Traveling Man

Steve Olson finds there's no place like home, wherever that may be.

Jeanne Nagle | Profiles | September 2022

Born into a missionary family, Steve Olson ’90 has the distinction of being either raised, educated or employed on each of three continents. These formative experiences have helped make him a citizen of the world—at home wherever he is.

And a fine, upstanding global citizen he has become. Olson remains dedicated to the principles of sustainability that he chose to study at UW-Stevens Point. EthioGuzo, his Ethiopian-based tour and travel business, also allows him to share his passion for native environments and cultures with travelers of like mind.

Olson was born in the African country of Cameroon, “where life was simple and good, the people relaxed and easygoing,” he says. After he had graduated from a boarding high school in Nigeria, he joined his family in moving back to the United States, where his father was appointed director of world missions for Lutheran Methodist Church, based in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. He had enrolled and completed his first year at the local community college when a conversation with a fellow “mission kid,” with contacts in Wisconsin, put him on a different academic path.

“My friend Dan [Venberg] had learned about UWSP, and informed me of the natural resource program,” says Olson. “I immediately signed up for it when he did.” The move turned out to be quite fortuitous. “Dr. Hans Schabel, professor of forest protection and director of International Resource Management, took a keen interest in my academic development,” Olson says, “and helped guide the direction of my studies in natural resources, especially the international angle.”

After receiving his degree from the College of Natural Resources, Olson was on the move again. His summer job in 1990 was working in a fish packing plant in Homer, Alaska. “Dan’s girlfriend’s sister worked up there with her partner,” he explains, “and since Dan and his girlfriend had been offered jobs up there, I tagged along.”

Olson worked to fund his longtime dream of, essentially, walking across Africa. He and Venberg had been invited to join a former missionary doctor they knew from childhood who planned to follow the course set by Scottish explorer Mungo Park and traverse the length of the Niger River, “from its source to the estuary that empties into the Gulf of Guinea.”

The journey took a full eight months. Olson was able to put the tenets of sustainable tourism to work during this trek across Africa. The traveling party was able to interact with several indigenous nomadic groups, including the Fulani and the Tuareg, and soak in unspoiled stretches of the Sahara Desert, particularly the southern reaches in Mali and Niger.

He also snuck in a little “extra credit” while he was at it. “Our trek along the Niger River took eight months, during which time I conducted research on ‘living fences’ for graduate level credit under Dr. Schabel,” he says.

Upon his return to the States, Olson spent a year working as a forest technician in Minnesota before heading to the University of Idaho to continue his studies, working toward a graduate degree in agroforestry. Once again he was drawn back to Africa, spending a year conducting field studies on tree and land tenure of the Guidar tribe in his birthplace, Cameroon.

Olson elected to stay in Idaho and earn his doctorate in social dimensions of natural resources. Upon achieving his terminal degree, he was looking to put everything he had learned into practice. The strategy was to secure employment with an international organization based in Africa. But that plan hit a temporary speed bump in the form of a post-doctorate fellowship at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. (For those keeping track, that took him to continent No. 3.)

“I had just completed my Ph.D. at the U of Idaho and was ready to get out and explore and learn more about the world, so I took the first interesting job that came along,” he says. “The position wasn’t as grassroots as I had anticipated but I continued to learn more about professional research and writing as well as marketing.”

During his time in New Zealand, Olson had the opportunity to collaborate with a biologist on field studies on montane forests in Nigeria, near the Cameroon highlands. The duo presented their findings at professional conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That trip yielded some unexpected yet totally wonderful benefits, chief among them, a new home for Olson.

“I became fascinated with Ethiopia and her vibrant people,” he says, including one very special person—the woman who would become his wife. “Together we started a family and a company.”

The Olson Family includes four children, aged 10-16. Their business, EthioGuzo, was established in 2005—one year before the eldest was born. The tour company is aptly named, roughly translating to a shortened form of “Ethiopian journey.”

“EthioGuzo organizes journeys to all of Ethiopia’s amazing places,” says the owner and operator. “We customize trips that take in all or a few destinations, depending on our guests’ interests, whether they be nature, communities, history, culture, archaeology or geography.”

Olson notes that the company is also equipped to extend trips into nearby Djibouti and Somaliland, upon request.

EthioGuzo began as a backroom startup—literally—operating in a space behind the storefront of a combination stationery shop and internet café the couple ran to keep them afloat while the business grew. Networking was crucial to getting the company up and running.

“My sister, who was, for a while, a tour agent, put me in touch with a tour agent she knew in Calgary, and that agent put me in touch with one of the largest tour companies in Canada, G Adventures,” Olson says. “This led to EthioGuzo getting the first contract to operate tours for them in Ethiopia.”

Olson led the company’s first tours himself, following a proposal he had worked up for G Adventures that emphasized sustainable tourism. Word-of-mouth marketing has helped the business grow, as has a separate Canadian partnership that has opened up the company’s market in France. Year by year, EthioGuzo has added staff, vehicles and tour packages in service of G Adventures and other outbound tour operators, which arrange for people to travel outside their own country.

“It has been fun to hire and educate our drivers, guides and office staff about sustainable tourism methods,” Olson says. “We focus on including cultural immersion activities wherever we can, and staying in community run lodging wherever possible.”

Olson notes that the company began investing a portion of its income into construction on an ecolodge, which would not only help conserve one hundred hectares of forest, but boost local employment as well. “We plan to hire and train locals in all areas of the lodge and tour business, such as management, catering and tour services, environmental education, etcetera,” he says.

Although work on the lodge has been temporarily suspended due to Covid and the political climate in the area, Olson is confident that it is only a matter of time before business picks back up enough so that the ecolodge can be completed and open for business. Meanwhile, “We continue to offer and promote our tours both internationally and locally,” he says.

It is interesting to note that, even as he makes a pitch for the business, emphasizing all the wonderous and intriguing elements that make a journey to his adopted homeland a “must’ for any tourist, Olson can’t help but touch on the very thing that has made this traveling man put down strong roots: “Ethiopia makes for an amazing place to live, explore and raise a family.”

Or, as the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho has expressed it, “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”


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