Once known as just a thriving tourist destination, Hawassa, capital of the Southern Regional State, has transitioned into an exciting city that is fast becoming a manufacturing hub, a feat that is changing the narrative of Ethiopia, now on the verge of becoming an industrialized nation.
In all the development of the city, with emerging boutique hotels that are meeting international standards and bringing scarce forex, the success of the Hawassa Industrial Park, the flagship of Ethiopia's parks, is being noted and being replicated within the nation, in cities such as Kombolcha, Adama, Jimma, Dire Dawa and Bole Lemmi II among others, as well as within the African continent in dire need to attract foreign investment in order to create desperately needed local jobs for its fast growing young populations at home.
The Reporter was recently invited to visit the park.
With China's ever-increasing dominance on the happenings of Ethiopia and put in charge of mega infrastructure projects - in lieu of international donors that have dominated its narrative - China's footprint in Ethiopia is perhaps nowhere more evident than what is taking place inside the compounds of the Industrial Park.
"This is the first sustainable textile and apparel Industrial Park in Africa and is a state-of-the-art facility," Fitsum Ketema, the General Manager of the Park, told The Reporter. "This is a model for others being built in Ethiopia and throughout Africa. It has Zero-Liquid Discharge (ZLD) technology (again) the largest in the continent that is able to treat 11 million liters waste-water daily and is able to use recycled water".
Now in its third year of inception, it has helped attract 21 multinationals from around the world, including from the United States, India, China, Bangladesh and Thai companies among others and having their products exported in many western nations with more on the way. It has created thousands of jobs and opportunities for skills development and knowledge transfers that Ethiopia is counting on to help advance its agenda of becoming a hub for foreign investment and making Ethiopia their next frontier.
"I started working here when it first opened and I was once a low paid laborer," Henok Girma said. "But I have slowly moved on up, not only earning a better wage but I have also been given ample opportunity to develop my skills and some of the training have occurred in China, which otherwise would have been a farfetched dream for someone like me, who comes from a farming background".
"While I note the salaries would never satisfy a workers expectation at the beginning, one has to appreciate the opportunity to advance and the training that are world class", he added.
While there have been issues with low payment and the government looks for ways to up the minimum wage, most wages have significantly gone up, with additional benefits and meals provided with every shift.
"Many of us were paid about 900 Birr when we started, but those starting now earn in the upwards of about double that and the benefits have improved. We struggled to survive then, to pay rent and eat and support families back home. But those of us who passed that phase are here to tell a story, not just an improved payment, but skills we can take anywhere we choose to go with our careers. We are not just low wage employees trying to make it month to month, we are ones with careers", 24-year-old Tigist Taye said as she finished her day shift.
When the Park opened, it was constructed at a record time of only nine months on July of 2016 by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), who wanted to showcase its expertise as a model for other projects within Ethiopia, including the construction of roads, airports, train lines connecting Ethiopia with Djibouti, factories and bridges.
"This is a world class infrastructure and it's no wonder it has been hailed by policymakers, investors and others and is seen as a model construction worthy of emulation. That is why world leaders, including leaders of Eritrea, Rwanda and Kenya have come to look and learn from it and use the wisdom gained from here to perhaps construct such a park in their own nations," Fitsum said.
It was built as per international standards and operational are manufacturers of brand name clothing. For Ethiopia, it was envisioned to create jobs, bring in foreign currency to the government coffers and bring technology transfer. In addition, there was a commitment to have a park management system where 10 percent of the land reserved for the park is to be used as a green space with thousands of seedlings planted, an environmental commitment now being championed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD).
In addition, the Park with partnership with CCECC, one of China's governments multinational and its tenants continue to supply hundreds of students with essential school supplies annually.
"Their generosity and great neighborhoods gesture has helped four of my children with school supplies that I would otherwise would have had a hard time providing for them and I am thankful," a woman told The Reporter, as her children were one of the 500 children provided with the supplies this year.
Another mother, who sells cheap food and coffee under an aging makeshift tent under a tree and serves some of the staff of the park, has also managed to enroll her son on the program and have him receive school supplies.
"As a single mother, who toils on the street to earn a living and take care of a son on my own, this program has been a gift. I am happy he is being provided with quality products which otherwise would be a challenge to provide on my own", Almaz Tewolde told The Reporter.
For Fitsum, this is to be an ongoing program that all actors of the park will participate in and it is not to be a one-time initiative.
"We do not do this as a business transaction but because we care about the children and have us play a role in the local social development of the city. These children are the future and we want to help them achieve great things early on. Hopefully, one day they would become our colleagues," Fitsum said.