Henok Assefa: Ethiopian entrepreneur on the rise

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By Samuel Getachew

At the CEOs Forum inside Hilton Addis where business executives, heads of government institutions, and investors gathered to hear from Finance and Economic Cooperation Minister Abraham Tekeste (PhD), it was Henok Assefa, the architect of the gathering who attracted the most attention.

After all, he is the man Tedros Adhanom (PhD), one time noted Ethiopian health minister and now director general of the World Health Organization calls “the most undervalued brilliant entrepreneur” in the country. He has been making headway since he returned to Ethiopia a decade-and-a-half ago with little resources and big dreams. He was quickly being noticed for his entrepreneurship passion. “(He is) a highly polished and business astute person that has the ability to understand the local business dynamics,” Fasil Yilma the country director of Dow Chemical said. “That is coupled with his attempts to make it work for everyone.”

Passion for entrepreneurship

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He has been making headway since he returned to Ethiopia a decade-and-a-half ago with little resources and big dreams. He was quickly noticed for his passion for entrepreneurship. “(He is) a highly polished and business astute person that has the ability to understand the local business dynamics,” Fasil Yilma the country director of Dow Chemical said. “That is coupled with his attempts to make it work for everyone.”

Articulate, collected and informed, at the CEO forum, he was engaging and inspired the minister to reflect on a slew of topics. He often spoke in sound bites like an aspiring politician.   “Please network,” he said throughout the programme. It was his talent for networking that helped him win friends and favours when he first moved back to Ethiopia.

“I left in 1991, when the nation was preoccupied with a slew of difficulties, including conflicts and war,” he said.  “I did not want to leave the country; I was the last among my eight siblings to depart.”

The CEO gathering was no ordinary day for him and his colleagues as they marked a milestone, the 10th anniversary of PRECISE Consult, a firm he started a decade ago from scratch. It is currently rumoured that he is in negotiations to sell it to a well-known American company.

Ambitious and determined

From his initial years, when he returned to Ethiopia, after living in the United States for “an eon”, many remember him as a passionate and engaged young leader, who was a volunteer board member of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce, as well as the American Chamber of Commerce in Ethiopia. He was ambitious and determined, according to many of his colleagues.

He was said to want to break from conventional wisdom, unlike those who wanted to find refuge in established international companies instead of starting an institution of their own. PRECISE Consult became his vehicle – a hub for business and economic development in the country. Equipped with the realisation of the American dream, a graduate degree from Fordham University, he wanted to work towards his own dreams, not somebody else’s.

He would venture abroad to the United States and help attract foreign investment to Ethiopia.

Many responded while a small segment of the Ethiopian diaspora protested, as they saw such an investment as a political endorsement. He appeared in blogs and articles and he was denounced and insulted. Nevertheless, he was determined; believing investment, not aid, was the absolute best solution to the nation’s pressing problems.

Bridging the information gap for investors

“Henok has done a fabulous job of bridging the information gap for investors, Levi Girma, a partner with Transsion, said. “Especially in the diaspora.” He wanted to engage the diaspora more than any other and help move the nation forward as an economic powerhouse, not a destination for charitable gestures. The late Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, became his early supporter and appeared at one of his investment forums gathering in the capital during the World Economic Forum on Africa.

Inside his spacious office at the top of a landmark building in Bole with the PRECISE signature designed by Asseged Gessesse, a noted creative director and a longtime friend, placed perfectly behind him, he opened up on reasons why he remains optimistic about the future of Ethiopia.

With an Apple laptop, answering emails, tweeting and talking at all the same time and a collection of coffee mugs from Jupiter Hotel and Guinness on his table, he seemed like a man on the move.

Beyond his PRECISE business, he has plenty of business interests, shopping centers in Bulbula and a nearly completed second hub at CMC, a supermarket, interest in the agriculture and food processing business, he seemed more content when talking about the mentorship he has offered, the opportunities he gave others find their footing in the hot Ethiopian market rather than answer the rumors that are…..well rumors.

Strategic engagements benefited Ethiopian economy

Henok has been involved in hundreds of strategic engagements with investors, helping move the Ethiopian economy closer to an industrialised nation. He was one of the architects of the Ethiopian Climate Innovation Center, a clean tech incubator that was funded by the World Bank and the agribusiness Incubator funded by USAID. “That helped many and connected thousands of local farmers to be engaged to the international market,” he said.

The proud father of two is also proud of the team he built at PRECISE. The team seems to value and appreciate his efforts to be a hands-on manager. “Henok is an excellent manager and leader. He has a unique approach to leadership, which is very humanistic and addressing of problems. He always encourages and empowers his colleagues to become leaders especially the young people,” Hailemelekot Asfaw, senior program director at PRECISE said.

“Henok without question is positive about Ethiopia and loves his country,” Addis Alemayehou of 251 Communications reflected. “He was and has always been focused on private sector development in Ethiopia and has played a valuable role in linking government with the private sector and finding middle ground on key issues facing the (local) economy.”

Henok once told the New York-based online Ethiopian-American magazine TADIAS, how being an athlete gave him a good stable foundation to be successful. “It taught me so much about discipline and teamwork,” he said. “Athletic scholarship actually got me through college and graduate schools.”

Lucky for him, it also helped him transition to a powerful voice in Ethiopia’s progression as a middle-income nation in the years to come.

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