Ethiopia is a nation rich in culture, tradition, history and a remarkable mountain landscape. Rising 2,300 meters above sea level, the nation’s capital Addis Ababa, has made advancements in infrastructure, airport, rail transportation and hydroelectric dam development. Statistically, the economic and population growth of Ethiopia appears to offer significant opportunity for foreign investments in many sectors to fuel growth and expand markets while achieving a sense of satisfaction supporting the development of an emerging nation.
A city of 2.7 million, Addis Ababa (Addis Abeba) is the nation’s capital. Ethiopians generally do not self-identify as African but rather Ethiopians with a proud heritage and sense of independence from other African nations. Addis Ababa is a growing city struggling to maintain its cultural roots while attempting to attain the level of modern advancements, employment growth and workforce competencies achieved by many other African nations a decade or more ago. Unrest between rival tribes and young adults eager to see positive change and opportunities often clashes with a political system that often deters and restrains progress and access to more progressive growth for the country.
Ethiopia’s economy is largely comprised of coffee bean, tea, vegetable and cut flower exports to other nations. The nation’s foremost challenge is a disconnect between encouraging economic growth and interest from foreign investments with a system of government, monetary policy and commerce restrictions that thwart such objectives with financial, logistical and bureaucratic obstacles that are exceedingly difficult to navigate.
After serving nearly a decade in Africa as an American expatriate leading nearly a billion dollars of high profile Western technology real estate development and construction projects, I was confident of my capabilities to lead another ambitious initiative in Ethiopia. My objective involved creating an entire corporate ground operation for a major real estate development investment in Addis Ababa.
This objective involved developing the corporate structure and identity, technical staffing, IT, accounting, project design and construction teams for a significant Western constructed luxury high rise residential property for foreign diplomats and their families residing in Addis Ababa. Ultimately, the implementation of the mission as Managing Director of this venture required leveraging my extensive industry career leadership, technical and business skill and acumen, and experience leading international organizations in the U.S. and Sub-Saharan Africa.
The realization of the challenge before me was apparent with very limited in-country resources, capacity, technical and trade skills, industry knowledge and technologies, and logistics. Of equal or greater challenge was navigating a complex and unpredictable system of banking, currency shortages, inflation, market volatility, highly restrictive access and uses of foreign currencies, legal, customs regulations and duty taxes approaching 100%-200% on certain materials and products.
Communication in Ethiopia is also strictly controlled by the government devoid of competition for internet, telecom or media broadcasting. Frequently, the government interrupts all forms of communications for days or weeks at a time. Safety and wellbeing also became a challenge with poor sanitary conditions and water supply, access to proper medical treatment and medication restrictions, and periodic impositions of Marshall Law to restrict opposition to government policy making and ethnic conflicts.
The World Bank ranks Ethiopia as one of the most difficult nations to conduct business by nearly every business metric. It became clear that doing business in Ethiopia wasn’t as expected and required significant skill, tenacity and experience to achieve investment expectations.
Conducting business in Ethiopia can be equated to a game of chess, where it’s imperative to assess every decision strategically and with purpose. It requires great skill to anticipate obstacles in every area of business, and to have multiple options in advance to achieve business objectives. Though this may be a formattable task to successfully achieve and deliver on a single business objective, it is exceedingly difficult to deliver a complex business mission with hundreds of interrelated variables. There is no substitution for advanced planning, strong competence and skill to achieve business and financial results in Ethiopia regardless of industry or mission scope.
Despite the challenges associated with doing business in Ethiopia, the reward of accomplishment and prevailing over adversity in its path makes the journey worthwhile and potentially profitable. The key to conducting business in Ethiopia is setting realistic expectations, preparation and possessing an acute understanding of the market and its unique challenges in advance to avoid potential discouragement and abandonment of business objectives before they are achieved.
Keith Veir is an American real estate development and construction expert with more than $4 billion of industry experience in the U.S. and Africa. He has developed significant high value vertical construction projects including a 220,000 m2 micro city development in Nigeria, and currently performing advanced planning for a second 160,000 m2 micro-city in Africa.
Keith has served as consulting Managing Director and Country Manager in Africa for Tishman Speyer, a leading U.S. global real estate development organization, Managing Director in Ethiopia, Senior Vice President and Managing Director for international organizations in Nigeria and Ghana.
Keith specializes in the delivery of highly complex and technical vertical construction projects, and developing new emerging markets for his organizations using his extensive career knowledge, skills and leadership experience in design, and construction methods.
Please contact Sarah Fitzgerald, MD at Executives in Africa at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in speaking to Keith about an opportunity to advance your organization.