up the sector, while others in Africa have not benefited at all. I hope the government studies the pros and cons of this highly important decision.

On the one hand, you can see that protecting local businesses has resulted in a rising local business community. There is no way this business community would have survived competition from foreign corporations with massive resources. On the other hand, you also have to consider if that lack of competition has caused deficient innovation and hard work.

Most countries that have open economies may appear to have bigger economies but most of the wealth in those countries is occupied by foreigners. There are no native businessmen and women in those economies. The competition, on the other hand, is good for the coming generation. It opens up opportunities to do business worldwide.

I would not recommend opening it all up at once. But a timely and limited licensing of foreign investors might help in the long run. We cannot live on a closed island of our own. The economic relationship with the rest of the world is beneficial; it just has to be implemented in a careful and limited manner over a long period of time.

As a member of the board of directors of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce, how do you evaluate its relationship with the current government?
Compared to other nations’ chambers, one may think our chamber doesn’t have that expected level of contribution. That thinking may not be a mistake. In other countries, many more sectors are involved, and chambers make sound contributions during policy-making and have other significant and visible contributions. In our country, the role of the chamber varies from regime to regime. Administrations have had their own ways of looking at the role of the private sector and what a strong private sector means for the economy. One may not expect a lot of friendliness from the Derg as there was not much private business ownership. A lot more could have been done during the successive leaderships, too.

Rightly so, the current government seems to be more friendly to the private sector, and hence, to the chamber. Now, it seems easier to establish communication channels with various government offices. We are also working on various studies and policy recommendations, which are being welcomed by respective sectoral officials.

Public-private partnerships are working well in various areas. Through such collaboration, the government has recently given the right to administer public services like parking spaces to the chamber. The Addis Ababa city administration has also responded positively to our plans to build our headquarters in the city.
So, some things have improved but compared to the potential of the chamber, a lot more can be done.

What do you think are the challenges of the private sector as a business community?
The major current challenge is the security issue. Business needs peace. Business leaves countries where there is no peace. Even a very small business in Addis Ababa is connected to a lot of other businesses throughout the nation. A security challenge at any location could disrupt the entire supply chain. Also, the security problem came on the heels of the Covid challenge, making it all a lot more difficult for businesses.

As a businesswoman in the education sector, what is your opinion on quality education, which is reported to be the cause of many of the challenges the country is facing?
That is actually true, education is key. When it fails, a key part of society fails with a lot of implications for current and future generations. Public and private schools are responsible to shape the generation into what could become a productive society.

Parents these days have better awareness when it comes to education compared to parents of the past. They sacrifice a lot to send their children to better schools. It is good that the private sector is also offering alternatives to schooling. However, it must not be just to overcome competition. This sector needs more responsibility than other lines of businesses in the private sector.

The major challenge private schools have is related to spacing. The biggest expense of running an education business is the ever increasing rent expense. The next big expense is usually staff salary as schools must invest in their human resources. This is a very important resource that molds the generation. Not many private schools in the capital have the space they need to provide their desired services with most in constrained rented facilities. These limitations could compromise the quality of education.
Yet, private schools, I think, are offering far better-quality service compared to their public counterparts. Education is something you have to do with a lot of passion.

Schools also need to be very serious about children’s discipline and that is what we are trying to do. Our school is always recognized by the district’s education bureau for these and other qualities.

What so you see in the future?
Ethiopia has always lived with various challenges. Sometimes it is political, some other times it is drought. This country has never fallen short of challenges. What appears to be hopeless now is that our challenges seem to have come from multiple fronts. Poverty, drought, Covid, political unrest, security, and the diplomatic standoff with the rest of the western world have all come together. But if anything, this country has a great deal of experience on how to live through challenges. I feel like this is the climax of the story of Ethiopia’s challenges. It only goes down after the climax. So, I see nothing but hope. EBR


10th Year • May 2022 • No. 107

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