Eric Lesner
Eric Lesner
Ethiopia 2015
Eric Lesner - Finance major, Belmont University class of 2015. Originally from Oswego, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. I am the Chief Financial Officer of Belmont Enactus and will be working with Ellilta Women at Risk, an organization that helps women transition out of prostitution in Ethiopia. Read More About Eric →

An Unfortunate Return

As many of you know by now, my adventure in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia had to be cut short. There were several contributing factors that drove me to ultimately make this decision.

The first of these was political. I arrived in Addis about a week before the Ethiopian election. During my preparation process for this journey, I was aware of the impending election, but not some of its implications. The days leading up to the election, the tension in the city was palpable. The citizens were clearly reserved and not their usual friendly selves while the expats were on their way out of the country for this sensitive time. The most obvious sign was the increase in police and soldiers in the streets. This was due to ongoing threats of riots, protests, and attacks in the event that the election is rigged. This political factor caused a very unsettling first week alone in a foreign country.

The next contributing factor was organizational. Most of my previous experience with Women at Risk had been working with Cherry and Wonde. Cherry is the founder of Women at Risk and Wonde is a lead counselor. However, a few weeks before my expected departure to Ethiopia, I found out that Wonde was on sabbatical, indefinitely, and Cherry would be leaving Ethiopia about a week after I arrived. Wonde had worked very hard for Women at Risk for a long time and was certainly deserving of a break. Cherry was leaving Ethiopia to go to Canada for the summer and spend time with her husband’s family. Both of these circumstances were completely understandable, however had a significant impact on the amount of value I would be able to add for this organization. Their departures left a void in the organization of who I would be reporting to as well as created a significant language gap between myself and the rest of the employees at Women at Risk. This was a very unfortunate circumstance because I knew I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I set out to do without the proper support from the organization.

The final reason for my early return was personal. Because of some last minute changes by the family that was supposed to host me, I stayed at what is referred to as a “pension”.  This is a type of room that is typically rented by the hour and was located in the red light district of Addis. Bordering this pension was an alley filled with bars. These bars were playing music very loudly from 9pm until 6 or 7am, nightly. Combine this with the jetlag that I was trying to overcome, and the mental fatigue set in, hard.

Although there were many that forced me to return, I was still able to accomplish some of what I had hoped to do while I was there. The inventory system that I had helped set up while I was there in October had been running well but hit a snag. After consulting some of my Enactus teammates back in the U.S., we were able to alleviate the inventory issues and conduct business as usual.

The other useful foundation that I was able to lay while I was there was in development of the domestic market for Ellilta Products. Originally I thought that I would be able to go in and open up distribution channels for EP by selling scarves in the local hotels and airport. However, upon arrival, I learned about how difficult a process that actually was and that, despite Ellilta’s best effort to make that happen, couldn’t happen. However, this allowed a new discussion to begin in regards to marketing. If we can’t get the products into these shops, why don’t we try to bring more tourists/consumers to Ellilta’s facility/store? This was something the sales team at Ellilta had thought about doing, but didn’t know how to go about it. I was able to help put this team in the mind of a foreigner, and where a tourist would look if they wanted to purchase traditional handmade goods in Ethiopia. This is an ongoing process that I hope to support from the U.S. for the remainder of the summer until I hand the project back over to the team at Belmont in August.

Overall, this was still an incredibly positive experience for me and I’m thankful that I was able to do it. There were some significant unforeseen obstacles that I encountered these past few weeks. I also wasn’t able to stay in Ethiopia as long as I had originally planned. However, I still able to serve this organization in some capacity and strengthen the relationship between EWAR/EP and Belmont Enactus. I also find value in the fact that upon graduation, instead of concerning myself with finding the highest salary I could and rushing into a career, I was able to do something that was important to me. Also, I was able to make a great friend while I was there, Mente Tsegaye, an accountant at Ellilta, who I hope to keep in touch with through Facebook, emails, and ongoing work with Ellilta Products.

My friend Mente

My friend Mente

So it Begins

Salam! Greetings from Addis Ababa!

These last couple of days have been hectic, but I’m glad to have my feet firmly planted on the ground now.

My journey started on Friday, 5/15, when I left Nashville for Chicago. I was going to have to fly out of Chicago anyway, so I decided to spend my last two days in the country visiting my family there. After the brief stay, which of course felt far too short, it was time to depart.

The trip took me from Chicago’s O’Hare airport to Frankfurt, Germany (pictured in this post), for a four our layover. From there, I flew to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before finally arriving in Addis. (Total travel time: 23 hours)

Breakfast in Frankfurt Airport

Breakfast in Frankfurt Airport

I arrived in Addis at 9pm local time. I was a very interesting mix of tired, energetic, scared and excited. Just four years ago, moving to Nashville felt like the biggest move I could possibly make. Now I can sit back and laugh at that.

It took another hour once on the ground to find my luggage, get through immigration, and to find my host. I was thrilled for the last part, as it meant a bed and food, which were high on my priority list at the moment.

My housing arrangement for this trip allows for a high level of immersion with the local culture. It is a small compound, with about 10 stand alone rooms. Each room is roughly 8×10 which provides enough room for a bed, a chair, and a shower. The owner rents rooms to individuals on a monthly basis, and has been successful so far with roughly an 80% occupancy rate. The immersion comes in very quickly here – I am the only American in this compound. In fact, I’ve yet to see another American since getting to Addis. It is an odd feeling of loneliness. Despite my being different, the owner and other residents have been very friendly. They have invited me to come to the common room with them to share a meal or have coffee. These gatherings have been a great opportunity for me to pick up on cultural norms and social cues, since I am only picking up a few words here and there in conversation. ( Amharic is spoken much more quickly in person that it was in the instructional videos I found on YouTube, go figure)

Now it is time to sleep and to try to get on the proper schedule. I am here, I have a very nice host, I have a room, and now I can get to work on what I came here to do.

To Addis: An Unexpected Journey

Well what a whirlwind these last few days have been. On Saturday, I graduated from Belmont University with a degree in Finance. Today, I stand just six days away from traveling to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to work with Ellilta Women at Risk (EWAR).  EWAR is an organization that provides rehabilitation and job skill training to women in Ethiopia so that they may leave lives of prostitution.

My involvement with this organization dates back about a year. It was May of 2014 that I happened to be in Nashville when a friend of mine, and Enactus teammate, Zoe Dollman, needed a ride to a meeting she was having at African Leadership in Brentwood, TN regarding this organization called Ellilta. This then evolved into getting invited to said meeting to provide a “financial perspective”.

Meeting Cherry Friedmeyer, the founder of EWAR on that fateful morning ignited my passion for this organization and opened my  eyes for their opportunity. We saw enough opportunity for us to make improvements that we ended up taking a trip to Addis in October of 2014.

In the one week that we were there, Zoe worked with EWAR, learning how they rehabilitation process and job skill training side of things worked. I worked with the for profit side of the organization called Ellilta Products (EP). EP hires women as weavers after they complete the rehabilitation/job skill process. These weavers produce beautiful hand made scarves which are then sold. The proceeds of these sales would ideally then go back to sustain the operations of EWAR and allow it to run without the need for donations.

We were able to make some headway on these fronts during our visit, but the week was over before we could even open our jet-lagged eyes.

I am excited for the progress that I can make with this organization over the next three months. I am looking to make the process of producing scarves more efficient, increase sales in Ethiopia so that the organization doesn’t have to rely on exporters or international sales, and finally to assist EWAR in the tracking of their women currently in, and graduated from the program so that the organization can be even more effective.