Born and raised in the Benshanigul Gumuz, Assosa City, Meaza Ashenafi attended her primary and secondary school in Assosa. She first came to the capital, Addis Ababa to pursue her law degree in the law School of Addis Ababa University.

Ashenafi started her first job at the Ministry of Trade and later worked as a Judge at the High Court. Her passion later prompted her to join the Federal Constitution Commission.

While working there, she was known for being one of the brains behind founding the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association, which is amongst the most successful civil society organization in Ethiopia.
The Association gives free legal services and financial aid for victims of gender based violence to provide better solutions and hence improving their access to justice.

Under her leadership, the Association has been active in fighting for underprivileged women and campaigning for women rights. In doing so, the association now is served by 280 volunteers and 45 graduate lawyers.

That was not, indeed, the cut-off point in her fight against mistreatment of women in her country, whose female population stood at almost 51 million. Ashenafi, who witnessed the struggle of women to access finance, conceived the idea of opening an institution dedicated to support female entrepreneurs.

“The notion came up suddenly”, says Ashenafi while explaining how the bank emerged. It happened while Ashenafi and her friend, Sara Abera were attending a meeting at Sheraton Hotel Addis, which was organized by a company established only by women.

The main issue raised at the meeting was that most women do not own businesses because they have no land to work on. Ashenafi thought the idea was brilliant. She then immediately responds; “The main problem is that those women don’t have money to buy the land which made more sense to me.”

However, it wasn’t a walk in the park for Ashenafi and her friends to implement their idea. After three months of planning, Ashenafi, who was already very accomplished in the business world, set a clear direction to achieve her dream. After a yearlong of planning and selling shares, they were able to start the first bank dedicated towards strengthening and benefiting women. Making 65 per cent of the board members of the Bank and over 50 per cent of the Bank’s employees being female were amongst the measures taken to empower women in the finance sector.

With the help of 11 women, she established the first Bank with the aim of transforming the lives of Ethiopian women, who usually fail to provide collateral to acquire loans as many properties and assets are dominantly owned and managed by menin Ethiopia.

Enat Bank was founded and self-funded by a group of professional women and very few men working in different sectors from around the country. In fact, it was formed in September 28, 2008, with nine women promoters by 7,200 shareholders, out of which 64per cent of the shares were owned by women. Its head office and branch offices are named after influential women in Ethiopian history. The bank, for the first time ever, also set five percent of the annual profit from every share as a risk fund to be provided as a loan to women with businesses without any collateral.

The Bank shareholders, who put Ashenafi as a board chairperson had always been thankful about their investment whenever their annual meeting held. That was not only because they are contributing for the betterment of women across the country. It was also they are delightful about the performance of the Bank, under the chairmanship of Ashenafi.

Indeed, through all the hardship in the first year of its efforts, the bank was able to make profit, while its peer bank was not even able to break even.

During her tenure, Enat’s profit increased fivefold to almost 100 million Birr in during the 201-2017 fiscal year. Not only that, commencing operations with a paid-up capital of 123.6 million Birr, the Bank now has over 13,600 shareholders with an investment capital of 800 million Birr, which is likely to reach one billion Birr by the end of this year.

Their efforts did not go unnoticed, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) agreed to implement a new loan portfolio agreement with Enat Bank under the Portfolio Risk Sharing Loan instrument. With a 10-million-birr loan, 500 women in rural areas were given loans to work on their business ideas and around 17 women were set with a 300,000-birr to start up their business.

The bank also has a program where it recruits female graduates and provides jobs opportunities, with 200 women joining the project so far.

“At first, a lot of our friends and influential people were pessimistic that with the agenda we are focusing on, forming the bank will not be going to be a success story,” she said. “Again all odds, however, we managed to make history.”