Interview with Caleb Meakins
By Anatoli Bulti, November 01, 2019
For many, aspiring young entrepreneurs in Addis Ababa and beyond, Caleb Meakins is not a stranger. From his wildly popular YouTube campaigns to the Mella Monthly, an event featuring prominent business personalities, to Bake and Brew a cozy restaurant/work hub providing a co-working space for upcoming and established entrepreneurs alike, Caleb’s name is behind many inspiring projects. As Mella Monthly approaches the eve of its second year anniversary, LinkUp Addis’s Anatoli sat with Caleb for an inspiring interview about his journey. Enjoy the read.
As an introduction, tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Caleb Meakins; I am half Ethiopian, half British. I grew up in Ethiopia until I was about 9 years old. I grew up in Ethiopia but those years were very formative and really planted something in me to want to return. I did my education in the UK, studied civil engineering and did masters, primarily to please my mom and make her proud than anything else, I didn’t enjoy it. But it taught me a lot; I found out I was passionate about business and entrepreneurship and within that media and content creation.
How did you get started with social activism and social media campaigning?
When I realized I wanted to go into business, I launched a project called My 40 Days. The idea was that over the period of lent I would do 40 challenges that people thought were impossible, to overcome my fear of failure and inspire others who had a similar fear. On one of the trips, I came back to Ethiopia and one of the challenges from my cousin was to learn eskista on the streets. That video did 10 times better than all the other videos produced in the series. It has almost 2 million views now.
Following that, we started a media company with the idea to create media and content that moves people. Through that, we ran a program called Mella which is about fueling entrepreneurship. We showcase and profile business leaders as they share their stories, the highs, and the lows. There weren’t a lot of people putting themselves forward to tell their stories, at least not their failures if at all their successes. Mella hopes to fill a gap where we inspire and equip people around entrepreneurship by telling these stories.
So what drives your Entrepreneurship?
I would say social impact and transformation. The drive for me is to look back on my life and say “I left it in a better place than I found it”. I believe in the power of business to add dignity, create jobs and value. When business is done well, it has a huge potential, especially in our country where jobs and innovation are needed. What technology can do to transform lives is huge, and we have to step away from the fear-based mentality towards new innovation and actually leverage, utilize and shape it to benefit our society.
What are the challenges that you have faced as an entrepreneur in Ethiopia?
I am naturally very optimistic. I think there are always going to be challenges, but on the flip side that is where opportunities come in and the chance to make a difference arises. I think in the current system of working, big challenges include bureaucracy around middle management. We are at the stage where there is a real desire the top level of government for the private sector to grow and be healthy, but as you go down, it is not necessarily the same on day-to-day bases.
Why did you decide to start a restaurant and how did Bake and Brew come to be?
Coffee was one of the things that jumped out to me while working on renewable energy. So I started studying the farm side trying to understand the systems that go on behind the production of great coffee. And I visited my sister who was studying in South Africa at the time, and I just sat in these amazing coffee shops thinking that Ethiopia is the home of coffee, and you only have a handful of spaces where you can pull out your laptop, have Wi-Fi, really feel at home and work. So, I transitioned my thinking towards the retail and the coffee shop experience. And with a friend, we raised the cash and also did crowdfunding to bring other people along the journey. We wanted it to be a place that hosts events with a working space upstairs. Around coffee, a lot of amazing things happen; community is cultivated, ideas are born, and it is a place to relax and get re-envisioned. Food compliments coffee; we have healthy varieties of that.
How did the idea of starting Mella come about?
After university, I was very much interested in investing in Ethiopia but I found that there were very little information and access to knowing what was going on the ground and who to speak to. When I came back I learned that there is a lot of talent but they are not connected to capital and information. So the idea was on a macro level how do we inspire entrepreneurship as opposed to micro-level workshops which is what organizations are trying to do. And that was how Mella was born.
What was the reasoning behind making the talks available online for free?
A kid could be sitting at Hawassa University in his bedroom unsure of what he wanted to do, watch a video and go on and start the next catering company or a girl in DC studying medicine with no plans of coming back suddenly goes “I can actually contribute to the health care sector in Ethiopia when I finish university”. That is the power that media has; that someone so far away with no intention of coming back can engage with what you are doing and think about coming back. What Media does is amplify the reach of these stories.
So what is next for Bake and Brew, for Mella and aside from these projects what other things do you have planned?
This October was our 24 episode of Mella, and we had our 2nd anniversary at Hyatt Regency. Two years in, we are now pausing the monthly event until we bring on new partners and supporters. We are going to move to a quarterly event until we raise sufficient funds to do it monthly. And then we are going to put it on television with the content that we already have.
Earlier you talked about failure and how you launched my 40 days challenge to help you overcome the fears that you have, what do you think the place of failure and fear is in business?
The biggest thing that would stop someone pursuing their dreams is fear of failure. I think it can also be an indicator of whatever that you are doing having some level of value. It can be a driver but I would say more than anything it is the ability to overcome the fear that is key. When it comes to fear of failure there are few things that I found to be helpful one is “two seconds of insane courage is all you need to do anything”; the second thing was to ask yourself “what is the worst that could happen?”; third is to visualize success, if the goal is not inspiring enough, then is it worth chasing? Fourth, for me, is to pray. I believe there is power in prayer and five is to practice this routine. For me, these five tools are the keys to overcoming the fear of failure.
What do you think people could do with the media to reach the same goals that you have been able to achieve?
It thinks it is about storytelling, you can have the best equipment and if you are a terrible storyteller then it doesn’t matter. You can have your phone camera and be the best storyteller, it changes peoples’ lives. Everything has storytelling and the best tellers will capture parts of society.
Out of the videos that you have made which one would you recommend to a person who has never watched your videos before?
I think one I really enjoyed was to be a redat (minibus taxi assistant). It captured the humanity of the culture, from the young guy working so hard at his job teaching me how to do it in such a great way to the customers coming in and engaging in conversations around culture and food. And it was funny because I was terrible at it. I really enjoyed making that video because of the aspects of the culture that it touched on.