They are strong, accommodating and resilient; Africa’s burden bearers, the hands that have nursed great leaders, and birthed Valiant kings and warriors. The eyes that have seen into the future and prophesied hope for Africa. They are African women relentless in their move to bring change and restore the African voice.
You know them, because they never go unnoticed. Eleni Zaude Gabre-Madhin is one of such Africans whose uniqueness has seen to the top of affairs. She has been celebrated on several international and local platforms for her outstanding and generous contributions to the growth and success of Africa.
In 2010, she was named Ethiopian Person of the Year by the Ethiopian newspaper Jimma Times and was also nominated for the Businesswoman of the Year award by African Business. The following year she was selected as one of The Africa Report’s 50 Women Shaping Africa and in 2012 she received the African Banker Icon Award and alsothe Yara Laurate Prize from the Norwegian fertilizer manufacturer Yara International for her exceptional contributions to sustainable food production and distribution with socio-economic impact.Previous recipients of the prize include former prime minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi.
Dr Eleni became an authority in agriculture a few years ago when she founded and became CEO of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) which gave her a unique spot amongst top business leaders and professionals in Africa and beyond.
Born in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, this great woman of influence has had many years of experience working on agricultural markets – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa – and has held senior positions at the World Bank, the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, and United Nations (Geneva) as a Commodity Trading Expert before taking up the ECX job.
Gabre-Madhin was disturbed by the severe drought that was rapidly claiming the lives of her people, she understood that she was the change Ethiopia needed and so she rolled her sleeves and got to work. She left her earlier job, as a World Bank senior economist in Washington, DC, and returned to Ethiopia in 2004 as a program head at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Her dream was to create a market that would protect African farmers from the vagaries of ever changing trends and unscrupulous middlemen, who cared only to make themselves rich at the detriment of the hardworking farmers.
She believes strongly that Ethiopia could be transformed from a country incapable of surviving without foreign aid into one of the major agricultural producers in the region. And that Africa can attain its full potentials, if it is willing to follow its own growth process and not insist on imitating European or Asian models.
“Africa can realise its full potential when it decides to not emulate any other region and to realise that Africa is actually forging a whole new history. The force of the youth, the power of mobile technology – the trends we are seeing in Africa – are actually going to make Africa have its own unique historical path…”
From her days as an undergraduate student, it became clear to her that she could be the saviour her country has been waiting for.
“In 1984–85, the year of the famine that killed nearly a million Ethiopians, I was an undergraduate at Cornell. At dinner one night, other students started throwing food. And suddenly – shocking myself – I got up on a chair and I screamed, ‘Stop doing this! In my country people are starving!’ In that moment, I knew that I owed my country something.”
This elegant woman’s strong resolve and remarkable efforts gave her country – one of the poorest on the African continent – a chance to overcome what could well be its greatest adversity, hunger.
2008 saw the opening of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), the very first of its kind in the nation’s history. The new exchange offered local farmers an opportunity to sell their goods – coffee, sesame seeds, beans, and corn – at prices that were achievable, and much higher than in the past. In just three years the ECX turnover rose from 138,000 to 601,000 tons, and $1.2 billion, while the farmers’ share of the ultimate price for coffee – the core Ethiopian export staple – doubled.
Dr. Gabre-Madhin holds a PhD in Applied Economics from Stanford University, an MSc in Agricultural Economics from Michigan State University and BA in Economics from Cornell University.
She was also awarded Outstanding Dissertation by the American Agricultural Economics Association in 1999 for her thesis titled, “Social Capital, Transaction Costs, and Market Institutions in the Ethiopian Grain Market.”
The world class economist was the representative of the African business community at the G-20 Business Summit in London in 2009, and is one of the panelists on the Nike Foundation-sponsored Advisory Panel on Girls in Rural Economies, as well as the Expert Group on Development Issues for the Government of Sweden, the African Union Task Force on Commodities, and the Stiglitz Task Force on Africa. She is also a Founding Fellow and Board Member of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences.
Yet the iron lady as most people love to call her, shows no signs of slowing her pace, she has plans to build commodity exchanges across Africa and other frontier markets.