In 2012 Mulu Solomon was elected as the first female president of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce. Two years later the Chamber’s presidential election was held in May this year, and although almost everyone wanted Mulu to run for the second time, she declined saying she wanted to lead by example in teaching the lesson that the position is not eternal as was the case in the past. Our Editor-in-Chief Tsedale Lemma interviewed Mulu on her achievements, challenges and frustrations as the President of the Chamber, and what she thinks is waiting for her. Excerpts:
AS -The first female president of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association has refused to run for her second term. It is very unusual. What happened?
Mulu Solomon – I have served the Addis Ababa Chamber of commerce for long as member of the board of directors and before that I served as member of different committees. Then my colleagues have convinced me to run for the Ethiopian Chamber president’s office. Because I was extremely busy with my own business, I wasn’t sure I would be able to run. But my colleagues have unanimously sent my name and I decided to run. But I was met with a strong opposition from the previous president who tried to pressurize me to quit using different means including sending some powerful people and journalists to convince me to quit. There were even different telephone calls from unknown people telling me not to run against the previous president who they said was powerful enough to destroy me. I told them I can move a mountain if I wanted to. So I ran for the post and easily won. But now I would like to withdraw my candidacy even though I am eligible to run for the second term and a lot of people are begging me do so. My predecessors were running for countless times. I want to withdraw because I want to teach a lesson to the incoming administration that the position is not eternal and that we should focus on building the institution and not individuals.
You came in to the Presidency of the Chamber two years ago at a time when a 40 year old dispute between the Addis Abeba Chamber of Commerce and the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce over historic relevance and prominence was at its ugliest peak. How did you mange to reign over that and bring the two Chambers together?
That was the biggest challenge for me and everybody told me “Mulu don’t touch this, don’t touch that; just finish your two terms in peace and leave while you still can.” But I always like to touch things people tell me not to touch. I believe I am a peace ambassador, I am trained in peace and reconciliation and anger management not just leadership. The bitterness was not only between the two chambers but also the different sectoral associations. Many people used this bitterness to divide and rule, but I turned that around and brought them back together by talking each and every one of them. I knew how these people felt about each other and each other’s association; some were traumatized, and others were hurt but they all took that to damage the institutions they belong to. I told them my favorite quote from Nelson Mandela that goes on: “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Then I brought the four people that were at the center together and told them to work together to bring a solution. Many people told me they will shoot each other. But I have done the ground work and I wanted them to solve the rest. The biggest fight was the fight over a 17 year old building; they [the two Chambers] were fighting for 17 years, a time they could have used to build a new building.
But the issue was also beyond the building wasn’t it? It was also over historical dominance, and prominence because the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association has been quite dynamic and well connected, claiming donors’ resources and other relevance on the overall role of the Chamber to the businesses while the Ethiopian Chamber remained dull, isolated and somehow insignificant. How did you manage to bring an end to this and bring relevance to the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association?
I told both in their faces that whether it is the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce or the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce at the front it should benefit the private sector. I told them the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce should serve as the father to all the other chambers throughout the country. We should not be competing but complimenting each other. Then I formed a committee of four, two people from the Addis Abeba, two from the Ethiopia Chamber of Commerce, to solve the entire pending problem. We then had a joint meeting to discuss all the problems. It was not easy but that committee was a success story. Now the two Chambers are working together and complimenting each other and not fighting and competing over whatever issues they thought they can’t do together.
Do you solely take credit, as many say you should, for this historical change between the two chambers?
All members of the board of directors tell me it is me who has done it; they tell me if it was not for me, nobody would have done it. But I say this was not my individual or personal achievement; this was the efforts of all the board members who stayed with me. I May have taken the initiative but I have received a great help from everyone around.
I was talking to a few people regarding the possible impact of your departure from the Chamber. Many of them have expressed their concern; some went as far to say your premature departure may cause a relapse of the successes you had in bringing the two chambers together; and some said you have built a strong institution that will sustain. What do you think will be the impact of your departure?
I have had my own share of challenges but I believe I have built a strong institution that will continue to shine long after my departure. I have left a legacy of solving problems by talking to each other. I know that there are still remaining issues that need to be solved, but I have said I will be here to help the incoming leadership in whatever way I can. I also want to say that they have appointed me as Honorary President, so whatever they need, I am there to help. The biggest lesson we all got in the past two years was the ability to build the institutional capacity of the Chambers and not to focus on enriching individuals. So I am confident that not only the Ethiopian Chamber but also the Addis Abeba Chamber and the rest will continue on that culture.
Let’s talk about your role in bringing to life the once fading culture of the Public Private Dialogue (PPD) which seems to be in a good track now. How much do you think it helped the business community?
We have been longing for this public private dialog or consultative forum with the government for more than 15 years I can say. Even when I was in Addis Abeba Chamber of Commerce as a member of the board of directors, or even before that when I was assisting as a committee of WTO accession program. Both the government and the private sector were lacking in experience of sitting together and talking to each other; we were blaming the government and the government was blaming the private sector. But finally the government accepted our request to sit down with the private sector even before I came to the position. Following that the government and the private sector signed a memorandum of understanding to sit down face to face twice in a year in a forum to be chaired by the prime minister. Our first meeting was about customs and logistics problems. The outcome was overwhelming; the government accepted about 97% of our complaints to improve the system particularly the multi-modal transport system. But since there was not enough preparation from the government side, it became even worse and more chaotic. That was the biggest challenge for me that I ever had to handle as the President. I pushed my way around to solve the problem. Businesses were suffering; some were having their pharmaceutical imports expiring in the heat of Port Djibouti. It was heartbreaking to receive 300 to 400 urgent phone call every day all of them telling me they were losing millions because of that. It was frustrating, but I was lucky my shouts were heard and things began happening. I must say the multi-modal chaos was a blessing in disguise. We have the same problem with the issues of dividend earning. Businesses were being asked to pay ten year old dividend earnings in ten days. No one asked them in ten years, and then they were forced to pay in ten days. That was a huge challenge, which is not yet finalized and we are going to have a PPD on that. But at least businesses are not as stressed about it today as they were when they were fist asked.
If that was your biggest frustration, can I ask if it was your biggest achievement, too?
Yes it is both. It was frustrating because the very people who should have solved the problem were hiding; but I am happy that the business people’s outcry finally paid off in improving the situation, which could have easily gone out of control. It was good because it brought the business people and officials to work together to solve the problem. As the result of that PPD the government has now hired an international consultant to come up with a solution on how to make this logistics issue a one stop shop. That was the good outcome of the ongoing PPD and I am happy to have witnessed that.
Other than bringing the two chambers and the business community and the government together, which I believe is time consuming, and a time that should have otherwise been spent on something else, what else can you tell me of the things you have achieved?
My other achievement was preparing a book of business ethnics aimed at increasing the awareness and building the capacity of the business people and helping them to perform their business in ethical manner. I have also established women and youth business support unit. For the first time in 65 years of the Chamber’s history, the first unit to support women and youth entrepreneurs is incorporated in the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association’s organizational structure. The other is the establishment of the Chamber Academy on Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Management Centre. We have also done a lot of work in image building, and attracting investors.
One of the major problems between the government and the private sector is the issue of lack of trust. Do you think your presidency helped build confidence and restore trust?
Now I can say it is the start of it. I said it is the start now because we have started to work together. One of the things I did when I came as President was to introduce the board of the directors with government officials who are concerned with the issues affecting the private sector. I brought our board of directors to meet officials from the Customs and Revenue Authority, from the Ministry of Trade, Ministry of foreign Affairs and what have you. Since the main purpose of the Chamber was to liaison between the government and the business community, I said we should come face to face and discuss our problems. I remember in the first meeting with officials of the Customs and Revenue Authority, a senior official asked us if we were sure we wanted to work with them. When I asked him what he meant by that he complained that the Chamber of Commerce never accepted any of the invitation by his office to come and participate in a meeting or other functions. I assured him that we were ready to work with them, but also told him that it doesn’t mean that when they do something that hurts the business we are going to clap for them. I was not aware that things were that bitter between the business community and the Customs and Revenue Authority. But today, we have regular meetings with ministers and other senior government officials on many things that are affecting the business condition in the country.
As you a depart now, although you say you will be staying around to help, what is the biggest issue that you think you have left unattended that needs the urgent attention of the upcoming leadership?
I would say the biggest challenge is attitude both from the private sector and the government side.
What do you mean by that?
Generally towards themselves and towards each other; everybody is always expecting somebody to solve a problem for him. Generally the society’s attitude is not ready to be entrepreneurial and solve problems in a proactive way. This is a big challenge that we have to work on for the coming 20, 30 years. The other is access to finance and taxation issues; even if you want to pay your taxes you end up queuing for days; it is time killing. The businesses are also not trained to keep a clean accounting; there are no tax assessors, tax consultants, or tax advisors. The other is lack of international business experience, lack of value chain (everybody wants to do everything by himself), no concept of value chain so that people can be specialized. There is also lack of genuine competition and productivity. Our productivity is at the low level…
Does it worry you?
Yes of course, Why it worries me is because we are talking about accessing WTO. There is a good move from the government in the leather and textile industry. But we are late to start, so we need to work hard.
Let’s talk about you. What is next for you? You have been a lot of things in your life – entrepreneur, poetess, socialite, you name it. What’s next? Do you think it is time to slow down?
Sometimes I am too much in too many things. This time I am trying to do just a few things. The first one is to finalize my PhD, which I am already working on. The second is I have about 10 books waiting to be published, which were lost when a virus attacked my computer but I have started recovering it and working on it. Some of these books are poetry, some are for teaching because I am teaching at the [Addis Ababa] University; I also have some movie scripts which are not made into films yet. The other is restructuring my import export business because I am going into textile export business and I want to do it the right way. Some people have asked me now that I am leaving the Chamber, will there be something that will keep me busy and happy at the same time. I tell them whether I am at the Chamber or elsewhere I feel good about myself; it is not because I am with the prime minister or a visiting high level official that I feel good about myself. Whatever I do, I feel good about myself and I believe that I can do better for my country.
Ed’s Note: Mulu Solomon served as the first female President of the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce and Sectoral Association. She is also Vice President of Pan-African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, General Manager of Right Vision Int. Plc., and an Ambassador for Peace. She earned her MA in Environment and Development, and her BA in accounting major & minor Business Management. Mulu is a leader, manager, trainer, motivational speaker, lecturer, social entrepreneur, poet, author, and judge at local and international competitions for would be entrepreneurs. She has received many local and international awards.
Photo: Addis Standard