Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

23 March 2014

Ethiopia: Marketplaces - Heartlands of Insecurity, Prejudice

The history of many urban centres in the world clearly displays that marketplaces are often the epicentres for the establishment of cities and towns. All producers of goods and services head to a common place for transaction.

In the case of most marketplaces in Ethiopia, transactions take place only once or twice a week. Eventually, some started settling at these marketplaces instead of shuttling back and forth. Thus these settlements grew with time to form towns and cities.

Marketplaces are not only settlements where goods and services are stored and sold, but most importantly they are places of picking up a signal on what goods and services are demanded and supplied. In other words, they are pivotal places where agriculture, industry and business meet to quench all the needs and demands of the people.

The measure to be taken by urban planners to design and provide adequate space and structures for marketplaces is, therefore, extremely important. In the absence of sufficient marketplaces, small traders are forced into to becoming mobile.

Small vendors try to do business on the pavements of the capital. They have no place to go.

From dawn to dusk, they have to run around simply to make ends meet. Every single day for them is like a game of cat and mouse.

The security officer in plain clothes and stout batons hidden under their armpit surreptitiously sneak amidst pedestrians to disguise themselves from the vendors. Suddenly, these forces turn beastly and jump on their prey, grabbing them by the back of their necks with their goods and dragging them off to the nearest police station for detention.

More often than not, the runaways manage to escape notice, scattering their goods all over the places. Their earnings are confiscated or become unaccounted for. The brand name for these traders is "illegal".

They chase them away, forgetting that these are the same people paying their salaries.

Pedestrians have their own version of complaints. They accuse them of creating traffic hurdles or obstructions.

Traffic police officers make the loudest noise. In some places, specific areas are allocated for them to operate under the pretext of a "Sunday Market".

Vendors pay 10 Br a weekend for spreading their articles along the tarmac road, whether or not they sell their commodities. On top of that, not many people have any interest in buying these goods, which are salvaged from foreign lands in most cases. Vehicles are prohibited from passing by.

I could go on citing more examples. But that will do to show how businessmen are perceived in our country.

The role they play in the country's economy, however, transcends this perception. They bear the burden of paying their dues and taxes, even if the government vows to make them pay taxes from their bleeding purses.

Let us try to see the economic structure of the country in its right perspective. We know that 85pc of the population is engaged in agriculture. According to the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports of 2011, the aggregate arable land in Ethiopia well exceeds 141 million hectares, out of which only 14.6pc is cultivated.

In plain language, this ratio means that more than eight people are required to feed one person. It should have been the reverse, if we are to go by the situation in other countries.

In the US, for example, only between four to five percent of the population are engaged in farming. They not only feed themselves, but also produce for other countries as well, including Ethiopia.

It is not difficult, therefore, to see which sector of the economy contributes more to the national income. Apart from farmers and pastoralists, we have members of the civil service, army, students, job seekers, housewives and others, including those engaged in importing and exporting, who fall into the category of business.

These are the main taxpayers. But, judging by what we do or fail to do to encourage the business sector, we seem to have our focus misplaced.

The general assumption that our economy depends on agriculture may be true only as far as cash crops are concerned. This subsector is where little is done to help the farmer.

Coffee and Khat plantations, for example, do not call for agricultural agents or special assistance from the agriculture ministry. They are self helping activities.

What I am trying to show is that, unlike general beliefs, the pyramid is reversed. It is the business sector that bears the greater weight of the burden of paying taxes and contributing much to the economy.

But, unfortunately, wider media coverage is given to the little fragmented farming engagements. Fertilisers and technical innovations that help increase agricultural outputs are promoted. And, yet,we have not been able to feed ourselves.

On the other hand, the business sector is regarded as a step child. In fact, there is even a growing prevalence of fire accidents in marketplaces, like the recent case of Harar's Shewa Ber market area.

It is now time for the Addis Abeba City Administration officials to make arrangements for vendors and mobile traders to provide them with some kind of squat where they can operate freely. Else, the picture of business seems to be gloomy.

Incidentally, the scarcity of basic items like sugar, edible oil and wheat flour are not only making life miserable, but making things go from bad to worse. There could be nothing more precarious to socio-political situations than the question of survival unless and until life saving steps are taken by the government urgently beyond any rhetoric.

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