When the London cabbie driving me to Paddington on Sunday asked where I was going and I replied that I was headed to Ethiopia, he said 'What's it like there now, is everyone still starving?' Perceptions, it seems, aren't easy to erase.
It's my third visit to Ethiopia. I flew on British Airways from London to Nairobi and on to Addis on Ethiopian Airways - voted Africa's top airline in 2011. My work takes me across Africa and I would agree. This was a far easier than my previous trip here in late 2002, an exhausting 48 hours to reach Addis from West Africa with stops in Paris, Frankfurt and Cairo. That journey today would be a direct five-hour flight.
As a social entrepreneur and a fellow of the Schwab Foundation of the World Economic Forum, I'm here to attend the first Africa Regional Forum to be held in Ethiopia. This year's theme is suitably Shaping Africa's Transformation. And transforming it is. Whirlwinds of change are gusting across the continent and will be reflected in our conversations - trade, growth, political stability, economic policies, the green revolution, business models, and investment, amongst others. Africa continues to face seemingly insurmountable challenges, yet words like optimism, opportunity and innovation are more likely to be heard than poverty, famine and aid. Africans are discovering African solutions.
A decade ago I couldn't buy a local sim card and had to use my South African GSM cellphone to make a call. There were only 17,000 mobile phone owners; now there are an estimated 6.5 million subscribers. Today, instead of paying roaming charges, I bought a sim card from MTN Ethiopia. In 2002 I paid $1 per minute for a dial-up Internet connection. In my hotel now, it's free and fast. Although still less than 6% of Ethiopians have Internet access, an hour online averages 18-30 birr (the local currency), or roughly between $1-2 at an Addis cyber cafe.
I'm excited to be here not only to see the immense changes that have taken place, but also to catch up with my Schwab Foundation network. There are 19 social entrepreneurs attending the Forum. What they achieve is always a source of inspiration. It's my ninth Africa World Economic Forum and I'm eager to see how this one compares to the others I've attended in Maputo, Dar es Salaam and Cape Town.
With any luck, events like this and new images from Ethiopia will help to reshape my taxi driver's perception of this complex, historic, diverse and culturally rich nation.