8 January 2012

Ethiopia: Seasonal Christmas Decoration Market Colours Addis Abeba

A young woman gabs away on her mobile below a walkway decorated with artificial conifer branches baring a message that reads "Merry Christmas" above the side entrance of Edna Mall.

Addis Abeba appears to have blossomed in becoming truly cosmopolitan, if judged by the traditions of Christmas decorations.

A transient but profitable market has emerged in the political capital of Africa, meant to accommodate this very Western decorative culture, both at the household level and on a grander scale in some of the well-renowned hotels and malls across the city.

Edna Mall, on cameroon Street, close to Bole Medhanialem Cathedral, is one of these outlets ablaze with the grander of Christmas decorations. Housing Matti Multiplex, a popular hangout for urban youngsters, Edna Mall had a tall Christmas display on the ground floor and had adorned its terrace with tinsel and stickers with holiday greetings, last week.

The staff members of Bob & Bongo's at the mall, a high-end gaming house for children, were handing out gifts during the weekends. The entire building was adorned with colourful lights, as is customary for every holiday. The fountain lights across the street were also lit.

"A lot of preparation has to be done in advance in order to create a festive mood," says Samrawit Fetewi, marketing executive at Edna. "All the decorations have to be on display two weeks before Western Christmas; planning starts in November."

Edna Mall uses its own staff to set up decorations. The staff of the marketing department brainstormed designs and each contributed an idea about how to dazzle visitors.

The bill for the establishment, this year, is no small fee. Management has spent around 110,000 Br on decorations this year alone, according to Samrawit.

This is despite Christmas trees and some decorations being reused every year, the items imported from the United States and Dubai when the mall was first opened in late 2007.

"We reuse the major stuff," Samrawit says. "But, sometimes, the lights break down, and we need more decorations. In addition, we get new ideas every Christmas."

This year, they brought in tiaras with little Santa figures glued on top, as costumes for their staff.

A portion of the staggering amount was spent locally, according to Samrawit.

"We import some of the major stuff, but, if, for example, the lights break down or we need additional balls, we usually go to Merkato and grab some," she told Fortune.

Mercato, the self-proclaimed largest open-air market on the continent, seems to be the place where most people go in order to buy their Christmas decorations. The small alleyway across the street from Wanza Restaurant, where Metro Hotel is located, usually goes by the name Mestawet Terra. Stores on each side of the street either sell mirrors or trade in cosmetics.

But, for two or three weeks during the holiday season, the place is dubbed Tsid Terra. The sidewalks outside of the shops are lined with Christmas trees made of plastic and complementary trimmings. These are usually for display. Retailers of Christmas merchandise keep their stock in Isuzu pickups or minibuses parked in the middle of the street.

For most of the traders, selling Christmas trees is a part-time job. Some of them run khat delivery services as their regular job, while others sell stockings and merchandise in stores.

Some are students who take part-time jobs to take advantage of this seasonal market.

Efrem Geremew, an 18-year old student at a vocational school, was standing on the trailer of a pickup truck in the middle of Tsid Terra selling trees, on Tuesday, January 3, 2011. The business he runs for Christmas is owned by a close family member.

Youths stroll past a Christmas tree burgeoning with decorations in Bob & Bongo's at Edna Mall.

He hopes to get a portion of the profits for working a couple of days last week. Although there are a lot of people coming to ask and haggle over prices with Efrem, business has been slow compared to last year, he claims.

On the taller trees, the prices are marginally better this year, Efrem asserts. Some of the buyers do not agree. They, rather, discovered prices to be higher when they came to ask for trees.

Prices for plastic trees are determined based height. The shortest, a 70cm tree, was sold for 70 Br. Trees with heights of 1.2 metres, 1.5 metres, 1.8 metres, and 2.1 metres were sold within the price range of 100 to 500 Br. Trees that sold for up to 500 Br were of a thorny texture and are known as Habesha trees.

Aster Mekonen, 23, came to Merkato's Tsid Terra with two of her cousins, Tsega and Yordanos Gebreselassie, to shop for a Christmas tree. She was surprised by the prices.

"I bought yeferenj tsid for 400 Br two years ago," Aster recalled.

Last week, prices for such trees went up almost threefold, she found out.

The retailer she was talking to asked if she was not confusing the type of tree she bought. Since the plastic trees are reusable, most people compare prices from two or three years back, making it difficult to keep track of the market trends.

The trees available in the market with a smoother texture imitating a Christmas tree variety found in Western countries, like the one Aster had purchased, are called. Sometimes these come with pinecones. Their price is steeper.

For a tree that is 1.5 metres tall, the price ranges from 1,000 Br to 1,200 Br. If the tree is 2.1 metres tall, it is sold for a price as high as 1,700 Br.

Aklilu Abera, 34, usually sells cooking utensils near Meerab Hotel in Merkato. But, for Christmas, he also sells decorations, largely trees, but not during this season. He did not bring any trees because of the high prices, a trend he observed with other decorations, too.

After all trees are not all that it takes to decorate homes during Christmas. Decorations that are widely available on the market include balls, tinsel, and lights. Small balls that come in packs of six sell for 32 Br, while bigger ones of a dozen sell for 60 Br. Tinsel sells for four Birr to 12 Br, depending on length and thickness.

The 12-pack balls were sold for 50 Br last year, and there was a two Birr increase in the price of tinsel. Prices for Christmas lights ranged from 50 Br to 150 Br, depending on the colour, variety, and number of bulbs.

These decorations are mostly imported from China, according to wholesalers who supply the retailers in Tsid Terra.

Indeed, 88pc of the 137tn of Christmas trees imported last Ethiopian fiscal year, worth 1.2 million dollars, were bought from China, according to data from the Ethiopian Revenues & Customs Authority (ERCA).

The balance, however, was supplied either from Dubai or Turkey, although with steeper prices.

This almost complete dominance of Chinese products in the market is not limited to Christmas trees alone. Out of the 72tn of Christmas lights worth 164,701 dollars, 71tn-worth at 157,885 dollars, were imported from China. Christmas festive decorations, at 137tn-worth for 170,280 dollars, were also imported from China.

Most are also importers and wholesalers, those in Mercato were reluctant to admit, even though they had vans full of stock, amounting to more than a retailer would keep at one time.

Yonas Mekonen, who was selling trees at the Christmas trade fair, was more forthcoming.

"Prices have increased because of the appreciation in the value of the dollars, and duties on imports," he told Fortune. "People are buying less this year; business is not as good, but because it is the season, we are not as hard-pressed as other businesses are," he said.

Wholesale prices are usually 20 Br to 70 Br lower than what is available at the market price, according to Yonas. The bigger the size of the tree, the bigger the profit margin. Retailers usually start asking to buy in bulk around December 11. The retail market begins by December 21.

Yonas, who has been in the business for almost a decade, usually buys 500 pieces of each type of tree he brings into the country from Shanghai. His business boomed following the implementation of bans by the authorities in 1993 on cutting down trees. People involved in the business appreciate the fact that what they are selling is reusable.

"The artificial ones are not perishable," a retailer in Merkato, who requested anonymity, told Fortune. "Whatever trees are leftover from a given year can be sold in the coming season, usually at the market price of the latter season which increases in most cases."

Buyers also appreciate paying for plastic trees for the same reason. Aster is one such buyer with a preference for plastic trees based on their reusability.

"It also saves our forests from deforestation," she said.

It is a view strongly shared by Samrawit from Edna Mall.

"If we copy cultural customs from the West, at all, we should take the good customs," she believes. "Christmas is about festivities, holiday spirit, and togetherness. It would not hurt to bring that culture to our country, but only if we are not hurting our environment with the decorations."

However, using plastic trees may not be as environment ally friendly as some people might think.

Although plastic trees are reusable, they will be thrown away someday, according to Dereje Taye from the Addis Abeba Environmental Protection Agency (AAEPA).

"These trees take more than 100 years to decompose, because they are not easily biodegradable," he told Fortune.

Alarmed by the growing trend, his Agency held a press conference on Thurdsay, January 5, 2012.

Using natural trees cut from the forest is not an option. Nonetheless and despite strict controls on conserved forests such as those found in Ankorcha, Entoto, and Kotebe, around 17,000 to 35,000 trees are cut each year for holiday seasons, a research conducted two years ago by the AAEPA disclosed.

This is too much of a price paid simply to emulate a Western culture whose origin historians agree was in Alexandria, Egypt, using palm trees, which was changed to conifers when the tradition reached Europe.

"A lot more needs to be done," Dereje believes. "The Christmas trees found in Ethiopia give seed only once in 20 years. It would be much better to conserve these plants rather than cut them down for the holidays."

One idea Dereje throws out is the possibility of people growing a tree in a clay pot and taking it inside during Christmastime, instead of contributing to the deforestation process or using non-biodegradable materials.

Despite the Agency's reservations, however, artificial Christmas trees and decorations look like they are here to stay, with malls and hotels doing grander decorations each year, households being accustomed to celebrating Christmas with decorations, and entrepreneurial spirits taking advantage of fleeting, yet profitable, markets such as at Tsid Terra.

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