Feasting not famine

It’s been 25 years since Ethiopians rid themselves of the yoke of the brutal Derg regime. Back then, a young PhD student travelled to London to acquire the skills to help rebuild his country. Now Dr Hailemichael Aberra has returned to the capital as Ambassador and the country he represents has changed beyond recognition.

“I am here to show the UK the new image of Ethiopia, not the old one of famine,” says the Ambassador and one-time Member of Parliament. Many still remember the scenes of starvation that shocked the world back in 1984 and inspired the Live Aid concert organised by Bob Geldof. Today, the musician-philanthropist is an investor in a business venture to make Ethiopian wine.

Remarkable transformation
It’s a small example of a remarkable transformation. Ethiopia is still a poor country but thanks to the country’s Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), extreme poverty has been reduced by half and the country has experienced double-digit growth rates.

Ethiopia remains vulnerable to the effects of climate change – recently it suffered from severe drought, followed by floods. “But we have managed it this time,” says Aberra. “We have resilience and, with a bit of support from friendly countries, we have been able to cope. Drought does not lead to famine and death, but bad governance does.”

Promoting good governance has been an important theme of the ruling EPRDF since liberation in 1991 and the Ambassador has played his part in that process. For the 17 years prior to this posting Aberra was the President of the Civil Service University in Ethiopia and led a major capacity-building programme in civil service institutions in Ethiopia at federal and regional level. The £300m Ethiopia receives annually in development assistance from the UK’s Department for International Development has “contributed greatly” to Ethiopia’s progress, says Aberra.

In addition to efforts to industrialise, Ethiopia’s development will focus on grassroots economic growth, offering microfinance to Ethiopia’s small entrepreneurs, particularly women and young people (close to 70% of Ethiopia’s population is under the age of 30).

Green powerhouse
The rapid rate of urbanisation represents the next big challenge for Ethiopia’s planners, says Aberra. So a key feature of Ethiopia’s second GTP will be to expand the electricity supply, he says. “We have seen huge investment, particularly in renewable energy. In the years to come Ethiopia will be the green powerhouse of Africa.”

The construction of the Renaissance Dam is the flagship hydro-electricity project, but there are also solar, wind, geothermal and biofuel schemes. “Having a reliable energy supply is vital for a growing economy. It will slow deforestation and, best of all, it will liberate women from collecting firewood so that they can focus on starting their own businesses,” explains the Ambassador.

A shortage of skills is another potential bottleneck for Ethiopia’s booming economy. As an academic, education is a priority for the Ambassador, who wants to expand the cooperation between Ethiopian universities and British institutions in areas such as curriculum development and quality assurance.

Security partner
Also key to Ethiopia’s progress is bringing about peace and security in the Horn of Africa.

A recent visit to Ethiopia by Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond focused on the security partnership between Ethiopia and Britain. “We are working with the British to bring about stability to what is an unstable region and encouraging the new winds of change that are blowing through Africa, for peace and development… Ethiopia is a partner for Britain in countering the terrorism like Al Shabab in Somalia as well as the destabilising activities of the Eritrean regime,” Aberra points out.

Ethiopia hosts 800,000 refugees fleeing instability or oppression and it is also a transit country for people fleeing suppression and human rights abuses. “Britain and Ethiopia are co-operating to stop human traffickers and illegal migration. We welcome British influence in the EU to keep these matters at a high level,” stresses the Ambassador.

But the most effective way to curb economic migration to Europe, says Aberra, is to invest in the economies of the source countries to create opportunities for their people. Here in the UK, the Ambassador encourages the Ethiopian diaspora to invest in projects back home. Already many of them have supported the construction of dams. Other areas earmarked for expansion include agro-processing, mining, leather and textiles.

Ancient heritage
And with direct flights from London on Ethiopian Airlines, tourism has much untapped potential, adds the Ambassador. He hails from Axum, a UNESCO World Heritage site that many believe was the seat of the Queen of Sheba. Its mystical obelisks tell the story of an ancient civilisation that traded throughout Arabia. An early Christian kingdom, visitors to Ethiopia can also see churches hewn from solid rock in Lalibella or trek the breathtaking Ethiopian Highlands.

With its iconic injera flatbread, exotic superfoods, high-quality indigenous coffee and varied culinary traditions, the Ambassador believes Ethiopia could be poised to be the next big food destination for Brits. The irony is not lost on him: “I want everyone to discover Ethiopia as a land of feasting, not famine,” he smiles.