Matt Alagiah reporting from Addis Ababa: Once a byword for all that ailed African nations, Ethiopia is again playing to its eclectic strengths – and its booming capital is at the centre of the resurgence.
Population: Estimated to be as high as 3.6 million
Name: Addis Ababa means “New Flower” in Amharic
Altitude: One of tte world’s highest capitals at 2,300 metres
Economy: Ethiopia expects foreign investment to be around €1.3bn this year, up from €97.1m seven years ago
National dish: Injera (fermented pancake-like bread)
Don’t expect to pick up much Amharic, Ethiopia’s tricky lingua franca, during a short stay in Addis Ababa but a useful word to arm yourself with is spriss. In a café it will get you a curious half-and-half concoction of coffee and tea; in one of the capital’s ubiquitous juice bars, a smooth, thick blend of papaya, mango and avocado. The word is slang for “mix” and can refer to nearly anything, from one’s taste in music to one’s choice of refreshment.
But spriss is also a good lens through which to view Ethiopia and its fascinating capital: mixture is so accepted here as to be banal. “We Ethiopians are excellent at co-opting things from other cultures and then not realising they’re actually foreign,” says journalist Elias Gebreselassie on our first evening in the city.
Examples of his theory can be found everywhere. The Italian word macchiato is still used across the city, for example, to refer to the traditional single espresso topped up with hot milk and a few heaped teaspoons of sugar. It is a subtle reminder of the brief Italian occupation that began when Mussolini annexed Ethiopia in 1936. But few seem to care about the word’s roots when ordering their morning caffeine fix.
The city’s ethnic, religious and cultural diversity is further evidence of the Ethiopian willingness to embrace difference. Each morning the wailing song emitted from the Ethiopian Orthodox churches blends with the muezzins’ call to prayer. While it is hard to ignore the autocratic government’s suppression of Muslim demonstrations in recent years, the tolerant day-to-day coexistence of Christians and Muslims is exceptional in such a fissiparous region.
This openness stands in stark contrast to Ethiopia’s historical insularity. Indeed, part of the country’s charm lies in the fact that it has always been inoculated from outside influence. There are still remnants of the occupation. Castelli’s bistro in the old Italian district of Piazza, lovingly managed by second-generation owner Carlo Giorgio Castelli, is a good example. Ethiopians, though, will often proudly point out that the country was the only African nation never to be formally colonised.
In the 18th century, Ethiopia’s unique qualities were already recognised by Europeans, as English historian Edward Gibbon wrote: “Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Ethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world by whom they were forgotten.” Even allowing for Gibbon’s characteristic condescension, it is possible to see the kernel of truth here. Ethiopia’s unique mix of cultures and religions has survived intact for centuries largely due to the fact that it has remained insular and aloof on its highland plain.
That is now changing. Today any notion that Ethiopia might be “forgotten” by the world feels hopelessly wide of the mark. Walking around Addis Ababa – the city officially founded in 1886 as Emperor Menelik II’s “New Flower” – it seems everyone is squabbling over its nascent bloom. A large part of the new focus on Ethiopia is down to its role as the continent’s de facto diplomatic capital. The dual presence of the African Union (AU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa means it is a priority destination for diplomats and heads of state. “There are very few places in Africa where you have more than 100 diplomatic missions,” says Dr Mustapha Sidiki Kaloko, commissioner for social affairs at the AU, in his office on the 12th floor of its HQ. “For countries that can’t send embassies to the 54 member states, it makes sense to have one ambassador here who links to all the others through the AU.”
Joining the diplomats and ambassadors on flights into Addis are suited businessmen and prospective investors. Foreign money is jetting into the city on a daily basis. The most obvious sign of it is the amount of property being developed around the capital. Either side of Bole Road – a Chinese-built thoroughfare that takes business travellers, diplomats and backpackers alike from the airport to the centre – the carriageway is lined with construction sites. Across the city you’ll spot hundreds of concrete skeletons covered by a latticework of precarious-looking eucalyptus scaffolding.
Inevitably, you don’t have to look far before you see Mandarin on signs and logos. In 2012, China gifted a new €177m headquarters to the AU, which was then celebrating its 10th year in the Ethiopian capital. Chinese investment has since been largely concentrated on infrastructure, from Bole Road to the new light-rail system that promises to carry 60,000 passengers an hour when it whirs into life later this year. The contractor was Beijing-based China Railway Group (crec), which will jointly manage the network operation for three and a half years along with Shenzhen Metro Group.
No African government is closer to the Chinese Communist party than the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (eprdf). Ethiopia’s governing party for almost a quarter of a century, it shares China’s belief in the winning combination of rapid economic growth and an all-pervasive state. It even sends officials to Beijing to learn the doctrine.
A few weeks before our arrival an election took place. Prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn and his eprdf swept back into power with a victory to which the word “landslide” doesn’t do justice: they won every single seat. The government takes few chances with real elections these days. The last attempt that could vaguely be called “free and fair” was held in 2005: it appeared as if the opposition might win but the official results gave the ruling party victory. In the protests that followed, security forces massacred 193 people and locked up large numbers of the opposition.
The government’s poor human-rights record is no secret to western leaders and yet it only ever elicits mild rebuke. The reason is that so many of them acknowledge the country’s strategic importance as a bulwark against perennially troubled Somalia and have Ethiopia marked out as a vital future trading partner. The government’s stranglehold on society also stifles the economy. Entrepreneurs bemoan the tedious bureaucracy, while a wariness of reform at the top means certain markets – particularly banking and telecommunications – remain frustratingly difficult to enter. Both economically and politically, Ethiopia needs its government to loosen its iron grip.
While Chinese yuan have been poured into infrastructure projects, other currencies have found their way into more unusual industries – beer, for instance. In the past five years almost all of Ethiopia’s largest breweries have been bought by foreign companies. Netherlands-based Bavaria acquired Habesha in 2012; Heineken bought state-owned Bedele and Harar in 2011; and Diageo is now the proud owner of the Meta Abo brewery.
The reason is simple: the drinking population here is set to explode (and the country is 70 per cent Christian). Ethiopia is already Africa’s second most-populous country but its population will more than double by some estimates between now and 2050. Generally speaking, it is the middle class – those with disposable incomes – who spend their money on beer. If the economy continues to expand at its current rate (double-digit annual gdp growth), then the country’s drinking middle class will swell. And considering the average Ethiopian presently drinks around half the amount of the average sub-Saharan African, there is clearly room for more demand.
But it’s not just good news for bar-stool makers. Walking around parts of Addis today, particularly Bole and Sar Bet, it’s easy to see that a new, confident middle class is spreading its wings. The Stockholm nightclub and the Cupcake Delights café are signs that there is money in Addis – and not just dollars and yuan. The growing number of shopping malls and the worsening traffic, exacerbated by a rise in private vehicles on the roads, are further signs of transformation.
It would be a mistake, however, to see Ethiopia’s growth as purely a symptom of top-down foreign investment. Businesses across the capital are also exploiting the renewed interest in their country and creating dynamic and outward-looking businesses. In an office next to what will soon be a new factory for her shoe brand SoleRebels, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu’s bookshelf is a statement of intent: Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail and Conversations With Myself by Nelson Mandela. The company has grown exponentially over its 10-year lifetime and now has shops around the world, from Silicon Valley to Taipei. By 2020 Alemu hopes to have 150 stores worldwide. “When we started there was no wi-fi, no broadband and no 3G here,” she says, laughing. “We were focused on e-commerce from the beginning, which meant going to internet cafés at every hour of the day.” Having kickstarted and led the “Made in Ethiopia” movement, Alemu has just launched her premium brand Republic of Leather.
Other medium-sized companies are leveraging Ethiopia’s comparative advantage when it comes to food and drink. Mama Fresh, for instance, is leaping on the developing awareness outside Ethiopia of the country’s staple foodstuff injera: a flat, fermented bread made from the teff grain (now considered a gluten-free “super-food” by some in the West). Hailu Tessema and his son Miraf Hailu employ 75 full-time staff in a factory that produces around 4,000 injera a day. Around three-quarters of these are bundled onto Ethiopian Airlines flights five times a week, bound for the US thanks in part to the American impact-investment firm Renew Strategies.
Mama Fresh is yet another illustration of the sheer speed of change. Before 2003 there was no large-scale manufacturer of injera; its production was restricted to private kitchens and restaurants. Now Mama Fresh is preparing to move to a large new facility located in the Kaliti neighbourhood. But there are some for whom the sheer pace of change is a cause for concern. Konjit Seyoum set up the Asni Gallery and Café in the artsy neighbourhood of Kebena with the intention of helping to reinvigorate the national cuisine. “Addis is changing a lot,” she says. “Our tastes are changing too – what we cook and what we feed our children. We’re losing the relationship we have with food and becoming more western.”
The menu at Asni reimagines traditional staples such as injera and misir wot (lentil stew). Everything is vegetarian, as Seyoum believes meat is a divisive subject in her country, and the café’s serene courtyard invites people of all backgrounds to linger and mingle. “What’s happening to Addis is great,” says Seyoum. “People are getting richer and it’s lifting lots out of poverty. But in many ways it’s simply too fast.”
Across town in one of the city’s many new sleek shopping malls we meet 26-year-old fashion designer Mahlet Afework (otherwise known by her portmanteau alias Mafi). Her collection is inspired by traditional Ethiopian dress and is handmade in Addis; the styling is young and fresh. “These clothes are normally only for weddings and big events,” she says. “The younger generation are more aware of international trends but they still like these traditional clothes. I think you need to wear something that represents who you are and not just copy American styles.”
As we say goodbye Mafi provides a final comment that illustrates her sense of ambivalence towards Addis’s boom. “Two years ago there was nothing here,” she says, gesturing to the built-up stretch of Bole where she has been so successful with her shop. “The construction is not sustainable. Trees are being brought down all over.”
From an outsider’s perspective it’s easy to overestimate the pace of change in Addis. For one thing, spending too much time in areas such as Bole will skew one’s impressions. To catch a glimpse of Addis in repose, wake up before sunrise on a Saturday morning and head south to Meskel Square. In the absence of car horns and exhaust fumes, the air at this hour is filled with the mingled reverberations of the tropical dawn chorus and the Orthodox churches’ call to prayer.
Meskel Square is a bus terminus during the day and a site for pro-government rallies throughout the year – but today it’s where the city’s amateur runners gather for a quick workout before the air becomes too warm. We accompany the hundreds of joggers who weave their way up the slope on the southern side along the shallow terraces that serve as running lanes. At the top they catch their breath and stretch in the shadow of a towering billboard bearing the face of the prime minister. The endorsement reads: “An African leader committed to democracy, peace and development.”
Afterwards we head back across the square, avoiding the half-dozen or so informal football matches that have kicked off, to the Ghion Hotel a few minutes’ walk away. The Ghion is an Addis institution, one of the last hotels still in government hands and a hangover from the communist regimes that ruled Ethiopia between 1974 and 1991. The hotel presides over the most beautiful and well-kept gardens in the entire city that, on a Saturday morning, are an oasis of tranquillity and greenery in a metropolis that largely lacks both.
You would be unlucky not to find a wedding party breezing through the Ghion’s grounds on a Saturday. This is the most popular spot in Addis for photographs, drinks and food after the ceremony – during the unofficial “wedding season” in January as many as 70 groups can descend on the hotel over a weekend. On the other side of the gardens is the Ghion’s 50-metre swimming pool, complete with 10-metre-high diving board, outdoor café and adjacent clay tennis court. This is where wealthy families come to relax on a weekend afternoon, sheltered on all sides by tall trees that keep out the pervasive dust and fumes of the city.
The building sites, the gdp figures, the cupcakes: all point to a country in flux. But there are pockets of life in Addis that remain unaffected by all this change. Poolside at the Ghion, with its unconsciously retro looks and local crowd, you feel this is a picture that wouldn’t have looked any different 30 years ago. Whether it will remain the same for that long again is anyone’s guess; for now it’s that tension between stasis and upheaval that makes Addis such a beguiling city.