Eleni Gabre-Madhin is a woman with a dream. The charaismatic Ethiopian economist wants to end hunger in her famine-plagued country. but rather than relying on foreign aid or new agricultural technologyl, hers is a truly radical plan. She designed the nation's first commodities exchange, which she hopes will revolutionize an age-old market system whose inefficiencies have been partly responsible for the country's food shortages. The Market Maker explores her attempts to write a new African story.
On April 24th, 2008, Gabre-Madhin rang the opening bell in the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange (ECX), a national grain trading platform that could revolutionize ordinary farmers' way of doing business by allowing them to sell on a national market and manage their business according to current and future grain prices. The idea was that a more efficient market would ensure that grain was available when there was a demand for it, helping to ensure that Ethiopians wouldn't go hungry simply because they couldn't access their own food supply. Gabre-Madhin was focusing hard on the plight of small farmers like Ato Mekonen who live in Ethiopia's breadbasket region, Amharaland. Each year farmers in Amharaland produce more than enough wheat, corn, and other grains to feed the entire nation. Ato Mekonen is typical of the county%u2019s millions of small-scale farmers, he is blessed with fertile land and has an entrepreneurial attitude towards farming, yet his business is crippled by the risks of the country%u2019s volatile markets. When farmers have a good year, the local prices plummet, and farmers are often forced to leave their grain in the fields to rot. It is Gabre-Madhin%u2019s dream to create a stable and transparent national market to link up farmers like Ato Mekonen with buyers all over the country, creating a more lucrative existence for him at the same time that she bolsters the country%u2019s defences against famine. Inaugurating the ECX was a monumental accomplishment, but nothing could have prepared Gabre-Madhin and her colleagues for what happened next. As they were diligently scaling up activities, conducting membership drives, and ensuring the integrity of their systems, the world financial crisis struck, severely crippling the ECX%u2019s nascent progress. It did so not because of grain, but because of Ethiopia%u2019s most important export crop: coffee. Ethiopia is one of the world%u2019s more important exporters of high-grade coffee. Exported earnings from coffee drove double-digit economic growth in recent years. But the trade suffers from inefficiencies and a lack of transparency. And the global economic downturn significantly reduced demand for coffee. In the face of this crisis, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi made a dramatic announcement: in order to resuscitate the ailing coffee industry and to eliminate corruption, he ordered that all coffee was to be traded exclusively on the ECX effective immediately. Gabre-Madhin had always thought that one day the Exchange would handle coffee, but never this quickly and with such overwhelming volume. Gabre-Madhin designed the ECX to solve crippling grain supply problems in Ethiopia, and now the coffee industry threatens to appropriate the platform to suit its own agenda. But, despite her trepidation, Gabre-Madhin is critically aware that failure on coffee will mean failure for the entire project.