Chinese Signs in the Ethiopian Highlands

Chinese Signs in the Ethiopian Highlands
Source: CIA The World Factbook

Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is the hub for much of the airborne travel in Africa. Ethiopian Airlines flies across the continent, carrying many of Africa’s travelers via the city’s small but comfortable airport. Aside from the usual assortment of foreigners – backpackers on their way to safaris, mid-level managers of commodity firms and a few diplomats – the demographic of the airport’s transit population says much about the state of the continent’s political economy.

The airport is also notable for its sheer inconvenience. A veteran expat in West Africa– an American manager at a mechanical equipment firm – explains the hassle to get from Congo to Nigeria, both of which are west of Ethiopia. The only other option, instead of transiting at Addis, is to take a local Nigerian flight, which he dismisses as “having a decent probability of falling out of the sky.” So what should be a journey of just a few hours becomes a day-long one, including hours of sitting around at Addis.

Asked how Addis became the intra-Africa transport hub, despite its inconvenience, the expat points to cooperation among African leaders. Ethiopia, with few resources to boost its struggling economy, was allotted the role by other nations as means of economic survival. Indeed, in the terminal I saw Africans of many different nationalities –although dominated by those of neighboring states like Kenya and Tanzania, also well-represented are the more boisterous Nigerians and people from other West African countries.

Addis Ababa reflects a sense of increasing connectivity in Africa. In the past, friends tell me, flying from one African state to another often required transit through Paris or another European hub, such was the weakness of the African transport network. The airport also appears to benefit a large number of African travelers, who together are making African commerce and economic interdependence a greater reality.

The airport also shows signs of burgeoning South-South economic integration. There is a massive presence of Chinese on their way to various parts of Africa or back to China. There are Chinese-language information booths, signs, and dedicated duty-free shops to cater to the demands of the Chinese travelers. My American lunch mate casually remarks, “Well, you should see West Africa, they [the Chinese] are just there to take over, simple as that.”

While China may lead the pack with investments and commerce in Africa, others are not far behind. Businesspeople from India and the Middle East are well-represented at this airport, and sprinkles of other East Asian people complete the mosaic. Without a doubt, they are here to take advantage of whatever economic activities the continent has to offer. As the American manager said, “The money is so good here that I just keep coming back.”

The non-tourist foreign crowd may not remain this huge and diverse for long. Many of the foreigners residing and working here do so because there is a distinctive lack of appropriate human capital among the local populace – for instance the Americans who are here to manage firms, or the Chinese who are here as skilled technical workers and small traders. Once Africans absorb the know-how and combine it with their far superior local knowledge, the usefulness of foreigners will likely be greatly diminished. Many, perhaps, will find the role they have long-played on this continent has disappeared, and they will be forced to go home to a less adventurous lifestyle.

So, as adventurous professionals from around the world descend on this international airport in Ethiopian highlands, it all comes together as a temporary phenomenon of global economic integration. Sure, diversity will not be around for long as people of this continent catch up in skills, but for the time being, the courage and worldliness of people from around the globe are perfectly visible in one single place. To the professional traveler like me, there is no greater joy, and convenience, than seeing such a sight.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by author’s blog here.

Editor: Edward White