Shepherd, scholar and social entrepreneur

Roba Bulga Jilo, MBA/MA SID’19, fights for the rights of indigenous people around the world — including his own tribe in Ethiopia

May 22, 2019

Titled “The Chieftain,” this image of Roba Bulga Jilo was taken by renowned photographer Steve McCurry for the 2015 LaVazza Calendar, produced with Slow Food. The calendar featured stories of 12 Africans who are symbols of hope for local communities and spokespeople for development and a better future.

By Karen Shih

For Roba Bulga Jilo, MBA/MA SID’19, camels represent freedom. Freedom to roam the grazing lands under the shadow of Mount Fentale, away from watchful parental eyes. Freedom to survive in the face of climate change and drought. Freedom from irresponsible international development.

That’s why they’ve become both a symbol and a linchpin of his plan to create a sustainable economic future for his own Karrayyu-Oromo tribe in Ethiopia — the first step in his greater goal to empower indigenous people around the world.

 “I want to challenge development policy,” says Bulga, whose tribe has lost 60 percent of its grazing land over the last century. “I’ve seen so-called development that’s a disaster. My community is getting poorer and poorer and poorer, and so marginalized. Development should recognize the rights of the people to the land, the air, the river.”

Today, Bulga has moved beyond his roots as a shepherd, working with fellow pastoralists to create a cooperative to pool and sell their camel milk, a staple in the region. He’s now a social entrepreneur inspiring his fellow classmates; an activist who’s been invited to speak around the world; and a scholar who’s nearly completed three master’s degrees, including a Social Impact MBA and an MA in Sustainable International Development from Heller. But through his travels and studies, he always comes back to his community.

A childhood with camels

Roba Bulga Jilo in Ethiopia. Photo by Paola Viesi

“My childhood was mostly growing up with animals,” says Bulga. In the Awash Valley of central Ethiopia, he lived in a village of about 100, part of the greater Karrayyu-Oromo tribe of about 100,000 members.

His people are pastoralists. They raise cows, sheep, goats and camels, selling or trading them for other food and necessities. They move from season to season for the best grazing lands and water sources for their animals — even as they’ve lost more than half of their grazing land over the last century to agriculture and wildlife conservation.

For Bulga, camels were always his favorite. “They are so cute and humble, and they remember you really well,” he says. His life intertwined with theirs, as he cared for and played with calves and even became, when he was 6, a surrogate calf for a camel who had lost her own.  

“After that day, she considered me like her baby,” he says. “Without me, you cannot milk this camel. For a year and a half, she would sniff my hair and then give milk.”

He learned from a young age which season and pastures were best for each animal. Everybody in the village contributed to their care; some built fences, others herded and milked.

As Bulga became a teenager, one of his favorite activities was bringing the camels to graze on higher land during the dry season. The trip would take him and other young men out of the village for months at a time. They lived “cowboy style,” sleeping under the stars surrounded by camels, which created a protective circle. The men would take turns keeping watch each night for predators like leopards, hyenas and lions, which would come to pick off vulnerable calves.

Who would want to give up that kind of freedom to sit in a classroom all day? But it was a formal education that gave Bulga the opportunity to understand and tackle the complex challenges facing his community — and to start creating solutions.   

Questioning everything 

Roba Bulga Jilo with a coffee tree in Ethiopia. Photo by Paola Viesi

“I still remember the first day I started school,” says Bulga. “We weren’t even in a building. We were outside under a big acacia tree, sitting on stones. A university student volunteered to teach us. I thought, ‘What is this guy doing on this little blackboard?’”

He was nine years old when an NGO opened a school nearby, and he joined the first generation of people from his tribe to attend. Though nearly two dozen of his peers started with him, most dropped out. For the first few years, he considered doing so, too. Walking sometimes 12 kilometers each way to attend class (depending on where his village was at the moment) just wasn’t appealing. That is, until he had his first geography lesson.  

“We started to learn about other cultures and other ways of life, how things have been explored,” he says. “We started with Ethiopia, then Africa, then the world, and it was fascinating. How did these people know all these things? Are there really people like me with animals all around the world?”

He reached a turning point in high school. As he turned 20, his parents wanted him to take the traditional route: continue to live as a shepherd, find a wife, have kids. He respected his parents, but “there was no way to turn back. I started to question everything.”

He set his sights on studying law, economics or political science at Addis Ababa University, but was assigned to study language and communications based on his college entrance-exam scores. Feeling unfulfilled by his university studies, he found purpose volunteering with Slow Food International, a global organization dedicated to protecting local food cultures and promoting biodiversity. He hosted tastings for indigenous products, such as coffee and honey, and served as a translator for Slow Food representatives who met small-scale producers in the field.

Every other year, Slow Food hosts a global conference in Italy, bringing together artisans, producers and consumers, among others. In 2008, Bulga was invited to attend. It was his first trip abroad, and though he didn’t know it at the time, would become his first steppingstone to Heller. 

A chance meeting

Elinor Gollay and Roba Bulga Jilo

Elinor Gollay, MSW’71, PhD’77, was visiting the Vatican with her husband, Rex, when she spotted a young African man listening in on their tour. Intrigued, she asked him to join her for lunch.

“It doesn’t take a genius to notice there’s something special about Roba,” she says. “He radiates a kind of calm curiosity, a self-confidence without being arrogant. The fact that he was there indicated his openness, even at a young age, to other cultures, other people and other experiences.”

Gollay wanted to learn about his studies and work and see how she could help. They stayed in touch through Facebook and email. She sent articles she found relevant to his work and offered suggestions on Bulga’s grant proposals. When he had the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in gastronomic science in northern Italy in 2011, sponsored by Slow Food, Gollay reconnected with him in person, and their friendship grew stronger.

After Bulga graduated, Slow Food hired him to oversee its Ethiopia operations. He took what he learned from Italian grape growers and cheese makers to help Ethiopian beekeepers and coffee growers enhance the quality of their products and broaden the market for their goods. He also oversaw a program that taught schoolchildren to plant gardens and understand the origins of their food.

“Working with the communities, I found the change was visible,” Bulga says. “I could do the stuff on the ground very well. But it’s more difficult to go to the policy level. I thought, let me go back to school. Once you have the experience of the field and the policy point of view, you can amplify your work.” 

Gollay suggested that he look at the Heller School, which had expanded on its social policy roots to add a sustainable international development program.

“It felt clear to me that he would benefit from the level of teaching at Brandeis, where he could improve his writing and analytical skills and get more knowledge, more contacts and a broader perspective on helping his people,” she says.

Indigenous inclusion 

Bulga enrolled at Heller in 2016, focused initially on development. “I wanted to analyze what happens when communities become the subject of development, instead of being included in development,” he says. He had seen development projects contribute to the marginalization of his own tribe. One such project diverted critical water resources to sugar-cane plantations, and another created a new wildlife sanctuary that cut off access to the grazing land needed during the dry season.

“Indigenous people cannot afford to be exploited by multinational corporations or small private companies on their ancestral lands,” he says. “Collaboration and negotiation are key — engaging the local indigenous groups will be important for narrowing the ‘gaps of exploitation’ by companies.”

He had experienced the success of this collaborative approach in his community-driven work with Slow Food; with the coffee growers in southeast Ethiopia, for example, he had helped develop a cooperative to better connect them with roasters and buyers.

“You need to tell the story,” he says. “These coffee growers are protecting the second-biggest forest in Ethiopia. They are producing an amazing product but they are marginalized. If you support them, you support the forest.”

With Heller’s esteemed faculty and internationally experienced peer cohort, he was already making crucial connections between lessons on policy in the classroom and his own experiences living and working in his home country. Soon, those connections would come all the way back to his childhood in the highlands, lying under the stars encircled by camels.

Nomad Dairy

The Nomad Dairy team: From left, Kyle Plummer, MBA’18; Liz Keefe, MBA/MA SID’18; Roba Bulga Jilo, MBA/MA SID'19; and Iwona Matczuk, MBA/MA SID’19

“Does camel milk taste good?”

That’s not a question Iwona Matczuk, MBA/MA SID’19, thought she’d be answering when she enrolled at Heller. But she soon found herself drawn in by Bulga’s passion when they both entered the Heller Startup Challenge in fall 2017, an annual weekend-long startup incubator and pitch competition.

During his second year, Bulga had become intrigued by social entrepreneurship as another potential avenue to make his community self-sustaining, and decided to enroll in the Social Impact MBA. At the Startup Challenge he assembled a team with Matczuk; Kyle Plummer, MBA’18; and Liz Keefe, MBA/MA SID’18, called Nomad Dairy. Their goal: to raise funds to support the camel-milk cooperative he started in Ethiopia.

“Climate change is making people lose hope with cattle or goats or sheep. If there’s a drought, you’ll lose everything,” Bulga says. But camels, whose milk has even more protein and less fat than cow’s milk, are better adapted to survive in harsher conditions.

He created the cooperative, modeled on Slow Food’s coffee grower cooperative, in 2012. Though pastoralists had always consumed camel milk, it wasn’t popular in the cities —  and he was determined to find a way to bring it to market. He offered tastings at embassies and hotels, proposing both high-end ways it could be used in place of cow’s milk, such as in espresso drinks, as well as ways to spread it worldwide, such as in rations for disaster relief.  

During the whirlwind weekend of the Startup Challenge, the Nomad Dairy team chatted with Bulga’s friends in Addis Ababa to better understand the challenges and environment in Ethiopia.

“The distance is far, but there are so many people in Roba’s network who are so invested in his success that the distance gets smaller,” Matczuk says.

Nomad Dairy won the Startup Challenge, kicking off a series of wins at other pitch competitions that year, including Brandeis Innovation's SPARKTank. They ultimately raised enough money to purchase a refrigerated truck to bring the milk from the grazing lands to Addis Ababa. Now, their next goal is to create a small processing plant to pasteurize the milk. This will allow for broader distribution, particularly to grocery stores and cafes, which provide better profits than local markets.

So what does camel milk taste like?

“We used to defer to Roba when people asked that question,” Matczuk says. “But every time he comes back from a trip, he calls us over and makes a lovely dinner and we have camel milk from wherever he can find it.” Bulga has brought back bottled camel milk from Amish farmers in Missouri, as well as powdered camel milk from the Middle East and California.

“It’s creamy and thicker like whole milk, but has these nuttier, earthier undertones,” Matczuk says. “We can now confidently say it’s good!”

Coming full circle

Roba Bulga Jilo in class

Bulga has taken full advantage of his time at Heller. He’s maximized his studies with his dual master’s degrees; pursued social entrepreneurship through university and Boston-area resources; and traveled across the United States and around the world to network and advocate for indigenous people.

“If we give people like Roba the right tools, they can figure out a lot of their own solutions to the challenges that their countries and their people face,” Gollay says.

After he graduates in August 2019, Bulga plans to return to Ethiopia, where a new progressive government gives him hope that he can effect real change. He’ll tackle the challenges facing his community using his new skills in policy and business, as well as an expanded global perspective from his experiences at Heller and beyond. But it’s clear to those who meet him that the traits Bulga admires in his camels — genuine humility, unwavering resilience and a sense of protecting one’s own — are qualities he exemplifies himself.

“I want to fight for pastoralists globally,” Bulga says. “If you work closely with the community and have the right strategy, you can bring about the right change.”