Modernising Ethiopia: Challenging times in a barley boom

In Ethiopia cigarettes are cheaper than Fanta...

It was the European Championship quarter finals, Wales were playing Belgium. Wales scored, the crowd went wild. I had just landed in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa on a student journalism award sponsored by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to investigate Ethiopia’s newly emerging brewing industry.

“Ethiopians love beer and football,” laughed Desalegn Geleta, owner of the recently opened Gibbi Lounge bar in the Gotera suburb of Addis Ababa. “They have money and they want to enjoy it.”

Desalegn is excited about the future. His dream is to open a hotel in one of the many new buildings springing up in the city. For him the biggest challenge is all the paperwork and tax.  “In this country they charge too much.” he says.

Gotera is typical of many middle class suburbs in Addis Adaba - a middle class compound containing hundreds of condominiums crammed into dozens of five story blocks. Each block looks the same - housing the same mix of retailers, butchers, grocery stores, pharmacists and phone shops. After a brief walk around I suddenly realised it’s hard to spend Birr! In Ethiopia cigarettes are cheaper than Fanta!


“The morning after...the streets of Gotera are kept impeccably clean by state employees.”

Today excess Birr amongst Ethiopia’s growing middle classes is fueling a rise in beer consumption and currently a growing number of international brewing giants are capitalizing on this emerging social trend. Since 2011, the national market had grown by over 20% and both the Government of Ethiopian and industry players are determined that the raw material for beer production should be grown within the country’s borders.

One of the NGO’s that has spotted this potential is Irish NGO, Gorta Self-Help-Africa (GSHA) Since 2012 Gorta  has supported thousands of Ethiopian farmers in and around Sebeta, just 12 kilometres south-west of Addis Ababa on seed production new farming methods. 

In 2015 Gorta officially announced a partnership with Diageo on ‘capacity building’ and I was the journalist selected to cover the story. However, like everything else in life - things did not go according to plan.

In the summer of 2015 the rains failed - putting instant pressure on food production in Ethiopia. Within a matter of weeks the Ethiopian Government declared that over 10.2 million people were in danger of starvation. Three days before my trip to Ethiopia my contact in Addis Ababa revealed “There are two things that you can do with barley, use it for food or malt it for beer.” I boarded my flight not knowing what to expect.

Heineken’s brewery on the edge of town

On the Southern edge of Addis Adaba in what was once the village of Kilinto, thousands of empty condominiums face into lush green fields. My fixed explained these apartments were distributed on a lottery basis to local families who had signed up for the Government saving schemes. Alongside, dominating the horizon is the silver silo’s of Heineken's newly built brewery.

Day one on the ground and already my arrival was causing some degree of confusion! I arrived without formal invitation to Heineken’s head office much to the surprise of the armed security personnel that patrolled the entrance. After a confused exchange in Amharic and English I was led to an office to sit a site safety induction and given a brief tour. The roar of the diesel engines and the beeps of machinery reversing against the backdrop of cranes and new buildings reminded me of boom time Ireland.

“There is just the groundwork left…. the factory is fully operational,” my guide, a site foreman told me in broken English. I climbed up the stairs to get better view. I was breathless. Addis Ababa is over 2000 feet above sea level and my lungs had not yet adjusted to that and the dense city smog. I turned to take in the view and breathed the fresh air. This was life at the very edge.  A sole hut, wooden sticks holding up a tarpaulin roof, stood Canute against the wave of concrete.

Turn around. Empty condominiums offer a lush view to future tenants, for now

Despite a few confused looks and some waiting around my surprise visit to Kilinto paid off.  I secured a meeting with Heineken’s Director of Communications, Fekadu Beshah. We met the following day in Heineken’s offices on the third floor of the Yezazelam building near the centre of Addis Ababa. The meeting was brief with all the usual formalities and typical corporate spin. Fekadu was keen to highlight that Heineken had donated over 5 million Birr or approximately €200 000 on drought relief in 2016. But I could not help but wonder – can all this intensive agricultural production and activity be good for the informal communities – the men, women and children living nearby?

Today Ethiopia is on course to joining the list of the world’s middle income countries by 2025 and without doubt agricultural production had been the initial driver of economic growth led by international names such as Dupont-Pioneer, John Deere and Monsanto. For the people of the outlying Woredas, these prospects are attractive – it means more jobs and more money for food, medicine and education. 

It is expected that Addis Ababa’s population will double to eight million in the next two decades. However despite this progress many Ethiopians today are today finding themselves homeless. Currently the streets of Addis Ababa play home to over 66,000 men women and children and with an overall population of just 3.2 million these figures cannot be ignored.

The city’s ‘Master-Plan,’ envisages a 20 times increase in the city’s boundaries and urban planners expect this expansion will absorb the population influx. If this happened, the city founded as a fort would engulf the thin strip of central Oromia cutting it in half.  I took a walk around the city and saw for myself how thousands of makeshift squats are now vying for space as hundreds of displaced families search for somewhere new to live.

During my brief visit to Ethiopia local newspapers reported an increasing rate of accidental injuries and deaths as bulldozers ploughed through Addis Ababa’s informal housing districts creating new space for local business enterprise. Added to this, Addis Ababa has seen in recent months serious rioting and unrest amongst the country’s two largest ethnic groups the Oromo and the Amhara, who like many Ethiopian communities are angry that a small Elite of Tigrayans are now dominating the social and economic landscape of the country.

Last October, the Ethiopian government announced that over 55 Ethiopians had lost their lives in the district of Sebeta due to rioting.

 Squatters kill time... With no legal residency, hopes for employment are slim

An ice cold bottle of St George beer sat alluringly on the table in front of me. Adebe pulled up a chair opposite. I bought him a bottle and we started to chat. He pulled out his phone and showed me a photograph of a simple structure made of corrugated Iron:

“This used to be my family’s home, he said. In 2002 it was destroyed illegally by the bodyguards of the rent administrator. I was homeless for the next six years.”

“As an Ethiopian I know the basic human rights, one is to have shelter, yet we were denied these rights by those who would cut off a hand for money,”

Adebe had been forced to squat, eventually he had been rehoused in a small apartment but not all of his family had been so lucky. His trauma is still very evident - “Where is the government to help us regain this suffering?”

While the modernisation of Ethiopia has without doubt insulated the country from a major famine it has also brought many challenging social and economic problems. The Ethiopian Government will point to this as a barometer of success but for the displaced families the price has been a heavy one. Foreign investors like Heineken and Diageo and NGO’s like GSHA find themselves in the midst of a storm that is beginning to draw global attention.

My own contribution to the alcohol industry was made on the final night of my stay. With a long flight ahead of me I had been a reluctant attendee in the clubs of up-town Addis but my new friends were persuasive and I didn’t know if I would return. Nursing my headache I reflected on what I had seen and more on what I had not. There was a long journey ahead.

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Ben Panter was a participant in the Simon Cumbers Media Fund Student Scheme in 2015.

His travel to Ethiopia was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund, which is operated through Irish Aid at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.