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July 20th, 2009
The Market Maker
Production Diary I: Farming and Filming, Before Sunrise

Sunrise in Buré, Ethiopia

April 24th, 2009
Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Director Hugo Berkeley writes from the field.

At 3:30 a.m. this morning, we were shivering on the side of a desolate road near Buré, a provincial town seven hours north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the country’s fertile Amhara heartland. We had come to film Mekonen Motbaynor, a small-scale grain and fruit farmer who, it turned out, was a very early riser.

We found Mekonen outside his thatched-roof hut, harnessing his plow to two oxen under a dense quilt of stars. This is the beginning of the planting season, when farmers like Mekonen make crucial decisions about how much seed to plant and fertilizer to use for the next harvest. But even though Mekonen and his ancestors have been farming this way for generations, their science is far from perfect. If the rains fail, as they did in 2008, then too much upfront investment can mean financial ruin. Conversely, if the harvest is plentiful, local prices will plummet and Mekonen will sell his crop at a loss. Even though Mekonen works some of the most fertile soil in Eastern Africa, the risks he and other farmers face in bringing their crops to market have played a central role in Ethiopia’s enduring food instability.

In January of this year, Eli Cane and I set out to document the story of the new Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECX), the country’s first modern commodities market, and of its founder, Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin. We’d heard about Eleni from many sources, watched her inspiring video on and finally had had a chance to meet her in New York when she was attending the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2008.

Ethiopia Commodity Exchange founder Eleni Gabre-Madhin

Ethiopia Commodity Exchange founder Eleni Gabre-Madhin

Five minutes with Eleni is more than enough time to understand the force of her charisma and the conviction that lies behind everything she does. As she described her mission to create a fair, transparent system for Ethiopia’s farmers and traders in order to improve food security in her country, we knew that we wanted to be there with our cameras to watch it all unfold.

Our first two-week shoot in Ethiopia was a whirlwind of excitement and activity. The ECX had been operational for eight months and was weathering stormy seas as it entered the coffee business, Ethiopia’s largest source of foreign exchange and a vital cog in the national economy. Eleni and her staff were scrambling to provide enough warehouses, grading centers and technical facilities for the industry, while the unfolding global financial crisis wasn’t doing anything to convert those skeptical of a market-based solution to Ethiopia’s agricultural problems. From our point of view, it was all fantastic — big personalities confronting issues of national importance in front of our cameras — and all we had to do was blend into the wallpaper.

On this second shoot, we focused more on understanding the different constituents in the ECX system; farmers and traders in different parts of the country. After a couple of quick days catching up and planning in Addis, we hit the road in a Land Cruiser. The drive north from Addis is dramatic, especially when you plunge a thousand meters into the Nile gorge and cross the Blue Nile as she flows north to Lake Tana. As we wound our way up and down precipitous slopes, we praised the recently completed road facilitated by Ethiopia’s double-digit economic growth over the last five years.

Mekonen Motbaynor

Director Hugo Berkeley (left) and Producer Eli Cane (right), with Mekonen Motbaynor and his family

Starting your day at 3:30 a.m. means you can fit a lot in before nightfall. Anyway, Buré’s flea-ridden hotel didn’t make for a very restful sleep, so I was happy to be off the mattress and on my feet early. By the early afternoon we had filmed with Mekonen for several hours, interviewed him and accompanied him to his local farmers’ union, where he had discussed his concerns with the union officials who buy his crops. Then it was back in the car and on the road north to Bahir Dar on the banks of Lake Tana, where I am writing from now. The fresh lake breeze and sunset over the islands are a far cry from Buré’s hot, dusty intensity. But I guess it’s good to get acclimatized in stages, as we’re heading into far more inhospitable terrain in the days to come….

  • kokeb

    Great reporting! She truly is our own hero!

  • Henok

    It is beautiful reporting. Thank you Eleni for the feat you are accomplishing. There is much that the old wolves in the west learn from you. You set aside your comfortable life in the USA and preferred to live the way the poor do here in your home country.
    You are simply visionary, committed and self-giving.
    I thnk you

  • Tsega

    Dr. Elleni is Ethiopia’s asset. The Ethiopian Diaspora economists have a lot to learn from Elleni’s dedication to end hunger in Ethiopia. The best way to help Ethiopia is not to run for party election, work to change governments or tarnish Ethiopia’s image by lecturing endlessly about democracy. That has become a boring and monotonous topic, Ethiopians are sick of. I firmly believe Eleni’s approach -to boast Ethiopia’s backward economy by creative and scientific means-is the most imminent one.

  • Mustefa Ahmed Beshir

    Dr. Eleni is simply one of the best scholars the country has ever produced. She is an inspiration to many fellow country men and women in general and to the diaspora scholars, who lay in the silent majority, in particular. She is in the right track and it will not be far when many Ethiopians will follow her foot step. After all it is not the size of the boat but the motion of the ocean that matter most.

  • Yoseph

    Way to go Dr. Eleni and all the staff at the ECX. It takes working together hand in hand and perseverance to be able to tackle a problem that has taken so long to be solved. Because of what you did maybe one day people will say it took some people courageous and selfless enough to solve the problem that Ethiopia has endured for so many years and be thankful that there still are these kind of people out there to care for their country. Thank you and God bless you.

  • Tesfaye

    What Dr. Eleni accomplished has a wider implication than just the marketing and food shortage (hunger) issues in Ethiopia. She proved that if you have the dream, vision, conviction and skills, you can make a difference even in a country like Ethiopia, where tradition, lack of knowledge and most of all male dominated bureaucracy can hamper your dreams with all sorts of barriers. She proved that Ethiopians and their countyry have so much potential to make a difference and overcome poverty and ignorance. Eleni shattered so many backward and discouraging beliefs that no one can make a difference in the current political system or conditions in Ethiopia. Politics is not the only avenue to overcome poverty. There are many ways, if one has the forsight, dedication and passion combined with communications and persuasive skills, which Eleni has.

    God bless you Eleni. You thought us someting big for Ethiopians, especially for the elite in America and elsewhere!

  • Selam

    Thank you, DR. Eleni for your vision and dedication!

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