Ahadu Beza is the owner and General Manager of Abyssinia Ballooning, a new company that adds one more flavor to the Ethiopian tourism industry. He is an Ethiopian Diaspora who lived in Holland for about two decades. Though he is a computer science engineer by profession, his entrepreneurial search for a unique kind of investment led him to create a Ballooning Hotel. Capital’s Pawlos Belete talked with Ahadu about this unique idea.
Capital: Your ballooning hotel is a very creative and original idea. How has the business developed and who are your clients so far?
Ahadu Beza: Right now mainly tourists from Western nations. There are also foreigners who are living here. We have some local clients as well. At the moment, it is an expensive hobby for most Ethiopians to pay USD 200 per person for a flight that lasts an hour or so. Things will change for good in the near future if the current steady economic momentum continues. We have some corporate clients. It is a nice way to build a corporate team spirit. For instance, the management team of the recently established world class hotel, Radisson Blu, has done that. It is a good way to celebrate anniversaries, weddings, birthdays and the like. It is a wonderful experience that leaves a lifetime memory. When you fly with a balloon you will have a birds’ eyes view of objects on the ground. You don’t experience a phobia of heights since you are in touch with gravity. Flying with a balloon is a very safe and interesting experience.
Capital: I know that you have a plan to start a ballooning wedding ceremony. Have you started it?
Ahadu: Yes, we have held one wedding ceremony and we definitely want more. The first bridegroom we served actually did not fly. They get served on the ground. We decorated the baskets with wedding pictures, quotes, flowers, banners and other balloons. And then took their photos and videos. It creates an unforgettable, once in a lifetime moment. We plan to have as many weddings as possible over the skies of Addis.
Capital: Do you offer a special package for those who wish to celebrate their wedding with your company?
Ahadu: Yes, we have a discount package not only for wedding ceremonies but also for a group of people. Currently we are charging about 3,500 birr per person as a promotional price. We offer a 10 percent discount on the promotional price for a group of six and above. We can serve 10 to 12 people at a time. We can carry 900Kg per flight. There is balloon which can carry just one individual. There is also a big balloon which can carry up to 30 people at a time. But the one we are operating with at the moment carries 10 to 12 people at a time.
Capital: How did you come up with the idea of a balloon hotel?
Ahadu Beza: In 2008, I came back to Ethiopia to pay a visit to my family and my country and on that visit I saw many business opportunities here. After I retuned back to Holland, I kept exploring possible areas of investment. My entrepreneurial search for an unexploited business opportunity came to fruition in 2010. Then I decided to move my family to Ethiopia. I am a computer science engineer. I studied for five years in the Netherlands. I have worked as a computer science engineer for about 10 years there. In the first place I was looking to invest in my area of expertise. However, I came to understand that there are many businesses in that area. I changed my mind and convinced myself that I have to start something new. I kept pressing my mind for some kind of innovative business. Then after a while, the idea of a ballooning hotel crossed my mind.
Capital: How has business been so far?
Ahadu: It has been three months since we began operating. Though the company was established in 2011, we started working on February 12, 2012. Since then we have made 13 flights in the skies of Addis Ababa. We have flown from Jan Meda, Addis Ababa University, and some other international schools. Most of the time, we landed in the west of Addis on the road to Ambo. I think we have landed three times in the east cost of Addis Ababa on the way to Debre Birhan around Lega Tafo.
Capital: Can you fly in a circle around the city?
Ahadu: Yes, that is what we are doing. For instance we fly from Jan Meda and then we cross all over Addis, then land somewhere outside of Addis. However, flying 360 degrees is a limitation for a hotel balloon. Since it does not have its own engine, it is the wind that provides direction to the balloon. So, it can only fly to the direction, where the wind takes it. The speed and direction of the wind controls us. We cannot turn to the left or the right like airplanes. We just follow the wind direction and its speed. That is the only thing we can do.
Capital: So, how do you manage air traffic?
Ahadu: Our company operates with professional pilots. In the past 13 successful flights we have made, we brought skilled balloon pilots from the Netherlands and England; two from each country. They decide the accurate height for every flying balloon. In doing so, they communicate with the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority. Air traffic controllers of the authority on the ground direct us. They can’t say go to the right or the left like the airplanes but they can direct us about which altitude we have to fly. So, if an airplane comes on our way, the air traffic controllers tell us which way to go, up or down. Since there is no steering mechanism in the balloon, they help us with the altitude we should take.
Capital: How many balloons does your company operate right now? And how much is the total cost of all the balloons?
Ahadu: We are operating with one balloon now. We have four more to arrive. The second one will arrive in three months. The other three will follow soon after.
My Company is established with an investment of Euro 506 thousand. I think that is approximately equal to 30 million birr. Some portion of the company is funded by the Dutch Government. There is a Private Sector Fund in the Netherlands. So, they granted us 50 percent of the total investment. We have already received Euro 250 thousand from the government of Netherlands. Our business proposal for securing the fund won proposals from 109 countries around the globe.
Capital: How is the return so far? Is it a viable business in relation to the income of the majority of Ethiopians?
Ahadu: At this time we have not made much profit. I started this business not only for the sake of profit but also to introduce it. The hotel ballooning business started in France two hundred years ago. It is a proven business venture around the world. Even in Africa, you can find the ballooning business in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Egypt. All of these African countries have ballooning services. I started it to fill the gaps in the Ethiopian tourism industry as compared to other countries. I took the initiative to realize this innovative idea hoping that sooner or later it will be profitable.
Capital: You also do advertising with the balloon; how much do you charge?
Ahadu: Yes, we provide aerial advertizing. It is a widely used advertisement concept in a developed economy. We provide a 30 meter by 20 meter advertisement space. That is almost equivalent to a 10 storey building flat area. That means the whole building becomes an advertisement billboard. It provides a nice alternative platform for advertisers. Zemen Bank was the first to advertise with us. They are lucky to be the first and the same is true with us. Though we have a four year contract, we charge them yearly. We charge from Euro 15 thousand to 30 thousand per year depending on the size of the balloon. Any company who wishes to advertise with us can contact us.
Capital: Do you provide service in places other than the vicinity of Addis Ababa?
Ahadu: We are planning to cover most tourist destinations of Ethiopia. To mention a few Bahir Dar, Gonder Lalibela, Awassa, and Nech Sar National Park. We have already completed the research needed to launch our service in Bahir Dar. In the medium term we want to fly to any place our clients want to fly. We do so by taking the balloons to the places where the client needs it by truck. We do not fly directly from Addis. Even if it is possible to fly a longer distance by balloons it is very expensive.