Ephrem Bekele On Key Factors To Consider As A Social Entrepreneur

Ephrem Bekele (r), with Erk Mead Co-Founder Endalk Assefa (l).

Ephrem Bekele (r), with Erk Mead Co-Founder Endalk Assefa (l).

Ephrem Bekele is the program manager of ECOP (Erk Mead Community Psychosocial Program) and radio co-host at Erk Mead Media and communications (formerly known as posterity psychological therapy and training center). He is based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Ephrem has diversified experience in the areas of lecturing, professional training, event preparation, volunteering for social development, counselling and human capital consultancy. Recently, he became an international peace ambassador for IWPG. He designs and coordinates a free counselling and family mediation service, ECOP (Project Every Family), at Erk Mead. He has provided training and consultation in almost all regions of the country in the areas of human capital development, public relations and digital marketing, self-development, defensive driving, organisational psychology, creative social work, counselling, art therapy and women empowerment. Ephrem studied and specialised in Psychology and Counselling Psychology with more than 8 years of experience.


Ephrem discusses the upcoming Social Enterprise World Forum in Ethiopia, as well as sharing key lessons he’s learnt from the growing momentum around social entrepreneurship in Africa.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in the social enterprise space?

[Ephrem Bekele] - Thanks Tom. My team and I are five people working on this project in the top management, and also founding this project and company.

Most of us have studied psychology and the rest of the team studied journalism and media studies. Ten years back two of our founders were about to graduate from school, and they saw kids with psychosocial problems and also, there is a huge need, in Ethiopia, for this psychosocial support.

When we talk about psychosocial, it means counselling, it means developmental needs of kids and the youth. So they saw this huge gap and they started working with the kids. Once they started with the kids, they saw that many parents started asking, ‘what's the kind of service?’

So because of that, we launched Erk Mead mental health centre. When we started this, people thought that we're palm readers. And they asked us, ‘what's my future? Tell me about my fortune. What's going to happen next year in my life?’ So you can see that awareness was a huge problem and challenge. So also started the radio. Why the radio? To bring this awareness into the community about mental health. Before the radio, we started the magazine and it didn't work out. Because, in East Africa there was research that we found later on. People learn best through audio, listening, talking, through stories, and not just sitting and reading books. So we have to appreciate the difference of everyone in this world. So we started the radio, and the radio become very much successful, which gives awareness on mental health.

That's called Erk Mead mental health project.


Wonderful. It sounds like you've had some great success over there Ephrem. So tell us a little bit about the impact of your work and what sort of audience you’re currently reaching.

Currently my radio show broadcasts three times a week, all in the afternoon, which is during the afternoon drive. People are listening to us while driving. While going to the school to pick up their kids. So we use the radio, the traditional radio. We don't own a station, but we have three shows on two different radio stations. And research from last year gives us an aggregate of a million listeners following our radio show.


And our listeners are not only in Ethiopia, they are all over the world. They're in USA, they're in Australia, they're in Middle East, they're in Europe. And these listeners are only Ethiopians and Eritreans. Those who speak Amharic, because we use Amharic language on the radio.


That's huge reach and something to be really proud of in getting that exposure internationally.

Ephrem, you're currently working to help organise the Social Enterprise World Forum in Ethiopia, which is running this year in October so I'm keen to hear your perspective. What do you believe the participants can expect, and what are you most looking forward to about the forum?

Social enterprise is a huge culture in Africa and also in Ethiopia. We didn’t have the term ‘social enterprise’, but there was a culture of business. So, we also didn't know that we are social enterprises, until the British Council and other programmes gave us training on social enterprise. Then we found out that we're using a social enterprise model.

For us, after the awareness about social enterprise, we've seen that many small businesses are directed to social enterprise models. We've seen thousands of businesses, small and medium, and also some big businesses that are using social enterprise in Ethiopia. I call them businesses with a good heart, with a social cause. They will have the first biggest exposure to social enterprise on a global level, because we didn't have this global level of thinking about social enterprise. Some businesses could, but now there's an understanding that we'll have a global network of social enterprise. The Social Enterprise World Forum will take place this year in October in Ethiopia.

Participants will also have an experience of discovering what's going on in Ethiopia, and also in Africa. Because Ethiopia is the capital of the African Union, participants will have exposure of all the countries of Africa, when it comes about social enterprise. So, also, this will be I think, a good exposure.

I've seen that many of social enterprises in the world, (while learning online) are trying to solve the same or similar problems. But they're using different approaches which are contextualised to their environment.

When delegates meet in the same place, at the same time, it will be a great opportunity to learn about solutions for similar problems.

So we can learn different solutions for the same problems that we have in Ethiopia. It could be from Europe, or from some part of Africa or from the rest part of the world, and so this is what we're expecting.


Wonderful. It's going to be a really exciting event and place to be. I'd love to hear a little more about your perspective on Ethiopia's approach to social enterprise. What do you believe other nations can learn from Ethiopia?

Well, we're still also learning from other countries, from other parts of the world. But if you come to Ethiopia, then the one unique thing that I have observed about social enterprise, while I'm travelling to other countries, is that it should come from inside.

The passion to do this kind of a business should come from inside.

And that in the interest of doing social impact business, it will come with business ethics.

What I'm saying is, creating jobs, creating employment, creating relationships which are based on win-win approach. And also delivering a quality product or service. This is why many social enterprises in Ethiopia are struggling.

Sometimes, social enterprises are selfless, which I understand, but they also have to be sustainable.

At the same time there is a great practice of business ethics. I think social enterprises should be a model for business ethics. Which is delivering a quality product and service, with a very, very, very affordable and accessible approach. So this is one thing they can learn from Ethiopian social enterprise models.


You said the term ‘social enterprise’ wasn't really used until recently. But what do you think have been the key factors that have helped develop the social enterprise movement in Ethiopia?

We can see this in two different ways. The first one is the need from inside. What I'm saying is, there is huge unemployment in Ethiopia right now. Because Ethiopia has a huge number of youth. Africa has 400 million young generations which are ready to start a job and employment. And the same thing is happening in Ethiopia, we have around 40 million people which are between the age of 15 and 40. We call them young people.

These people are looking for work, it could entrepreneurship, or it could be being employed into some kind of job. So you can see that there's huge stress in the country. The government is trying to open a lot of job opportunities. But sometimes, big corporate companies and the government only cannot solve this problem. You will see that there's a huge gap. But if you interview those young people, they have passion, they have skills and they have some kind of interest. They have their own passion projects.

Sometimes they don't have to wait for the big corporates to hire them, or sometimes they don't have to wait for the government to hire them. So they can be an entrepreneur. So when they think of entrepreneurship, there's whole new understanding about social enterprises.

This creates a job for themselves first, and that's the first thing that they can secure. At the same time they can also employ people and engage people into their social enterprise projects. So you can see that there's a huge need for employment, [and that] social enterprise will come in to solve this problem.

For me, and for us in our company, we believe that social enterprise should be about creating jobs. Delivering a real solution and also bringing affordability and accessibility to a service.

So I think it's the best model to hire people and engage people. And when you engage them, you don't have to hire them; they can be co-workers, they can be partners. For example, in our office we hire counsellors, at the same time we also give big councillors [the opportunity] to co-work with us. We have the space. They don't have the space. They have individual branches, so they come to us and work with us. So it's employment in a very flexible manner. So this is the first niche.

The second way, what I'm observing right now is, even if you have employment, even if you're employed by a great company, even if you have a decent government job, sometimes the social change that you want to create is not fulfilled in that company. It’s not fulfilled in your job.


You said the term ‘social enterprise’ wasn't really used until recently. But what do you think have been the key factors that have helped develop the social enterprise movement in Ethiopia? [Continued…]

There comes a question of, ‘where's my meaning in life? Where's my contribution to this world?’

So, then you'll decide to leave your job or collaborate with a social enterprise. Because, sometimes, big companies in big projects, they don't address grassroots interests and social change.

But you are an individual. Each morning you wake up and you see that problem. And you don't have to write a big proposal. You can just deal with it as a social enterprise.

So I think that is also a second need in Ethiopia now, people might have a great job, but they still need to solve some kind of social problem. So that’s what I'm observing.


You've spoken about the high unemployment in Ethiopia, so for those who are keen to start a social enterprise, what do you believe are the fundamental ingredients of successful social entrepreneurs?

I can put it in three success factors.

The first one is, it's a passion, we call them passion projects. If a person is not passionate about what he does, whether he's employed, or whether he's employing people, whether he's collaborating, working… the first thing, is that the project has to be a passion project. Whenever someone asks me, ‘what's your project?’, I'll respond with, ‘it's my passion project.’

The first key success factor is, they have to be passionate about that thing, that project.

And where does that come from? It might come from your own personal problem. The thing that inspires at the same time. Sometimes it doesn't help to bother you. It might also inspire you when you do that thing.

The second one is your team and how you build your team. Individuals would be successful that's for sure, but at the same time, there must be a strong team. A team of leaders, a team of service, the people who deliver service, and also, a team of customers. You should have a team of customers. Like those people who make sure that your product and your services is always accessible and affordable.

I believe that you need to build a team. You need to think like a team. Because when you are in a team, your solution is the best one, because you address individual differences. You'll address cultural differences, you'll address many things. As a social enterprise, if you want to be successful, you need a team.


So, if you ask me, what happens in our office? We stick together. We’ve had many challenges, financial problems. At an individual level, sometimes your family, might say, ‘oh are you sure about this thing, it's been a while, should you still be trying?’ So we stick together. Especially those people who are passionate about the project, we stick together. Sometimes we do part time jobs, we do freelance jobs, and we come back to our big visions.

So make sure that you have the right team to be successful.

The third one is, are you creating value?

Are you consistently creating value?

So, whether you have a good team, whether you have a passion project. If you don't, daily, or consistently, create that value in the community, in your business, then even your revenue will decrease.

I'll tell you this with confidence. Because, sometimes we've seen that, in the past years, the value that we deliver for our community might sometimes be compromised because of different impacts. Because of policy, because of the business nature by itself, because of sponsorship, because of many things.

So the moment you compromise the value that you deliver for your community, your revenue will decrease. Your motivation will decrease and your team will also be questioning, ‘what are we doing? Why am I here?’

So make sure that you're delivering that value. Everyone posts the business model canvas and says, ‘this is my value proposition.’ Make sure that you are proposing this thing forever. A man might propose to a woman for marriage. Then if she says ‘yes’, than what? They will start married life. Is he still proposing that value or his just proposed to her one time and forgot about it?

For our company it's wellness and wellbeing. So we make sure that that value is always there.


It's a great perspective, Ephrem. Thanks for sharing those different points.

What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently in Ethiopia, which is creating some strong positive social change?

In Ethiopia, it's been a while since we have seen social enterprises, but we didn't know that they are social enterprises.

We were confused, are they charities? Are they non profits? Are they businesses? We were confused. But once the concept came in, we now understand it. And also we try to shape our services into pure social enterprises.

We've seen that we have partners, we have friends, we have seen many companies, who have been struggling. People advise them, ‘why don't you be just a pure business?’ Some say, ‘you have a social impact, so why don't build a non profit?’ But we've seen many companies, consistently doing this thing. For example, we can mention, those people who are working in the health sector. There is a very good social enterprise example called, Tebita Ambulance, because in Ethiopia, we have a very huge gap, in paramedics. We lose people in the street, not because we don't have a hospital, but we don't have that connection between the incident and the hospital. So that’s where Tebita Ambulance comes in. They're doing amazing stuff. Their model is pure social enterprise.

On youth development, education and especially quality education, we will mention, Bruktawit, and her social enterprise. They have a TV channel for kids called Whiz Kids.

The third social enterprise that's doing a great job in Ethiopia is called Rohobot Nursing. Rohobot, is providing palliative care for those people who can't move from their house, but they want a service, a nurse and house service. Rohobot is also a pure social enterprise and we appreciate what they're doing.

We have many, many social enterprises in Ethiopia and they have been a great model for other start-ups too.

There's some great examples there, Ephrem, and it will be fantastic to meet some of them over at the World Forum this year. To finish off then, which resources would your recommend to our listeners?

There are organisations the accelerate social enterprises. So for us we have benefited a lot, because we couldn't even get this knowledge in the university.

So the first one is Reach for Change. They are social enterprise accelerator and they have a rapid skill programme. Big social enterprises. Whenever they put a call out for new applications, you can apply.

The second social enterprise accelerator programme dedicated in Africa is called GrowthAfrica. GrowthAfrica accesses social enterprises from five African countries, and if you check their website, GrowthAfrica, they have a huge resource of networking, social enterprises. They open applications each year. They expose you to the good investors impact investors. We are taking training this training and we’re benefitting a lot. We're understanding how social enterprise should work.


You can contact Ephrem on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

Impact Boom are proud media partners of the Social Enterprise World Forum, Ethiopia, 23-25 October.


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