Planting the Seeds of Change: the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange

authorsGilbert Probst and Lea Stadtler, University of Geneva, discuss their award-winning case based on the inspiring story of social entrepreneur Eleni Gabre-Madhin who founded the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange and realised her dream of revolutionising Ethiopian agriculture and achieving the impossible.

By the end of 2002, 14 million people in Ethiopia were facing starvation and Dr Gabre-Madhin’s vision for change was an idea whose time had come. The case, written in close collaboration with Dr Gabre-Madhin, explores the numerous challenges she had to overcome to establish a transparent and efficient commodity exchange in Ethiopia, including deep distrust among many stakeholders and the need to balance public and private interests. It explores new models in which the public and private sectors can work together to address important societal challenges relating to issues such as poverty, health, education, and water.

A new approach

planting the seeds

We think there is a need for good cases that do not involve the mere contracting out of public services or responsibilities, but instead describe new models that combine the private sector’s innovative and efficiency-oriented approaches with the public sector’s legitimacy, power and oversight rights. We also wanted the case to be about an approach that is comprehensive, replicable and proven to work on a large scale.

Balancing public and private interests

We think that this case highlights the importance of achieving social value while ensuring commercial viability. The hybrid model that Eleni and her team developed requires a constant balancing between public and private interests.

A rich learning experience

The case engages students because it is open to interpretation and rich in topics, including the advantages and risks of public-private partnerships; the individual skills required to promote advocacy and lead social change; and strategies to deal with resistance. Students can identify with Eleni due to the hands-on insights she provides and there are many online video clips that show the case in context. It is particularly suited to interactive teaching methods; following testing of the case, we were encouraged to use even more interactive teaching tools such as small group discussions and role plays to allow for different opinions, focus points and personal conclusions.

The art of the impossible…

The case can be taught as part of a master’s degree in management or political affairs, an MBA course, an elective MBA and in executive education classes dealing with change management, social and public entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships, development, and leadership.

It can also be used in working groups and courses dealing with the position of women; the challenges faced by developing countries; infrastructure development; transitional management; succession planning; and the art of achieving what seems impossible.

Advice for case writers

A great and rich story is the backbone of a case. However, this also has its flip side as you can get lost in its many fascinating details. It’s helpful to define the teaching areas early on and keep them in mind when writing the case. This helped us choose the most important insights in relation to the teaching purpose.

At best, you work on the case and the teaching note in parallel to ensure coherence between the documents. Moreover, we like using several quotes from interviews, video excerpts or newspapers to spice up the story. It’s helpful to choose a case where you have excellent access to the key actors and/or the organisation has attracted much media attention. 

Case details

Click on the case title to view further details and, where available, an inspection copy.
Planting the Seeds of Change: the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange

Gilbert Probst and Lea Stadtler
University of Geneva 
Ref 813-009-1
Also available:
Teaching note

Ref 813-009-8

The case won the ‘Best of the Best’ category in the 2012 EFMD Case Writing Competition.

About the authors

Gilbert Probst is Professor and Co-Director of the MBA program, University of Geneva, Switzerland; Managing Director of the World Economic Forum, Switzerland; and Dean of the World Economic Forum’s Global Leadership Fellows Programme.

Lea Stadtler is a Research Fellow at the Geneva PPP Research Center, University of Geneva, Switzerland.


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