Eleni Gabre-Madhin, an Ethiopian economist and a former Chief Executive Officer of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX) and CEO of Eleni LLC is our WCW. She has had many years of experience working on agricultural markets – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. The turning point in Eleni’s life was the drought in Ethiopia in 1984 that led to the death of more than 400,000 people.  She says these deaths were a result of failure of people in the North from accessing the food in the South of Ethiopia, where there was a surplus.

The question of how to make African farmers access the power of innovation and entrepreneurship has been at the back of Eleni’s mind.  She spent more than 15 years travelling around the continent to carry out research on the agricultural markets.

“[I] have interviewed traders in 10 to 15 countries in this continent, hundreds of traders — trying to understand what went wrong with our market reform. And it seems to me that the reforms might have thrown the baby out with the bath water,” she said in her TED Talk in 2007.

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The economist, who has lived in different countries in the world and has worked in various international organisation including the World Bank, went back to Ethiopia after 30 years overseas. That was when she established the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange, a platform where farmers can trade.  She made the platform unique, which makes her a trendsetter. 

Eleni talks about the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange with Helen Clark, head of the UNDP. Photo: Wiki cc

“We’ll do something which I think no exchange in the world has ever done, which is itself to operate something like an Internet cafe in the rural areas. So that farmers and small traders can actually come to a terminal center — what we call the remote access terminal centers — and actually, without having to buy a computer or figure out how to dial up or any of those things, simply see the trading that’s happening on the Addis Ababa trading floor,” she said.

Eleni believes that a Pan African exchange can only be successful if countries establish a national commodity exchange. To achieve this, she encouraged the alignment of the financial sector and great political will.

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Her contribution to the agricultural sector in Ethiopia and other countries saw her named Devex’s Top 5 Global Women of Impact on Development; Wharton Business School’s Africa Top Pioneer Women and Entrepreneur; Newsweek’s 125 Global Women and Impact and New Africa’s 100 Most Influential Africans.

Eleni has also won awards including the 2012 Yara Prize, African Banker Icon and Ethiopian Person of the Year award 2009.