Ethiopia — Uncoupled from the world

Someone just came from London and gave me a copy of ‘The Economist’. SO depressing. Every single article seemed to about how bad things are. Don’t people in Britain these days think about anything else?

Here in Ethiopia you can forget about the recession for days at a time. True, the IMF has just slashed its growth forecast for Ethiopia — but from 11.2% down to 6.5%. European and American countries should be so lucky.

The first phase of the recession — the banking crisis — has so far passed Ethiopia by. The government might officially have declared Capitalism, but a strong whiff of communism still remains. Large chunks of the banking sector are state owned, and even the private banks don’t feel the need to oblige their customers.

There’s no problem of credit card debt, because there are no credit cards. There’s no toxic mortgage problem because hardly anyone gets a mortgage. For foreign residents like me, an overdraft is out of the question — I am not even allowed a cheque book. Exchange controls discourage Ethiopians from investing outside the country.

Most Ethiopians don’t have to worry about whether their savings are safe in the bank — if they have any savings, they are probably stuffed inside the mattress. Or people belong to savings clubs — what West Africans call ‘Tontines’. A young colleague of mine is part of a group of around twenty friends who were all at school together. Each month they meet and contribute part of their wages; they take in turns to go home with the ‘pot’. The money goes in and out on the same day — it doesn’t hang around to get stolen by rogue traders.

I get the impression people here actually feel better off than they did a year ago. This time last year we were in the throes of a drought — hard times both for farmers and city dwellers trying to afford rocketing food prices. Now the rains have been better, prices of maize and wheat have dropped, and markets are full of produce.

Meanwhile, for a country which doesn’t produce industrial raw materials, the crash in commodity prices is good news, not bad. Cheaper steel, cheaper cement, and above all, cheaper oil. Since the government has sportingly passed on at least some of the drop in fuel prices to the customers, we are all now feeling a little better.

I don’t suppose Ethiopia is going to get off scot-free. In fact Ethiopian Airlines — another state monopoly, but a profitable one — has just announced that it is reducing the frequency of some of its flights to China and the United States, although interestingly, not to the rest of Africa.

But the Ethiopian economy is still just about as isolated as it is possible to be in the modern world. Not perhaps a good idea in the long term, but distinctly comforting for the time being.

Slowdown — what slowdown?

Salim was playing basketball down by the beach in Dar es Salaam. Unlike the IMF, he’s not too worried about things.

Thoughts about Zambia

I’ve only been in Lusaka few hours, and of all the adjectives to describe it, I really didn’t think I’d be reaching for this one first: green. Looking out the airplane window, the sheer greenness stretched for miles in every direction. It was like peering down over Galway in Ireland. Ok, minus the clouds, cliffs and sheep.

I guess what I find so extraordinary about the green is what it says to me about Zambia’s economic potential. This is not desert, swamp or jungle, but a country of lush, fertile land. And yet, tragically, it remains one of the poorest places in the world, ranking 163rd out of 179 countries in the UN human development index.

Zambia’s biggest industry by far is copper. It is, in fact, Africa’s largest copper producer. But the need for a more diverse economy is a theme that comes up again and again. With copper prices on the ropes (they have more than halved since the start of the downturn), it may really be the time for the government (and investors) to take agriculture more seriously.

Over the next couple of days, my colleague, Komla Dumar, will be exploring the factors that have kept investment out of the sector. He’ll also be profiling one Zambian company that is becoming a regional farming powerhouse. So listen out.

As I say, I’ve only been here a few hours, but something tells me I’ve already seen the future – and it’s green!

A briefing from Andrew Walker

If you find IMF reports a bit daunting and are perplexed by African economics then try this briefing from Andrew Walker our economics correspondent. Andrew is in Tanzania covering the IMF conference and he knows how to make things clear . . .  PC Read more