Abyssinia Business Network /ABN/
Born in Ambo, West Oromia Regional State, Zelalem Merawi grew up there until the age of six, he then moved to different parts of Ethiopia, including Addis Alem and eventually to Addis Ababa where he had completed his secondary education at Shemeles Habte Comprehensive Secondary School. Zelalem had gone through various rigorous hardships to reach where he is now; at a very young age, he has worked at a garage and as a shoeshine boy to sustain his own and family’s life.
Having completed his secondary education, he had begun working as a driver for his uncle’s vehicle with a monthly salary of 300 birr; and later he was employed by a tour and travel company. As a child, Zelalem was highly inspired by local guides who used to help visitors at Addis Alem town where there are tourist attractions like Emperor Menelik Palace and Saint Mary Church. This had opened doors toZelalem to follow his childhood dreams, to establish his own tour and travel, and superior quality leather products sale companies.
AklileTsige, ABN Editor-in-Chief speaks to General Manager and Owner of Zelalem Tour and Travel Agent, and Ker Ezhi Leather products Sale, Zelalem Merawi on his life path and business matters.
ABN: How did you begin your business in tour and travel business?
Zelalem: While growing up in Addis Alem where many tourists used to visit the tourist attractions such as the Menelik Palace and Saint Mary Church, I had the chance to get insight into what tourism means, what local guides were doing. Moreover, I was working at a garage where vehicles of tour operators had been fixed. This also had an impact on my interest in tourism. Then I was hired by a tour and travel company; while working at this company I continued my education on tour operation supervision in the extension program.I had worked only for two years here. When tourists made attempts to tip me I used to tell them that I would have my own tour and travel company, and you would help me then. I first ran a car rental business; then I decided to start operating my own tour and travel Company in 2008. This’s how all began.
ABN: So, how did it go?….I mean how was the business then?
Zelalem: You know I was well aware of the fact that Ethiopia, despite its abundant and unique tourism potential, it doesn’t properly unleash these sources. This was really annoying and disturbing me at that moment. I had to investigate the needs of visitors regarding the quality and standards of good tourism operation. So my job was to upgrade the ways and approaches in the business through recruiting well-trained professionals for Zelalem Tour and Travel Agent.
ABN: What about the job opportunity your company has created for citizens, and the vehicles the company is using?
Zelalem: Zelalem Tour and Travel Agent have created job opportunity for nearly twenty-five permanent and freelance employees working with not less than eighteen different quality and up-to-date vehicles the industry currently require.
ABN: You are also well-known for your contribution to the promotion of the country’s tourism sector. Tell us about this.
Zelalem: Of course, I was strongly motivated to promote the nation’s tourism potential at the outset; so I had to launch a sister company called Courage Ethiopia in 2013. This initiative was accompanied by a portal web site tourism directory which was visited by 7.5 people and also a tourist guide book which had a twenty thousand circulation per edition. This tourist guide book or magazine had been in publication for nearly four years until 2017.
The tourism industry needs a sustainable and effective promotion so that the country could benefit from the sector. As it’s called a smokeless industry, it is the only economic sector that the country could earn good foreign currency without spending money on it. I strongly believe that we have done our level best to promote the country’s tourism.
“We are now mainly producing different superior quality leather jackets, gym bags, traveling bags, ladies bags, handbags toilet bags, cosmetics bags, various male and female wallets, and other products.”
ABN: What honors and awards have you received so far for your effort in promoting and doing tour and travel business?
Zelalem: I have, indeed, received various recognitions and acknowledgments both at home and at an international level. I have got honors from the FDRE Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Ethiopian Tourism Organization at different times. I have also received the Century International Quality Award which is an international gold award, and also Quality Service and quality management Award in Geneva, Switzerland.
ABN: Have you ever engaged in discharging your social responsibility, or any community development activity?
Zelalem: yes, our company has been participating in various social activities. For instance, we have managed to develop green areas in a bid to participating in the national environmental protection endeavor; places such as Meskel Square and in front of the newly inaugurated Unity Park have been rehabilitated by our company and tried to change the ugly faces of the areas. Furthermore, we have managed to plant various indigenous trees at Entoto Botanic Garden. We have also donated blood in connection with our tenth anniversary. Regarding capacity building, we did our best to cover the training cost of at least fifteen young Ethiopians who have finally run their own tour and travel agents.
ABN: How do you assess the existing situation of the country’s tourism sector?
Zelalem: Oh, right now while you and me are holding this interview the situation is worsening. During this high season the political instability is jeopardizing the sector. As a result, significant numbers of tour and travel schedules have been canceled. The government has to pay due attention to maintain peace and stability across the country; the path we are taking this time around is not good. The image we have built for a long period of time seems to be ruined, and it might take long to rebuild a destroyed image. Ethiopia is endowed with all types of tourist attractions in all types of seasons; we don’t have to lose the opportunity to unleash the potential in a sustainable manner. So I could say that the Ethiopian government and the people need to make peace as a significant input for all development agenda.
“I think the current chaos and socio-political turmoil in our country will pass. So I’m dreaming of establishing a globally-known huge leather industry that produces uniquely Ethiopian leather products for the international market.”
ABN: What other business do you run?
Zelalem: I haven’t been stuck only with the tourism business. I had to search for another feasible business that is directly or indirectly related to the sector. I have learned that there is a gap in the leather and leather product market in Ethiopia. I have also learnt that Ethiopia’s hides and skins are of superior and good quality to produce leather products that could attract both local and global shoppers.
A good number of foreigners are coming to the country for regional and continental and international conferences and tourism purposes here in the capital, Addis Ababa; these are tourists who could buy quality Ethiopian leather products. Then I decided to get into the leather business. First, we have changed our Tour and Travel bureau nearby Monarch Hotel at Bole into leather showroom. We have begun with only two machines, changing semi-finished leather products to finished leather products, and found it was a feasible and profitable business.
“When the going gets tough the tough get going, that’s what I believe”
We are now mainly producing different superior quality leather jackets, gym bags, travel bags, ladies’ bags, handbags toilet bags, cosmetics bags, various male and female wallets, and other products. Nearly thirty-five professionals are currently working at this unit. We do have three showrooms in the capital, and one at Kuriftu Water Park in Bishoftu, and preparation is underway to open our fifth branch at the new terminal of the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport; every showroom sells products for at least 400 to 500 USD per day. I think our company is making a difference in the quality of the leather products.
ABN: What technologies do you use for your business marketing?
Zelalem: I have been to 27 countries across the world where I had the chance to experience different technologies. This exposure helps me to launch an online reservation, online booking, and online payment system on our website. In addition, we have been the first in Ethiopia to launch a portal website that can be translated into 72 international languages. This technology is a great opportunity to attract various tourists across the globe.
ABN: What’s your vision?
Zelalem: By the way, I usually see light at the end of the tunnel amidst of difficult situation. When the going gets tough the tough get going, that’s what I believe. I think the current chaos and socio-political turmoil in our country will pass. So I’m dreaming of establishing a globally-known huge leather industry that produces uniquely Ethiopian leather products for the international market. Regarding tourism, I want to see a company that makes use of world-class technology and helps the nation’s tourism sector generate a significant amount of foreign currency.