Meet Prof. Hirut Woldemariam of Ethiopia Vying To Become Africa’s Next Education & Science Leader

Professor Hirut Woldemariam, Ethiopia's candidate to become the next African Union Commissioner of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation. (Photo: MOSHE)

Tadias Magazine

By Tadias Staff

Updated: February 6th, 2021

New York (TADIAS) – This weekend African Union (AU) leaders are meeting virtually for their “34th Ordinary Session of the Assembly” that under normal circumstances would have been held at the organization’s headquarters in Addis Ababa if it was not for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The AU gathering is also taking place as the continental body has announced a high-level job opening based in Ethiopia’s capital for Commissioner of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation.

Among those who have applied for the position and is now considered a top candidate for the post is Ethiopia’s Hirut Woldemariam, the first female professor at Addis Ababa University’s Colleges of Social Science and Humanities and the first woman Vice President of the University. Professor Hirut, who was also more recently the founding Minister of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Ethiopia, is currently an Advisor to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.


Prof. Hirut Woldemariam. (Photo via twitter @ProfHirutWM)

In her departing message last summer Prof. Hirut told employees of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education that “it was a joy for me to work tirelessly with you to build the Ministry of Science and Higher Education from the ground up. Together we have reformed the higher education sector as never before. For the first time in the history of Ethiopian higher education, the 46 public universities are designated into three categories: Research, Applied Sciences, and Comprehensive Universities. Conditions are now ripe for each university to build centers of excellence and blossom using its human resource and leadership capabilities, and comparative local advantages.”

Prof. Hirut argues that her extensive managerial experiences perfectly qualifies her for the African Union position, which according to the job description requires a “demonstrated intellectual leadership, creativity and proven ability to propose new ideas and lead on new ways of working across silos in a complementary and synergistic way for a prosperous and peaceful Africa.”

In a recent interview with a local publication in Ethiopia, Abyssinia Business Network, Prof. Hirut noted:

My vision is to enable inclusive, relevant, high-quality education and foster Africa-centric science and a deep culture of innovation that will unleash the potential of Africa’s youth for the continent’s rightful and timely advancement as aspired in Agenda 2063. We have to make a paradigm shift to do things differently to unlock Africa’s indigenous knowledge of our ancestors; to make the best out of Africa’s talent, wisdom, and vibrant energy of the youth. We have to invest in the youth, on the next generation through Africa-relevant quality education, advancement of science, technology and innovation. Otherwise, we cannot ensure to have a prosperous and globally influential continent that we always aspire to see.

In an enthusiastic support of her candidacy Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted:

I am pleased to endorse Prof. Hirut Woldemariam, Ethiopia’s Candidate for AU Commissioner of Education, Science, Technology & Innovation. Having served in my Cabinet as Minister and currently serving as my Social Sector Advisor, Prof Hirut is an exceptional candidate.”

For his part Ethiopia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnen added:

I am honored to support the candidacy of Prof. Hirut Woldemariam to AU Commissioner of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation. I hope pertinent organs will be mindful of her outstanding professional caliber and ethical behavior, a perfect resume for the post.

In her twitter feed Prof. Hirut Woldemariam also shared another coveted endorsement from Kenyan Professor of Linguistics Kumbo Sure who sent the following video recommending the Ethiopian candidate.

Below is an excerpt and a link to a profile of Prof. Hirut Woldemariam via awib.org:

Professor Hirut Woldemariam: Fearless Woman Still on The Rise

Hirut Woldemariam (PhD) is the Social Advisor for Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali with a Ministerial rank. She is a candidate for the position of a Commissioner of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation of the African Union.

Hirut was born in Debre Markos, Gojjam, and is the first of four to her mother of Debre Markos and father, a teacher from the South—Kambata community. When Hirut was about four years old her father got a scholarship to major in History and the family moved to Addis Ababa. The children attended public school. Hirut joined Addis Ababa University (AAU) and was assigned a dorm with senior Linguistic students whose heated discussions about language and what it constitutes influenced her to join the field.


Prof. Hirut Woldemariam. (awib.org)

After graduation, Hirut joined the Academy of Ethiopian Languages and Culture as a Researcher. Her role in the organization involved developing a language policy, creating words for new ideas and concepts, and developing acronyms usage guidelines. She also earned a master’s degree. Later, she joined AAU’s Linguistic and Philology Department as a lecturer. After serving the university for a year, Hirut was awarded a PhD scholarship for a joint program given by AAU and the University of Cologne. Her thesis focused on analyzing and identifying the relation of an endangered language of the Gedicho with other Omotic languages. When she returned, Hirut was appointed Head of the Linguistic Department. Initially, she was hesitant to accept the offer but then asked herself, “Why not?” This marked her first leadership position, and she was the only young woman to hold such a position at a university.

Heading the department, Hirut engaged in intensive research projects in collaboration with the Norwegian Development Agency-NORAD. In the effort to prove herself and fellow young women, she engaged in: organizing international conferences; launching the first PhD program in Ge’ez philology, Arabic, and ancient manuscripts; and starting a bachelor degree program in sign language. In a couple of years, the President of the university, Professor Andreas Eshete, who witnessed her braveness and hard work, picked her for the position of Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, making her the first woman to hold the position. She was responsible for staff promotion, curriculum development, and handling student affairs. Aligning with her belief that “hard work always pays back” and “one opportunity leads to the next,” it was not too long when she was promoted as Vice President for International Affairs. She was responsible for AAU’s international partnership and strategic planning programs.

The Ministry of Education used to organize an annual conference for all public universities’ presidents and vice presidents. Professor Hirut found herself to be the only woman in the crowd. She submitted to the Minister and the rest of the participants that had it been in other parts of the world, any decision made during the conference would have been disqualified as it is being made in the absence of representatives of half of the population. The move triggered the consciousness of the academic leadership and led to the appointment of women to at least vice presidency positions.

Hirut recalls in several instances she had felt out of place for being the only woman. When she started being conscious of her situation, she challenged herself to be “deaf” to any negative voice either coming from colleagues, the community, or herself. She focused on her target and gave no room for fault. Living in a society that gives women small chances to assume leadership positions and to break the glass ceiling, one must stay focused on goals. “The more you keep on focusing on the bigger picture—through time and experience—you will develop confidence and also be conscious of the fact that pressure makes diamonds,” Hirut said.

Besides her role at the university, Dr. Hirut became part of the Ethiopian Public Diplomacy Delegation. She participated in missions to Cairo to conduct public diplomacy in relation to the GERD. She was put in the spotlight for engaging the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in an emotional dialogue on the importance of building the dam to tremendously change the livelihood of the Ethiopian people—especially women. By the end of the mission President al-Sisi told the Ethiopian Public Diplomacy team that with a new government in the country, “Egypt does not refuse the development of Ethiopia and the GERD.”

During the premiership of Hailemariam Desalegn—a time the government was looking for technocrats for ministerial positions—Hirut was selected among the six runners; she was the only woman. That was also the time the AAU was considering her for a full professorship position. She succeeded in attaining the ministerial post preceding the professorship. Her first ministerial position was Minister of Culture and Tourism.

In 2018, when Abiy Ahmed became the prime minister and reshuffled his cabinet, Hirut became his pick for Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. Later that year, the prime minister appointed her to lead the newly created Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

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