Hilina Belete, Deputy General Manager of Hilina Enriched Food Processing, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Words of Wisdom: “Don’t be afraid to try, even though you might fail. If you don’t try you will never know where your goal might take you.” – Hilina Belete

Interview with Hilina Belete, Deputy General Manager of Hilina Enriched Food Processing, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Hilina Belete, Deputy General Manager of Hilina Enriched Food Processing, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

HILINA was established in 1998 by her father to undertake the manufacturing and processing of a range of food products specifically designed to combat the various forms of malnutrition and other micronutrient deficiencies affecting children and other vulnerable groups in Ethiopia. When it was initially established, the centre produced Vitamin A enriched sugar as well as iodized salt for UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the general public. Helina Belete rose to the challenge to enter the organization and learn all the elements before taking on her role as Deputy General Manager.

Today, HILINA has experienced significant growth in terms of both size and capital and has continued to install modern machinery and other equipments. HILINA recently established an on-site food laboratory and has transformed itself into a state of the art and comprehensive food production facility. Recently, HILINA has been upgraded to specialize in the production of other nutritious and therapeutic foods for children to address the significant gap in the national food production system.

The Amharic name for Plumpy’ nut is “Nefis Aden,” which literally means “life savor.” While some might regard this as an exaggeration, those who have witnessed the beneficial effects of Plumpy’ nut will attest that it is very much a reality. Plumpy’ nut is working wonders for severely malnourished children throughout Ethiopia as it is a magic formula and one that we at HILINA are proud to promote. In addition to standing guard for the children of Ethiopia, the fact that 70% of the raw materials required for the production of Plumpy nut are produced locally translates into many positive spin-off effects for the local economy.

Watch a short 5 minute promotion video on Hilina Belete interview: http://youtu.be/GqXe8ziIM0U


Hilina Belete, Deputy General Manager of Hilina Enriched Food Processing, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

You have an education Public Administration & Development Management from Faculty of Business & Economics, Addis Ababa University.

I am just finishing business and leadership. I took this program because I want to continue in business and be leader. I have a lot to contribute to be a young women leader.

What do you think you have to contribute to leadership, women and young women?

Ethiopia needs a lot of new things, basic necessities, basic needs that we haven’t really done before. We need change. Because of this I need to be educated in leadership so I can help lead that change.

Why pursue a career in Agriculture?

Eighty percent of the Ethiopian economy is based on agriculture. If we can transform the way we do agriculture we can transform the economy of the country.

If 80% of Ethiopia is in Agriculture, what % of women are employed in agriculture?

Women are not really engaged in agriculture. In traditional Ethiopia it is the men. It is a traditional role. Women are usually managing the family and doing the cooking.

You are a young attractive lady, and you manage 150 men, tell us of some of the challenges you have managing men?

There are two major challenges. Because I am also young, they are not use to a young woman leading them in Ethiopia. If my father, the Managing Director, orders something to be done it is easier for me. I have now stopped his interference; now or later they will have to get use to me leading them. Now I am leading them. I have stuck by and forget any man intervening – now I do it myself.

Tell us what kind of tactics you use to get people to follow you?

They respect me. If I give an order, I persist and ensure it is followed through.

Are there any techniques you use when you communicate with the male employees to make sure they understand that this is not negotiable?

Firstly, you have to be confident in yourself. If you have confidence in yourself you make them believe in you.

  • If you also persist in what you say, and you don’t change your ideas they believe in you later on.

You are only 24, where did you get this confidence?

From family. I am the eldest daughter in my family. I have one older brother, but being the eldest daughter I am have the responsibility in my family.

  • My father and mother give me opportunity to speak up.

Can you give our listeners some advice on how they can help their confidence level as they emerge in leadership positions?

Read. The more you read the more confident you will be in what you do or what you say.
Be sure of what you say so you will not embarrass yourself.

In this day and age you can Google anything. For an example, I am not a nutritionist, but I deal with nutrition, so I read. I need to be able to speak to the nutritionist.

I read that you feel the need to prove yourself in the agriculture industry. How do you go about proving yourself?

We do a lot of field research with the farms. We teach them how to store their harvest, and how to harvest. I go with the experts, and I take the opportunity to speak up to let them know about the products and how to produce them.

You also have done a lot of studies in agriculture.

What are some of the strategies you have employed far as getting yourself in the public eye and demonstrating you are not your father (the person who started the business), yet you are very capable?

I attend a lot of conferences, anywhere in the world and in Ethiopia. Any time we have market research, I go and speak up and let people know we are here.

How do you demonstrate internally that you have the knowledge and the leadership?

I show them everyday. I bring new ideas. I improve the process everyday. We discuss a lot and I take ideas from them a lot. I come prepared for the meetings.

What do you think is more difficult being a woman in agriculture or being young?

In this day and age in Ethiopia being young is more difficult. But when going to the field, being a woman is also very difficult to show them that you can lead and advising them what to do.

What are some of the challenges dealing in the rural areas when you are dealing with the farms, what sort of reaction do they give you?

Sometimes when we travel to the field we will travel with women and men (colleagues), when I try to tell them something, the farmers will often ask “who is the manager,” and I respond “I am the manager.” There is their pride, especially when they come with their girl child. Some of the girls will ask me “If I am the one leading the company?” They have never been given the opportunity, or have enough eduction.

How does that make you feel when a young girl says: “Are you the one leading the company?”

It is sad.  But it is also letting her know it is possible.

When you started in this role did you know enough about the industry to give you the authority amongst your older employees (in this case 45ish)?

No, so what I did is start at the entry position, sorting peanuts, I took a lesson every week at every stage of the process until I knew every step, so then I could guide and say “I have done that before.”

Being “daddies little girl” added another challenge, so I really needed to know the process to prove myself.

When you started with Hilina’s and the employees knew who you were, how were you able to get the team to work ‘along side you’ and not ‘working for you?

It was tricky, because they knew I was part owner, and they were nervous, but I also only worked there a week in every step and it was never a big challenge.

I took three months to learn the process then went to France and saw how the Franchiser does the business.

How do you motivate your team?

  1. Hilina’s has free education. If they want to continue their education we pay the bills. Especially for the ones finishing high school. We employ from 10th grade, to do labour. So if they want to continue their education we pay for their school fees.
  2. We subsidize lunch/meals
  3. We have health insurance
  4. We provide free Plumpy’ nut in case their children are malnourished. This is rural are of Addis. A lot of children are malnourished in the suburbs of Addis Abba.

Is there any formal strategy for the team?

  1. We invest a lot in employee bonding.
  • We have New Year celebration.
  • We have football team
  • We have races a couple times a year.
  • Poem awards

What are some of the biggest challenges you have being a young women leading an organization?

  1. Acceptance, amongst men and women. Even women are not use to it, as our culture is lead by men.
  2. I did not have any experience as I just came from college. I really had to learn from everyone what he or she does.

Where have you had more challenges leading women or men?

I think men where more receptive. Women where just not use to it. I really needed to prove it to them. Women may not be receptive because our strong culture and tradition.

So what advice would you provide to women who lead large teams in agriculture?

You have to go to the field and talk to the farmers. You need to be easy going. Help them achieve what they want to achieve. Sending experts is not enough. You need to demonstrate you are involved. It really motivates them.

When you go to the farm what do you wear?

I try to fit in, so wear jeans and sneakers.

What advice would you give to a woman perusing a managerial career?

Be ambitions. Know whom you want to lead. Know their culture and understand them.

The key to agriculture success seems to be processing food, you grow peanuts, so what kind of margin is made through the processing?

  1. We have lots of peanut products for snacks, salt added, or chilly. The margin growth 40 to 50% more.
  2. We have peanut butter. The margin is 40 to 50%
  3. Peanut paste – for malnutrition. Lots of ingredients added to the product so it is 15% margin. We produce it because we know there are a lot of benefits to society. Institutions buy this product – MSF and UNICEF – who give to malnourished children. This product also helps farms, transporters, employees and the children.

It is very rewarding.

I love the job I am in because it has a lot of social impacts.

What do you think has been the most significant impact you have made in your career so far?

With a collaboration of many peoples’ of efforts, at Hilina’s we save lives of children and HIV patients. – or at least help them survive longer. A lot of farms hope we continue to exist because we pay a little higher than the market price.

Why do they buy at a higher market price?

To motivate the farmers. To ensure them that there is a market for them so they keep producing.

If you were to attribute your success to one thing, what would that one thing be?

I think I am daring. I take opportunities.

What is the most rewarding aspect of you career?

Hilina’s social impact.

What is the most challenging aspect of your career?

I am young.

What is the most significant decision you have made in your career?

Joining this company before joining a smaller organization from school. I could have gone to another organization in order to become more confident when I came here. But I just took the job, which was very daring and challenging.

What advise would you provide to someone facing the similar chose as you – go to another company first, or join the family business?

I think I made the right decision, but only become I learned the process first. I just didn’t assume the Operations position.

Do you think that you stayed long enough in the more junior positions?

Yes, three months was enough, because if I stayed longer, it may have been more challenging to lead the employees later.

Has there been any initiatives that you implement that did not work, and what would you differently?

No not over my last three years. I consult a lot before I implement an initiative. I know that others have more experienced.

What gift do you think you have that have made you successful to this point and will continue to make you successful moving forward?

I try things, even if I think I may fail. I like to know where my initiatives will take me.

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone). What is something that you are uncomfortable doing, but you need to continue to do, in order to make you as successful as you are?

Taking a role with a lot of responsibility while taking my Masters degree.

How are you managing to get through your masters while learning a new role?

I delegate a lot to people I believe in.

Can you describe a situation where you felt uncomfortable and how you dealt with that situation?

There was employee that would go to the Managing Director (my father), because she either was not confident in me, or she didn’t think I could make the decision. He told her she had to come back to me.  At these times you need help in these areas, they should tell people to come back to you. You can’t do anything. You need other leaders’ support. Help from colleagues is really helpful.

What does success mean to you?

Achieving the goal I set out to achieve.

How would you define leadership?

Be able to lead people that are comfortable and confident in you. They believe in you. Motivating people, managing people. If they believe in you they will be lead by you. Getting them to believe in your cause.

Leadership Lessons Learned.

  1. Communicate the goal to your team. Let them define how they do it. If you are all on the same page it makes it easier to lead.
  2. Empower them that they can make decisions. Not everything can be done by you.
  3. Communicate with them in a way they understand.

What is next for you?

I will take nutrition courses, as I need to be more confident about what I am talking about. If you don’t’ know what you are talking about then they will dismiss you. Then marriage….

What is one thing you would like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Have children – although will be a lot of work for me.

Reflective Realizations from Hilina Belete

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old daughter?

I want her to be confident. Speak up. Be a leader in her school. This will give you an opportunity to speak up. I want her to see the country-side so she will understand how people live there too.

Q. What do you wish you were told at that age?

I wish I had been to the country-side. I hadn’t seen it.

Words of Wisdom by Hilina Belete

 Don’t be afraid to try, even though you might fail. If you don’t try you will never know where your goal might take you.



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    2 replies to "Hilina Belete"

    • Carolyn

      This was a great interview! I loved that she was so young and offered inspiration to all women – outside Africa as well. Your final comment about age not being an obstacle is so true! I think there are many women who feel that if they had started earlier they could have done more. Thanks Suzanne!

    • Wisdom Exchange

      Thanks Carolyn for your comment! As the saying goes if we knew then what we know now… where would we be? However, if we could do now what we could do then we wouldn’t have the time think about it.

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