June 5, 2012
On Wednesday night, May 30, 2012, Elleni Gebremedhin (PhD), sat next to a businessman from Kenya at a gala dinner in Arusha, Tanzania. She was showing him a photo of hers in an I-Pad, where her trademark smile was overwhelming, alongside the most powerful men in the world, including President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron.
If the photo, taken two weeks ago at a dinner in Camp David, United States, was iconic, African bankers have gathered last week in Arusha to honor Elleni as an “icon of African bankers of the year”, for 2012.
The award is one of the 20 categories bestowed on African personalities and professionals who have contributed to the advancement of banking industry in Africa.
“We’ve honored individuals who are prepared to take the bull by the horn, to carry out well thought out visions and who have raised the bar, in some cases taking difficult decisions to deliver on their agenda,” said Omar Ben Yedder, publisher of African Banker, organizer of the award and publisher of the continent’s premier magazine in African banks.
Held as a side event to the annual meetings of the African Development Bank Group (ADB), the sixth edition of the award recognized Elleni’s contributions for establishing the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange (ECX), a work that earned her international recognition as a “mother of commodities market.”
Elleni, 47, a mother of two and a Stanford graduate in applied economics, started her career as a junior researcher in Mali, in the 1990s. But it was during the time of Ethiopian famine in 1984/85 she first decided to study agricultural economics that could solve the puzzle of Ethiopia had its citizens starving to death in the north while there was actually a surplus in produces in Wellega.
“I had determined to find an African solution to an African problem,” Elleni told Fortune in an interview in Arusha.
Finding a solution took her from places to places in the West African Country, in her bid to identify the bottleneck in the value chain of grain trade. Working with International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), surveying agricultural market, in Africa in early 2000s, she was convinced that what was missing in the continent was infrastructure and services for grain famers and traders. Creating what she described as “an ecosystem” for vibrant services in storage, logistics, warehouses, and finance is now celebrated as commodities exchange market.
“I had once someone who told me commodities exchange is the poor cousin of stock exchange,” recalls Elleni.
Nonetheless, she had persuaded Ethiopian authorities the magic of establishing commodities exchange to address food insecurity, at a time when the country survived one of its worst droughts in 2003, while working with IFPRI. Granted a free reign to maneuver the rather difficult terrain of Ethiopian bureaucracy, Elleni successfully negotiated the organizational structure of the ECX, to comprise the private sector at least on paper, which she had launched in April 2008.
Today, 20 million dollars worth of agricultural produces are traded on ECX floor a day, a value 10 times larger than Ghana’s Stock Exchange, which was formed a decade ago.
It was such a success that has made ECX not only a must visit destination to foreign dignitaries visiting Addis Abeba, but also international recognitions to its founder, who was one of only two CEOs from Africa to get invited to the Group of Eight (G8) Summit, held in the United States in May 2012.
Elleni’s recognition in Arusha last week was just one and among many honors that may come in the future.
“It’s an odd thing for somebody who works in agriculture to be acknowledged in a financial industry,” she told Fortune.
But she concedes that what she has done in Ethiopia is transformational, “where other countries in Africa can learn from.”
Yedder conquers with her.
“We’ve recognized some superb individuals tonight,” said Yedder at the gala dinner where the premium prize, “Africa Bank of the Year” went to EcoBank of Togo, and its CEO, Arnold Ekpe, who was recognized for a “life time achievement.”
There was no Ethiopian bank representative or banker visible at the gala dinner where the accomplishments of African bankers were accorded recognition, and the work of an Ethiopian was honored with a standing ovation.
“It’s time to take the move in determining the value of our goods in our soil,” Elleni told the chiefs of African finance, after receiving the award which she has dedicated to “farmers from my country and Africa.”
And such award could be considered as “the best fertilizer to an African farmer,” according to Yedder.
“Elleni has shown what could be possible when ambition and vision come together,” said Yedder, who selected a group of juries, including Zemedeneh Negatu, managing partner of Ernst & young, Ethiopia, to pick up awardees in this category, which included in the past Adebayo Ogunlesi, and Mgozi Okonjo-Iweala (PhD), the current finance minister of Nigeria, who was a candidate for the top office of the World Bank, recently.
Elleni, whose passion for agriculture grew as a student growing up in Rwanda with her parents working there on UN development projects, feels vindicated for believing in agriculture when almost everybody else advocated African to move onto industrialization.
“The depth of our economies is largely agriculture,” she told Fortune. “It is now becoming interesting. The fact that the big boys in African financial sector paid attention to this [agriculture] is unique.”