We are honored to be here at the office of Honorable Gezahgen Kebede, Honorary Consul General of Ethiopia in the International Trade Center in Southwest Houston.
With a warm smile, he greets us, “First of all I would like to congratulate you and your team and IF for the successful deliberation making understandable the function of our Houston Consular Corps for Greater Houston and surrounding area. I would like also to express my heartfelt gratitude and thanks for giving me this opportunity to conduct this interview with you.”
Heidi: It is our pleasure. I would like to begin with a couple of general questions, then, we will move on to more detailed information about your responsibilities and Ethiopia. First tell us about yourself and walk us through some of your background
Hon. Kebede: I was born on July 5, 1958 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Addis Ababa is the Capital City of Ethiopia. I came to the USA when I was 17 years old to Bridgeport, Connecticut. I did my undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Connecticut in Finance and Economics. After graduation, I worked at Peoples’ Savings Bank for a few years and moved to Houston in 1988.
Hedi: You have an impeccable bio.
The Honorable Gezahgen Kebede, is an international business development consultant and diplomat. He is a founder and Chief Executive Officer of WAGA Enterprises, LLC, a Texas based business consulting company. He also served as a consultant and executive Vice President of African Affairs at the Tagos Group from 2010 – 2012, President of the International Trade Center since 2008, Founder and President of the Texas Africa Business Summit since 2010 and Founder and President of the Ethio-American Trade and Investment Council (EATIC) since 1993.
Heidi: So, your interests were always in Trade, Investment and Economic development.
Hon. Kebede: Yes indeed. Ethiopia is a country of unlimited possibilities
in regards to investment and trade. I am a tireless advocate of US-Ethiopia trade and investment aiming to build capacity and forge partnerships in the public and private sector. I also strongly believe that trade and investment is the solution to the nation’s economic challenges rather than Aid.
Hon. Kebede is an expert in global and corporate strategy, transactions covering principal investing, mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, privatizations, joint ventures, structured finance, corporate restructuring, and debt, equity and hybrid issuance. Traveling to more than 15 African nations, he has been instrumental in forging partnerships in the public and private sector encouraging US companies to do business in Sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the years Hon. Kebede has also organized and implemented over 25 successful in-bound and out-bound Trade and Investment Missions to Ethiopia/ Sub-Saharan Africa
Heidi: Tell us about the Honorary Consulate of Ethiopia in Houston. What parts of the United States are covered, and what are the services it provides?
Hon. Kebede: By the way, I am the first Honorary Cosul General of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in North America. I was commissioned by the U. S. Department of State in April, 2000. I represent Ethiopia in all public -diplomacy issues and promote Ethiopian investment and Tourism opportunities in Texas and beyond. We also have our Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC and a Consulate office in L. A.
As you well know, the Honorary Consulate position is a non-paying job. I have been devoting my time and resources to serving my country for the last seventeen years. I cover the whole state of Texas. Primarily the services we provide are for Ethiopian citizens living in Texas. We also support our Embassy in Washington D.C by distributing /providing Ethiopian ID cards. We have what we call “Ethiopian Yellow Card”, which gives privileges to Ethiopian/Etho-Americans living around the world. They can travel to Ethiopia without a visa, and will have all the privileges within the country as any Ethiopian citizen. That helps them a lot, and my office here promotes that effort. The Honorary Consular office also provides first hand information about the current affairs of Ethiopian political and economic issues. There are about 35,000 to 40,000 Ethiopians living in and around Texas. Most of them are working in the service industry. We also have several professionals… Medical Doctors, Engineers, Scientists and more. Each of them has a different reason for working outside of Ethiopia. We encourage them to engage and work with their country.
Heidi: What are your most important accomplishments?
Hon. Kebede: Well, in order to be productive and sustainable, every four years I set a strategic plan detailing goals I seek to accomplish and be productive. In order to manage time, resources and expectations…I have my three pillars where I believe I could make a difference and can productively contribute to the development of Ethiopia’s future.
My three pillars are:
1) Promoting Ethiopian Investment, Trade and Tourism
2) Improving Ethiopian Healthcare Systems
3) Supporting/Building capacity in the Ethiopian Higher Education System
Promoting Investment, Tourism and Trade:
In regards to Investment and trade as you indicated earlier, I am a tireless advocate of US-Ethiopia trade and investment, aiming to build capacity and forge partnerships in the public and private sector. I also encourage the Ethiopian government’s efforts to make the private sector the primary engine for economic growth and development.
In June, 2014 with the support of our Embassy in D.C., and the Greater Houston Partnership, our Honorary Consulate office organized the US-Ethiopia Investment Summit in Houston, Texas. The Ethiopian delegation was led by H.E. Dr. Mulatu Teshome, President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) and included relevant cabinet Ministers and major private sector players. The Summit was a great success showcasing the vast business and investment opportunities for U.S. companies that exist in Ethiopia in the areas of agriculture, agro-processing, manufacturing, infrastructure, hotel, tourism and mining. More than 600 U.S. companies attended the summit. Using my Honorary Consul General office platform, one of my main goals for 2018/19 is to help Ethiopia become the prime beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) which was instituted to develop meaningful employment in emerging African markets and bring self sufficiency to Sub -Saharan African countries.
Our national carrier Ethiopian Airline plays a pivotal role in promoting trade, investment and tourism. Ethiopian Airlines, the “Spirit of Africa,” is proving to be unstoppable in its plans to take over Africa’s skies. Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s most profitable airline. With the support of the Houston Airport System and the Mayor’s Office of Trade, we are hoping to have a direct flight connecting Houston business people directly to Africa.
One of my proudest accomplishments that I spearheaded is bringing Lucy’s Legacy: the Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia exhibition to tour the U.S from 2007-2012. The initiative was organized in partnership with the Honorary Consulate General office, The Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture and Tourism. It was a project we worked on for 6 years. Lucy is the celebrated fossilized remains of a female hominid that lived 3.2 million years ago. The Lucy’s Legacy exhibition has changed the perception of Ethiopia from a place of famine and suffering to one of a rich culture and rapidly developing economy.
As you may know Ethiopia is the cradle of civilization, a country with a long and storied history and home of unparalleled natural beauty. Ethiopia offers a wide range of tourism opportunities, and all visitors experience first-hand the well-known warm hospitality of the Ethiopian people.
2) Ethiopian Health Sector:
In regards to the Ethiopian Health Sector, my Honorary Consul General office has developed a strategy linking the Houston Medical Center with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health (The Texas Medical Center is the largest medical complex in the world located in Houston). In 2017, a Memorandum of Understanding was entered into by The University of Texas, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and The Ministry of Health of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The primary goal of the MOU is to create a mutual understanding and framework whereby the parties will work together on the project. The Project is intended to build programs to increase the capacity of trained health professionals and investigators particularly in oncology and to promote collaboration in cancer research between learning and research institutions.
The MD Anderson collaborative group includes two Ethiopian doctors who traveled to Ethiopia on three different occasions. They provided expert advice for planning and implementing cancer care programs. They also trained and identified opportunities for healthcare professionals to effectively deliver services through telemonitoring, faculty exchange visits, and workshops.
Similarly we also linked the Texas Children’s Hospital with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health. This project is intended to increase capacity and collaboration of trained healthcare professionals and investigators in pediatric oncology in Ethiopia. The Texas Children’s Hospital plans to provide expert advice for planning and implementing pediatric cancer care programs in Ethiopia. They also are developing online training modules for specific types of cancer care, facilitating the donation of pediatric cancer treatment equipment along with technical training for maintenance.
3)Building Sustainable U.S.-Ethiopian University Partnerships:
Ethiopia has experienced a rapid expansion in the number of territory universities over the past 15 years; growing from 2 universities to more than 50. Although the Ethiopian university system is in the midst of great changes, several challenges remain in technology, curriculum development, and research. One of the most urgent needs is fostering the development of international relationships between Ethiopian and foreign universities. The Ethiopian Government is focused on building higher education and providing University Scholastic opportunities to all Ethiopian students with no cost.
For the last seven years with the support of my good friend the Honorable Ambassador Tibor Nagy, we have been facilitating relationships linking Ethiopian and American universities. Ambassador Nagy’s experience includes former U.S Ambassador to Ethiopia and Vice Provost for International Affairs at Texas Tech University. Recently he was appointed as the Assistant Secretary of African Affairs at the US State Department.
The U.S. Ethiopian University Partnership includes representatives from a range of U.S. universities (Texas State University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, Oklahoma State University, The University of Oklahoma, Texas Tech University, Texas A&M, Pennsylvania State University, Mississippi State University, Kansas State University, Rutgers, UC Davis, and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities). Our goal is to establish a common platform allowing all parties to collaborate in order to ensure sustainable growth for the Ethiopian Higher Education system.
Heidi: Are you seeing the fruits of your labor? Are you seeing more people return to Ethiopia and help.
Hon. Kebede: Yes indeed.
Heidi: Okay. You have touched on it a little. What is a future goal for Ethiopia’s relationship with the U.S.?
Hon. Kebede: Ethiopia and the United States have enjoyed warm government-to-government and people-to-people relations since our first official diplomatic interaction on December 27, 1903. For more than a century, those ties have transcended the passage of time, and the strong bonds of partnership and friendship have continued, unhindered by respective changes in government.
Ethiopia is also a strategic partner of the United States in the Global War on Terrorism. Ethiopia is a valuable partner in a critical region, from peacekeeping to fighting terrorism and pursuing peace in the Horn of Africa. Geopolitically Ethiopia is a very strategic country for our interests in the Horn of Africa. So that relationship is very strong and has historically been bonded in many different ways
Heidi: A big challenge facing Ethiopia today?
Hon. Kebede: A big challenge facing Ethiopia today is economic development and fighting poverty. In reducing poverty in Sub- Saharan Africa, Ethiopia has made significant progress by achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The share of the population living below poverty line fell from more than 44% in 2000 to around 30% in 2010; by the end of period 2016/2017, the figures fell further to 21.4%. Over the past 10 years, Ethiopia has been identified as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Beginning in 2008 it registered consecutive GDP growth rates of over 10.5% and is expected to sustain this course over the next three years.
Ethiopia, which is the second most populated country in Africa, is forecast to be the fastest growing economy in Sub-Saharan Africa this year according to the International Monetary Fund.
Heidi: What is Ethiopia’s main export?
Hon. Kebede: Ethiopia’s economy is based on agriculture, which accounts for about 45.9 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), 90 percent of foreign currency earnings, and 85% of employment. Generally, the overall economic growth of the country has been highly associated with the performance of the agriculture sector.
Coffee is a critical commodity to the Ethiopian economy. Coffee also originated in the Province of Keffa, Ethiopia which is how we got the name “Coffee”. The industry earned $945.1 million in exports in 2016. Other important export products include gold ($584.4 million in 2016), oil seeds ($437.1 million 2016), flowers ($197.0 million in 2016), pulps ($232.5 million in 2016), live animals ($160 million in 2016), leather and leather products ($120.6 million in 2016), meat and meat products ($74.1 million in 2016).
Heidi: That brings up the next question. How is the Ethiopian business community positioning itself to help Americans, specifically in this case, Texans, to do business in Ethiopia?
Hon. Kebede: With a population of 90 million, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa and one of the largest untapped markets on the continent. With the population expected to reach 100 million by 2020, it presents a huge economic opportunity in the East-African region. It is also one of the fastest growing non-oil economies on the continent. The economy has registered sustained growth rates in excess of 10 percent for over a decade, compared to the regional average of 5.4%. Ethiopia’s continuously improving business environment, coupled with a wide range of incentive packages put in place by the Government, is attracting much interest from foreign direct investors (FDI). This in turn creates much needed jobs for Ethiopian citizens, especially the young population.
We strongly encourage Ethiopian citizens and Ethio-Americans residing in Texas to engage and take advantage of the opportunity in Ethiopia’s rapidly growing economy. Some Ethiopians residing in Texas are already doing so by investing in their country of origin. The fact that the government has opened up the doors for investment has encouraged Ethiopians in the Diaspora to return and invest in Ethiopia.
There are a group of Ethiopian doctors who organized and formed a non-profit called the “Global Initiative for better Health”. Their goal is to help in the country’s healthcare system by partnering with local government and non-government hospitals implementing health care projects.
Similarly, a non-profit organization funded by many concerned Ethiopians called “Stream of Hope” is providing clean sanitary water for rural Ethiopian Villages.
Ethiopia Rising: Building bridges with Investment and Trade
The recent Ethiopian policy shift is the latest of several changes implemented by Ethiopia’s new government, led by His Excellency Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed, the youngest head of government in Africa. Since taking office in April, 2018, his vision for the country has received the admiration and respect of the Ethiopian people and international community.
This was a historic moment for all of us who are committed to making sure that today’s Ethiopia’s Rising narrative is not a passing meme but a solid and lasting reality. The Ethiopia we want is clearly visible on the horizon, and today more than ever before, we see the clearest path to travel together.
Heidi: Hon. Kebede holds leadership positions in numerous professional and industry organizations including the International Trade Center, Houston Mayor’s International Communities’ Board Member, Executive Board Member Trybus Bridgetex Ethiopia P.L.C, Board of Manager Africap, LLC, and he is a member of the African Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston Partnership, and Corporate Council on Africa, American Institute of Banking.
“Texas Africa Summit”
Hon. Kebede: In February 2010, I spearheaded the creation of the Texas Africa Business Summit where six African Ambassadors and over 800 businesses participated in the successful business summit on Texas Africa trade and investment potential opportunities, every 2 years. The Summit brings the new stories of Africa to the world forefront, policy makers and government officials from across the country in order to discuss challenges to doing business and bolster private investments. I am the president and founder of the Texas Africa Summit, and next year in 2019, we are planning to bring more than 6 African heads of state to Houston. I have not had a very committed team, and it takes time and resources to plan such an event. I am asking Val and iF magazine to work with us on that.
Heidi: We are looking forward to having you speak at our Global Trade Conference and to working with you on the Texas Africa Summit.
By: Heidi Powell-Prera, Journalist