A Conversation with Semere Fekadu – Leading Change in Ethiopia

Feb 2, 2024

At Addis Jemari, our mission to empower the vulnerable and end generational poverty is driven by remarkable individuals — the local leaders who make this work happen every day in Ethiopia. 

They are the people who are most effective at implementing impactful solutions to the problems faced by the people in their communities.

Among them is Semere Fekadu, whose nickname is “Sima” (pronounced “Simma”). 

Sima is an integral part of the history of Addis Jemari — serving as co-founder and Country Director. Born in Addis Ababa, he holds a Master’s in Urban and Industrial Sociology from Addis Ababa University and a BA in Sociology and Anthropology from Mizan-Tepi University, Ethiopia.

Sima’s involvement in working with orphaned and vulnerable children and in family empowerment-related programs is close to his heart. 

Two US board members, Karen Latta and Yolanda Castillo, recently sat down with him on our latest trip to Ethiopia to gain insight into his life, motivations, and the difference Addis Jemari makes through his leadership. 

Karen and Yolanda: Can you tell us about your family, friends, and personal interests?

Sima: My family is my highest value. I love my family. I live with my parents. Culturally, you have to take care of your parents, and that is what I’m doing currently. I love to spend time with my friends, talking about ideas we have. I like to watch documentaries and read, too. 

Karen and Yolanda: Can you tell us about your background and how you started working with Addis Jemari?

Sima: I’ve been working in childcare programs since high school. So, that inspired me to pursue social studies. After university, I served in director roles with other NGOs. I gained much knowledge in working with orphaned and vulnerable children, as well as their families. I met Cindy through a mutual friend. After that, I worked on a technical and program proposal and helped Addis Jemari obtain an NGO license in Ethiopia. Since I joined the team, AJ has become my family. 

Karen and Yolanda: What does a typical day look like for you at Addis Jemari

Sima: My days are spent working with people and beneficiaries. I like interacting with them as human beings. So, I’m always totally invested in them, although it has a toll on me. It’s hard, but it also energizes me. I have a routine at the office, but I have to be flexible if challenges come up. My schedule varies – meetings, coordinating the Family Empowerment Program (FEP), and planning. 

Karen and Yolanda: What changes have you seen since working at AJ?

Sima: A lot has changed! When we started, it was only me, a guard, a housemother, and a cook. Now we have around twenty staff members. So, we’ve grown a lot. It has been growing consistently in terms of beneficiaries as well. So much has changed with new staff and aligning our programs. Because there were not many of us, we had to do different jobs. Having new staff has allowed me to focus on my primary role responsibilities and has given me time to plan dynamically, reassessing what’s working and what the gaps are. 

Karen and Yolanda: What do you find most rewarding about your work?

Sima: AJ is like a family to me. The personal connection with the beneficiaries and the staff is what I value most. 

Karen and Yolanda: How do you see your role impacting the community

Sima: I believe my impact is inspiring others. I come from a difficult background, and my values have changed in that I want people to grow and get inspired to work hard. My biggest contribution is to inspire our program beneficiaries and the staff to do better for themselves, to succeed, and to help them have a happy, fulfilling life.

Karen and Yolanda: Can you share a memorable moment from your time at AJ?

Sima: There are so many; this is very hard. When we first started with our first two girls at AJ Home, their goal was to finish high school and go in the direction of starting their own business. But after having a few conversions, they started dreaming that they could achieve going to a university. So, they only needed a little push. That was a big highlight for me because, after just a few months, they were talking about going to study in college. Watching them realize they could dream of going to university and seeing them work towards it was amazing. 

Karen and Yolanda: What challenges do you face, and how do you overcome them?

Sima: Externally, it’s hard to plan things because the government wants you to adjust to their demands and policy changes swiftly. So, balancing the demands of the stakeholders, including the government, is often challenging. Internally, we have administrative and program challenges. Sometimes, people don’t understand what an NGO is, and that some of the money needs to be invested in the administration of the programs. 

Karen and Yolanda: Are there any books/quotes/scriptures that inspire you in your leadership journey?

Sima: There is one thing that changed the trajectory of my life. When I was working as a social worker ten years ago, I was so tired, and it was draining. So, I almost gave up. But one day, I saw this man walking, and the back of his shirt said, “The best way you can find yourself is to give yourself to serve others.” 

Karen and Yolanda: What do you wish people knew about Ethiopia?

Sima: Our history, because the past always determines who we are and helps plan our future, even when we are in a challenging social and economic situation, Ethiopians are very kind people, even in the midst of atrocities.  

Karen and Yolanda: Is there anything more you want to share related to our work? 

Sima: AJ is always a work in progress. The US and this Side (Ethiopia) are one and the same, and I really appreciate what the US side does. We always welcome and appreciate not just the material and financial support but also the perspective from the US side. I always appreciate the support from the US and the volunteers coming here to serve. They really come here to serve, not to be served or be a burden, as we see in some similar organizations. 

Over the years, Sima has become a dear friend. We have learned so much from him and his leadership. He has been a vital part of expanding AJ’s mission in Ethiopia. 

Your support makes it possible for him to lead our programs on the ground, and his dedication highlights the importance of local leadership in driving sustainable change. Through his eyes, we see the challenges and joys of working toward a better future for Ethiopia.

Thank you, Sima, for your dedication and vision.

Together, we are making a lasting impact.