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My Journey of Impact in Ethiopia

By Berkessa Behailu | Wed Feb 15 2017
Growing up, I don’t remember wishing ‘I want to be a pilot or a doctor’. Being able to fly an airplane or becoming a healing hand is indeed a noble job, and it’s no wonder many children wish to become one. For me, the goal was to lead a balanced and meaningful life, regardless of the career I choose. I grew up in a family that equally emphasized the importance of work, family and friends, and spiritual activities; a philosophy that I wished to continue building in my own life. So when the time came to make a decision in junior high, it was with some concern and a heavy heart that I decided to pursue business school. Would it help me achieve my goal of a balanced and meaningful life? Fast forward 12 years, I am happy to say that it was the right decision, and I would do it all over again.
Business school was great, however, it did fall short in preparing me for the real-world challenges after graduation. When I was in my final year, I moonlighted as a sales representative for different companies. One month, I was trying to promote kitchen appliances door-to-door, and the next month I was making hundreds of cold calls to promote a new share company and selling stock. These part-time gigs helped me develop a good work ethic, and helped me understand that the next step after graduation was going to be a hard one. Even so, I honestly thought I would find the perfect job right out the door and be great at it. Little did I know that it would be two years after graduation that I would find a secular career in which I personally believed I could make ‘worthwhile’ contribution.
When I started my finance career seven years ago as junior analyst at one of the leading consulting firms in Ethiopia, I was very excited. I helped develop and review more than 100 business plans, advised many entrepreneurs and businesses on developing and improving their feasibility studies, and developed new and attractive opportunities in different value chains. Great work and a great team! However, I always wondered what happened to those businesses after they received their business plans or expansion strategies. Some would go on and use these plans to make their investment decisions, secure bank loans or attract foreign investment. Most remained frustrated because of their inability to attract financing or execute their business strategies properly. I wondered why some seemingly attractive opportunities did not actually attract investment. When private equity firms started opening in Addis, I knew they held the answers to my questions. So, when I was introduced to RENEW, I knew it was time to ask those questions and figure out if I could do anything about it. It was time for a new challenge to uncover the ‘why’ and assess the facts from the other side of the table. I welcomed the opportunity to join the RENEW team as an analyst with great excitement and anticipation. Three years down the road and at the close of my time with RENEW, while I am happy to say that I have found many answers, I did not think the ride would be filled with so many highs and lows.
A day at RENEW is no ordinary day. I start reading emails on my way to the office and reply as soon as I open my computer at my desk. Once morning emails are out the door, it is game on. No day is a routine. Some days are filled with just sourcing, cold calls, meetings with new companies, introducing RENEW, running trainings on private equity, and building and maintaining relationships with companies. Other days are spent at the office creating financial models, conducting market analysis, running working sessions with businesses, drafting annual plans, budgets or strategies, board meetings and coaching sessions. The heat turns up at the office during active pipeline meetings, discussing due diligence findings, drafting terms or term sheet negotiations.
Before I joined RENEW, Matt Davis did warn me that ‘this is not a 9am to 5pm job”, and he wasn’t kidding. Finding the right company with the right management team is no easy task. As a native Ethiopian, building bridges between the Western way of doing business and the Ethiopian way is a tiring task. It is not just the difference in language, but translating the different cultures, communication styles, expectations and relationship management between the two extremes is an exercise that sometime leaves me breathless. Most days are exciting and I leave office feeling satisfied, and other days are a little frustrating. Not just because of the hard work with our portfolios or would-be portfolios, but also as a result of changes in government regulations and procedures, barriers to closing our investments or delays in processes. But, as one of our investors always says, “if this was easy, everyone would be doing it”. There is a reason why RENEW is only one of a handful of private equity investment firms operating in Ethiopia’s frontier economy.
I believe the diversity within the team in terms of background, education, experience, culture and perception has created the right recipe for learning and success at RENEW. Our focus area, private equity, is an exciting industry in the financial sector of Ethiopia. It’s almost an unchartered territory, full of surprises but rewarding. Investing in small businesses and turning business people into real executives is a satisfying process. Our SME private equity trainings are eye openers, and I always enjoy reading the feedback from the participants. The workshops open new understanding and opportunities, a source of finance and growth. Training participants leave full of excitement and hope, determined to come back after developing their investment plans or business strategies and attract equity financing. I am proud that my career in finance has brought me such an opportunity to impact the local economy and to meet and work with hundreds of businesses in Ethiopia.
Today, many children still wish to become a pilot or a doctor, and for good reason. And I am fortunate to have friends who are pilots or health professionals, not because they occasionally bring me stuff from abroad or because I visit them when I feel ill, but because they are great friends and they too do their best to lead an impactful and balanced life. And while I didn’t, like my friends, go through five or more years of school and training, I’ve gained important knowledge through my education, formal trainings and from my bosses and colleagues.
Applying the principles that I have learned and helping companies change their ‘business as usual’ approach to management, customer service, and excellence; observing companies come out of their shells and position themselves for growth and greatness - that is what I call a rewarding job. The balance between impact and returns on investment is hard to find. Yet, at RENEW, I enjoyed such a great balance, not only between impact and returns but in personal and spiritual activities as well.
What’s next? After testing both sides of the private equity market as a business consultant and portfolio analyst, I think it’s time to see from the eyes of the investor or the entrepreneur. I recently made my first small investment in a small business, and I am leading the efforts to promote the business. Who knows, this could be the start of something new, something exciting, impactful and balanced.
Renew Capital is an Africa-focused impact investment firm that backs innovative companies with high-growth potential. Renew Capital manages investments made on behalf of the Renew Capital Angels, a global network of angel investors, foundations and family offices who seek financial returns and sustainable social impact. For the latest on investing in Africa, subscribe and follow us at our social links below.

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