Life in Addis Ababa

Some of you have asked about life in Addis Ababa. Here are a few highlights:

Addis sprawls over the foothills of the Entoto Mountains. The city sits at nearly 8000 feet elevation – – third highest capital in the world. That high altitude makes my morning jog feel like a marathon. Half an hour and I am totally bushed.

The city is a crowded urban concentration (3 million), but there are touches of countryside within – – like the goat market (about $50 for a goat) just down the street from my hotel. The goat market is adjacent to donkey market (more than twice that price for a donkey.) One morning a rural visitor was herding cows down the street. Maybe fifteen cows, big horns, looked like long horned Texas steers. I crossed to the other side of the street.

We have had three, all-day, electrical outages in the 10 days I have been here. Much of Ethiopia’s electricity is derived from hydropower and as we are nearing the end of the eight month dry season, the reservoirs that drive the turbines are running low. Consequently, I am told that one should expect an outage every several days – – sort of rolls through Addis on an unpredictable basis.

Getting money in Addis is a regular challenge. ATMs exist but are exceedingly sparse and often don’t have money to dispense. There is virtually no acceptance of credit cards (outside of the big international hotels like Hilton and Sheraton.) Just a handful of banks accept travelers’ checks. Consequently, one must bring all the cash one needs – – sort of a problem for a long stay – – or make special trips to the few travelers-check-accepting banks.

Cashing a travelers’ check is a bit more bureaucratic than in the west. For those of you who recall cashing a travelers’ check, the procedure was simple: Go to the teller, show ID, sign the check, receive money.
Here in Ethiopia we have some additional steps: Go to bank officer’s desk. Give up passport and travelers check to be Xeroxed. Sign check. Xerox again. Bank office then fills out comprehensive form – in triplicate with carbon paper. Returns passport, hands over a numbered metal token. Wait in main lobby, 5 to 30 minutes, until number matching the token flashes on teller’s screen. Go to teller, collect money. Go back to hotel and take a nap after this ordeal.

And finally, a word about names: In this very Christian nation, a few names are recognizable from the bible: Samson and Solomon. A few others have biblical or saintly roots that require some head scratching: Yohannis (John) and Gyorgis (George). However, most are totally unfamiliar: Worku, Workeneh, Girma, Shimeles, Yikanu. Here is a quick test, identify the lone female name above. I have taken to writing down the name of each person I meet so that I can (sort of) remember them and keep them straight.

By the way, if you selected Yikanu, you are correct.

Report From Ethiopia

We left Addis Ababa at 6 AM on Wednesday, heading to the Southern Peoples State where we were to present our solar systems to farmers who live in unelectrified villages. Four of us from the Solar Energy Foundation went along to make the pitch. I was merely an observer, able to speak neither Amharic, the national language, nor Gurage, the language of the Southern Peoples State.

We fought through horrendous early morning traffic. It is a mystery to me how one of the poorest countries in the world – – Ethiopia ranks 11th from the bottom in the world in GDP per capita – – can have enough cars to create a traffic jam…but they have more than enough, big time. There are no pollution controls on vehicles so eye stinging exhaust billows everywhere. Thick enough to see. Thick enough to taste. And the honking is incessant.

Outside the city, the air in the rolling green hills of the Ethiopian highlands (7000 feet) was clear and clean. Small farms lay in every direction. The local farmers and families live in a gocho, a round wooden hut, maybe 20 feet in diameter, covered with a high conical thatched grass roof. Many family compounds consisted of several gocho surrounding a grassy courtyard – – all enclosed with a hand hewn wooden palisade fence. Green hills, crops, scattered gocho compounds and people walking everywhere – – incredibly picturesque.

The bright sun, equatorial sun, pushes the daytime temperatures into the low 80’s – – tempered somewhat by the high altitude. At night the temperature falls to the comfortable mid 50s.

In the countryside, men wear western trousers and shirts, some very worn and ragged. Women wear loose fitting ankle length skirts or dresses with a totally mismatched, clashing top. Most women and some men wrap a thin shawl around the upper torso and over the head to ward off the early morning chill, and later, the bright midday sun.

As we made our way south we passed through 10 or so small towns, each with a school. Kids on their way to morning class wore look-alike school uniforms: a brightly colored pullover. Each town had its own uniform color: vibrant green, bright red, hot pink, electric grape, shocking lavender. All very eye catching. Boys and girls alike wore this uniform, sometimes with matching pants. The sight of an entire school class in hot pink pullover and hot pink pants was unusual for me. Apparently Ethiopians don’t attach such gender specific assignments to clothing colors as we do in the west. Two hours south on a main paved road, then two more hours on a rocky, bumpy dirt road brought us to Gumar, sort of a rural county seat. When we arrived in this small town to conduct a solar demonstration for the county administrators, we discovered that our meeting would be delayed because a local catastrophe had struck just an hour earlier.

An open cooking fire inside a wood and grass gocho had lit the home on fire. A morning breeze fanned the flames which quickly jumped to 10 adjacent gocho. By the time we arrived, only circular smoking ash remained. Hundreds of villagers swatted at the smoking embers with leafy tree branches. Another hundred or so milled around, gawking. School had been let out; hundreds of school kids joined the two teams: swatters and gawkers. Not having a swatting branch, I joined the gawkers. I soon learned that a white face in this remote highland town was imminently more remarkable to the kids than were smoking huts. A crowd of students, 10 – 20 deep surrounded me, silently staring. My abrupt, “hello,” elicited swarms of giggles.

Eventually the fire was brought under control with no loss of life nor injuries. But sadly, 10 families lost their homes. Our team retreated to the local restaurant to await our rescheduled meeting with the county administrators.

Someone ordered for us: injera (remember, spongy pita-like brad made from teff, an indigenous whole grain.) Also a big bowl of rather chewy cooked beef mixed with what looked like small white onion bits. “Good, I thought, “at least I can get my vegetables.” But, bad news: the small white onion bits turned out to be gristle. But also good news: there was plenty of it.

In the afternoon we met with the county administrators to organize a demonstration the next day with the farmers whose villages lacked electricity. The meeting was set for “9:30 or 10.” Sort of indeterminate, I thought.

The next morning the farmers began arriving at 10. They were still arriving at 11 when we started the presentation. They were still arriving at 11:30 when we were into the heart of the presentation. Ultimately we had 166 men and 6 women crowded into the local meeting hall. They had walked in from as much as 2 hours away. Many arrived carrying their dual purpose walking stick/shepherd’s crook. The wealthier ones carried a horse whip – – they had ridden in. One guy showed up on a motor bike. Another farmer brushed his teeth during the meeting – – he massaged his gums with a fibrous plant stem. The non-punctual arrival demonstrated to me that we were working in a timeless economy. There were watches on a few wrists, but that didn’t seem to affect their random arrival pattern. Apparently the watch is more for show than function. I assume the meeting time was set according to wake up, breakfast, and early morning farm chores.

The meeting went well, the farmers were sold on the concept. In a couple of weeks Solar Energy Foundation will send a technical team back to Gumar to begin installing 100 or so solar systems.

Arriving In Ethiopia

I arrived in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on Friday morning after a too long flight with too many layovers en route from Boston. After a brief nap I went to the office of the Solar Energy Foundation. SEF is a German/Swiss organization with a major focus on solar energy in Ethiopia. I will be spending about three months helping SEF set up a sales and distribution network for their solar energy business.

I met my Ethiopian SEF business contacts, Samson – CEO and Worku – CFO, and they are so hungry for assistance that even I can help. I spent the first two days learning, listening, diagnosing.

About 84% of rural Et hiopia is without electricity and SEF has targeted unelectrified villages as its target market. To make this business more than just another NGO (non-governmental organization) give-away, SEF is requiring their customers to purchase the solar system – – thereby committing the customer to the success of this venture. And by running this program as a business, SEF is creating sustainable jobs for Ethiopians, providing technical training, and ultimately will generate manufacturing in the country.

They sell solar systems to rural folk, mainly farmers and their families. SEF subsidizes 20% of the cost of the system – – a solar panel, storage battery, and long life lights – – and takes payment for the remaining 80% from the customer in four payments. SEF installs the system upon receipt of the first payment. Remaining payments are required annually, so in effect, SEF loans the purchase price of the system to the farmer and receives and annual payment over three years.

Ah ha, I thought, I can immediately save SEF money by requiring payment monthly, instead of annually: in effect speeding up collections. Oh, the things we take for granted in the west. Farmers cannot pay monthly. They have no bank accounts; they have money only after the autumn harvest. That is when they can afford to pay for cash items – – like a solar system. The rest of the year they subsist in a mostly cashless state. Apparently, I have more to learn before applying breakthrough business concepts that won’t work in the developing world.

Addis is a big (3 million), sprawling city with few street names and no street numbers. To describe one’s location one states the general area of town and a big building nearby. I am in the Bole area near the Medhane Alem church.

A word about the language…or languages, all 80+ of them. I will focus my efforts on Amharic, considered the national language, even thought just 1 of 3 Ethiopians is a native speaker. The other two thirds use one of the other 80 languages.

I began to study my Amharic phrase book to learn the alphabet. But I gave up when I discovered that there are 231 letters – – and actually they aren’t letters, they are more like syllables and the so-called alphabet is actually a syllabary.

Next, I thought I’d learn some basic verbs, only to find that verbs change spelling (unrecognizably) depending on the gender and number of the subject and the object referred to. Way too complex for my feeble language skills. So now my only hope is to memorize a few simple phrases and hope for the best.

Worku, one of my Ethiopian colleagues, took me around the city on Sunday. He treated me to lunch at a traditional restaurant in a 100 year old house overlooking Addis. The first thing he ordered for us was teuj, a fermented honey drink with all the character of grain alcohol.

Next he suggested we try the raw meat – – I politely took the cooked chicken option while they brought Worku one pound of raw beef. We each cut our chosen meat into bite sizes, then picked up each piece with a piece of injera bread (no utensils other than the knives.) Injera is a sort of spongy pita bread made from teff, a local whole grain. My dish was covered with a mildly spicy red pepper sauce and was quite good. Worku’s was basically a slab of dead cow and, I assume, quite bad. (Apologies to the carnivores among you.) Apparently this raw meat dish is a delicacy in Ethiopia.

I will be traveling in the countryside for several days: my first immersion into rural Ethiopia. With my SEF colleagues, we will visit a village that SEF is trying to market its solar system to. SEF will demonstrate how the system works, then with some luck, sign up a bunch of new customers.