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Two decades of Astounding Progress Connecting Ethiopians

Two decades of Astounding Progress Connecting Ethiopians

Zewdu Tafere 06-04-15

Some believe Ethiopia's medieval age ended a century ago when Emperor Tewodros made headways in reinstate central authority and foreign relations. In actuality, Ethiopia remained in the dark ages until two decades ago.

Before 1991, the relation among the various Ethiopia's regions and nation, nationalities as well as with the neighboring countries was non-existent.

Transport and telecom services

Only about l2 percent of the population had ready access to roads. The airline service connected handful cities in the country and operated about a dozen international flights to twenty-one cities in eighteen African countries.

The only international airports were located at Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa. The number of passengers served in a year had been just a few hundred thousands.

The national telecommunications system was rudimentary. Broadcast facilities were concentrated in a few cities, and telephones were limited primarily to government offices and businesses in Addis Ababa and regional capitals. The total number of phone lines in the entire country was only 109,000 telephones. In a country of 50 million people, there were only 109,000 telephones!

International voice call services, except to Kenya and Djibouti, passed through the Atlantic Ocean satellite of the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat) via a ground station just north of the capital. This ground station was capable of providing only 100 simultaneous high-quality telephone, data, and television links with the rest of the world. Only 100!

The progress made since then is simply astounding!

Since the Transitional Government of Ethiopia came to office in May 1991, a number of steps have been taken and policy instruments formulated first to rehabilitate the shattered social and economic infrastructure and secondly to lay down a strong foundation for sustainable development in the years ahead.

The major undertaking of the government was to identify points through which to break into the circle of failure and defeatism and mobilize energy and resources to that end. Among the major steps, the Transitional Government of Ethiopia has taken to deal with the current economic and social crises are the adoption of an Economic Policy for the Transitional period aiming at introducing fundamental structural changes in the economy and promote the production and distribution of such goods and services.

Since then, the connecting Ethiopia's peoples among themselves and with their neighbors' have been given the paramount priority. Indeed, Ethiopia is one of the few African countries that have formulated and implemented a full-fledged and extensive transport and telecom expansion direction.

The government has shown extraordinary commitment and ownership as the objective was concretized into action by various sub-sector strategies and by the successive development plans such as; Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction Program (SDPRP) 2002/03-2004/05 and the Plan of Action for Sustainable Development and Eradication of Poverty (PASDEP) 2005/06 -2009/10 and The Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) 2010/11-15/16.

We can take a bird's-eye-view of the difference made by committed leadership and scientific policy directions.


Before l991, in addition to the l3,000 kilometers of all-weather roads, of which about 4,000 kilometers were asphalted and 8,900 were all-weather gravel roads, there were 4,900 kilometers of rural dirt roads, making a total of nearly 18,000 kilometers of all types of roads. Centered in Addis Ababa, the road system radiated in all directions in a spoke-like pattern. However, substantial parts of the country, notably in the west, southwest, and southeast, still lacked all-weather connections to this network. Only about l2 percent of the population had ready access to roads. Most roads in the national network were concentrated in the central, eastern, and northern highlands.

During the 1936-41 Italian occupation, road building increased. Mobility helped Italy consolidate its rule over Ethiopia, initiate development projects, and pacify unstable areas. By l94l, there were about 7,000 kilometers of roads, of which about half were surfaced with asphalt. However, after liberation, road construction and maintenance was neglected because of a lack of funds, equipment, and expertise until l95l, when the government established the Imperial Highway Authority. With the help of World Bank funds and with technical assistance from the United States Bureau of Public Roads, the development of Ethiopia's highway system continued.

Despite these efforts, Ethiopia's road network remained primitive and quite limited, even by African standards. This shortcoming had tragic consequences during the 1984-85 famine, when the lack of good roads contributed to Ethiopia's inability to distribute food to famine victims. As a result, many thousands of Ethiopians perished. In 1991 completion of an adequate nationwide highway system continued to be one of Ethiopia's major development challenges.

All these dramatically changed after 1991!

In the past two decades, the government managed to build more than 95,000 Kms.  Of all types of road in place, asphalt roads were only 3,542 Kms long of in 1991/92, which is now 11,301 Kms.

The expansion has significantly decreased the time it takes to reach an all-weather road across the country to an average of 2.4 hours and equally increased accessibility to roads throughout the country.

By the mid-term of the GTP period, the proportion of roads in good condition had also increased to 87% of the total road network. This, in fact, already surpassed the final target set for the end of the Plan in 2014/15.

Indeed, the ambitious road expansion initiative of the GTP can be credited with providing employment opportunities for more than 50,000 people; and even by 2011/2012 those jobs had generated more than 1.5 billion birr of income for those employees.

As Transport Minister Workneh Gebeyehu stated a few months ago, the activities undertaken over the last 16 years in the sector enabled the country to raise the road coverage to 70 per cent.

The total length of road in the country has reached over 86,000-kms due to the enormous investment and commitment of the EPRDF led government.

In the past years, Ethiopia invested more than 142 billion birr in the road sector.  However, despite what the detractors routinely claim, the main source was not foreign donation. Of the entire total amount spent, 77 percent was by the government.

One of the major works in that regard is the 28.1-km long two roads linking the Addis Ababa-Adama Expressway with Addis Ababa City into two directions constructed at a cost of more than 4.2 billion birr allocated by the government of Ethiopia and loan obtained from Chinese Exim bank.

Another major example is the construction and renovation of 1,700-kms roads carried out in the Benshangul -Gumuz State with over 172 million birr. Now, as result of the works, the once marginalized region now have 3,000-kms roads.

Three times to what used to be 20 years ago!

Similarly, the capital city Addis Ababa, which has long been horrible in its roads network, has seen a major leap unprecedented in her recent history. Addis Ababa has constructed more than 1,219- kms road in the last five years with more than 10 billion birr budget.

Now, Addis Ababa's road coverage has reached 15.64 per cent raising the network to 4,148-kms of which 2002- kms is asphalt, 727-kms cobblestone and the remaining 1,419- kms is gravel. In the processes, the city created jobs for more than 50,000 youths and women in cobblestone road construction.


For about a century, Ethiopia had just one rail way; that is, the Franco- Ethiopian Railroad. A French company, the Compagnie Impriale des Chemins de Fers Ethiopiens, built it by authority of Emperor Menelik II. Construction began in l897 at the port city of Djibouti, and the final link reached Addis Ababa in l9l7.

After 1991, tremendous changes had been achieved.

Among those, the prime example is the Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit project, which is an electrified light rail transit system with a total length of 34.25-kms (North-South line 16.9-kms and East-West line 17.35-kms). The two lines which are the North-South and East-West lines use common track of about 2.7-kms with a Standard Gauge of 1.435 meters and double track for the whole route.

Out of the total 32-kms main line of the phase one project, some 7.6-kms covered with bridges which would be constructed in six locations.

The AA-LRT project completed this year have a capacity of transiting 60,000 passengers per hour. One of the special features of the Project is that it performs on steep gradient and sharp curves and the fact that it is environmentally friendly as it reduces carbon dioxide emission.

Trains with a capacity to carry around 300 people will start work in the coming months. The trains will arrive at stations every six minutes. The speed of the trains is estimated t about 70 km/h. The total cost of the railway project is 475 million dollars (over 142 billion birr) of which 85 percent is obtained from Exim Bank of China.

Though the Chinese company CRBC took the contract for the construction of the Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit project, the Ethiopian company METEC plays a major role signifying the growing local capacity and technology-transfer component of the project.

Indeed, the railway is said to be relatively free of noise and air pollution, uninterrupted by power outages and equipped with handicap friendly technology. The Railway will utilize electronic ticketing system.

The Addis Ababa Light Railway Transit project, despite its significanse, is not the only mega project launched to transform Ethiopia's economy and advance the social-economic stride.

The 756 kilometer-long electrification project, linking Addis Ababa to the Port of Doraleh in Djibouti, is another priority project of the GTP. The Ethiopian section of the project is now more than 25 percent complete; and Djibouti launched construction of the 100 kms line within its territory last month.

With the China Railway Engineering Corporation building the 317km segment from Sebeta to Meiso, the 339km from Meiso to the border town of Dawale, and the third 100kms to the port of Doraleh, more than a quarter of the work is completed while the rest is progressing as per plan.

The Addis Ababa Djibouti line will have 17 major stations and pass through Debre Zeit, Adama, Metehara and Dire Dawa. Of which, the 107kms from Addis Ababa to Adama will be double track and the remaining 549 kms will be single track.

The Sebeta/Addis Ababa-Adama- Mieso railway, which is a section of Ethiopia's key railway project of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway being built by the China Railway Group (CREC) is nearing completion.

As the track-laying activity is approaching to completion, a grand ceremony was held on Monday in Adama town about 99 km south of Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, where senior government officials, diplomats, Chinese and local staff of CREC as well as residents of Adama town celebrated the landmark chapter of the project.

The Sebeta/Addis Ababa-Mieso railway project covers a total length of 329.145 km. The Ababa-Adama section is a double track with 115 km length while the Adama-Mieso is a single track covering 214.145 km.

These projects are part of the two-phased plan unveiled in 2010 to construct a 4,850 long railway, with 8 main rail routes and expected to connect about 49 towns, under the purview of the newly established Ethiopian Railway Corporation.

A 656 km long rail route that stretches from Sebeta, near Addis Ababa, to Dewele, which is located near the border of Djibouti, is amongst them.

Not to forget, the old 781 kms railway line from Dire Dawa to Djibouti that has been maintained and started operations last year.


Air Transport

Distance, terrain, and an underdeveloped road system made air transport an important part of Ethiopia's transportation network. Ethiopian Airlines (EAL), began operations in l946 and provided domestic and international air service. The airline served some forty-five cities and towns in Ethiopia and operated international flights that, in early 1991, included service to only twenty-one cities in eighteen African countries and to some western European destinations.

The only international airports were Addis Ababa, and Dire Dawa. Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport served more than l95,000 passengers in l986/87, while the Dire Dawa airports handled 8l,000 passengers during the same period. Even among the two only Bole International Airport was capable of handling larger aircraft, such as the Boeing 747.

Although it refrained from interfering in EAL operations, the Derg government opposed the airline's plans to expand into areas such as hotel construction and management, tourism, and catering, which the government reserved for state corporations, which operated at a loss.

It is only after the advent of the EPRDF led government that the airline started showing dramatic change.

At the end of 2009 EAL’s fleet reached 34 aircraft, including 29 passenger aircraft and five freighters. But that was just the start of an even dramatic growth.

Now, EAL is one of only four airlines in Africa with over 5 million annual passengers. It is also one of only four airline groups with a fleet of more than 50 aircraft.

Including ASKY and Malawian, the Ethiopian Airlines Group currently has a fleet of 79 aircraft – more than any other airline group in Africa. The fleet operated by Ethiopian Airlines currently consists of 69 aircraft, including 60 passenger aircraft and nine freighters. This also makes Ethiopian the largest single carrier in Africa.

Ethiopian Airlines has doubled in size since the beginning of the decade while most other major African carriers have grown only slightly or not at all. Asia and Africa have been, and will continue to be, the primary drivers as Ethiopian taps the booming Asia-Africa market.

Even after EAL has already more than doubled in size over the last five years, it plans to roughly double its fleet over the next 10 years, enabling it to maintain its status as Africa’s largest airline.

Ethiopian Airlines is planning further fleet and network expansion in 2015, enabling the flag carrier to widen the gap with other leading African carriers. Ethiopian has already become the largest airline in Africa based on fleet size and could overtake South African Airlines (SAA) in 2015 as the largest based on passengers carried.

The airline plans to buy three additional 787-8s in 1H2015, growing its 787 fleet to 13 aircraft. These are the last three 787s from the carrier’s 13-aircraft commitment. EAL is also slated to receive two additional 777-300ERs in 2015. These aircraft will not be used on any of the new long-haul routes but can be used to up-gauge existing 787 routes, freeing up 787s. It currently has orders for 20 737 MAX 8s, 12 A350s, three 737-800s, three 787-8s, two 777-300ERs and two 777Fs, according to the CAPA Fleet Database. Ethiopian has been negotiating a potential order for 777X aircraft as well as for additional A350s.

EAL’s profits nearly doubled in 2013 to 2.05 billion birr (USD 113 million) as revenues increased 14% to 38.5 billion birr (USD 2.124 billion). It also surpassed the 5 million passenger mark for the first time in the fiscal year ending 30-Jun-2013 (FY2013), when the government-owned flag carrier transported 5.22 million passengers. Passenger traffic reached 6 million in 2014 fuelled by 15% year over year growth. Passenger traffic has more than doubled since 2009 and has grown at a double-digit clip over the last six years.

Aside from its role of transporting people across the world, EAL has made strides in transportation of Ethiopian products thereby supporting Ethiopian exporters and making Ethiopia an attractive place for foreign companies.

Now Ethiopian Airlines is the largest cargo operator in Africa with six dedicated freighter aircraft. It is currently operating two Boeing 777-200 LR freighters, the first to be operated in Africa, two MD-11, and two Boeing 757 freighters out of two hubs, Addis Ababa and Liege, Brussels.

Today, the airline operates to 25 cargo destinations in Africa, Middle East, Europe and Asia. Having a vast cargo network — 15 in Africa, seven in Middle East and Asia and two in Europe — Ethiopian operates in major trade lanes between Africa and Europe, Middle East and Asia, providing a convenient and reliable cargo service to and from the continent.

Boosted by the growth of perishable exports from Ethiopia and the government’s focus on the sector, the airline is now expanding its cargo network and fleet and aims to set up cargo hubs in Central, West and Southern Africa to cater for the growing need for reliable and affordable air cargo transport to and from the continent. By 2025, Ethiopian plans to uplift 820,000 tonnes of cargo using 15 jet aircraft.

To support the airline’s fast growth and achieve its goal in continuing to be the leading cargo service provider in Africa, existing facilities are also being upgraded and new ones are being built.

In what will be one of the biggest in the world, EAL have begun the construction of a large cargo terminal (both dry and perishable) with an annual capacity of 1.2 million tonnes. The perishable part of the cargo terminal will be, in terms of capacity, bigger than that of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport or the Dubai Flower Centre.

In the meantime, Ethiopian has recently inaugurated an additional perishable cargo storage facility with a capacity of 65,000 tonnes per annum to cater for the ever-growing export of perishables from Ethiopia.

The difference in the growth of EAL in the previous forty years and the last twenty years cannot be clearer.


Ethiopia's telecommunications system was rudimentary. Broadcast facilities were concentrated in a few cities, and telephones were limited primarily to government offices and businesses in Addis Ababa and regional capitals. Long- distance and international communications to two neighboring countries went via two radio-relay links. Other parts of the country were linked by old and unreliable open-wire lines. International service, other than to Kenya and Djibouti, passed through the Atlantic Ocean satellite of the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (Intelsat) via a ground station just north of the capital. This ground station was capable of providing over 100 simultaneous high-quality telephone, data, and television links with the rest of the world.

In 1989 Ethiopia counted only 109,0000 telephones, or two sets per 1,000 inhabitants, one of the lowest per capita figures in the world. Only 84 percent of service was automatic; the rest still used outdated manual systems. Over two-thirds of the telephones were in Addis Ababa or Asmera; the remainder were scattered throughout a few of the larger towns or regional capitals. Most users were either government offices or businesses. International direct dial was available to some users in Addis Ababa. Local or long- distance calling was difficult, however, with frequent busy signals for uncompleted calls.

This backward state of telecom infrastructure started to change after a new developmental drive sets in 1991.

The Ethiopian government had long started expanding communication infrastructure at a break-neck speed. As far back as 2005, when the role of mobile telephone for rural development was less obvious, the government had set ambitious targets. Such as; enabling every Ethiopian access telecommunication services within 5 km of her residence, increasing Tele-density for fixed line by fivefold and Tele-density for mobile by fifteen-fold.

The telecoms infrastructure expansion included providing 15,000 (almost all then existing) Kebeles with at least five telephones lines. The expansion of telephone services in the rural areas were hoped to deliver much more than faster exchange of market information for farmers. It was also with the objective of expediting public mobilization for development that the government launched major ICT projects in 2005; such as, among many, the School Net (to connect 600+ high schools); the Woreda-Net (to connect 600 Woredas) and and the HER Net (for higher education institutions).

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet subscription grew by thousands percents since year 2000 to 2009.

Despite impressive achievements, the government set much bigger telecoms service expansion targets in the GTP in 2010/11.

In fact, since 2011, Ethio-Telecom, with a strong backing from the Ministry of Information and Technology, was engaged in an aggressive and innovative marketing strategy to increase the number of mobile subscribers, in addition to expanding the infrastructure.

Not to forget, the improvement in the procedure for connecting one’s mobile phone to the internet which now takes a single free phone call to the EthioTelecom.

As a result, as of June 2012, the number of mobile phone subscribers stood at 17 million (from about 5 mil. in 2011) and the number of internet service users reached 2.5 million (from 100,000 in 2011), according to the data from the relevant Ministry.

On June 2013, Ethio-Telecom started upgrading mobile networks. The upgrade was intended to help double the mobile phone user base to 40 million.

Earlier on March, Ethio-telecom moved to upgrade the current telecommunications infrastructure to 3G LTE (long-term evolution) networks at a cost of 1.5 billion dollars.

Aiming for an even further growth, Ethio-Telecom signed a USD 1.6 billion telecommunication expansion project contract which is part of the GTP's "objective of increasing telecoms service access and nationwide coverage by upgrading the existing network to the latest technology".

The 4G LTE service, which is the latest existing technology, was rolled up to the public heralding Ethiopia’s joining the new frontier in telecom technology.





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