Episode 21: Addis Alemayehou – Ethiopia’s Communications & Media Trailblazer

Addis Alemayehou profile pic.png

About Addis Alemayehou

Addis Alemayehou is the founder of 251 Communications, Ethiopia’s leading communications and branding company. He’s also the co-founder of Kana TV, Ethiopia’s first TV station to dub international content into Amharic.

You can connect with him @addisale on Twitter.

Born in Ethiopia, Addis left when he was a child after the socialist Derg came to power. He grew up in Kenya and later moved to the US and Canada for his university studies and work.

But, he always felt restless and out of place in North America. He itched to be where people wouldn’t ask him anymore, “Where are you from?”

Against all advice, he moved to Addis Ababa in 2000, and after working for USAID for many years, he launched his communications and branding company, 251 Communications in 2011. The World Bank, Coca-Cola, and the Gates Foundation are just some of his clients.

“You’re like a kid in a candy store when it comes to business in Ethiopia,” says Addis. Just like that proverbial kid, surrounded by candy, he couldn’t resist the allure of getting into broadcasting. In 2016, he and his co-founders launched Kana TV, which took Ethiopia by storm. Shortly after its launch, Kana TV established itself as a leader in broadcast.

We chatted about how Addis comes up with his business ideas, why spending too much time on research is a bad idea, and why he’s scared of the Kenyans.

Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Addis Alemayehou.

What We Learn from Addis – Every Business Idea Starts with Identifying a Problem

When Addis is coming up with business ideas, he always started with identifying a problem. He advises newcomers to Addis Ababa to walk around with a notepad for three weeks and jot down unavailable services or products or issues or problems. At the end, you’ll have 30 to 40 business ideas.

Addis’ Actionable Tips

  1. Observe. Leave behind whatever you've learned in North America. You can't compare Ethiopia to Washington DC or LA. Observe and learn as much as you can. Don't jump into any business that you see because there are so many opportunities in Ethiopia and people get carried away trying to do everything.
  2. Don’t focus on a sector that doesn’t have a clear policy framework decided by the government. Spend your energy somewhere else and come back to that later. If not, you’ll get frustrated.
  3. Spend as much time with people who are smarter than you, more educated than you or have more resources than you. You always have to be around people that are doing better than you in order to learn.

Addis’ Top Quotes

•    “For me, it's very simple. In everything you do, you can have the best idea in the world, but if you don't have the right partners and people that will take the same risk with you and see your vision, you won’t move forward. For the Moby Group, during their first visit to Ethiopia, they got it. It’s not every day that people come to Ethiopia and say, ‘I'm going to do this.’ For these guys, it was a slum dunk. They saw the potential. They saw the vision and they were willing to invest in it.”

•    “And I think the third one will be Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. I read it every five years or so just to give myself that energy. If somebody can spend that much time in such a hard place and still come out that positive…Whenever I have those long, really nasty, bad days, I always refer back to that book and say you know what? My life is not that bad.”

•    “I mean everybody talks about Kenya as an innovation hub in Africa. I mean when Ethiopia wakes up, you have no idea what's coming out of this country. I am so optimistic. “

Addis’ Links  

•    251 Communications

•    Kana TV

•    Yegna ad campaign for Difid-funded “Girl Effect” project

•    Vodacom's Arada Mobile platform for Ethiopians living in South Africa

Addis’ Mentions

Key Timestamps

  • Addis’ multicultural upbringing [3:55]
  • Why he left USAID to be an entrepreneur [5:10]

  • 251 Communications [6:19]

  • His current projects [7:48]

  • Some of his past ad campaigns tailored for the Ethiopian market [9:57]

  • Origins of Kana TV [13:18]

  • The importance of picking a strategic business partner [15:40]

  • Developing local content for Kana TV [17:32]

  • Why a business idea starts with identifying a problem [19:49]

  • His advice for diaspora Ethiopians who want to start a business in Ethiopia [20:54]

  • Addis’ biggest failure – and what he learned about it that still guides him today [22:14]

  • Why he’s scared of the Kenyans [24:56]

  • What he wished he had known before becoming an entrepreneur [26:32]

  • His most influential mentor [29:25]

  • Where he’d go on a 1-year sabbatical to improve his business [30:01]

  • How he’d invest a $1bn in Sub-Saharan Africa [32:33]

  • The books that left an impression on him [33:06]

  • His one piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs [33:45]