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Focusing on Food

Khalid Bomba ’89 leads effort to transform Ethiopia’s agriculture sector

Ethiopia in the late 1970s was wracked by drought, famine, and civil war. Hunger was used as a weapon. Among the hundreds of thousands of the Ethiopian diaspora who fled the embattled nation in the Horn of Africa was Khalid Bomba ’89. At age 10, he moved with his family to northern New Jersey.

When his older sister entered Bryn Mawr College, Bomba checked out another Tri-Co school and made his way to Swarthmore, where he zeroed in on economics and political science with an international-affairs concentration. Courses on macro- and microeconomics from Larry Westphal and Mark Kuperberg and food policy from Ray Hopkins made an impact. Bomba, who played soccer for the Garnet, also began flexing his entrepreneurial muscles in what he calls a “classic private sector” kind of way. 

“Like most students, I was on financial aid but also expected to fund a part of my tuition,” he recalls. “I founded a restaurant called Bomba’s Ethiopian Cuisine, which I ran on campus every Saturday evening for nearly three years. I am not much of a cook—just a businessperson who saw a good idea and a fun way to make money instead of working in the library or in the cafeteria at Sharples.”

Post-Swarthmore, Bomba earned a master’s degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science, then worked in corporate finance for JPMorgan. Later initiatives included a technology startup in Boston and work with the agriculture-development program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This August marked his third year as the CEO of the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA). Food is once again his focus.

Ethiopia has 13 million smallholder farms, which support a single family with a mix of cash crops: mainly maize, wheat, and teff (the grain from which Ethiopia’s tasty injera flatbread is made). “Most years, they make barely enough to feed their families,” says Bomba. So far, the ATA’s tactics have paid off. In 2013, the national yield of teff increased by 24 percent in one year.

From ATA’s Addis Ababa headquarters, Bomba runs the agency, which has four regional offices and 230 employees working on 15 programs. A government agency that receives funding from the Gates Foundation, World Bank, and the governments of the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands, the ATA seeks to improve crop yield, develop new varieties of crops and fertilizers, improve seed distribution to farmers, and raise farmers’ share of profits. “One project uses satellite technology to analyze soil fertilizers across the country,” notes Bomba.

“We at the ATA continue to be inspired by the perseverance and tenacity of the smallholder farmers of Ethiopia,” he says. “We are committed to help identify and remove any bottlenecks” inhibiting their success.

Bomba’s own success in running what he calls a “public-sector social enterprise” is influenced by his father, who led Ethiopian Airlines for 11 years.

According to Bomba, the ATA has a “clear, tight mandate.” It will disband when Ethiopia becomes a middle-income country (meaning average incomes are more than $1,045 but less than $12,746 per year). That should take another decade, he predicts. (Ethiopia, with an average yearly wage of $400, is classified as a low-income country.)

By the time his homeland reaches middle-income status, Bomba should long be gone from his ATA post, as he has committed to his current job for five years. After that, “I will go where the wind takes me, but I am committed to working in Africa,” he says. “I want to contribute to the development of the continent.”