The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Lecture - Wednesday 23rd February 2011
Potential for Economic growth in Ethiopia, particularly in the Tourism Sector
Given by - Nick Crane
Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan
Nick Crane is a very remarkable man. He is an entrepreneur and a man of vision. He takes setbacks (and there are many) on the chin and carries on until his objective is accomplished. His personal experience more than qualifies him to give wider judgement on the ails and travails of Ethiopia - as well as its potential for growth and success - all of which was discussed.
First, the personal experience. A love of mountains attracted Nick to Ethiopia and especially the Simiens, for over 30 years a World Heritage Site and now, an Ethiopian National Park. Together with an Ethiopian partner, Ato Fantu Gola, he has set up Simien Lodge. The lodge was constructed with deep devotion to eco-principles: close cooperation with the Simien National Park Authority and close attention to local customs.
The Simien Lodge is billed as the highest hotel in Africa at 3260 metres (10,600 ft). It is located 22 km from the town of Debark, which is approximately a quarter of the way along the road from Gondar to Axum.
160 people presented themselves for job selection once the spot for lodge construction had been decided. Nick first established that only those who sent their children to school would be offered work; then, he determined that 25% would be female. He left it to the seven woreda (local area) leaders to make the final selection. No-one could, or did, complain.
A Mitsubishi truck was bought to carry stone. Quarrying is forbidden. Stone literally had to be picked up and carted to the site. The Ethiopians, Nick told us, are excellent natural stonemasons - with the castles of not-too-far-away Gondar to prove it.
The Lodge comprises 20 bedrooms in individual buildings which reflect the local 'rondavel' (tukul) style. At its hub is a restaurant / bar. The restaurant is serviced by a Swiss manufactured kitchen (only the best will do) delivered, at enormous cost, via Dubai. Bedrooms are designed as two half-moons to effect bathroom privacy. Everything has been thought of.
Ethiopians are also skilled roofers. Nick's builders had no trouble in meeting a corrugated roof design insulated by fibre-glass with lightning conductors shielding property from the incredible storms to which the Simiens are prone.
Having said this, there is no shortage of sun. Average temperatures are 13 to 18 degrees enough to make solar heating the obvious option. Solar generated hot water flows under each room raising room temperature by 2 to 3 degrees. With night-time temperatures of zero, under-floor heating is a mercy.
Investment has been colossal. We weren't told precisely how much. But, given the site's sheer height and remoteness, huge sums have been expended to achieve excellence.
Ethiopian Authorities, it seems, are not always appreciative. Ethiopian Customs charge huge tariffs, oblivious to any consideration that items are needed to bolster their own tourist industry. Items are held up in Customs for interminable periods. Small mindedness often seems to rule the day. On the other hand, there is financial inventiveness. The Ethiopians have developed a 'tax machine' whereby transactions are recorded, at the moment of accomplishment, direct to the Finance Ministry in Addis. An Ethiopian tax audit is therefore just a question of agreeing additions. This would be an innovation for our own British Customs, Excise and VAT Authority.
For all its apparent difficulties, Simien Lodge is profitable and successful. The key lies in providing the sophisticated traveller with home comforts and familiar cuisine in an unfamiliar environment. For this, the traveller is well prepared to pay the price. The formula works - and it works, well.
Nick elaborated the attractions of Simien Lodge. To do so, he showed us a clip from a film by Chad Hunter. Chad Hunter did his PhD in the Simiens and has worked for the BBC. First of all, we saw Gelada baboons. Gelada baboons - never very far from the lodge - have been shown to have as many as forty vocalisations. Humans are beginning to understand for the first time how sophisticated their society really is.
Equally sophisticated are their attacks on crops. Young boys, armed with walky-talkies, are permanently engaged in warding off the marauding hoard.
More rare is the Simien wolf. Only 80 are thought to be alive in the locality. The long snouted red coated wolf lives on rats. The packs, such as they are, are victims of canine distemper and rabies. Equally rare are walia ibex holding out in one small area. Once present leopard and hyena are now thought to be extinct from the Simien.
Remote as they are, the Simiens nonetheless evidence wide human habitation. In this day and age, the population is even burgeoning. Perhaps this accounts for Nick's view that the Park eco-system is not in balance. Those trying to make it so are, one feels, fighting a losing battle.
"Somebody wrote off half our fixed-asset register" - the commercial and rather original way Nick referred to a fire at the beginning of February, just three weeks before this talk. Every entrepreneur does his or her best to assuage 'the human factor'. As often or not grudges are held against fellow workers. But they are taken out on the employer. In the case of the fire, arbitrary arrests, it seems, were made. The guards were imprisoned. Nick found himself fielding a 15,000 birr bail bill.
With all of this, the Simien Lodge enterprise is designed to help the locals. The whole local community benefits to the tune of 2.5% of the total turnover. In addition, tourists are encouraged to donate. They do: tourists have funded 80 school benches, costing £15:00 each. A thousand cooking stoves have been commissioned from a UK company in Cheshire. These are awarded to Ethiopians who can show they have planted twenty five trees.
Support is given to the Fred Hollows Foundation. The Fred Hollows Foundation works throughout the 'third' world on cataracts and trachoma - rife in rural Ethiopia. Getting the local eye-doctor to go the extra mile to Debark is conditional, it seems, on an extra-fat pay cheque. Four hospital theatres in Debark hospital are lying empty. An eye microscope costing 20,000 euros donated by Strasbourg Rotary Club is wasting in Gondar. No-one has time or capability to install it in Debark.
Ethiopia is on the threshold of a tourist boom. If it can only change its image as a 'land of war and famine', its possibilities are limitless. Tourist revenue is fast approaching that of Ethiopia's main export, coffee. Coffee exports are at $350 million per annum. The Ethiopian tourist industry, Nick thinks, would do well to cater for lower volume and be more up-market.
Nick himself told us that he alone had seen forty tour operators in the last few months. He is, he says, a great believer in the importance of nice pictures in neat catalogues. To this end, he has published Boutique Ethiopia - top lodges, hotels and imaginative entrepreneurs. The hard-backed brochure is full of superb photographs of a dozen lodges, only one of which is his own - Simien Lodge. Copies were on the table free for us to take. Boutique Ethiopia has been published entirely at Nick's expense. It gives, on the face of it, enormous publicity to the competition. But as Nick Crane says, every dollar spent with them could be a ticket to a dollar spent with me, and vice versa. These are the words of a man of vision and of generosity of spirit. Ethiopia is fortunate to have him backing her, as we were, to have him address us.
The message has got to be: 'Good Luck. You deserve every penny'.
Further information on the Simien Lodge can be found on the website: www.simiens.com