Huajian shoe factory in Ethiopia.Courtesy Hans Moleman

How Africa could become the new Asia

By Hans Gerard Moleman

For a long time, Ethiopia was known as one of the poorest nations in the world. Hunger and drought were synonymous with the country where Emperor Haile Selassie once held sway.

It may therefore come as a surprise that the economy of the largest country in the Horn of Africa has shown remarkable growth for a number of years. Ethiopia can now claim to be one of the fastest growing large countries in the world. Millions of Ethiopians have already managed to shake off absolute poverty.
It sounds like a performance of almost Chinese allure – and that is exactly the intention of the government in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia wants to become the China of Africa.

Growth is badly needed indeed. Ethiopia now has more than one hundred million people, and by the end of this century there will be a quarter of a billion Ethiopians on this earth. For many tens of millions of young people, employment will be needed that offers the prospect of a better life than their parents and grandparents had.

Ethiopia diversity roof paintings.Coutesy Hans Moleman

To achieve that Addis Abba, under the direction of Meles Zenawi, the rebel leader-turned-prime minister who passed away in 2012, drew up a hyper-ambitious Growth and Transformation Plan. This GTP aims at attracting investors and factories that will produce goods for the entire world. It is an experiment in rapid industrialization that has not been seen before on this scale in Africa.

Can the second country of Africa -only Nigeria has a larger population- make the transition from poverty, hunger, war and maladministration to prosperity?

Misery and miracle

To some it may sound like a mirage. But consider this: the Chinese, the South Koreans, the Vietnamese also succeeded against considerable odds. Anyone who looks up the misery and adversity these Asian countries have endured in the past century can be sure: economic miracles do exist. As long as you organize them.

Take China: in the twentieth century it had to contend successively with an ancient empire collapsing from corruption, an assortment of warlords, civil war, invasion and partial colonization, Mao’s red terror, famine and economic mismanagement. Nevertheless, around 1980 smart people led by the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping saw a chance to make a new start.

In 2018 China is back as a world power -you may remember, it was already a world power centuries ago.
Now, together with Europe and the US, it can play a vital role in the industrialization of Africa. China, like the West, is getting older and expensive. In Africa, there are still plenty of young people willing to work for lower wages – just like the Chinese when Deng reformed Chinese society almost forty years ago, or the Europeans when industrialisation begun there more than a century back.

HIP: underwear from the Rift Valley

Ethiopia is indeed beginning to industrialise. It now boasts of dozens of new outfits that employ thousands of Ethiopians. Companies like Huajian, a large Chinese shoe manufacturer, or Dutch Afriflora, the largest rose farm in the world. New industrial parks are added every year; helped by both the Chinese, other Asian countries and the European Union -which is pumping hundreds of millions of euros in Ethiopia to dampen unwanted migration from the region.

Ethiopia Afriflora rose farm, Ziway.Courtesy Hnas Moleman

The largest industrial cluster was opened last year in Hawassa, a city of a quarter of a million people in the Rift Valley. Along the main road from Addis Ababa to the Kenyan border, a futuristic structure towers over the asphalt: the gateway to Hawassa Industrial Park. HIP, in short.

When I travelled in Ethiopia in early 2018, it was busy at the gate. In the early morning hours, thousands of young women and men passed the guard posts. In the villages behind the factories you can still see traditional Ethiopia: sturdy round huts made of branches and mud. More and more of them are now being replaced by houses made of bricks and cement, because more money is being made in Hawassa. HIP was built in record time by a Chinese state construction company. Approximately six thousand people now work there, mainly young women, and five years from now the work force will be ten times that. All of them are young Ethiopians producing clothes and textiles for export, for global brands like H & M and Levi’s.

Ethiopia metal workshop.Courtesy Hans Moleman

Made in Ethiopia

The first containers full of goods have left HIP, with some five million pieces of underwear in them. Anyone who buys undies from H & M this year in Europe will for the first time have the opportunity to come across a label that says Made in Ethiopia instead of Made in China, Bangladesh or Indonesia.

Is Ethiopia now close to becoming the China of Africa? No, many daunting tasks are still ahead.For example, Asian managers and European consultants will tell you productivity must increase considerably. Wages are another challenge. They should go up, to make them more like living wages. So far there has been a lot of turnover of staff at Ethiopia’s new factories – no wonder with monthly pay often between 800 and 1500 birr, or 25 to 45 euros.
“I’m not going to work in a factory for so little money,” said a fishermen on Lake Hawassa to me. His explanation is practical: on a good day he earns easily double fishing -as a free man without a team boss panting down his neck.

For years Ethiopia’s Revolutionary Democratic Popular Front government did not want a minimum wage, since it might deter investors. But in 2018 this could change: a basic wage of 20 to 25 euros may be introduced. Low indeed, but that’s also how the Chinese started out 40 years ago, the policy makers in Addis Ababa argue.

Ethiopia Ziway new houses.Courtesy Hans Moleman

Barbed wire, state of emergency

HIP is the largest industrial park in Africa, according to claims by the government. Ambitions are huge. The park has endless rows of brand new factory warehouses, fresh asphalt roads, new apartment buildings for team managers and quality controllers from countries such as China and Sri Lanka.

HIP is also surrounded by a serious wall and barbed wire, with surveillance cameras at regular intervals and police guard towers in strategic places. Beyond wages and productivity, social stability is the main challenge for Ethiopia. Since 2015, unrest has been brewing, resulting in demonstrations and strikes that have increased pressure for change. Hundreds of young Ethiopians have been killed by federal riot police, thousands, including prominent opposition leaders, journalists and bloggers, were arrested.A number of foreign companies were attacked by demonstrators, and a second state of emergency was declared in February.

The unrest has ethnic and economic roots. The central government is dominated by the Tigray, a minority from the north of the country. The Oromo and Amhara, the two main groups who together are a majority of the population, have felt short changed for decades.

The ruling EPRDF now seems to realise it must move to avert disaster -the worst case being civil war and disintegration of the country. In April the Popular Front for the first time appointed an Oromo as prime minister- Dr Abiy Ahmed.

The 42-year old Abiy Ahmed, who is the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother, is an expert in conflict resolution. It was his speciality at university- and now he is employing all his skills and experience to resolve the current tensions -and they are plenty.

The new leader of Ethiopia has to get the opposition on board, manage ethnic and religious tensions with the Somali minority in the south-east and finally deal with the border dispute with Eritrea. He is now working hard to resolve these formidable challenges -and the first indications of hopeful changes in Ethiopia are emerging.

The urgency is clear for Addis Ababa. “If social and political tensions remain, then a few years from now the H & M’s of this world will have packed their bags”, a manager of a foreign textile company near the capital warned earlier this year. “That would mean the millions of jobs this country needs will be a fata morgana.”

African Century

If Abiy Ahmed pulls it off, Ethiopia could reach its full potential within the next ten to twenty years. It makes 2018 a key year for Ethiopia -and for Africa.

When Ethiopia succeeds, It can set an example for Zambia and a slew of other countries on the continent: how to escape from a spiral of poor governance and poverty through smart planning of economic development. It could become a country with thousands of factories and important agricultural industry, providing a much needed perspective for millions of young Africans who are looking for a better life in their own country or abroad.

So what may the future Ethiopia look like? It will not be a copy of China, of course. But it can achieve moderate prosperity for tens of millions of people, as the only African country so far that is seriously looking for practical inspiration in Asia. That means building new industry parks with real factories that churn out real consumer products for the domestic market and export -not just lots of talk and largely theoretical national development plans, as seems to happen often in Africa.

What a leap forward, what a great inspiration it would be. Imagine a continent transforming from a place where many people want to flee from, to a part of the world where you want to be. Because of the great opportunities. The Century of Africa would finally start in earnest.
Bring it on, Dr Abiy Ahmed!

Modern Addis Ababa.Coutesy Hans Moleman
Furniture made in Ethiopia.Courtesy Hans Moleman
Ethiopia street scene flashy car Addis .Courtesy Hans Moleman
Ethiopia Chinese industry zone, Dukem.Coutesy Hans Moleman
Hans Gerard Moleman is a writer based in Maastricht, The Netherland. He worked as a economics reporter and foreign correspondent for the Volkskrant, a leading Dutch newspaper, in Europa, Southern Africa and China.
His book Made in Afrika was published in the Netherland in April. An English version will be available in the course of 2019.
Hans’ Made in Afrika project was supported by a grant from the Innovation in Development Reporting Programme of the European Journalism Centre and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. These institutions have had no say whatsoever in the content of the stories.
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15 COMMENTS

    • The ‘ordinary Zambians’ who want the loans to filter to them should take a leaf from the Ethiopian miracle and not wait for the loans to filter to them. Lungu and KZ will not pass the loans on to them to hand them out.

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  1. Ethiopia chose industrial development and production and that’s why their economy is on a sustainable growth path. Zambia has chosen to decorate our country with shopping malls full of south African products. Our economic model is not taking us anywhere as long as we are in ”malls” development mode. Economies grow from farms and industries not in shops loaded with foreign imported products. Even Zimbabwe next door seem to have a model that will work while we sink in debt and are a dumping ground for south Africa and China.

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  2. When one considers what is going on in the world while our president is only focused on 2021,rubbishing anti corruption efforts from government agencies like FIC,and dressing cadres in military fatigue,conduct which as a lawyer he should know is an offence,the world is moving forward.Soon Mnangagwa is stiring Zim from oblivion which place Zambia will take up with so called Pabwato.

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  3. Article written by some disgruntled white man who is worshipped by HH and his UPND who believes in any trash written by a white man to tarnish Zambia.

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  4. Very impressive. The population and economic growth are in tandem with each other in Ethiopia. Not here where as the population rises, then more poverty levels

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  5. This will not happen in Zambia as long as the leadership remains without a vision.

    In five years time, Zambians will be flying to Ethiopia and Rwanda like the do to Dubai and China for makwebo. These countries have deliberately chosen to industrialize.

    Zambia is just talking about black mountain and corruption. Hence the 2.6 percent growth. Please do not make comparisons.

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    • Hmmm…since 2008, agricultural output in Zambia has increased significantly. This can be confirmed by the amount of grain we grow and export. Livestock is also on the increase-right now Zambia is capable of exporting chicken and goat. Vegetables like tomato, potato, onion etc are now grown by local farmers albeit potato and onion requiring some import support. To say it’s all the leadership’s lack of vision is not true. I feel Zambia requires a twitch in the education system where more artisans and tradesmen shoukd be trained. More technical personnel to boost agriculture should be trained. The problem we have is we are wired to work for others not create employment. This mindset once changed will drive this country forward, not leaving everything to politicians. You are a perfect…

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    • …example: You went to USA to work while Ethiopians come here to Zambia to open filling stations and other businesses!!! You probably have a degree in some field but a grade 9 equivalent Indian or Lebanese is already operating a factory in the Chinika area. And you blame it all on politicians?? I think you will understand better why the country is lagging, too many educated armchair critics in foreign comfort zones and too many undereducated foreigners making millions in Zambia.

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  6. That can never happen in Zambia so long Lungu is alive. Too much stealing by Lungu. So sad ????

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    • Yet Zambians still voted for him and his PF last month in Chilanga and other parts of the country?? What is sad is your twisted mentality.

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  7. But why do we still have some illegal Ethiopians coming to Zambia & South Africa through tracks & containers? are they looking for some more knowledge to boost their country?

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    • They are enterprising they are coming here to open businesses, to see the opportunities that dunderheads like you will never see – stuck in the mindset of walking around malls that the government of Zambia calls development.

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  8. Comment: you ripe what you sow. You sow hard work you ripe success and sow tribelism you ripe failure as it can be seen

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