Africa’s Green Revolutionary: Eleni Gabre-Madhin, CEO Ethiopia Commodity Exchange

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VENTURES AFRICA – Dr Eleni Gabre-Madhin, an Ethiopian economist and founder and outgoing CEO of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), is an African woman who saw in need, a powerful opportunity. Using her training as an economist and researcher, she has facilitated Ethiopia’s Green Revolution, putting the country on the map as a food producer.

“In 1984–85, the year of the famine that killed nearly a million Ethiopians, I was an undergraduate at Cornell. At dinner one night, other students started throwing food. And suddenly—shocking myself—I got up on a chair and I screamed, “Stop doing this! In my country people are starving!” In that moment, I knew that I owed my country something.”

Yet Eleni did not return to her home country for the next 20 years. Instead she pursued her education, graduating with Bachelors and Master’s degrees in Economics from Cornell University and Michigan State University, USA, respectively. She received a Ph.D. in Applied Economics from Stanford University (also in the US) and went on to hold a variety of senior positions in leading economic organisations.

Dr Gabre-Madhin spent several years as a Senior Sector Economist of the World Bank and also served as an economist and commodity trading expert at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva. Despite her years abroad, she remained connected to her home country, closely following the agricultural market. Eleni worked as researcher for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the United States where she spent many years examining agricultural markets, speaking with traders and observing trends. Like other economists, she noticed massive fluctuations in prices of agricultural products as some years or regions saw severe produce shortages while others had bumper harvests. A 2002 survey revealed the lack of infrastructure and services needed for an effective grain market contributed significantly to the fluctuations. Access to credit for traders, information about the market and transportation facilities were either unavailable or ineffective and contracts within the market were rarely honoured.

Speaking at a TED conference in 2007, Eleni said “African agriculture today is among, or is, the most under-capitalized in the world. Only seven per cent of arable land in Africa is irrigated, compared to 40 per cent in Asia.” She also recognised that price volatility of food crops was the highest in the world and that small farmers in Africa were forced to bear the highest levels of market risk. The effects of undercapitalisation, inadequate market infrastructure and sufficient risk protection for the farmers had far-reaching effects, not just on the farmers’ families but on the entire country. The 2002 famine in Ethiopia, similar to the devastating 1984 famine, was evidence of that. Eleni returned to Ethiopia from the US in 2004 to lead an IFPRI programme aimed at improving Ethiopia’s agricultural policies and markets. She dreamt of a market that protects African farmers and firmly believed Ethiopia could be changed from being one of the most food aid-dependent nations to a regional food basket.

On returning to Ethiopia, Eleni worked hard to establish the first ever Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX): a platform that allows trading of agricultural products and other commodities while protecting both farmer and traders from price drops and price hikes respectively. Since its establishment in 2008, the impact of the ECX on the lives of farmers and the agricultural economy has been felt, especially for smallholder coffee producers. The ECX has grown from trading 138,000 tons of produce in 2008/09 to trading 601,000 tons in 2011/12 and has succeeded in increasing the final export price of coffee, to the benefit of Ethiopia’s coffee farmers. With the right market incentives, Eleni anticipates increased productivity of farmers and greater motivation to innovate in agriculture. In time, famine will no longer be part of Ethiopia’s reality. She says of dreams,

“We spend most of our lives cutting down our ambitions because the world has told us to think small. Dreams express what your soul is telling you, so as crazy as your dream might seem—even to you—I don’t care: You have to let that out.”

Her dream for turning things around for African farmers is well on its way to fulfilment and effective September 30, 2012 Dr Eleni will transition out of leadership of the ECX, enabling a capable, locally recruited team to drive the company forward. At a press conference announcing the transition she said “I feel exceptionally luck to have had a dream, had the opportunity to work with an incredible group of dedicated individuals …I have absolutely no doubt that the future for ECX is as bright as ever”.

Eleni’s future remains bright also. She has received several honours for her work most recently the Yara Prize 2012 for an African Green Revolution which she shares with Rwanda’s Dr Agnes Kalibata, Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources. Her other awards include the Ethiopian Person of the Year 2010, Africa Report’s “50 Women Shaping Africa” 2011, African Business’ Outstanding Businesswoman of the Year 2010 nominee and the African Banker Icon Award for 2012.