Samrawit Moges: An Exclusive Interview with Loline Mag
A woman against all odds. In this month dedicated to women, we picked on a brave businesswoman who went against all societal stereotypes.
This was about 30 years ago. The communist era in Ethiopia had just come to an end and private ownership was a novel concept. Starting a business in such uncertain times leaving a secure government job sounded ridiculous to many. Samrawit Moges had just begun a family and her children were little. She couldn't have picked a worse time for an entrepreneurial adventure. Against all odds, she became one of the pioneers in the tourism sector and thrived as a business icon.
In this month dedicated to women, we picked on a brave businesswoman who went against all societal stereotypes. She proved her doubters wrong by sustaining several successful ventures for about 30 years now. This woman was kind enough to take a chunk of her time to tell us about fighting one’s way through.
She came from a family that believed in education, women empowerment, and self-confidence. Nevertheless, her father's military job made the family move around the country making her school days quite unstable. She had to learn a new environment every time which made her go extremely shy. Her only settled years of study were at Addis Ababa University. There, she wanted to do law but ended up with a degree in journalism as the government decided what you study and where you work. Having completed her studies, she went on to work for the National Tour Operator. The salary was not anything fancy, but she praised her stay there for being years of learning the art. She was also awarded a one-year scholarship to study Tourism Management in Italy. Her first salary was 500 birr and increased to 650 when she left after 10 years. ‘It was not for the money,’ Samrawit said. She considered the relationships she developed and the learning to be priceless. Right after that began her business running years.
She was keen to identify the tremendous opportunities in the sector. However, it was a wrestle with herself to quit the job and lose the security it provided. Everyone except her husband was deterring her from explaining how this could fail. In 1993 GC, she took a deep breath and started humbly from her bedroom. She began preparing newsletters about her organization and sending them off to contacts she had working in NTO. Slowly responses started to come leading to her getting a license and going official in 1994 GC. We couldn’t overlook her business intelligence by choosing to taste the waters before jumping in big.
Samrawit couldn’t thank her mother enough. Having lost her husband when the children were still young, her mother dedicated her life to raising Samrawit and her siblings. She recounted her mother’s unrelenting nature having the greatest influence in shaping her. She considers herself fortunate for having a supportive family. Her mother, whom she called her inspiration, had such a role in sharing the responsibility of raising Samrawit’s young children. This support together with the backing of her late husband, Thomas Mattanovich, propped her up to pursue her business ambitions.
We were eager to know what her challenges were back then and asked. She described how things were different from what is now. They had to rent cars from individuals for the tourists. This happened with them going around Merkato looking for car owners. After a long tiring search, they would find one and book it to come at a certain time on the appointed day. It was not uncommon for the renters to send run-down cars instead and late to the appointment. Samrawit was left striving to find replacements last minute. The sector was in its infancy. It was another hustle to find decent accommodation for tourists. Being a beginner in an underdeveloped sector was a packet full of frustration.
I had every bad sign telling me to give up, and I chose not to.
The shock happened on the 16th day of her getting a business license. She had arranged for a family of three, one of her first clients, a visit to DireDawa. The tourists were having a good time when they went to see the typical hyenas in the area with their guide. There a hand bomb was thrown at them immediately killing the tour guide. The trip was terror-stricken and battered Samrawit to her bones. It was unimaginable this could happen and people told her it was a sign from God telling her this was not meant for her. She took the blow and the pain but decided to hold on. Among the many lessons, she saw how important getting life insurance was early on.
You might wonder how she got the guts to keep on. ‘Had it been for all the scary things that happened, I could have been trapped,’ she said cognizant of the dire situations. She was fully committed to her work that she amassed the courage to persevere. People told her it was a sign of her downfall just about when she began but she saw it the other way. Having successfully run the business for around three decades, it is now obvious who was right about the hard times.
We continued the interesting conversation with Samrawit and inquired how her shyness affected her. Samrawit was somewhat a perfectionist. As a child, she never skipped class or church. She was extra stressed about completing her homework going as far as annoying her siblings. She was still shy struggling in her approach to people even as a grown-up. She credited her beating to her late husband. He was always encouraging her self-development.
Samrawit is not just an entrepreneur. She is an advocate of giving back to the community, and she did this big time. We asked her to tell us about her work in Rotary clubs and the time she became the first female president of Rotary in Ethiopia. Again, she accredited her husband with her joining these associations. Rotary was not even well known back in 1992 when she joined and worse so few women were involved. In 2000, she became the president leading multiple teams working to improve the lives of people across Ethiopia. Rotary has done things from fighting disease to providing clean water to rural communities. She continues as an active member and pointed out how such clubs help the youth spend their time productively.
Our next question went into the art of running her business. We were looking to know what she looked for when screening people to work with. Personality, appropriate appearances, knowing their domain well, and problem-solving skills came on top of her list. She explained how she wanted people who work with her to respond in real-time to things that happen. In her view, it is not of a good employee to ask her thoughts on every detail of the work. She prefers those who know what they are doing and take responsibility.
Well after all, if I do not help women being one, who would?
Her loud and clear voice campaigning for women's empowerment is conspicuous. She wanted to give opportunities to women and so she did. Her travel agency was the first in Ethiopia to have women full-time guides. Samrawit told us how it was much easier said than done. The women guides were degraded as they were thought to be engaged in illicit business with tourists. This distorted attitude by society made it extremely rough for women to work. Samrawit decided to arrange for the guides to work in the office rather than lose their jobs. With things getting better, more are joining the profession they love. Samrawit is happy with the success women guides have. She said, ‘Women are multi-taskers, meticulous, and take responsibility.’ That is exactly how they deliver excellent service doing the details so well.
Samrawit is all about enabling people working with her to grow. She had seen that was missing in NTO. She wanted to bring to the front everyone capable. She believes this helps people develop confidence and love what they do. Her agency has been providing opportunities for employees to go abroad and has no record of defects. It makes me content to see them grow, go out, and start their own companies.
Knowing there is always room for advancement, we wanted to know what changes Samrawit wished to see in the tourism sector. She began explaining the immense potential Ethiopian tourism has how this hasn’t been properly put to use. Developing on and around existing attractions is Samrawit's way to utilize the country's riches. Events tourism was another sector she hoped the government opened up to investors. She also touched on the need for infrastructural expansions. Promoting the country through all means possible was another crucial area that needs work. The change Samrawit wanted to see was towards advancing tourism in such a way that it facilitates the improvement of the lives of local communities.
Samrawit is quite an optimist about Ethiopia and what tourism can contribute to its growth. Praising some of the efforts by the government to revive and build attraction in cities, she urged for this to diffuse across the countries. Particularly, she put light on the uncharted tourism wealth in the Afar region. The underdeveloped hospitality sector is letting such affluence lay idle across the country as Samrawit described. She stresses on how it should be noted that this sector is a great source of sought-after foreign exchange.
If you thought running the demanding tour and travel business was enough of a hustle for Samrawit, think harder. She has also been in the agricultural sector for over two decades. She took it over from her late husband who had taken 30000 hectares of flood-depleted land and turned it into a flower and vegetable farm. They export produces to Holland and other countries. With over 700 employees at the two farms they own, we see Samrawit’s exceptional leadership quality.
We continued to ask what other areas this unstoppable business mogul was looking to get involved in. Samrawit was surprisingly honest about how she sometimes gets so excited about doing many things here and there. Yet other times faced with challenges, she admitted to stepping back and taking a breath. She believes things that take time and energy need to be driven by a deeper passion to work on them. However, she told us that tourism has ample ways to branch out from. She described the sector as a corridor to investments and she chose to grow her existing reach and impact.
She is in the service sector. She is in farming as well. She is successful in both. We were excited to know the secrete to her accomplishments. She was bold saying, ‘Love what you do.’ For Samrawit success is unimaginable without passion. She asserted that discipline and time management have no way around. Planning clear and evaluating one’s work was indispensable to her. She also emphasized the need to learn and continuously update oneself. She concluded with always being up for social corporate responsibility.
We took her multiple steps back and asked her what skills she thought young entrepreneurs needed to have. Discipline had the peak of her list. She had strong words for those who spend time where they should not. The second of the skills were consistency and commitment. She talked about how she nowadays sees young people getting super excited and starting multiple projects of which none come to completion. An entrepreneur will not last long if not committed to keeping up in tough times. She also suggested having a stronger motivation other than money.
Samrawit summed up her talk by recommending us three of her all-time favorite books. The first one was The Power of Positive Thinking. She said she just couldn't get enough of the book even after reading it many times. Fikir Eskemekabir, a legendary Amharic fiction, had her remember her childhood when she stole it from her father to read it. Tilik Hilm Alegn by Dawit Dreams, an Ethiopian self-development professional, was the third on her list.
We wanted to celebrate this brilliant woman as it is the month of March. Her resilience and work discipline have made her a remarkable business person and community advocate. Samrawit is surely an icon.