Clancy Smith

Story and Video by Gabriel Austin

Sunlight filters through large windows and spills onto the factory room floor. The click and hum of machinery makes the air buzz.

Along one wall, four women push and pull methodically on wooden looms, working diligently to create colorful scarves and other cotton textiles to be sold at the local market.

The small production, situated in multi-storied building in downtown Bahir Dar, is part of Ethiopia’s Local Economic Development program, designed to foster entrepreneurship and development throughout the nation.

Wassihun Biresaw Feleke owns this factory. Feleke grew up in poverty but made the life-changing decision to participate in the United Nations’ program.

“Without this program, we surely would have been jobless right now, because we are from poor families,” Feleke said. “Our families could not afford to give us the initial amount to start something, so we can see that some of our students who didn’t like to participate in such programs are still looking for government jobs or jobs somewhere, and they are basically reading vacancies here and there.”

Feleke said that with the assistance of the Local Economic Development program, entrepreneurs in Ethiopia are getting a chance to better not only their own lives, but also the lives of others. Unlike banks, the economic development program does not have stringent requirements for loans.

Dawud Mohammed, an expert on local economic development, said the program began in 2009. Since its inception, the United Nations Development Program has invested millions of dollars along with technical support.

“The first objective is to generate income for vulnerable groups, which includes the youths, disabled and the unemployed,” Mohammed said.

Entrepreneurs interested in joining the program are given revolving funds that they receive and later pay back for others to use.

Local economic development falls under the umbrella of the Millennium Development Goals aiming to create a middle-class income status in Ethiopia by 2025 and to grow the nation’s annual Gross Domestic Product from 11.2 percent to 14.9 percent, according to state.gov.

The African Development Bank Group reports that Ethiopia has one of the better performing economies on the continent of Africa. Ethiopia has grown by double-digits each year for more than a decade. The country is one of the top 10 fastest-growing economies in the world.

In Bahir Dar, the Local Economic Development program has helped more than 5,000 men and women in “vulnerable groups,” and strengthened more than 200 local businesses, according to a program assessment.

Feleke was one of 14 students approaching graduation from Technical and Vocational Education Training Strategy School when he and his peers realized they had no money to finance their vision of owning a textile company.

“We started to think about what we are going to do after we left school, so we started organizing prior to graduation,” Feleke said. “Therefore, mentally, we were able to do the job.”

The economic development program loaned them 120,000 birr ($5,865 in U.S. money) to create the textile company. The program expected to be repaid within three to four years. It took only two years for Feleke to pay off the loan.

“When we began we only had one machine, and 14 of us used to sit down and work on one machine. It was very challenging,” Feleke said. “We used to have problems with the machine, because sometimes it breaks, sometimes it malfunctions and because of that we spent our time unproductively.”

Now, with the help of the United Nations program, the company has enough machines to remain consistently productive.

The program also has helped him employ other Ethiopians.

“We have a five-year strategic plan, and we follow that to our capacity,” Feleke said. “Our group has set a goal of hiring three additional people annually. Every year, we want to bring three jobless people onto the team.”