Lina Kelifa moved back to her homeland, Ethiopia, after spending over a decade in London working as an event manager and interior designer. She established a new company here in Addis and named it Lime Events and Design, where she is the event manager and interior designer. Capital’s Aderajew Asfaw talked to Lina, who pursued Interior Design and Event Management at the KLC Design School about her work and her future plan.
CAPITAL: The concept of event management and interior design, in the modern sense, is quite new in Ethiopia. What is it really?
Lina Kelifa: Growing up, I clearly remember when family members were always lending a loving and helping hand to organize large social events such as weddings, graduations, farewell parties, etc. Even businesses were normally a family affair where relatives chipped in to get the business off the ground and running.
So the concept of using professionals in many businesses in Ethiopia, I will dare say, is recent. When it comes to the service industry, such as interior design or event management, it is even more foreign to our country. I would say it’s only since the advent of the likes of Flawless Events, a company which is involved in organizing conference and corporate events, that things started to actually happen. Now, I believe, things are changing for the better and people are beginning to understand and utilize such companies to help them organize big events. Our economy is developing; therefore our country is also growing in strength and stature. With such prosperity comes the recognition that time has becomemore valuable. Family members that used to help out before are not so readily available these days as they have other pressing engagements to attend to. Life has become quite competitive and you have to adapt to a changing world. So naturally, with the strengthening of the economy, people are starting to realize the value of using professional event management companies for their specific needs. Currently, there is more and more demand for our services, especially in the last two years. It’s really unbelievable, I have to say.
CAPITAL: What is the significance of recruiting event organizers or outsourcing all the necessary tasks you need to get done to specific or specialized businesses?
Lina: First of all, you are outsourcing or handing it over to a company who knows what it is doing, because it is focused on this particular area and has experts who can understand what is required and deliver it with minimal headache to you as the host of the event. There isn’t a lot of room for mistakes in such cases; therefore, it takes the headache away from organizing huge events and gives that particular event the professionalism it requires. You can come up with grand ideas and have great concepts, but if it is not executed properly, all will be lost in translation. The benefit of an event management company is in helping you realize your objectives, whether in the design or in the content of the event. It could be as simple as picking up guests from a certain location, coordinating the running order of the event on all sides, and delivering what is needed professionally and on time. CAPITAL: Wouldn’t companies think it’s foolish to throw away money on such things while they can do it in-house?
Lina: Yes, it is doable in-house. But how effective is it? I don’t think it is very effective or efficient. You would have to start from scratch and establish a department in the organization, which may not have enough personnel with the experience, contacts and database of suppliers needed to execute big events without creating a huge gap in the day-to-day running of their business. It can be done, but it will be costly and time consuming. When I was in London and the first economic crisis occurred, I remember we were a small-scale event management company. The really big companies in the business started to edge out small companies like ours because the market was shrinking. Big international organizations also started cutting down on outsourcing and started using in-house teams. But the thing is, in the end it was more costly and less efficient as well as time consuming.
CAPITAL: Which events were your company involved in recently?
Lina: To start with the most recent, we [Lime] organized two events in Dubai. Both events were the launching of products with many VIP guests. The first event was the launch of a German anti-aging/skin care product that was held at the Galleries Lafayette, while the other event was the launch of a unique furniture brand interior360, by Soliton Holding, a company with varied business interests including a special interest in art and culture. Soliton deals with state-of-the-art modern furniture available to all, but especially focused on the Middle Eastern market. The warehouse where the event took place also serves as a gallery for up-and-coming artists to display their paintings and sculptures. The guest of honour present at the inauguration was His Highness Sheik Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, of the UAE.
Most of our notable event design work was done for international events managed by Flawless Events, such as Google, African Leadership Network (ALN), and the World Economic Forum. Designing the space for the Google event was a beautiful experience and a great challenge since it called for an out of the box approach, especially for a country like Ethiopia, where resources are limited. However, the event in both organization and design turned out to be one of the best they have had in Africa, according to the hosts.
For the African Leadership Network (ALN) events held at the Sheraton Addis, we designed the cocktail space, introducing a new approach to corporate cocktail events. Again, another great experience with Flawless Events was designing and executing the gala dinner of the World Economic Forum in Addis – we pulled off a world class event with a creative and unique way of promoting Ethiopia in one space.
Our company, Lime, has had the honor of managing high profile events such as the farewell to the management team of the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange (ECX) event at the Millennium Hall, which involved about 1500 guests, in less than a week. We also designed and executed the Coca-Cola conference for its sales and distributors at the Hilton, which was a wonderful design experience. What you find in all our work is the need to turn an idea around in a very short period of time – so a lot of adrenaline rush as you work around-the-clock to make your clients’ vision a reality.
CAPITAL: What do you think are the requirements to be a good event organizer?
Lina: I think, like everything else, experience is really important. When I took lessons in International Business and Event Management at the university I went to, experience was placed high up on the scale. Experience teaches you the practical side of being organized, how to focus on health, safety and security issues, how to be resourceful, among other things. But that’s just a start. I can only say experience can turn one into a very good event manager and organizer, because every event is a wonderful and unique affair. Every event has a distinctive content, renders one to a different kind of pressure, and has a different timeline. So in time, you become a very strong and resourceful event manager. Personally, I have in one way or another, been involved with over 300 events.
CAPITAL: What was your main reason for returning to your homeland?
Lina: Well, I am an Ethiopian. I left for a good reason: education. From a very young age, I had an entrepreneurial spirit, so I worked here before embarking to London, and I also knew I could work in Ethiopia in the future and do well. So for me, the reason I went to Europe was to equip myself with more power [knowledge, skill and money] and return to use it here. Well, it takes one many years to do this. The experience I had in the events industry and interior design is something you can’t put a price on. It is amazing and fascinating in equal parts. London is for me the Mecca of culture: one of the most prominent cities in the world for the industry. You might not be able to gain such experience anywhere else than in cities like London, New York, or Tokyo or other similar places. I came here to take a break, for a holiday, and for the first time in a very long time, something clicked. I felt I was ready to move back and use all these experiences I had accumulated and make a difference. I had always had a special feeling and love for my country; somehow, I knew that it was the right time for me to return and make a living here and contribute what I can, which I also believe is important. It was just a perfect time.
CAPITAL: Many say that doing business in Ethiopia is very difficult. What challenges did you come across so far?
Lina: First of all, people have to understand that this is a growing market and the future is very promising. Even though we are all looking forward to the time when it will develop to the level we see elsewhere, we have to understand that it has not yet reached the level of a mature market, which cannot happen overnight. This is not the UK; nor is it Germany or Spain. So you can’t really make any comparison. But all these opportunities are starting to appear. The necessary infrastructure might not be in place or are not strong enough or big enough for the time being. People have to be flexible enough to understand this. Our expectations need to have proportions and have to be managed.
For example, in what I do, in event organizing and in interior design, the toughest thing I had to deal with, which also made me very creative, is the lack of raw materials. The workmanship is available. There are so many people who, for instance, skillfully use bamboo to accomplish so many things. There are a lot of people with the necessary artistic skills who just need guidance. Raw materials are scarce. The variety is scarce. So not being able to find these things makes your life a lot harder and also, as I said, makes you very creative.
So we might not be able to find fitting raw materials or sometimes the price is not competitive, but it makes you creative; it makes you think outside the box and how to use what’s available to the best possible advantage and outcome. And the more I applied myself, the more creative my team and I became.
CAPITAL: What are your future plans?
Lina: There’s so much to be done in Addis. Catering for the current demand is enough to occupy us for years and creating entertaining or educational events for the general public is something else we have in mind. We want to do this in collaboration with known brands, communication companies, individuals, NGOs or educational bodies.
Surprisingly though, we are seeing that other African countries these days are looking for world class services and have started to outsource within Africa. Through our strong working relationship with Flawless Events, both of our companies are now looking into expanding regionally for possible events in Rwanda, Ghana, Mauritius – we shall see what the outcome will be!
I am also planning to set up my own company in Dubai, UAE, where there are a lot of opportunities. The close proximity to Addis also gives me the freedom to go back and forth. I would also really like to work in neighboring countries like Kenya, Sudan, etc. That would be where I’ll be focusing on next; to go and explore and see if I could organize events there. The two events I did in Dubai have provided me with very good exposure, where I found the facilities to be somewhat like London’s.
Our aim is to develop our resources, come up with fresh ideas for events that we want to do here in Ethiopia and become an event company that also caters for the rest of Africa from here.
CAPITAL: What would be your parting words?
Lina: The cost of using professionals to do a specific job should be considered as part of your marketing and operation cost. It is not a waste of money as it has return on your investment!
In my field, you are actually throwing money away by not organizing events properly, when you have the opportunity in the arena to impress and to communicate the necessary information to your end users, and you don’t. You are bound to spend money when organizing any event, but what have the end users gone home with? The question ‘Has it really been effective?’ will remain. I have recently witnessed, when the target audience at certain events was leaving while the event was still in full swing; some apparently felt that it was a waste of time.
So, I really urge people to employ such companies to help them organize events they are planning to hold because it is efficient and economical rather than the reverse. The world is changing, our market is changing, and we are becoming more competitive, not only locally, but internationally.
The same holds true for interior design. Interior design in the modern sense is a much more recent occurrence here in our country. But people quickly are starting to realize the benefits of it. In a nutshell, an excellent interior design is as good as the architectural side of it. You can’t just get up and say I will build this building. You need a professional architect who is capable of taking your ideas and actually laying it out on paper exactly like you want it. I believe the same goes for interior design. If you worked so hard in making the whole structure architecturally sound and beautiful, whatever is on the outside needs to be complemented on the inside as well. So an interior designer normally gets involved at an early stage of the construction work alongside the architect. My final point, hence, is that people should not shy away without trying out professionals. They are free to pass judgment after that.