Hadia Gondji: Ethiopia’s Pioneer Trader

 

Picture: Hadia Gondji and Graca Machel

Hadia Gondji is an innovator. Before anyone else was invested in seed production, the visionary Ethiopian purchased land and entered the grain trade. It was a big risk with a lot of challenges, but it paid off. Today, she is the proud owner of three separate but related businesses in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

“It takes more than money to start a successful business. You have to have the desire, willpower, and a can-do attitude. Business involves some degree of gambling, and there might be times when it’s the wrong gamble. But you have to be unafraid to take risks or fail,” she explains, adding, “And when you fail, you have to see that as a learning opportunity rather than an obstacle.” 

Hadia’s invulnerable spirit was encouraged by her father when she was a child. “He used to say whatever question I have, I should ask it myself rather than going through other people. I should be fearless and go after what I want, and I’ve applied that advice to my business on a regular basis. If I go to an office and get told ‘no’ for whatever my question or request is, I don’t just accept it but keep at until I get the reasoning behind the ‘no’ or I get the ‘yes’ I want,” the grandmother of three says with a grin.

Born and raised in Dire Dawa, Hadia grew up in a fairly modern city with a rich history of trade thanks to the railway in the area. Her father was an open-minded man who often boasted about his daughter and encouraged her to become a strong student. After attending a French international school in Addis Ababa, Hadia went to France where she worked and earned a business degree from the University of Toulouse before returning home to marry and have children. Following the Communist Derg’s rise to power, Hadia and her children fled the totalitarian regime and lived in exile in Kenya where she took a position with the UN as a conference organizer. Unfortunately, her husband who had remained in Ethiopia was killed in the Civil War that followed. 

Hadia stayed in Kenya for 18 years and remarried a successful businessman with whom she ran a transportation company. The couple transported grains during the Ethiopian famine, and when the government decided to allow private transport to operate in Ethiopia, Hadia returned home and registered as the first private transportation company in the country, delivering grains from Djibouti and Āssab to drought-stricken areas in Ethiopia. She also acquired what she renamed Hadia Supermarket in a bidding process on publicly owned businesses following Ethiopia’s transition from a Marxist regime.  

A short time later, ever seeking new ventures, Hadia hit on the idea for a new business. “The donors were asking why the Ethiopians were importing grain instead of encouraging local farmers to sell directly. So, when the government began privatizing farms, I jumped on the opportunity and bought 500 hectares of land. As I was looking for unique opportunities, I approached the Ministry of Agriculture and was informed the private sector was going to be permitted to produce seeds,” she recalls. “But they also warned me there would be a lot of hurdles to overcome. But as I like challenges, I decided to pursue it anyway,” she recalls with a laugh. 

 

That was around 2007. In addition to the supermarket which employs 38 people, today Hadia owns and operates Hadia Seed Production and Agro Industry, which produces hybrid seeds and buys from farmers who are trained in quality seed production techniques. Under a third business – Hadia Flower and Vegetable – this tireless businesswoman sells and exports produce like hybrid corn, sesame, soybeans, and teff grass, which are purchased from female farmers who also receive training on improving their yields. The combined businesses support over 400 people in the peak season and have over 50 permanent staff. And it doesn’t stop there. Hadia has plans to build a factory to produce packaged consumer goods such as juices, cereal, tomato paste, and ketchup manufactured from locally sourced produce. 

 

She makes it sounds easy, but her rise to the top has been rife with challenges. “When I launched seed production, the farmers – who had only been buying from the government-run Ethiopian Seed Association – were very reluctant to purchase from a private company, but I never gave up and went to regional agriculture bureaus with fliers promoting my seeds. After three years of persistence, I was finally successful. Now there are plenty of private seed companies. Also, agriculture can be very unpredictable. I’ve lost my crops due to disease and farming is not always profitable, but I still love it and this is the motivation for my decisions. I spend a lot of my time with farmers. I go to the countryside and my meal might be a simple bread and milk, but I enjoy encouraging them and improving the quality of the produce. It also allows me to see the impact that my business has on the livelihoods of others. I get joy from that,” Hadia states.

Hadia is the President of Ethiopian Women Exporters Association as well as the country representative for the Association for Women in Finance and has been a board member of several associations, usually the first woman in such a position. Her experiences led her and a group of ten other women to launch Enat Bank, which places a special focus on the needs of women and plays a catalytic role in stimulating social and economic developments and in creating shareholders’ value. Women own 64% of the bank, and compose many major leadership positions from the senior bank management to the Board of Directors.

 

“Enat Bank was launched to assist women by getting money from investors to deposit as collateral for women in business, and we see that the bank is making a great difference to women business owners.”

Regardless of her work to support women in business, this serial entrepreneur doesn’t like to feel she faces particular challenges just because of her gender. 

“I knock on doors and do what is expected. When I first started the grain transportation business, I would be asked if it was my husband’s business. Some people had difficulty accepting that I owned it. I made a lot of sacrifices to get where I am today, even going to places like the Ogaden region to deliver grains during very turbulent times. I believe my work speaks for itself. At least my reputation rests on it.”

 

INTEGRITY

Follow regulations,
don’t cut corners. Being transparent and accountable
is very important. 

2

TEAMWORK

You have to be willing to teach and make people feel responsible and accountable for their duties. My success depends on the success of my employees. I don’t have a “me only” attitude, and I recognize and encourage their success.

3

FOCUS

Prioritize and do small things really well rather than taking on a lot of duties, overstretching yourself and failing at everything. 

4

ON BEING A WOMAN

Women have to have
a lot of self-confidence, determination and
persistence with the
motto “I Can!”

Hadia Gondji’s story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here

 

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