Driven by the need to reduce the levels of raging poverty, which affected a third of her country’s population, Mitslal Kifleyesus-Matchie, an Eritrean born Ethiopian packed up her bags and left Germany where she lived. This was in 2007. The 47 year old comes from a privileged family. Her father was a judge and her mother a businesswoman. She studied political science both at bachelor and masters level. She went further to study ‘European Studies’ in a bid to widen her knowledge about ways to eradicate poverty. And to top it all, she pursued a PhD form Arms Control and Disarmament.
While being able to enjoy the chance of being hired in big European institutions, she choose to return and work in her country. Fighting poverty was her main target.
While over 80 per cent of Ethiopia’s population depend on rain fed agriculture, farmers determine the prices of their produce at the market but have a limited understanding of value addition to their yields and resources, adding to challenges such as shortage of finance, lack of training and technologically advanced equipment to scale up their business. Kifleyesus, who woken to such realities, founded Ecopia with a mission to reverse such adversitie. Publicly founded a decade ago, Ecopia then begun giving tools and training to farmers with the aim of making them able to add value to their natural products and provide them with improved, technology-enabled access to markets.
The road to success was not a walk in the park. After identifying the gap needed to develop the agriculture sector and challenges of the farmers, Kifleyesus determinedly worked with rural communities living across the country for six years, becoming able to develop processing systems and products with international quality standards.
Through her experience with the farmers, she discovered that adopting value-added market based approach was the key to help rural families; particularly vulnerable groups such as women and HIV infected people. With such conviction, under her venture, there are over 11,000 Ethiopian organic farmers in Ecopia’s network so far. 1,000 farmers were trained in processing skills and business development.
Working for the past 10 years, Kifleyesus is excited by how her journey has evolved; “It is amazing to see farmers adopt farming practices, you witness people moving from the 16th century to the 21st century” she explains. “I want to help Ethiopian traditional farmers because, poverty does not only deal with money, but also when you have the resource, yet you don’t have the access to raise your standards.” She adds.
In fact, while striving to realize her dream, Kifleyesus was faced by one of her biggest challenges, divorcing her Germany politician husband. The experience left her stressed and sometimes sick, almost to the brink of giving up, but she held on. When she was trying to experiment organic remedies for herself, Ecopia was on her mind.
With the commitment to produce and provide the highest quality services in organic food, beverage, cosmetics and herbal medicine, Ecopia now sells more than 20 food products and 19 hair and skin products in shops throughout Ethiopia, adding to its 42 products available in hotels and supermarkets. This makes it one of the biggest companies engaged in the untapped cosmetic and underdeveloped food market in Ethiopia.
While relying on technological innovations, transport management and logistics, Ecopia, whose capital now is in millions of Birr, focuses on being at the forefront in marketing and communications and investing in effective government relationship management. Its business is built on a co-creation model for the company’s products which are efficiently managed using mobile networking and e-commerce to streamline supply chains. Yet gaining entry into small-scale supply chains in Ethiopia had not been easy, largely because the industry is male dominated. The growth in the number of large-scale industries with huge investments means narrowing and limiting the opportunities of small and medium enterprises. Although overcoming such challenges is a great hurdle, she believes that as a female entrepreneur, being adaptable and persistent are vital for success.
Big institutions, such as German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (Bundesamt für Naturschutz – BfN) is currently working with the Ecopia Plc since 2013 in Ethiopian Biosphere Reserve in Yayu and Sheka on income generation. Since February 2015, Ecopia started a project on Community-based interactive Ecotourism for promotion of conservation in Ethiopian Biosphere Reserves (CIEPCEB).
Ecopia is also expanding into the natural cosmetic sector. It is working on taking advantage of the global cosmetic market. It is also taking into consideration the new “beauty foods” sector which combines dietary supplements with cosmeceuticals, to enter the 115 billion USD market through traditional and e-commerce sales.