Last week we met with Tessema Bekele, the Ethiopian founder and now Executive Director of the NGO Emmanuel Development Association.
Tessema told us his inspirational story of starting from humble beginnings with a small project idea, to what is today management of a large number of highly successful projects with international funding and support. The focus is on marginalised youth, school dropouts, orphans and business skills training, as well as helping to empower women, who are a marginalised group in themselves.
I asked Tessema what led him on this journey.
“My father, a Coptic Orthodox priest, died when I was very young. My mother had to look after me, my sister and brother and it was very difficult. I was lucky enough to be sent to priest school. One day, I was running home from school and I hurt myself, cutting my toe. My mother is cleaning it for me, and she says; ‘My son,your father wanted you to be successful. He died three years ago, Tessema, do not be discouraged. You see those children who are your neighbours, they are 11 and 12 years old and they have not gone to school. You are six, and you go to school. You must work hard and help others.” This was his inspiration.
He went to university, and after working some time in the air force, he went to work for World Vision. In 1996 he applied to the government to set up a charity, and after some discouragement (his plans were considered too ambitious), he was eventually given a licence.
Today the Emmanuel Development Association has grown to provide education to 146,000 children in Ethiopia, establishing 40 junior primary schools and 8 elementary secondary schools. It relies on 175 office staff (volunteers from overseas), 75 local professionals and 4 project officers. The Association has handed over 25 schools to the government, which uses the education template they have set up. In addition to education, they’re involved in alternative energy programs, urban “trash to cash” projects and microfinancing to women’s groups. 2,750 marginalised women are now engaged in co-operatives and business activities.
“Do you have herbal medicine gardens?” I asked. “No,” said Tessema, “but it is a good idea and we would support it.”
When I asked his views of the Botanica Ethiopia project Tessema was very encouraging. “We were small when we started…this is a good and important project,” he said.
He emphasised the importance of engaging community, something which is a major aim of Botanica Ethiopia, in order to sustain project benefits well into the future. Tessema’s story is one of optimism; we have much to learn from his experiences – not only how to do things, but more importantly, how to avoid some of the mistakes that can easily be made by those who are well-intentioned but sometimes lacking in experience and local knowledge. It is a good story of a local who has had vision and enterprise, not to speak of persistence, in overcoming the difficulties and pitfalls which can stand in the way of a good project. And for the Botanica Ethiopia project, some useful and pertinent advice.