Ethiopia: A Development Story

Venturing beyond Europe, and with local experts as his guides, Rick uses Ethiopia as a classroom for understanding global hunger and extreme poverty — and how to beat it. Together, we witness the importance of water, education, empowering women, and nutrition during a child's first thousand days. And we see firsthand the impact of globalization and climate change. Our souvenir: A vivid appreciation of how ending hunger is possible — and how smart and modern development aid is the key.


Salam. I'm Rick Steves, back with more great travels. This time we're venturing beyond Europe all the way to Africa for something a little different. We're exploring Ethiopia. And, with Ethiopia as our classroom, we're learning about extreme poverty and the progress being made to overcome hunger. Thanks for joining us.

Ethiopia has endured drought, famine, and lots of conflict. But today, after years of steady development, it's emerging as a model for the future of Africa.

Rather than [doing] traditional sightseeing, in Ethiopia we'll delve into the dynamics of a thriving and growing country of 100 million. We'll learn about the importance of water, new techniques for smart agriculture, and how good nutrition, education, and empowering women are fundamental to development. We'll check in on new technology that amps up development, and see how Ethiopia is joining the global economy. And we'll do it in a way to better understand how development is working across the globe.

About a five-hour flight south of Rome, Ethiopia — roughly the size of Italy — is the leading country in the Horn of Africa. We'll start in the capital, Addis Ababa, fly to Axum to explore the Tigray region, and then fly to Hawassa to check out life in the Southern Territories [Nations].

Ethiopia is proud to be a country that was never a European colony. Along with busy cities, it also has a rich and ancient heritage. It's a country of many ethnic groups, and vivid contrasts, some of the oldest Christian churches anywhere, a world-renowned coffee tradition, and dramatic natural beauty. While Ethiopia has long struggled with poverty and famine, it's making great strides. And today, countries like Ethiopia are inspiring hope in the developing world with steady gains.

Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, is a city of over three million people. It has a lot of energy: high rises, efficient mass transit, and the headquarters of the African Union. And Addis Ababa also has its chaotic market scenes and teeming slums.

Big cities like Addis are a seductive draw to young people from the countryside. For a poor rural person, such a high-energy city — with an enticing consumer society and office towers that seem to promise job opportunities — has a strong appeal.

It's a global trend: The allure of the big city depopulates the countryside and fills the barrios. Neighborhoods like this are crowded with people who came to the big city dreaming of solid employment only to find themselves mired in urban poverty. Ravines, considered uninhabitable by the local government, [have] become shanty towns crowded with these new arrivals.

A great thing about travel in the developing world is just getting swallowed up in the thriving markets. Wandering the streets and back lanes with so much commerce spilling out every which way is a barrage on the senses.

Ethiopia is a microcosm of the developing world. Along with massive cities — and smaller cities — there's lots of rural life, much of it off the grid. Driving into Ethiopia's countryside, we're reminded that roughly half of the world's population is subsistence farmers — that most of the world's hungry are rural people, and their reality is harsh.

In the north is Tigray, a reminder that the country is actually a collection of proud tribal regions. Because national political borders rarely fit long-established tribal borders cleanly, [that's] one reason Africa is so wracked with conflict and hard to govern peacefully. Tigray is deeply scarred, with a heritage of warfare.

A regional capital of Tigray is the historic town of Axum. It's a city of about 70,000, with a crisp climate due to its high altitude of 7,000 feet. Getting around is fun in its noisy three-wheeled tuk-tuks. This complex of toppled ancient columns filling the field like a graveyard, is a reminder that today's civilization is just the latest in thousands of years of societies. Axum is the legendary home of the Queen of Sheba. And this mystical holy center claims to hold of the Ark of the Covenant. As they never let anybody see it, we can't know for sure.

But one thing is for sure: one of the earliest Christian communities anywhere, dating back to the second century, was centered here. Ethiopia's fabled stone churches of Lalibela recall those days. And in Axum, the cathedral — while modern and humble — also evokes a long tradition. This camel caravan, trekking all the way to the market in Khartoum in the Sudan, is a reminder that this has long been a crossroads of trade.

To round out our visit, we home base in the south of the country in Hawassa. This jumbled and chaotic commercial center of a region called the Southern Provinces [Nations] offers a sense of the pent-up energy of this society.

Like in other cities, the commerce spills out onto the streets, and the streets themselves offer a fascinating parade of traffic — busy three-wheeled taxis, jam-packed city buses, and horse-drawn carts, often commanded by young boys aspiring to be Ben Hur charioteers.  

A great tip for travel--especially in a country like Ethiopia — is that if you stay on the paved roads and the main highways (of which there are only a few here), you'll come home with a kind of "road bias." So, to really get to the core of Ethiopia, we venture beyond the paved roads to remote villages off the grid and essentially shut out of the global economy.  Most of the people here are living in extreme poverty.

Extreme poverty is difficult to witness. Living on less than $2 a day looks about the same around the world: People live on a dirt floor — no electricity, no running water. If they're fortunate enough to own animals, they live together. With an open fire on the floor and no chimney, their homes are dark and filled with smoke. Work is done by hand. They eat one or two plates of a starchy staple a day — not enough for their children to grow healthy.

There's likely little education, job skills, or understanding of good hygiene. The people in this family will probably never be seen by a doctor. One unanticipated crisis — a storm, an accident, a sick parent — and these children go hungry.

Hundreds of millions of people like these struggle daily out of sight, and out of mind, of those of us who are more privileged.

In the last generation, the world has made dramatic progress against hunger. Since 1990 the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by more than half: from two billion to less than one billion. We're on a trajectory to end extreme poverty in our lifetime.

Around the world, the poorest of the poor are climbing out of extreme poverty and are gaining modest and dignified lives. Recent progress has been blunted by new setbacks, including the COVID-19 crisis. But there is still reason for hope as hard-working locals, smart governments, and NGOs are partnering to overcome hunger.  

Back up in Tigray, Abadi and his family are a good example. While still poor, they have a more modern home, and are actually making progress. Abadi explained how he's running a productive small farm, growing enough for his family needs with a surplus to sell.

He showed me how a tank he fills with manure produces fertilizer. At the same time, it generates methane (or "biogas"). Abadi can now fire up his stove and boil water without using firewood. He has light even after the sun goes down. His home is spacious, with windows for ventilation and a sturdy tin roof.

The old kerosene lamp grows dusty as this light is now powered by a solar panel. And the same panel provides enough juice to charge their cell phones. The family has worked hard and has enough food stored to get them, hopefully, through the hunger season. And a few sheep share the courtyard…until they're sold at the market to boost the family income.

Rising out of extreme poverty through development requires certain basics. Water is fundamental to health, hygiene, and nutrition. But, for much of the world, access to water is a daily struggle.

Hundreds of millions of people live in villages with no running water or well. They have to walk for their water — often for hours. It's typically a job for women and children.

A vital step in development is building water infrastructure. This Ethiopian village got a well last year thanks to an American NGO whose mission is to do exactly that. Wells like these cost about $4,000. Today, with a neighborhood well, these people no longer need to walk hours a day to get their water.

Modern aid projects are not simply given to a community. Experience has taught development workers that locals who actually work for these projects take better care of them. They work with the NGOs to build the projects. This pump is community owned. A locally elected committee manages it, and each family pays about a dollar a month to maintain it. With ownership comes responsibility and good stewardship.

Water infrastructure divides the poor from the extremely poor. Having to depend on river water means farmers and families are dependent on rain. River water may carry waterborne diseases. With safe water reliably available right in the village, there's better hygiene — families are sick less often, children have more time and energy for school and work, and the moms have more time and energy to nurture their children.

Ironically, most of the hungry people in the world are farmers. Helping farmers grow more food more profitably is essential for overcoming extreme poverty. More food means more money, which fuels development.

Exciting advances in agriculture have resulted in a green revolution throughout the developing world. Ethiopia is becoming a model of development, thanks to governmental leadership.

The country is divided into 18,000 districts — each with a Farmers' Training Center. The government employs 60,000 teachers and coaches who work to make sure smart agricultural policies are implemented throughout the country.

Tedi: Here we train farmers on different disciplines. On livestock production, feed management, irrigation, and water management.

For example, here at Abadi's training center, local farmers learn why it's important to plant seeds in a line rather than scattering. They learn to rotate crops with plants like alfalfa, which reinvigorates the depleted soil. And the government has studied the soil across Ethiopia and recommends just the right mix of fertilizer for each district.

Smart farming includes selective breeding so animals can survive local conditions as well as increase their production. This cow is a European Holstein crossed with an African breed — hardy in the heat, and giving more than double the milk. These hybrid chickens lay triple the eggs compared to the local ones.

The value of these new farming techniques is evident back on Abadi's farm. While his parents subsisted on corn only, he's diversified his crops. And better seeds allow three harvests a year, rather than two.

An effective way to fight hunger is to focus on health and nutrition. After all, if you're sick, you're more likely to be poor, and if you're healthy you're better able to climb out of poverty.

In many developing countries, the government — often with the help of the United Nations' World Food Program — maintains health posts like this one in Ethiopia. Extremely poor people have no money for health care. But this health post provides the basics in the village for free.

Pauline Akabwai, a local UN worker, explained how they educate young mothers — who gather here twice a month — to help them raise healthier babies:

Pauline: A health post is the smallest unit of health in Ethiopia, and this is one of the health posts. The reason why we have a health post is because of the close proximity to the community. And the mothers and our beneficiaries do not need to pay any money to receive services.

The World Food Program knows that if babies don't get the right calories in their first thousand days, they'll become permanently stunted, with underdeveloped brains, and less able to climb out of poverty.

Pauline: The main objective is to prevent malnutrition. We have a program called "Targeted Supplemental Feeding Program," and the program targets children under five years with moderate acute malnutrition, and also pregnant and lactating women with moderate acute malnutrition.

One of the activities that we do is to screen for malnutrition, moderate acute malnutrition. They measure the arms of the children, and if the pointer shows yellow, it means the child is moderately acute malnourished. We also weigh children. When you are screening for malnutrition you weigh children.

Along with being malnourished, children in the developing world are more likely to contract a host of dangerous diseases. Inoculations are an example of a global success of a United Nations–led initiative. Measles, typhoid, and pneumonia — until recently commonplace in the poor world — are easily avoided with cheap and simple vaccinations. Thanks to a UN program, with generous funding from the United States, nearly all the world's children are now inoculated against these most deadly diseases, and child mortality has dropped dramatically.

Education is critical. Governments, private enterprise, and parents are realizing that an educated work force is a prerequisite for development in today's global economy.

But there are persistent cultural and economic challenges. Parents are often more eager to get schooling for their boys than for their girls. Education is often designed to favor children of the ethnic and economic elites in the big cities, to the disadvantage of minority and rural children.

And many children don't have families or the money to get an education. Even if school is technically free, uniforms and supplies are not, and these can make school just too expensive for a poor family. AIDS devastated thousands of families, resulting in populations of uneducated or under-educated children. An American charity funds a local organization that runs the Awassa Children's Project. These kids — who lost parents to AIDS--will have the nutrition and early-childhood care to get the necessary education they need.

As is the standard set by Ethiopia's government, they'll get eight grades and then graduate into a vocational training school. For these students, a few months here prepares them to get a job: Computer labs, welding skills, plumbing, and a field with lots of future employment: being a solar panel technician.

While there's been tremendous progress globally in the fight against hunger, unfortunately, over the last few years, hunger has ticked up rather than declined. To a great extent, it's because of a combination of three things: conflict, bad governance and corruption, and climate change.

Africa has had its own difficult history, from slavery to brutal colonialism, to rampant corruption under modern-day tyrants. Today Addis Ababa hosts the African Union — an organization of all 54 African nations. It's dedicated to helping the continent heal and develop. The stated mission here is to overcome the conflict, bad governance, and corruption that's long wracked this continent.

Another major hurdle to ending hunger is a changing climate. In wealthy countries we turn up the air-con — generating more CO2 — and debate the existence of climate change. But climate change is here, and it's hitting the poorest people in the poorest countries hardest.

Ethiopia is clearly struggling with the effects of a warming planet. The rains don't come as reliably as they once did, leading to once good land becoming desert. And when the rains do come, it's often in a torrent — washing away vital topsoil.

But Ethiopia is stepping up to the challenge. Here in Tigray — long notorious for droughts — the government has organized local communities to terrace and reforest eroded hillsides. People here understand that planting trees increases rainfall. And terracing allows rainwater to soak into the earth. Abadi is able to irrigate his crops thanks to a replenished water table.

And water-management infrastructure is also critical in dealing with the impact of climate change. Reservoirs enable farmers to dole out their precious water as needed, and more efficiently.

Thanks to this, reforestation projects, and improvements in agriculture — a new approach called "climate-smart agriculture" — Ethiopian farmers are becoming more resilient. For instance, they believe that while there will always be droughts, famines are now preventable. In fact, in recent years, Ethiopia has had several serious droughts — but no famines.

It takes trade to develop, and with the reality of a globalized economy that means trade with the rest of the world. Two things Ethiopia has in abundance when it comes to things the rich world will pay for are cheap labor and coffee.

Coffee drinking and production is a long-standing tradition in Ethiopia, dating back centuries. In fact, Ethiopia is where the coffee plant originated. Here in this company we get a sense of both the promise and limitations of coffee exporting. The coffee-bean crop may be plentiful, but most of the work is done manually, often in a backbreaking way that requires many workers. And trade restrictions often limit the country largely to sales of just dried beans, rather than the more profitable export of roasted beans. While the poor world generally exports its goods raw, the rich world refines them, making most of the profit.

But Ethiopia's main resource is its people. And just like the Pacific Rim was able to develop by being the world's workshop, Ethiopia — with 100 million people ready to work--aspires to do the same thing.

Ethiopia has made training a skilled workforce a priority. Learning industrial sewing is good prep for a solid job.

And these grads got that job just down the street at the Hawassa Industrial Park. This is one of many sprawling complexes of industrial sheds designed to generate export income for Ethiopia. Each shed is run by an international manufacturing company. This is made possible because of supportive US trade policy, the low cost of Ethiopian labor, and the government's aggressive initiative to attract business.

Rick: Thank you for having us here. What is this park?
Fitsum: Yeah. Hawassa Industrial Park is a government industrial park built just for the export purpose and attracting the foreign direct investment here.

We have 52 factory sheds and 22 companies from different parts of the world. So when the park is fully operational it will create 60,000 job opportunities, and one billion US dollars from the export, also per annum, and also we have an airport here in Hawassa, and also we have an expressway, so it will make it easy just to export our products to abroad markets.

Ethiopian workers are about where China's workers were a generation ago. As China has developed, it's no longer the world's primary source of cheap labor. Ethiopia aspires to spur its development by helping to fill that role in today's global economy.

Technology has become a boon to developing countries, bringing new approaches — like solar panels — to overcoming extreme poverty.

Low cost, high-tech innovations are offering solutions to age-old challenges. Remote off-the-grid communities are employing wireless technology — leapfrogging past older energy and communication infrastructure. For example, solar panels are powering villages that were literally in the dark without electricity. This solar panel powers a water pump, so the village can make it through dry periods by filling this reservoir.

And cheap cell phones are revolutionizing the world of small-business people. Herders learn when and where to bring their stock to market. This entrepreneur can make a direct sale and avoid a needless middleman. And entrepreneurs can make and receive mobile payments, and do their banking without making a trip into town.

Traveling through Ethiopia is a great chance to better understand the economic reality of our world. It gives me my most valued souvenir: empathy. And it makes me consider my relation to it all. Should I feel guilty? Why should I care? Can I make a difference? I've thought a lot about this. I don't need to feel guilty. But I want to be honest about our world: how privileged we are, and how there's an obscene gap between the rich and poor. We can be part of the solution. That's exciting — and it's an opportunity.

Considering all the wealth in our world, 700 million people living in extreme poverty is just not right. We can end hunger in our lifetime. We can do it altruistically, because we care, or we can do it because it'll make our world a more stable place, and our country safer. Or we can do it for both reasons. Thanks for joining us in Ethiopia. I'm Rick Steves wishing you thoughtful travels.