Nigest Haile, Founder &  Executive Director,  Center for African Women Economic Empowerment (CAWEE), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Words of Wisdom: “We don’t need other people to donate to us. I am here. I am working. I am capable to establish what we need in my country along with other women. You just need to be willing to work!” – Nigest Haile

Nigest Haile, Founder &  Executive Director,  Center for African Women Economic Empowerment (CAWEE), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Nigest Haile, Founder &  Executive Director,  Center for African Women Economic Empowerment (CAWEE), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Nigest Haile is an activist in the promotion of women entrepreneurs, with particular focus to women exporters, both existing and potential/emerging exporters. She has 23 years experience working in the Ethiopian Ministry of Trade and Industry, at different capacities, where in the last 13 years of her position as Head of the Women’s Affairs Department in the Ministry, she was able to work on proposing policy ideas and recommendations for the creation of a conducive and women entrepreneurs friendly business environment.

In 2004, she founded the Center for African Women Economic Empowerment (CAWEE), the only NGO working in the country, providing capacity building support service targeting women exporters.

In conducting different kinds of action oriented research, focusing on women in business, Nigest is actively involved, and recently was able to publish a book compiling the findings of challenges affecting women in business.

Nigest received award from the Department of State, United States of America, in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to the development of women-led businesses.

Nigest is a member of the of the Spanish-African Women Network, member of the COMESA (Common Market for Eastern & Southern Africa) Business Council, one of the promoters and founders of the first women’s bank of Ethiopia named as “ENAT Bank”, (Under Establishment), board member of FEMCOM (Federation of Women Entrepreneurs of COMESA) and AWEP (African Women Entrepreneurs Program) Ambassador to Ethiopia, an initiative of H. E. Hilary Clinton, that started in 2010.

Nigest Haile ~ YouTube promo video (approx. 3 min.)

Cawee Ethiopia website 

Nigest Haile, Founder &  Executive Director,  Center for African Women Economic Empowerment (CAWEE), 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!

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: Why have you focused all your efforts on women and entrepreneurs?

[ Nigest Haile ]: When working at the Ministry of trade and industry my main focus was working with micro entrepreneurs. Through recent studies it suggests that 70% of women are those vary micro entrepreneurs. In the area of small and medium enterprise no institution had been supporting them. Many believe that since they are small and medium enterprises that they would be better off than micro industries. Although that has some merit it is not always true. I saw a gap and decided to focus on it. After serving on the government for 23 years, I felt it was time to leave and get this center established. The center focuses on small to medium women entrepreneurs with the focus to export. This category is comprised of existing exporters and emerging exporters. We have established ourselves as a good partner to government as well.

  • Export is referring beyond the country. However we tend to traditional refer to export is focused beyond the continent. Most of the women we work with are exporting outside Africa.
  • CAWEE has had an increase focus on “South, South trade” – this is trading amongst African Countries, particularly in Southern Africa.  We are seeing a huge market potential in Africa. We are working with five African countries now with the support of European Union program called Pro-invest. We started with three countries (Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda), to promote women marketing amongst themselves. We have added two more countries Zambia and Seychelles and now we are five.  We are expecting support from CDE (Center for Development of Enterprises) and EU project. We hope to continue to expand to new countries.

[ Suzanne ]: Where do you see the biggest business opportunity available for women entrepreneurs?

[ Nigest ]: In Ethiopia, is mainly in the handloom weaving area.

  • Traditional weavers are men, but these days more women are becoming weavers.
  • The majority of the employers are women who are employing hundreds of weavers. Beyond producing the traditional products they are producing high quality home decor products: bedding, kitchen wear etc. This has improved when we started working with CIDA (The Canadian International Development Agency), we had a program that was secured international trade center where we were able to work with six companies owned and managed by women.
  • These women were doing handloom weaving, but where doing traditional products. Through the program they went through a product development program for 10 months that really help diversify their product lines and start creating hi-end home decor products for the North American market.  This is the support we giving.

What other business opportunities a

  1. Handy crafts: jewelry, knitting and embroidery
  • These days jewelry and leather products are becoming relevant areas of involvement because they are fashion accessories.
  • When you are looking export the weight is also light and takes little room minimizing export costs.
  • High quality is important.

When you are exporting internationally what do you need to consider?

  1. Quality of the product
  2. Weight of the product to export
  3. Fashion – colour trend. It is important to produce for the future colours and seasons. There is only one of our members that is a member of the International colour group, Sara Abera, Founder of Muya , she pays $7000US a year to be a member. The benefits are she gets the colour predictions for next two years.
  4. Knowing the fashion trends, seasons.

Three top obstacles women have being entrepreneurs and your recommendations to overcome them?

  1. Women have multiple roles. They are mothers, wives, businesswoman – they have many things to attend to, which is not the same as men entrepreneurs. So one of the things they suffer is time constraint. They need to manage their time between their business and their family.  Women still manage the home.
  2. The challenge of accessing finance, particularly in the small to medium enterprises. Women in the informal sector can easily manage micro finance. For the small to medium enterprises the micro finances loans are too small to assist. When they go to formal banks to access loans, it is a problem of collateral. In most of the cases banks want collateral. Since most women don’t have property in their names, it is difficult to get collateral. If she wants a loan she has to get consent of the husband. Which is problem for women in the Region itself.
  3. Women don’t get enough information especially when it comes to export. They often are not technology savvy. Many don’t use email enough, and when it comes to export you need to use email as the phone is expensive. Women are not up to speed on the technologies that will assist their businesses.

If I had a product I wanted to export, can you walk me through the steps that I should take so I would be export ready?

  1. CAWEE provides different services.
  • Providing training in international trade. A – Z of issues in trade and has 23 modules. This will tell women if she is export ready or not. Or she may have to stay at the domestic market.
    • One module is developing an export strategy & business plan – most women do not have a business plan.
    • In our manufacturing we train them on packaging
    • Provide cost and price before exporting
      • Many women do not keep records to do their own costing. They need to start with the raw materials and include everything involved in getting that product to the buyer. I.e. Admin, promotion cost – producing brochures, international trade shows.
  • We do sector specific training as well.

When my product is export ready, how do I get my product to market – partnerships, buyers?

  1. We also connect people to potential partners. In partnership in AGOA – African Growth and Opportunity Act, we are working closely with the US embassy here as the state department and they recently created a program called AWEP (African Women Entrepreneurship Program), which mainly focuses on women exploiting the opportunities of AGOA. We are connected to the embassy and every year we organize missions from the US to come to Ethiopia. Also we encourage women to go to international trade shows, but we also encourage buyers to come here to see them physically because that creates more confidence. We usually organize visits of buyers to various Ethiopian producers and the buyer may make a sample orders. We organize this manly through US Embassy, as there is a special provision where women can enter their products tariff free.
  2. Exhibition and trade forums, such as the one I participated in China last week.  This where the international trade center is working closing with WE Connect International. This where they bring the multinational companies together so they can source for products from women.  Four of the multinationals signed a contract to buy from 14.7 million dollars of product from women. Soon as I got back I connected women with those buyers. They have started communicating and samples would be sent.
    It sounds like if you’re an individual it would be very difficult to take advantage of these programs.

How willing are women to spend the money to grow their business?

It is very difficult for women to spend their money on growing their business.

  • For example: in China last week 12 applied to be delegates, but with the screening processes to make sure that right buyers and sellers were going to come together, only four where accepted.
  • International Trade Centerwas sponsoring the accommodation, and more or less the food. They were asking for the delegates to pay their round trip ticket. I was the only one who went. I was to be the lead for the delegation.
    • I see donor dependence. Most of the programs have really spoiled our women. And really have not encouraged women to cost share. As I mentioned women don’t really plan to promote their businesses. They don’t set any money aside.  They need to put money aside to promote their business and participate in international trade shows.
    • The exhibition had also been paid for and we were staying a nice hotel – they just had to pay their flight.

Why do business have to grow?

  • For them, their family, for their community.
  • The more money they make, the more foreign currency we acquire. For a country like Ethiopia this is important.
  • They employ more people.

What are some other challenges of women in business?

  1. They don’t have a business plan or growth strategy.
  2. They don’t’ promote their businesses – put no marketing dollars aside.
  3. When they do grow and start making money they don’t need to do everything anymore, yet they still want to do everything. They cannot find their replica, but women want that. They have to employ someone they can train to succeed them. They need to learn to delegate. The more you employ and delegate the more resources you need, but the more resources you can make.

Do you think women in Ethiopia or East Africa are now receiving freedoms that they did not have before and they are afraid to let them go?

  • Women are trying to employ professionals
  • They need to pay them enough so they don’t go to other companies
  • They have to give them fringe benefits
  • Creating more individuals that can lead
  • Some women are giving shares of their business to others to create loyalty. There is a sense of ownerships, this is working well.

In East Africa what is the best place to export

  • “South South export is a great place to start.
    • With flights everyday from Addis Ababa it make it easier.
    • Nairobi is also a great place to export to.
    • East Africa is easier, but West may a little far. North like Morocco
    • Start on your continent so you can build your capacity so eventually you can export to new continents.

What do you think is the most significant impact you have made in your career?

I am involved in a lot of areas, but because women do have finance challenges my most recent contribution that I feel is most significant is co-founding with eight other women ENAT Bank – which means mother. This is initiative I am very proud of. We are all women, and we are the thirteenth bank in Ethiopia. Our goal is to give women access to financing from not only our bank from all banks in country.

What is the one thing you would attribute your success to?

  • Mainly focusing on women in export. Our center is a pioneering center and being the lead of that center.
  • Also being in the government for many years allowed me to have contacts and an extensive network.
  • The one thing that motivated initiative is my drive. You don’t get acknowledgement. I have drive and the support of a husband and daughters. I always congratulate myself  – I say “Nigest I have done a good job today.” There are so many things I have done that I acknowledge myself. I celebrate my successes and learn from my failures. That is what drives me. In many volunteer activities I am never paid.

Can you give us an example where you implement something that did not work?

  • When we were creating an income generating activity for women with HIV/AIDs. It was very disappointing for the response I had received. People said that these people are sick and about to die, why should we sponsor such kinds of initiatives. It was really sad to hear this.
  • We continued to work without support. So there are things that really frustrate you and if you stop when you hit an obstacle you will never get past it. We tried another option, which worked.
  • In a country like ours when you are a pioneer and successful woman and there is always blocks around every corner. Unless we design strategies to overcome such problems we remain there.

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?

Facing the multi-role as a woman. I am very involved in the community and there are many things I need to take care of within it i.e. weddings, funerals. You need to be part of the community or you will be out of it. Giving more time for my family. This is often conflicting. I am a good wife and mother and a good cook. In Africa we have helpers and they make our dinner and we eat. However, I enjoy cooking our meals.

With the small time I have I try to keep the balance of all my obligations.

What does success mean to you?

When referring to women in business and export, when they have success, I have success. I am always shouting about their success.

How would you define leadership?

A good leader is role model that teaches by example. I want to be their reference. I also believe in educating myself, so you are always a better leader. You know the areas of your expertise.

Leadership Lessons Learned – Nigest Haile

  1. Lead by example
  2. Make sure you are knowledgeable, and always be well informed
  3. To be an expert you need to be seen as an expert

If there is one thing you would do differently in pursuit of your success, what would it be?

I would like to learn more about export. I need to continue learning and networking while provide different services that can really change the lives of women. Sometimes we teach and I don’t see enough changes in the women in export.

Some women do not want to expand, how do you deal with that?

With our Business Council Program we introduced cost sharing and if a woman is not paying a part we will not provide the counseling. We are paying a lot of money for certified business councilors. There were thirty that where introduced to the program.  The moment they found out they were paying, only fifteen came back. Out of the fifteen, only six people who actually paid for it and therefore completed the program. The amount they were paying was not that much. It was just a small contribution. We are now just taking on board people are really interested.

We need to change the mindset.

Given the chance what would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Establishing a center develop successors. This is a serious a problem. We want the young ones to be leaders. For example see young leaders lead associations.

Reflective Realizations from Nigest Haile

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

Do volunteer work for your country. Everyone expects enumeration at a very young age. Everything is about payment. If we continue to have such a culture I don’t think we will have a generation of successors. My children are involved in many volunteer activities i.e. the Rotary club.

Words of Wisdom by Nigest Haile

We don’t need other people to donate to us. I am here I am working. I am capable to establish what we need in my country along with other women. You just need to be willing to work!


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