ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — As weavers in the Shiro Meda textile market work busily at their traditional looms, this ancient city is changing fast around them.
“Ethiopia is growing,” said Vana Tenkir, 42, an Internet café owner who said the market today would be unrecognizable to visitors from 10 years ago. “New buildings are coming up and locals are investing.”
President Obama’s presence in Ethiopia is a sign that the country is putting the famines and wars of the past few decades behind them, said Sammy Ogali, the assistant chairman in charge of the market. Even so, the country needs a boost, he adds.
“This is one of busiest markets in the country,” said Ogali. “We hope the (African Union) meeting being chaired by President Obama will yield fruit and allow more investors to come. We need tourists who can buy our local products.”
Obama ended his three-day visit to the Ethiopian capital with a speech Tuesday at the headquarters of the African Union in which he denounced terrorism and called for African leaders to prioritize job creation. He also said the leaders should uphold democratic freedoms and fight corruption.
He described Africa as “the cradle of humanity” and “one of the fastest-growing regions in the world.”
“Africa will need to generate millions more jobs than it is doing now,” Obama said in the televised speech. “And time is of the essence.” The continent’s population is forecast to double to around 2 billion people in the coming decades.
Obama also toured the local food processing giant Faffa Food as an example of entrepreneurial success. His visit came as the country posted around 10% annual growth in its gross domestic product in recent years.
On Tuesday, the American-Icelandic company, Corbetti Geothermal Power, announced that it has a deal with the Ethiopian government to purchase energy from a $4 billion geothermal plant under construction. The project, slated to generate electricity from heat buried deep underground in 2018, is the latest example of expanding U.S. trade with the country and is among the largest direct foreign investments in Ethiopia.
American exports to Ethiopia increased 151% between 2013 and 2014, from $688 million to $1.73 billion, with aircraft sales causing the increase, according to the U.S. International Trade Administration.
Before boarding Air Force One, Obama stopped to examine “Africa First,” the inaugural Dreamliner aircraft that U.S.-based Boeing recently delivered to Ethiopian Airlines. The 787 is valued as much as $1.3 billion.
China is still Ethiopia’s largest trading partner, often financing infrastructure projects like train lines to help the country export resources to China’s hungry, fast-growing economy.
In Addis Ababa, where emperors who claimed to descend from King Solomon ruled until communists staged a revolution in the early 1970s, the growing prosperity is on display everywhere. Gleaming new towers are rising next to renovated 19th century dwellings.
“Bole Airport was like an airstrip two decades ago,” said John Mellesse, 65, who added that the hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the airport in the last 20 years have drawn foreign investment and businesses to the neighborhood around it. “Right now it’s an international airport that connects us to cities across the world.”
Gleaming halls, souvenir shops with locally weaved-cloth, duty free stores with Chinese cigarettes and glossy airline magazines underscore that development.
Other infrastructure projects are also springing up throughout the country, often financed by government spending that’s backed by exports like sesame seeds to China — the country’s biggest trading partner — and coffee beans to the U.S., the Middle East and Europe.
Ethiopia is already designing a new airport — Bole can’t expand — and crews are now working on the $4.2 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River. With a completion date of 2017, the dam would be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant. It would also make Ethiopia a regional exporter of electricity.
Chinese construction firms are expected to finish a $4 billion, 450-mile railway from Addis Ababa to Djibouti on the Red Sea next year that’s part of more than 3,000 miles of new lines planned throughout the country in the next 15 years, according to the Ethiopian government. The first light railway system in sub-Saharan Africa is slated to open this year in the capital. Already, the shiny blue cars stand, ready to roll.
Those projects are helping to turn around a country that suffered widespread famine in the 1980s and a costly war against its northern neighbor, Eritrea, in the late 1990s.
Almost 40% of Ethiopians lived in poverty a decade ago. Today, the government is on track to reduce the poverty rate to 22%, World Bank statistics show.
In 1985 — the year Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia were held to raise awareness and money to alleviate famine in Ethiopia — the country’s citizens earned around $190 annually on average, according to the World Bank. Today, the average Ethiopian income is $550 a year.
But the country is still desperately poor and behind its neighbors economically. The average per capita income in sub-Saharan Africa is $1,720 a year, according to the World Bank.
Many Ethiopians still haven’t experienced the full benefit of the country’s growth, said Assefa Admassie, a researcher at the Ethiopian Economics Association in Addis Ababa.
“There definitely has been progress on all these issues but the accumulated problem is quite huge,” said Admassie. “The appetite for results is very high, so there is a lot of expectation, and a lot of expectation for an immediate outcome. But, given the magnitude of the problem, I think there is still a lot to do still.”
Buzz generated worldwide by Obama’s visit might help, said taxi driver Michael Girma.
“They are developing this city,” Girma said. “We now need President Obama to mobilize U.S. businessmen to come and invest.”
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