ERITREA : From a one-woman start-up to a flourishing company

by Mela Ghebremedhin |

On the eve of 2017, I had the pleasure of having a one-to-one conversation with an Eritrean woman who is living proof that hard work and determination pay off. Her name is Terhas Asefaw Berhe, an inspirational entrepreneur who has worked tirelessly to accomplish her dream by founding her own company, Brand Communications, based in London with offices across Africa with the motto ‘building iconic brands in Africa’. In today’s edition, let’s give you a glimpse of our interesting chat.

Welcome to Eritrea Profile. To begin with, can you tell us a little about your childhood …?

Thank you for inviting me today. My name is Terhas. I was born in Asmara and raised there during the Dergue regime until I finished high school. I have mixed memories of that time, ranging from joy to fear. It was a very difficult period, but somehow I still managed to have a good time surrounded by loving family and friends. I do remember a lot of anxiety. For example, key moments in Eritrean history such as the battle of Afabet. Harsh memories and turning points where a lot of my family members disappeared and others joined the struggle. We used to hear a lot of fighter jets overhead as we lived close to the airport. One day in 1988, I remember a phone call telling my mother that my father had been arrested as my parents were actively involved in the liberation struggle within the city. He was held for 48 days at the Mariam Gebi prison. We were listening to Dimtsi Hafash every day and waiting for good news that independence was getting closer. There were a lot of shortages at that time but, still, as a young person I have cherished memories of the good times I had with my loved ones.

Living in exile…

I moved to Canada in 1989 and I lived there for nine years. I continued my studies whilst working in various jobs as a waitress or in finance for different companies. I used to have at least two jobs on the go while studying in Toronto.

As a young person, wherever you find yourself, you have to adapt to your circumstances but what is distressful at the beginning is that you don’t know when you will be able to go back home and so you feel disconnected. Luckily, at that time, there was a strong Eritrean community in Toronto which helped us to feel connected to our homeland. When my father came to visit, I had already had three different jobs within a short space of time and I explained to him that I had just taken on a new job for which I had to wake up at 5 a.m. When he asked me why I had changed jobs, I told him it was because the wage was higher—an increase from $7 to $7.25! He found it difficult to understand, but for me it was about supporting myself during my studies. My father advised me that I should focus on the quality of the job and the experience I could gain in the long term (rather than the financial rewards), alongside studies in management, finance and marketing. I took his advice and from then on I only took on jobs that allowed me to gain professional experience, regardless of salary.

Moving again…

Later I moved to London, UK for personal reasons and it was once more a challenge to adjust to a new home. It wasn’t easy to again feel disconnected from my comfort zone, learning to understand the system, learning to belong in another country and create a new life for myself. I wanted to settle down quickly and it wasn’t easy, but in time I found myself settled there. After a couple of years, I decided to enroll in a Master’s program in Public Relations and Public Communications.

The Strengths of Public Relations…

I had briefly worked for a company called Publicity Group in Canada which introduced me, for the first time, to the world of communications, which is when I realized that this was the line of work that interested me the most. Although I studied finance, I quickly understood the power of advertising, marketing and how systems are communicated and managed; how societies are shaped and influenced; why we adopt certain norms, why we buy certain things. You start to see how leaders and religious institutions use communications. Also, you see how communications tools are key. All those elements interested me and I thought if I could master the tools I could use them to positively market the African continent as my long-term goal.

Nation Branding…

I picked nation branding as my thesis topic focusing on South Africa’s rainbow nation and how the idea of the rainbow nation was developed and implemented. It was interesting. I did an analysis of 90 different publications and 85% of them believed in the failure of South Africa within five years after the end of the apartheid rule. However, the government purposefully worked to reverse this idea of failure through communications by using cohesiveness within communities to establish principles which people could identify with and relate to and to present a strong and articulate vision of the country and its potential. Eventually, when this vision is frequently restated, people will buy into it and will take pride in what they feel part of. The government consistently deployed many tactics to positively sell the South African story. A great deal of investment was made in communication, in promoting a strong, positive image of South Africa and it paid off.

A long journey towards success…

After my dissertation, taking 14 months to focus on nation branding gave me a clear sense of direction as to what I wanted to do. In order to achieve that, first I had to go back to work to earn money and make a living. I set up my own business as a one-man band, renting a small space in an office, sharing a desk with another person. The first year I worked for Borsa Italiana and once the project came to an end I had to look for new clients. I had to finance myself, so for three years it was a struggle as I didn’t have a consistent income. However, I was determined not to be defeated. I had a very clear vision that what I wanted to do was to focus on Africa but I quickly realized that I needed to first master my trade and develop a network of clients and contacts in the UK. Even whilst working within the financial services sector with clients such as Lloyds Bank and HSBC, in the back of my mind I always knew I wanted to work in communications that could advance national economies in Africa. But I understood that first I had to master public communications in order to then be able to work in government communications and so I set up a separate diversity communications company which was the first stepping stone to ultimately reaching my goal through working with large public and private sector clients in the UK.

One of the tactics I used to profile my company was, for example, to approach ITV to produce a programme on multiculturalism and black media, among others. These platforms allowed me to work with the government’s communications section. I developed my network and after three years spent building a portfolio of clients – and as a recognised government communications supplier – I was able to pitch and present my work to big clients and agencies looking to outsource their work. With my passion for my continent and my experience in finance I then felt it was the right time to focus our work on being a specialist agency for marketing and communications related to both finance and Africa.
Today, Brand Communications is a full service agency employing 58 people, we speak 17 different languages and are based in 6 different locations – 40 people in the UK and 18 based in Abidjan, Accra, Cairo, Kigali and Lagos.

Focusing on Africa…

I wanted to focus more on financial services on the continent as I believe finance is a catalyst for development. Consequently I looked at banks which shared the ideals I had and, specifically, Ecobank which had a pan- African vision. Luckily I had the chance to meet them during an event I created and organized in London (Africa Investment and Finance Conference at the London Stock Exchange) and through subsequent discussions and engagements we were invited to pitch for their account. It was a long and stressful process, especially being in competition with huge agencies, but when we presented our work and our big ideas, combined with the fact that we were cost-effective, we were successful in convincing them to award us the contract.

It was a game changer for my company and gave us stability and the ability to focus on Africa. As I wanted to stay concentrated in this continent, I gave up other clients who were outside of this focus.

Communications for development…

Communications is key in achieving development objectives. Sometimes governments don’t understand the importance of communications and its role in helping them to achieve their ultimate development goals. Communication is not a tangible product and is not always easily understood. Effective communications will help to build trusted relationships, to inspire confidence and to educate and inform populations. It helps to shift attitudes and shape societies. It is about clearly articulating the vision of the country in line with the development process.

From your expertise, what should be done in Eritrea in terms of communication and nation branding?

In Eritrea a lot has already been done, but there is still a lot to do. There should be not just one or two programs but many. The perception of Eritrea is problematic and long-standing. It is also becoming more problematic within the diaspora community and once any of our internal stakeholders lose focus in our nation’s vision, it is difficult to channel energy towards a common goal. There should be more PR activities and the government should never give up engaging. I think that continual constructive engagement could change the perception of Eritrea; constant constructive engagement, without being reactive or defensive to any negative perception.

There is more PR effort and engagement in recent years, what are your thoughts on this?

Engagement is always good; there is no such thing as bad engagement. Of course, you may not always get the results you want but that is the same even at an individual level as we don’t live in an ideal world. But having a proactive, dynamic program of engagement is already a good start. A deliberate proactive program of engagement, articulating what’s going on and creating awareness about the organizing principles of the nation, is an absolute necessity.

Your wishes for the New Year…

I wish for peace and stability and an end to the occupation of Eritrean territory – then everything else will be possible: it will be possible to prioritize the economy and to prioritize development. This will in turn influence people to come back to Eritrea and attract inward investment to the country.

You worked hard to become who you are today, any message to others Eritreans out there…

Whatever you do, wherever you are, if study is your aim, if raising a family is your goal, try to be the best you can be in whatever endeavor you choose. You may face challenges but stay focused and face them head on to achieve your aims. There are few problems that cannot be resolved by hard work and by being open minded enough to explore the many things you can do out there. Read a lot if you can as it helps you find yourself. Listen and learn first, I would say, in order to allow you to gather enough information to lead to better outcomes.

Thank you Terhas for such wise advice!

I thank you and Happy New Year to all! Keep doing a good job, Eritrea Profile, and continue to be Eritrea’s communication tool with the outside world. My wish is for the diaspora to constructively engage with the homeland!