Irish entrepreneurs head to Ethiopia to help it improve its tourism offering


A GROUP of tourism and catering experts more used to catering to the most privileged in Ireland will be helping some of Ethiopia’s least privileged next week by letting them in on the tricks of the tourism trade.

Chef Kevin Thornton, who owns and runs a Michelin-starred restaurant, and hotelier and television presenter Francis Brennan, who owns the Park Hotel in Kenmare, are leading a 14-strong team of people with backgrounds in tourism, catering, marketing and crafts.

The voluntary trip is organised by Connect Ethiopia, a charity that uses the skills of Irish business people to help their Ethiopian counterparts. They are focusing their efforts on Lalibela, a holy city known for its churches hewn out of rock. It is about 45 minutes by air from Addis Ababa but western tourists tend to stay only one or two nights. Connect Ethiopia manager Katherine Meenan said the team was aiming to improve the offering for tourists so they would stay longer.

This will be the fourth such trip for Mr Thornton, who runs Thornton’s restaurant on St Stephen’s Green. Last year he helped to set up a cookery school and encouraged chefs to start vegetable plots. When he returned, the vegetable plots had been established and were doing well.

He said he would encourage the chefs to be proud of what they were doing while improving the quality of service and teaching them about issues such as food hygiene. He took some cook books to Lalibela last year and will do the same this time.

“They are starved of knowledge so it doesn’t really matter what’s in the cook book because it’s only a guideline. It gives you inspiration. I wanted to create a library because no one seemed to have any books at all.”

He will help to set up a cookery school aimed at tourists who want to learn how to prepare an Ethiopian meal using local produce.

Westerners can find it hard to digest the traditional injera bread so he is encouraging chefs to tweak their recipes for tourists.

This trip is not about simply making donations, he said. “You want them to have ownership of what they do. If you just give them stuff it means that they are there with their hands out. You want them to do it themselves.”

The group also includes poultry expert Patricia Doheny, who will work with local people on chicken-rearing, while Veronica Steele of Milleens Cheese will provide training in cheese-making.

Dáil Éireann catering staff Julie Lyons and Tara Humpston will be facing a very different work environment when they leave for Ethiopia on Saturday.

Ms Humpston said politicians were very supportive when they heard about the trip. “Many of the TDs have been to Ethiopia and have been so positive. A few of them have come in with books about Ethiopia.”

As a former hotel staff trainer, she will be working with Mr Brennan to help the hotels to improve their quality of service.

Architect Kim Dreyer will advise on improving the layout and maintenance of hotels and restaurants.

Connect Ethiopia co-founder and entrepreneur Brody Sweeney said the three-year project was aiming to help double the number of foreign visitors to Lalibela from 28,000 to 56,000.