Death is shocking, but the untimely death of a friend is more shocking. I had the opportunity to meet Mohammed Bedru, when he opened his cafe at the Chase Tower, where I was located for the previous ten years as an investment analyst for JPMorgan Chase. In the early 1990′s it was rare to see any black person, especially an Ethiopian to get a lease, let alone open business in Downtown, at that in the most expensive and prime real estate in Downtown, the Chase Tower. The Chase tower, in the center of Downtown was one of the most expensive and tallest buildings in the Southwest with its 75 stories.
My most excitement was seeing an Ethiopian own a business. In my Office, the buzz was that an Ethiopian, who is a friend of Dula owns the cafe and everybody wanted to fraternize Mohammed’s business. Instead of associating Ethiopians with famine and hunger, now Mohammed, the quintessential entrepreneur, was the face of Ethiopia. You cannot imagine, how proud I was. My excitement also emanates from my belief that all Ethiopians, if possible all black people focus owning their own business instead of looking for a J.O.B. So when I was confronted with early retirement from Chase about 12 years ago, I said I want to be an entrepreneur like Mohammed instead of looking for a job.
I used to deploy any chance or excuse to stop at his cafe. His place became home away from home. Mohammed really became like a brother and friend, despite badgering him with politics more often than he cared to. Whenever I uttered a political statement, he used to advise me with the following ( Amharic) “Politicawon titeh lidichohen Asadig.” His advise still resonates. In hindsight, I wish I listened to his wise advise, it could have saved some headaches and some grey hair. This advise was repeated whether I visited him in Downtown or other stores.
Some people described Mohammed as towering figure physically, he was a towering figure intellectually too. His thought process and advise to those who paid attention was profound. In hindsight I regret for not paying attention to what he was saying, as it resonated now, even after many years.
When I started working in Downtown in 80′s there were hardly any black owned businesses and blacks were not employed in any important positions as far as the financial industry was concerned. I used to get in trouble with management when I asked how come there were not black employees. One of my bosses flatly told me that he hired me thinking I was an Indian, because Indians were not supposed to be concerned about racial inequity.
Freedom Fighter: Some of his friends described him also as fearless during his formative years as a freedom fighter against Woyanes and the Derg. He saw danger when others cannot, and in one of these occasions, he was able to save many of his colleagues lives, by taking the necessary and bold action and getting wounded in the process.
So when Mohammed opened his shop in the mid 1990s, I was elated and super impressed. I just did not think they would lease such a prime real estate to a Blackman. Some of my colleagues used to come and tell me in a very surprised manner if I knew the Ethiopian who owned the shop in the Tunnel. Of course, I used to give an affirmative. I encouraged everyone in my department to use his service for their birthdays and other occasions.
What was great was his entrepreneurial spirit which I admired the most. As a former teacher, I emphasized this important concept to my students. When Mohammed closed his shops and moved to Ethiopia, he carried the same spirit and to make a difference and to be a pioneer.
Untimely death: Mohammed and I were the same age. My kids just gave me surprise party a day before his memorial. The big question is why Mohammed passed away and I am still alive. My contention is if Mohammed was still living in the U. S., he may had better chance to live longer and survived whatever the situation. The untimely death is hard to fathom.
It is clear that it is very difficult to do business in developing countries, especially in Ethiopia where corruption is meshed with tribalism and ethnic hegemony. Mohammed was working on his second business trying to employ close to 30 Ethiopians, but government and local cadres were pestering him constantly for bribe and how much he should charge for coffee and other products despite the fact that the other coffee shops were exempted from VAT tax (a rate of 15% for every taxable transaction) , because they were friends of the tax assessor or were giving bribes. As Mohammed did not want to join the corruption racket and did not want to give bribes, he was constantly harassed and put under tremendous pressure. The Woyanes did not succeed to kill him in the battle field in the 70′s, but did their corrupt and difficult business environment has anything do with his untimely death. We will never find out.
The pressure of working in Ethiopia is huge. The corruption and the threat of government cadres to deny your liberty and property is massive or always in the back of your mind, unless you are a Woyane or a top cadre in the system. The threat for bribery or denial to operate are huge factors in causing one to be under a tremendous pressure.
After investing a huge amount of capital and time, Mohammed was about to give up. At 64, it would have looked a huge burden to start all over again in the U.S. or become part of the corrupt system in Ethiopia. Mohammed escaped imminent threat or war with Woyanes in the 70′s and saved many lives while wounded in the process, but the current pressure may have been too hard to bear.
When Mohammed decided to go to Ethiopia, he told me briefly about it and he asked me to put his house on the market. Of course, I told him my own story of going to Africa to start a business and how I found it too complicated and corrupt. After closing his business in Houston, he saw an opportunity to make a difference in Ethiopia. He carried with his own entrepreneurial spirit that made him successful in Houston. He thought he can duplicate it in Ethiopia without too much hassle.
However, I shared with him my own experience. After the fall of the Apartheid regime, I went to Kenya and S. Africa to open an investment or a brokerage firm. My experience was negative. I found it too bureaucratic and I came to the conclusion that there was no place like the USA to run a business because of its transparency, legal and banking system and a huge middle class which is an economic powerhouse on its own.
Mohammed was very independent minded. When I sent him some email that were critical of the regime, he used to correct me, of course, he was not afraid to read my critical email about the regime. Some people in Ethiopia don’t.
Mohammed knew things will be difficult, but not that difficult or that fatal. In one of his email, he said, “As the investment talk no country is better than US. It is always sweet home US. Try to compare apple to apple. Yes, if you can invest and has the capacity do it there no doubt about it. But, here too if you have the knowledge and the money place the tolerance, you can do it too. But it is from different prospective. It matters why you come here. If it is for money you are going to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. ” He added, “I am going to open cafe’ and bakery. It will be in Welayta Sodo. I might finish the remodeling in the next one or two months. I will have close to 30 employee’s hopefully. I will post it when it is completed.” That was in December, 2011.
Mohammed went to Ethiopia to make a difference and to pursue his entrepreneurial spirit. His dreams may have been cut short, but Mohammed will be remembered as a serial entrepreneur, a straight shooter, and a very Wiseman to those who dared to know him. He used to look out for others, as he did for me by telling me “”Politicawon titeh lidichohen Asadig”. I will forever cherish his friendship, entrepreneurial spirit, great advise and love of country.