Cleaning up Ethiopia -- One Car at a Time

For many years, Ethiopia was the poster child for futility. Hip deep in the mire of cross-generational poverty, the eastern African nation never could find the kind of traction that was allowing so many of its sub-Saharan neighbors to find a foothold toward progress. My visits there as an aid worker throughout the 1990s elicited bouts of frustration and exasperation, and I was not alone in wondering if Ethiopia was even capable of help.

So much has changed in 20 years. The Millennium Development Goals have helped the country make meaningful progress across the board, and Ethiopia is on track toward meeting all eight MDGs, from eradicating extreme hunger and poverty to improving maternal health to reducing child mortality. Primary school enrollments have quadrupled, and the number of people with access to clean water has more than doubled.

The country's own set of goals is accelerating progress on the economic front. Agricultural production is on pace to double, which would ensure food security in Ethiopia for the first time, while industrial output is increasing production of textiles, leather products, cement and sugar. Major infrastructure improvements abound. The miles of roads within the country are expected to increase by 30 percent by 2015, and close to 1,500 miles of new railway lines are under construction. With the building of new energy plants, the number of people with access to electricity will likely double by the end of next year.

Perhaps the greatest transformation within Ethiopia, however, has been its spirit, an attitude of achievement that is instilling a sense that better tomorrows are ahead. With that spirit has come a new mindset - not just an optimistic one, but one focused on ideas and innovation. At ChildFund, we have been witness to that kind of entrepreneurial spirit firsthand. In Gulele, a sub-city of the capital, Addis Ababa, a group of 20 young people have started a car wash. It's an enterprise that grew out of one of our youth development programs, and with around 350,000 cars in Addis, their undertaking should not lack for customers.

Startups like this are critically important in developing nations on many levels, but particularly for their capacity to drive self-sufficiency. Our investment in these young entrepreneurs - leveraging just a modest amount of seed money and some training - has created an ongoing source of income for them and their families. Within countries where there are few if any large centers of employment, especially for those with a limited education, enterprising ventures like the car wash have ripple effects throughout the economy.

But that's not the end of the story.

Applying another part of the training they received, in reproductive health, the business has turned into a kind of social enterprise, one that focuses on educating their clientele about HIV/AIDS. Ethiopia has a particularly large population living with AIDS - about 800,000 people, along with some 1 million AIDS orphans - and the car wash has become a center for information and resources about AIDS. The youth working at the car wash not only distribute educational leaflets and posters that provide information about safe choices and the risks of HIV/AIDS to the 40 to 50 vehicles they service each day, but they also give out condoms to their customers. While much of the stigma associated with AIDS has dissipated over time, education and safe-sex practices must be communicated in a vigilant way, and the car wash is doing exactly that.

It's hard not to think of the car wash in Gulele as a fitting metaphor for the transformation that has taken place in Ethiopia over the past two decades. The spirit of innovation, propelled by the knowledge that tangible progress is reaching unprecedented levels, has literally and figuratively helped Ethiopia clean up its act. It's heartening to think about where the country will go from here.