Don’t Judge My Bajaj

By Temitayo Ifafore-Calfee

I never thought of myself as a social impact professional. I worked in all sorts of jobs from cafeteria worker to director of hospital operations. I even spent a few weeks, cleaning university bathrooms and dormitory rooms in the summers after classes ended. I have been a university-level women’s health teaching instructor and the owner of a taxi service. I had experiences that were inspiring, as well as days when I wondered if my efforts made a difference.

I unintentionally started my first social venture when I was 25. I lived in Ethiopia and worked for a prominent American health foundation. My idea was a simple one. I needed access to a mode of transportation to quickly, cheaply and efficiently get me around my city in northern Ethiopia. My options were limited. I could hire a car as a taxi (expensive and not easily available). There were donkeys (inexpensive, unreliable, and slow). I could purchase a car (prohibitively expensive as cars were subject to huge import taxes that tripled the price of the vehicle). Finally, there were minivans that went town to town, but not across the city. The solution came in the form of a Bajaj, a three-wheel motorcycle imported from India. I purchased the Bajaj as soon as it was sold in the city where I lived. To offset the cost, and to address the fact that I did not know how to drive a motorcycle, I leased the Bajaj to a local driver. I discounted the monthly fee in exchange for free rides whenever I needed. Born out of a need for transportation, I became the owner of a taxi service and an employer.

Out of the challenges of owning a taxi business in Ethiopia I learned the following 4 lessons on starting a social venture in another country.

1. Be respectful of local culture

When you’re starting a venture in another country, you have to be mindful of cultural rules. In Ethiopia, any assets a woman owned belonged to her husband. This was the case culturally, and legally. The Bajaj seller refused to sell me the vehicle, unless I provided a notarized letter from the United States embassy stating that I was not married, and therefore not using my husband’s money. I felt insulted by the request and nearly walked out of the shop. Instead, I asked more questions. I found out that I would not need a letter if I partnered with an Ethiopian to buy the Bajaj. That is what I did. Working with cultural norms and not against them pays off.

2. Hire staff that are excited about entrepreneurship

Starting a social venture is risky. You need to work with people that are excited, and motivated about entrepreneurship. When I purchased the Bajaj, I had no business plan, and no intention of creating jobs. Gebreselassie (Gebre), the man I partnered with, wanted to be the first driver. He felt excited to be a part of taxi service. A jack of all trades, he fixed broken spark plugs and repaired flat tires. He recommended upgrades to the Bajaj and came up with ideas to multipurpose the Bajaj when business was slow. His enthusiasm helped me realize that the Bajaj could provide more than transportation. It provided an opportunity for Gebre to care for his aging parents.

3. Sometimes you will feel guilty

When working in other countries, the difference between the resources you have and what others have is stark. You will feel bad. I spent $3,000 US dollars to buy the taxi. To put that cost in context, in the years that I lived there, the average Ethiopian earned around $255 per year. The amount I paid for the Bajaj was just about the amount the hospital paid its top plastic surgeon. I felt guilty that I was leasing the Bajaj to Gebre and requiring him pay me a fixed amount. I felt uncomfortable that I made 10 times as much as a doctor. However, several Ethiopians told me that they did not want handouts. They were frustrated with development organizations that came to give stuff away, without truly investing in building local infrastructure. From then, I realized I wanted my taxi business to thrive and create jobs locally.

4. Ventures don’t always grow

If you’re running a social impact enterprise, you may find that it starts well, then flounders. Or sometimes it does not affect as many people as you hoped. In my case, I found that my business model was difficult to make a profit in the timeframe I thought. I did not anticipate paying for repairs in the first year of the taxi service. Many of the roads in the city were unpaved. They caused dents, and destroyed several tires and clutches. I was not prepared for decreased revenues when more three-wheeled taxis saturated the city. Finally, I could not anticipate the moment when I would have to leave the country suddenly, for good.

This venture taught me a lot about the importance of trusting local wisdom. The best solutions often came from local stakeholders. I learned that at the heart of social impact is the ability to look at what can be done, and deciding to do whatever is within your sphere of influence to change things. After all, if you don’t build your own dream, someone will do it for you.

Temitayo “Temi” Ifafore-Calfee is a Health Workforce Technical Advisor with USAID’s Global Health Bureau. Temi received her Master Degree in Public Health from the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a BA in Socio-Cultural Anthropology from Yale University. Temi is fluent in Spanish, has working knowledge of Brazilian Portuguese, is learning French and enough Amharic to not get lost in Addis Ababa.