Random and inexpert thoughts on Addis

I’m in Ethiopia for a week to check in on my industrial job experiments. Everything is going wonderfully except for the pesky fact that many of the businesses have yet to open. The next few months look pretty good, though, especially in the agribusiness sector, so we will see.

The under-qualified macroeconomist in me expected Ethiopia’s recent devaluation to actually spur rather than slow the manufacturing sector. In time that may be so. But in a place where inputs and machinery are imported, a devaluation is a mixed blessing. Existing firms must be adding real value to production to succeed. The agricultural export sector, where few foreign inputs are needed, seems to have a brighter future.

Meanwhile, the utterly unqualified epidemiologist in me wonders why E. Coli and other nasty bugs are so common in Addis. My evidence is entirely anecdotal. Example: a colleague’s child has had a serious bug no less than 15 times in three years. And this is the only place in Africa I’ve ever gotten stomach bugs (and I go straight for the dodgy street food wherever I land). I would have expected a more temperate climate and modern capital to have less not more sickness. Mostly, though, I’m surprised that this seldom happens to me or colleagues in my other haunts: western Kenya, northern Uganda, or Monrovia. Can anyone offer an explanation? Please note, “Idiot: your sample size in Addis is two” has already occurred to me.

Speaking of Addis, this is the only African capital I’ve visited where there are tall buildings under construction at every turn. This may be a sad statement on my experience in African capitals, but I think it does say something about the growth boom, not least in real estate. If mortgages existed in Ethiopia, I’d fear a bubble. But people mainly pay cash, before construction, for their properties. I suppose there are other bubble drivers, but I hope this growth is lasting.

But looking back on the visit, mostly I am proud that a friend dragged me through a 9-mile run around the airport, at an elevation of 7,500 feet, no less–something I have great difficulty doing at sea level. One of the nicer things about running in Addis, besides the permanent springtime weather, is that there’s a good chance that a world famous Olympian will blast past you at speeds I couldn’t sprint, even if chased by lions towards a Krispy Kreme donut outlet.

I expect my running regimen will suffer next week from Liberia’s 100 degree weather, and the week after that by New York’s ice and snow. All the more time, I suppose, to get pumped using my mouse.

13 thoughts on “Random and inexpert thoughts on Addis

  1. Hi Chris. I was recently there for the first time, too – and I asked about the buildings. It’s amazing how many of them are being built after ‘voluntary’ or forced evictions. This doesn’t change the fact that it looks booming, but it does dampen some of the enthusiasm.

    Re: E. Coli – People eat a *lot* of raw meat in Ethiopia: Kitfo, Gored Gored and Tessema Tsegur, the last not even being marinaded before you roll it in injera and a spicy sauce. This naturally increases the chances of getting a bug.

    That said, my famously iron stomach was fine all through two weeks eating all of this in Ethiopia. I had a sandwich in Jomo Kenyatta airport, though, which made me chuck my guts up on the day I left.

  2. Welcome to Addis. You are right, new buildings coming up everywhere and they are finished at an amazing speed too. The questions is where does all this money come from. Local salaries are really low, but perhaps it is a lot of the diaspora money (Addis is full of diaspora).
    As someone who works for the Ethiopian government, I really would like to know more about how the private sector works here. How can people afford to drive brand new Toyota Hilluxs, Range Rover Sports, latest Land Cruisers and have the place no2 (private ownership, duty paid), when the import taxes are so crazy high.

  3. On the construction boom – it really is amazing. It reminds me of Beijing, but here they do most of it without cranes. And I agree with Ranil, every few days you discover another poor neighbourhood that is being forcibly cleared out and demolished for a new development.

    On the stomach bugs – my sample size is a little bigger than yours and I definitely agree. Even people who don’t eat the raw meat seem to get it.

  4. As one of the people requesting an update on the industry project, I mainly wanted to stop by to by to voice appreciation.
    I don’t know anything about _African_ food at all, but I do know quite a bit about food and have my run-ins with bugs. My guess would be that two things matter: The types of food (beyond raw meet, my sense is that Ethiopian cuisine is more complex than most other African ones –> more opportunities for things to go awry) and local streetfood customs and traditions. E.g. no one ever gets sick from streetfood in Thailand, not least because the Thai streetfood vendors are crazy clean in their food preparation. I can totally see local variation making a difference here (but having never been to any sub-Saharan African country that’s just a wild guess).

  5. Hi Chris. I just finished reading Cutting for Stone, a novel which takes place in Addis. It was absolutely fantastic. If you have time for a novel, it is well worth the read.

  6. I forgot to add, I never got seriously sick in Addis, not on my previous visits and not now that I’ve been living here for 5 months. And I occasionally even drink tap water. But no raw meat for me.

  7. Definitely not 100 degrees. We just had a huge storm (complete with thunder and lightening) early yesterday morning. And it’s quite mild right now. Doesn’t feel like dry season at all.

  8. My inexpert thought is that Ethiopia has nearly the worst sanitation access in the world. I can’t find much good cross-country data past 2004, but at that time only 13% of Ethiopians had access to improved sanitation–beating out only Chad and Eritrea for the bottom spot on the list. Even Liberia was at 27%.

    On top of that Addis is really densely populated–and in my cursory experience there it seemed that the slums are interspersed with the wealthy areas morseo than in some other cities in East Africa. So even if you’re eating at a “nice” place or in a fancy part of town you’re not so far from the very poor who lack toilet facilities. The more people living in close quarters without toilets (or without acceptable toilets) and the more likely that fecal-oral contamination is going to occur.

  9. I visited about 10 African countries, sometimes in rough condition, and I had my worst stomach disease in Addis. Hope it helps to increase your sample size.

  10. In one of Kapuscinski’s books, he also comments on the unfinished multistory buildings at every corner (travels or the emperor, i don’t recall which). Addis has been like this for a long time.

    I speculate perverse land regulations that make it near impossible to transfer land after a builder has gone bankrupt. Some of those concrete structures haven’t been touched for decades.

  11. It is interesting that existing businesses are increasing but future businesses are not. Maybe this is good for the locals to hopefully further excel in their current line of work. It is unfortunate that your business hasn’t taken off yet but I’m confident that it soon will. Since the current business is picking up that will in-turn positively effect your business. Another sign of growth and development is that Addis has construction on every corner. This will also attract visitors and business men and women which will again help your business grow too. Although Addis seems to be growing economically, this will only last if their people remain in good health. Health is an area where Addis still has plenty of room for improvement. Unfortunately, I don’t think that you’re the only one who has recently gotten the stomach bug from Addis…