Visiting Ethiopia with The Elders

Was honoured to visit Ethiopia recently and join The Elders’ biannual board meeting in Addis Ababa. We got a chance to meet many wonderful people and learn more about their beautiful country, its troubled history and hopefully bright future


Sadly, we lost Kofi Annan since the last board meeting of The Elders, but it was wonderful to welcome his delightful wife Nane on the trip. Mary Robinson has taken on chairing The Elders and did an incredible job in her first meeting in the role, leading with her unique warmth, diligence, compassion and intellect. How exciting to have one of the most respected women in the world leading The Elders.

There are so many problems facing the globe that the meetings were long and intense. Over five very full days, The Elders’ discussion spanned the refugee crisis, nuclear threat, paths to peace in a range of conflict areas, universal healthcare and a host of other issues. The Elders reported on their recent meeting with President Xi in China, and discussed how they could help with conflicts sadly being fought right now. They also talked about the inspiring work of Girls Not Brides, an organisation they initiated in 2011 to help stop child marriage, and talked about ways forward in the climate crisis.

We met with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and praised the government for introducing wide-ranging political reforms, while urging all leaders in the country to uphold the rule of law.

Richard Branson in Ethiopia with The Elders

It was great to see the impact on the ground from many initiatives Virgin Unite supports who are operating in Ethiopia. Virgin Unite incubated the Carbon War Room, which merged with the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), and is working in Ethiopia to help move the country onto clean energy.

Another organisation we support, Sightsavers, is trying to eliminate trachoma, the horrible blindness disease. Meanwhile, the team from the END Fund, which we support through The Audacious Project, are doing sterling work tackling parasitic worms.

The Elders also welcomed the launch in Ethiopia of the Community Health Academy programme pioneered by Last Mile Health, another organisation we support. The programme is partnering with Ministries of Health across the world to help frontline health workers use digital technology to improve their clinical skills and the overall capacity of health systems. The online community health leadership course of the Academy, co-created by Ethiopia and other countries, has already enrolled over 3,700 learners in more than 150 countries.

The Elders, Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s government is making progress in areas such as promoting women’s leadership, with women appointed to half of all Cabinet posts, and committing to delivering free primary healthcare services. As The Elders pointed out, Ethiopia has a critical role to play in helping to resolve regional conflicts and tensions, including in neighbouring Sudan and South Sudan.

We spent a lot of time focusing upon the issue of refugees, travelling to a camp in Gambela in western Ethiopia to meet refugees from South Sudan – more on that soon. As Jean Oelwang, Virgin Unite’s President, said: “The most magic moment of all was watching The Elders greet one another and spend time together – they are a very special group of friends that is acting as a multiplier effect to put wind underneath their wings for all the brilliant work they do in this world.”


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