During a stay in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa last week, for our upcoming publication The Escapist, I was struck by one aspect of the place above all else. “Addis is a city under construction,” explained our fixer, a young local journalist called Elias, as we drove down Bole Road from the airport to Meskel Square in the centre of town. On each side of the road we saw dozens of construction sites – some big, some small but all looking broadly the same: multi-storey concrete skeletons rising up out of the dirt covered in a latticework of long eucalyptus boughs standing in for metal scaffolding.
Addis is experiencing a boom like few other cities in the world. During our stay, Africa’s richest man, the Nigerian tycoon Aliko Dangote, inaugurated a new cement production facility (the biggest in East Africa), around 85km west of the city. The factory represents an investment of around $500m (€450m). Such is the putative untapped potential of Ethiopia and its capital city.
Foreign money is flooding into the country in other forms as well. Drinks companies, particularly breweries, are being bought out by foreign buyers from Europe and South Africa at a rapid rate. The theory is that one of the first things a growing middle class will spend its money on will be beer (something which the country consumes little of compared to other sub-Saharan nations).
Ethiopia’s GDP is growing at a rate of over 10 per cent. Its population is set to grow from about 95 million now to over 170 million in 2050. But while the economy is being transformed and the population growing, it is also possible to detect a note of caution being sounded by some in the capital.
Many residents of Addis Ababa see the change around them and fear that society will end up being altered too. Time and again, we met people – entrepreneurs, fashion designers and chefs – creating products, garments and dishes that aim to remind Ethiopians of their heritage and the need to protect it. They fear the influx of American and European music, food and clothing that will inevitably accompany prosperity – indeed, that is already flooding in with the money. “Tastes are changing,” one restaurant owner told me. “We’re losing our relationship with food and becoming more western. I’m not old-fashioned or traditional but I’m worried by it.”
Visiting Addis Ababa, you really feel like the entire world is fighting over the country’s future – nations position themselves as friends and benefactors, while companies prowl, inspecting the market. Ethiopia is one of the shining examples of the great “Africa Rising” story. It will also be the clearest test case of just how much this narrative really costs.
Matt Alagiah is Monocle’s associate editor.