By Ananda Ariyarathne
Ethiopia now is around 1,104,300 square kilometres (approximately about 426,371 square miles) in extent and has a population of about 102 million (102,417,412 latest) and is considered the second fastest developing nation in Africa. As a country that has a very rich history, it has its beginnings in a pre-Christian civilization that started in its Northern regions, known as the Axumite Kingdom. Ethiopia and Eritrea are the only countries with their own letters/scripts, which are linked to the ancient language of Ge’ez.
Although it is a republic now, it had a monarchy linked to a dynasty called Solomonic due to its origins linked to the famous monarch — King Solomon of Israel. It is believed that Ethiopia’s first king was Menelik I, the son born to the famous Queen Sheba, known as Queen Makeda too. That fixes the history of the Ethiopian dynasty to be at least between 900 to 1000 years BC.
Ethiopia in modern times
Being a country that was never under a foreign power, except for the brief period some parts of the country fell under the invading Italian armies, to be liberated by the famous Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, with the support from the Western allies. It is interesting to note that Ethiopia maintained diplomatic missions with a large number of countries, including Russia.
Emperor Haile Selassie, who became the modernizer of the nation, set the foundation for the future of Ethiopia and for him everything was an accelerated programme even for education. He did not wait for the Ethiopian educators to solve the needs and expatriate teachers became the foundation for future national teaching skills. Medical doctors took part in upgrading public health, while the engineers and agricultural specialists from other countries were used to develop the Ethiopian human resource skills.
Having gone through turbulent periods, now the country is forging through obstacle but has very ambitious approaches towards the most ideal solutions.
When Eritrea separated from Ethiopia, the country became landlocked, depriving the country of two major seaports it had – Port of Massava and Port of Assab, which were the country’s access to the sea routes through the Red Sea. Now, Ethiopia uses its railway line to the Port of Djibouti, which is another country. However, without giving into the odds, the government is keen in developing the alternative — Berbera Corridor, a highway solution through Hargeisa of former British Somaliland and becoming connected to the East African Highway.
The government of Ethiopia has realized the importance in transforming the nation from its subsistence framework to a commercial environment in order to turn the agricultural land to become more productive in its role and capacity as a revenue generator and that way to empower the rural population. In the urban picture, the efforts are being made to provide employment to urban youth by new industries engaged in complete production as well as industries specializing in value addition.
In 1969, when I reached this blessed land, there was a population of less than 28 million and currently, even without the population of Eritrea, since it is a separate country now, it has passed the mark of 102 million. It is a 3.64 times increase of approximately over 46 years. However, it is a country blessed with a very large extent of land, with a variety of natural resources as the base for both industrial as well as agricultural activities, extending to an enormous potential in the services fields. Thus, it is a treasure trove for all entrepreneurs of both Ethiopian and Expatriate origins.
It may be interesting for all those who study the origins and development of food crops that Ethiopia is mentioned as one of the places where the earliest signs of wheat cultivation started. It is the main crop in the highland plains even today, while there is a special cereal known as ‘teff’, which is the main crop in all the highland villages. It is its flour that is used in making their traditional food, which is more a soft and large pancake than bread, a food the experts say that it is very rich in iron.
As a crop of yields per area cultivated, teff is not going to be the solution for the food needs in the future. As the land used in wheat cultivation is almost saturated, there is only one left almost unutilized – the potential in rice cultivation. Rice is the highest yielding cereal crop in the world and in Ethiopia there are regions where it can be cultivated as an annual crop, depending on the rain water, like they do in Sri Lanka and extensively under irrigation. It will be a readily available answer to the food needs of Ethiopia soon.
The popular beverage coffee is also connected with Ethiopia. It may be interesting to know that the Arab traders who went into the interior regions, long ago, came across people using coffee as a stimulant. The seeds of wild coffee were roasted and made into small balls by mixing with ghee, which helped the travellers to be energetic in their long travels. The Arabs introduced coffee to the rest of the world and naturally got the name from the name of the region – the Kaffa region where coffee grows in the wild.
Although the British rulers got links to coffee in Sri Lanka, it had been the Arab traders who introduced coffee to Sri Lanka. The Arabs had been already collecting coffee seeds in the villages in the central hill country in Sri Lanka. They had introduced coffee to get flowers to be offered at the Buddhist temples and the coffee beans were just a by-product.
Tea in Ethiopia
Although Ethiopia is mainly a coffee drinking land with its special coffee ceremony practiced, practically in every household, they drink sweetened spiced tea very frequently and when I first went there, they knew Ceylon tea and as far as tea was concerned, it was Ceylon tea and now it is Sri Lanka. Considering the local consumption, one can have an idea about the potential need of the country. The government recognized the significance and declared more than a decade ago, an extent of 500,000 hectares.
However, the efforts made by the Ethiopian government has not started bearing fruit as it has not reached even 15,000 hectares under tea yet. Kanan Devan of India became the pioneering investor who came up to develop the first 10,000 hectares. As it was not catching up as expected, very recently, efforts have been made to attract another investor to develop the tea industry, this time from Dubai.
The reasons for the puzzling slow movement in tea cultivation in Ethiopia are clear but not understood by the promoters, including the Ethiopian government. As a person who visited the region selected for tea cultivation in 1970, I was convinced that tea could be easily grown there. The reasons for the present situation are purely socioeconomic in nature and there are obvious remedies but it has taken the long and natural learning curve.
The potential for a healthy symbiotic relationship between Sri Lanka and Ethiopia is enormous but not clearly understood or even attempted, except for the limited exposure in the export-oriented readymade garment manufacturing there. Ironically, Sri Lanka now has an ailing tea industry. The potential in cultivation and tea making is going through a very turbulent period.
It is my personal opinion that it was the decision to go for CTC that caused the deterioration in the quality of the tea Sri Lanka produced, although the quantities increased. That resulted in excessive supplies of low-grade teas on the one hand and on the other, the wrong and unproductive polices relevant to human resources resulted in the present sorry state of the tea industry in Sri Lanka.
However, the knowledge and technological experience Sri Lanka has is still there waiting for a positive revival. As it has strategically important aspects, I do not wish to go beyond that regarding the remedies, except mentioning that the two negative situations applicable in Ethiopia and Sri Lanka can be transformed into an enormous development potential for both nations.
Potential in services
The East African Highway through Addis Ababa is still on and the needs for services are still there in construction engineering related to highways as well as railways. The managerial skills in export-oriented business management can be turned into a very positive force that can be very constructively possible for both the nations.
Another special aspect Ethiopia has in her favour is the experienced airline — Ethiopian Airlines flies to a large number of destinations. The experience Ethiopian Airlines has in both passenger as well as cargo is very impressive. We have an almost abandoned international airport and an ailing airline not to mention the budget carrier. Ethiopian Airlines can be the key to African routes.
Well, the time has come for all the countries to wake up from their slumbers of being happy in their traditional dreams as it is now the reality of having a new economic order to cover international commerce. It has to be completely a symbiotic relationship that will solve problems. It should not be a system where nations should be trying to outsmart each other by becoming smarter than others but by becoming parts of the best solutions for each other.