Ethiopian solution to Africa's public-transport problem

There are dozens of jokes on the internet, about Ethiopia and Ethiopians; tasteless and absolutely unpleasant jokes, many of them, unfortunately, loosely linked to the infamous famine that wrecked the country between 1983 and 1985 leaving almost half a million people dead.
Passengers board a train in Addis Ababa. Trains have revolutionised the way Ethiopians travel. (Kenneth Agutamba)
Passengers board a train in Addis Ababa. Trains have revolutionised the way Ethiopians travel. (Kenneth Agutamba)

There are dozens of jokes on the internet, about Ethiopia and Ethiopians; tasteless and absolutely unpleasant jokes, many of them, unfortunately, loosely linked to the infamous famine that wrecked the country between 1983 and 1985 leaving almost half a million people dead.

Inside Ethiopia, thirty years later, time has rendered those jokes irrelevant and the country’s capital Addis Ababa gives one an insight into a new Ethiopia, a country determined to be great again and one of the leading examples of the ‘Africa rising’ mantra.

Both Ethiopia and Rwanda are among Africa’s fastest growing economies currently and their governments have been lauded for putting in place policies that help transform lives of citizens.

Yet contemporary challenges of infrastructure, public transport and energy are shared and prevalent across the Sub-Saharan region; but Ethiopia is offering possible solutions to address these African problems.

I arrived in Ethiopia on Wednesday night aboard Ethiopian Airlines, to a city immersed in a sea of neon lights, both, rich in symbolism; I mean the airline and the neon-lights.

Founded in 1945, Ethiopian Airlines has survived the country’s changes in political seasons and fortune, always flying high even in hardest of times, as if in defiance, perhaps, reflecting the resilient spirit of Ethiopians.

The neon lights powered by electricity make Addis shine at night like its broad day light, thanks to the government’s deliberate efforts to invest in energy, a decision that has also enabled Ethiopia to operate Sub-Sahara Africa’s first ever first light-rail network.

An Ethiopian miracle

I am in Addis because the government here wants to share its success stories with the rest of the region in a bid to replicate the Ethiopian solutions in other African countries, with slight amendment to suit their local situations.

Seven journalists, two from Rwanda and the rest from Uganda have been facilitated by the Ethiopian government to be here for ten days during which they will visit some of the country’s major infrastructure projects as well as get to interact with the country’s top leadership.

On Thursday, the journalists were taken to the headquarters of Ethiopia’s newly unveiled ‘miracle’, the Addis Ababa Light Rail system whose operations were launched last month after three years of construction.

For someone in Rwanda, just imagine that the government one morning announces that it will be constructing a railway line running through Kigali connecting various city suburbs from Nyamirambo to Kanombe!

The challenges of such an undertaking would be immense; from relocating people to inconveniencing business and of course, the financing question, all in a bid to ease public transport in the city and reduce congestion on the roads.

However, the Ethiopian Government brushed all those challenges aside when, in January 2012, launched construction works on US$475 million budget, 85 percent of which was a long term loan from the Chinese Export and Import Bank.

The idea is to have a 185km city railway network connecting the entire Addis Ababa and the first phase is 31km long, was launched just over a month ago; now the focus is shifting to works on the second phase.

“When a city’s population reaches three million or more, you have no option but to have facilities like these in place, especially given Addis Ababa’s significance not only to Ethiopia but to Africa,” said Henok Bopale, the city railways’ General Manager.

Addis Ababa is home to over 4 million residents compared to the country’s 90 million plus population, most of which lives in the countryside.

As the case in Rwanda, Ethiopia has a fair share of young professionals placed in top executive jobs and at only 29 years of age, Bopale is a good example of that.

He had no prior experience in running railways apart from his degrees in Mechanical engineering and a short training in China; he must now learn on the job, make plenty of mistakes enroute to developing the required expertise needed to help lead this crucial sector.

Learning from the Chinese

You can’t miss the Chinese presence in most of Ethiopia’s recent infrastructural developments from the impressive roads to the railway; Bopale explained that because of Ethiopia’s lack of experience with the railways, they had to outsource and learn from those with the experience.

A Chinese firm undertook the studies, construction and now, maintenance of the railway and now another Chinese firm has been contracted to manage operations of the line, hand-in hand with hundreds of young Ethiopians who must learn how everything works in preparation to take over.

The nascent sub-way system is already employing some 686 men and women, 386 of whom are Ethiopians while the others are Chinese expatriates. In total, the Chinese have sent 41 trains although only fifteen are in active use since only one line is operational.

As East Africa gears up to having its standard gauge railway done by 2018, a major question for the partners is how to generate the electricity needed to power the infrastructure.

In Ethiopia, the government has a special line dedicated to serve the railway infrastructure without any power interruptions which would be not only be a shame but lead to a disaster.

Between 25 and 30 Megawatts of electricity are needed to power the railway but the dedicated line, according to one of the site engineers, supplies over 40mw to the railway station at any one time-more than enough.

The plan is simple, after 41 months, the Chinese expatriates currently operating the line should exit and their seats will be occupied by the young Ethiopians who are currently learning from them, all aspects of the railway.

Hundreds of the Ethiopian workers were initially sent to China where they undertook a year’s preparatory course; back home, they have to get more months of watching and doing as the Chinese before they can be fully in control.

The government has also established a railway institute to train more Ethiopians in aspects of the railway management; 800 students are currently enrolled for the course, at master’s level but there are plans to open the doors of the institute to students in the region, including Rwanda, to obtain skills ahead of the region’s own standard gauge railway.

Already, Djibouti, using its proximity, has sent students to enroll in the Ethiopian institute, allegedly, ahead of the launch of its own railway.


At the railway station, Ethiopians are visibly still excited even a month after the launch of the first line; they have also learned how to walk briskly, often breaking into a jog lest they miss the train; unlike the bus or taxi, a train will come and leave just on time.

Fortunately, there’s a train after every six minutes so even if one missed, they could be sure of another in the next six minutes although the missed minutes wouldn’t be recovered.

And the train fairs are fair enough, technically free because according to the Manager, they should be charging travelers at least 30 Ethiopian Birr equivalent to Rwf1,063 but they charge them between 2 (Rwf70) and 6 Birr (Rwf200) for the longest route.

“This service was put in place to help Ethiopians by easing public transport, profits are not a priority,” said the manager.

Over 60,000 travelers use the train on a daily basis, a large enough demand to help recoup the Chinese loan if travel fairs were to be determined by the market not government.

However, the government has twenty years to repay the Chinese loan and there’s a plan to promote an economy along the railway lines, apartments, shopping centres, car parking and other facilities that will generate money to facilitate the loan.

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