Enterprising social agenda
Since 2015, Farah Ramza Golant has held the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) position at Girl Effect, a creative social enterprise launched by Nike Foundation, United Nations Foundation and other multiple partners 12 years ago. Girl Effect aims to create programs to empower adolescent girls living in poverty, working through multimedia, safe spaces, mobile and interactive technology. Having a global portfolio of 48 million people in 60 countries, Girl Effect is also active in Ethiopia since 2013 by establishing Yegna, a brand through which five girls try to disrupt the cycle of poverty and empower girls in Ethiopia. Yegna is an all-woman (five) Ethiopian acting and pop group with the stated aim of reaching out to empower the young women of Ethiopia. Golant, who has 28 years of business experience in the creative industries, joined Girl Effect to impact lives for the better. She served as CEO of All3media, leading the strategic sale of the company for its private equity owners, Permira, for enterprise value of USD 930 million. Among others, her role in the former British Prime Minister David Cameroon’s Business Advisory Group, from 2013 to 2015, and as business ambassador for the Creative Industries of Britain are the most notable ones. She also served on the advisory board of the Cambridge Judge Business School and the Aldo Group. In 2011, she was awarded a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) and was named as Business Woman of the year in 2010 Asian Women of Achievement Awards. As part of her portfolio, she was in town to deal with some strategic partners. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter caught up with Golant to learn more about the fate of Yegna which saw it funding from DFID cut after intense negative campaign in UK press. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Let’s talk about Yegna. Since 2013, the program has remained very active in advocating about girls’ empowerment and has been contributed to mainstreaming girls’ issues such as awareness about early marriage and the like. What can be said about its current existence and its role?
Farha Ramzan Golant: Yegna is now five years old and it was created in Ethiopia for Ethiopia by Ethiopians from Ethiopians. With 70 percent of the country’s population under the age of 30, the rise of media, mobile, popular programing, television and radio programs are taking a special place among the Ethiopian youth. Yegna is a brand that could speak their language and identify with their reality giving them the tools to express themselves. It was born before my time as a CEO. Yegna was started in Addis but eventually went out to the Amhara Regional State. It’s an innovation and there is a genuine investment that we have made in Ethiopia knowing that there is a rising youth and with that an on-going transformation and challenge. The youth wants to participate in the story of the rising and modern Ethiopia.
Hence, Yegna was born and nurtured. Through that journey we had great partners but then Yegna has come to the end of its first cycle. It is very rooted in the power of music and in the power of television, radio drama and in the power of talk shows, platforms which encourage interaction. Over five years, we have learnt a lot. We grew and when the cycle end, it became clear that Yegna had critical mass. It’s an asset. Hence, there is now enough capacity and critical mass for us to invest in. In the second stage, we want to make Yegna national. We have already reached just under 10 million people in Addis and Amhara. That ten percent penetration of out of the 100 million population is a remarkable achievement and we want to take it to the national level. We are looking for likeminded partners to come in. During the second cycle, we want to take Yegna further to reach more girls and boys; we want families to listen to the show together so that parents and children discuss about the issues.
Before we go into the details, may I ask how you monitor the activities of Yegna since they air their programs in local language? How do you see the impacts of the programs?
I had 28 years of experience in the private sector. I come from media, mobile, television and the first thing you want to measure in these sectors is of course the level of awareness, your engagement WITH audience and the participation levels. We do national representative surveys. We also do field monitoring activities using very sophisticated tools. Hence, one part of that monitoring has got to do with the evaluation of how many people are aware. We also look into how many people are listening, how many of them are coming to the clubs, and how many people are actually talking about it in schools.
We call the whole package an audience participation level. Once we have measured that, we will go to the impact indicators. We measure four things in general. Have we shifted knowledge? Have we filled the knowledge gap? These are some of the things we concentrate on. Change in the attitudes is the second measurement. Then we track and model changes in behavior. We invest a lot of money in that. We don’t do that alone and we have many development partners. We have the likes of Global Alliance for Vaccine (GAVI). They even measure people who know Yegna, understand Yegna and the participation level at schools. Hence, the measurement is very strong. So far, it gives us confidence to say that the intervention has become a program that is unlocking rising youth generation.
You are telling me a very interesting story but, unfortunately, DFID has decided to withdraw its funding to Yegna last year. Clearly your enthusiasms were not shared by DFID. What went wrong?
I couldn’t speak for DFID. But, I am happy to have on the record the absolute truth. DFID was an early stage partner. They came in and invested along side us. It was an innovation; it was something that we needed to know, back then. What I am prepared to say is that as DFID went through in its own cycle and on its own prioritization, the leadership’s priorities appeared to have shifted. They felt they had played their part; and they had.
In fact, as the relationship was concluding, it gave us the window to reinvent ourselves. Thus, from that negativity, we were able to see what Yegna was now; what has it become and where does it go next. As in our book, I can say in absolute confidence that Yegna has got stronger, bigger and it’s here for the long term; yet we also seek partners who are interested in media, mobile and who are interested in the audience. It was a terrific relationship we had with DFID and it concluded.
DFID stated that it has invested around five million pounds in Yegna and what they have said was that they are no more interested to invest. You have been in the circles of the former Prime Minister David Cameroon and you must have known what has transpired. Why would they, all of the sudden, withdraw resources from Yegna?
What can I say to you except I can’t speak for DFID? I can only speak for Girl Effect and our belief in the asset. I can say to you that the data is there for anyone to examine. DFID themselves did a project completion report and published an “A” rating for Yegna by their own system and process. What more I can say except that they looked at the opportunities and I have no idea how they make their decision? It’s not my job. I think the ratings speak for themselves.
The philosophy that is guiding Yegna is also a bit different, I think. There are five girls whom some people refer to as the “Spice Girls of Ethiopia”. They have been the voice and the face of your programs. How did select this model and become convinced that the girls would spread the intended message to the need audience and represent the brand across the country?
We leveraged a lot of global expertise. We have the experience of multiple markets where we have done something similar. We have a youth brand in Rwanda. We have another in Malawi. We have in Ethiopia and we have a very strong work in Nigeria. We work in South Africa, Indonesia and in Philippines. The first thing we did when we invested in Yegna was that we included our global muscle behind us. Don’t get me wrong, it is very local and very rooted in Ethiopian culture, but it also firmly draws from our global muscle from Girl Effect.
The program is 15 years old with a lot of experience in the field. It works with 150 partners in 90 countries way before my time. Originally, Girl Effect was founded by Nike Foundation and other multiple partners. They wanted to do something disruptive and different. That is what gave us the confidence to come to this idea. It was a version of the idea we have in Rwanda before Ethiopia. It works on how to libertate girls, how you give them instruments and how to use drama and talk shows to that end. We have done some work in Rwanda. Then in Ethiopia, the idea was reborn literally with the five girls. We did enormous research. We came into the country and we listened and learned and many insights have been uncovered. But, one of the key drivers of girls who felt the limits that needed to be lifted was the sense of the power of friendship and the harmful effects of isolation.
Friendship can create so much support. You learn from each other. You share each other’s stories. You create support networks for each other. That was very deep. Of course, there are issues in education and safety but it just kept coming back to the power of friendship. The group created here does something that is really uniquely Ethiopian though music. In the lyrics of one of the songs (Abet) it created the voice of Ethiopian and African girls about migration. We know that they create music. Each girl conforms to a well-known understanding. Each girl is a role model and typology. One is slightly city oriented. One is very rural and one is very hipster. Hence, the drama brings very strong characters together and they make music.
In the drama they create situations which make the audience identify with story and feel like they are understood; it makes audience say that it is “my dilemma and that’s my reality”. The identification of issues is incredibly strong. Through time, we have refined the idea and the power of music went far and beyond Addis Ababa and Amhara region. The idea is based around friendship. Solidarity and sharing resources in order to rise.
Tell me how involving the girls make a difference in peoples’ lives, especially, in the lives of those targeted boys and girls and? Do you think everybody is convinced with the idea?
I would never be arrogant enough to say that everybody is convinced. But, I would say that we have observed a very high engagement. Everywhere we go, not only our audience but others as well gives us feedbacks; but you can see the power of it because it feels like it is tapping into something that is very relevant. This brand as it talks to the audiences, it’s relevant. It’s entertaining, educational and gives you a sense of solidarity. Most brands in the world, would cut off their arms to have that kind of power. It’s not actually my job to convince people because this is an Ethiopian phenomenon. Whether they convinced or not this phenomenon is growing. Whether you say “I really believe in this thing” or not it’s growing and there is engagement. Another way to look at it would be to in terms of attracting a handful of other partners. For instance, I was with Ethiopian Airlines and the fact that Yegna was uniquely invited to the first all women operated journey from Addis to Bangkok to perform on that event shows you that it is a brand that spoke about the empowerment of girls. Does it convince people? Well Ethiopian Airlines wanted it to be part of their brand. Sometimes, the brand is judged by the company you keep.
For instance, the last January, the African Union Commission invited Yegna to perform not only to represent Ethiopia as a national asset but to represent the voice of African girls. Hence, if you are looking for indicators of magnetic appeal, a professional private sector player such as the Ethiopian Airlines or the African Union or big global development player, GAVI, have invested and said we have got something special happening. Yegna is creating traction with the youth. I guess these people are convinced.
How do you compare the works of Yegna with peers in Rwanda or else? Are they performing well and to your expectations?
Globally, my job is strategically look at the whole area where our investment capital is going, to empower the owners of Yegna, Girl Effect Ethiopia, to give them strategic guidance but they are free to make their brand. What I see across the portfolio is that we have a template that works; but how it is expressed in each country has to be very different. Yegna is very foundational with music. Where as in Rwanda yes, they do have music but the thing very important there is magazine. It is like we have a little playbook and people can draw from that playbook what works.
Hence, it’s very hard to make apples and oranges sort of comparisons. At the global scale, I look at how much capital we are allocating, how much awareness and what is the cost per each and what is the deep impact we are seeing. We create a global toolkit and brands such as Yegna. Yegna is very unique and there is a special role in our portfolio which is going to scale rapidly. We are also working in India and in the Philippines and Indonesia. But I am excited about Ethiopia because more things are coming together. We have critical mass and our brand is ready. We have partners who will help us to sustain for long term. There is an appetite now.
How do you value Yegna as an asset? How much money do you spend on it per year?
In some commercial companies which I run many, I have a product and a profit and alongside profit, socially conscious companies also have a purpose. Apart from profit and growth to your shareholders, you have to deliver on social agenda. This is the flip. We have a purpose here but we are using a private sector discipline of media, data, technology and branding to build something. The valuation of Yegna as an asset I think will be very interesting thing to look at.
How do you evaluate it through commercial landscape or do you evaluate it as an asset as the voice it gives to boys and girls or the return on impact rather than return on investment? How do you evaluate it as an asset? It is a very interesting question to look at but what I think is that Yegna is priceless and it’s going to be the biggest youth brand in Ethiopia. Today, we have 10 percent market penetration but can you imagine if we are going to have a 50 percent penetration then you will be evaluating it differently when that happens.
But I hope you can mention how much you spend on Yegna annually?
Some of it is in cash and some of it is in kind. Some of the resources are coming through partnerships where the burden of payment is reduced because we barter. I can’t put a monetary value on it at this point in time. But we have to learn from our funding that how much of it is in cash and in kind or sponsorships. It’s difficult to put monetary value to it but if you ask me in a year, I would give you a more modeled answer to that.
The girls have grown now to be in their early and mid-20s. What awaits them in the future?
We have very exciting development about that; but I can’t tell you right now. We have a very exciting evolution coming. What we are going to do with the girls is going to be amazing. Every brand in a commercial sense needs to go though evolution. It needs to find a new version of itself. We have been working on that for the best part of the past six month. What I can say to you is that we have an exciting plan that will surprise you.