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Snapshots of the urban economy: Mekelle, Ethiopia

Matthew AWood-Hill11 May 2015

For the past 10 days I’ve been with staff and students of the MSc Urban Economic Development in Mekelle, Ethiopia. They have been making sense of economic development by exploring four broad topics, and assessing their contribution to the local economy:

  1. Mekelle University as a supporter of small enterprises
  2. Urban and peri-urban agriculture
  3. Co-operative organisations
  4. The airport as a catalyst for economic development

We have put together a series of images, which provide a snapshot of different parts of the urban economy in Mekelle.

Tradition has it that Mekelle University was first formed beneath the Momona Tree on its campus – the shadow of which served as its first office. Nowadays it retains an important social function as both a meeting point and a place of intrigue for visitors. The DPU has been partnering with Mekelle University for the past 5 years– we have been immensely grateful for the contributions of University staff. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Tradition has it that Mekelle University was first formed beneath the Momona Tree on its campus – the shadow of which served as its first office. Nowadays it retains an important social function as both a meeting point and a place of intrigue for visitors. The DPU has been partnering with Mekelle University for the past 5 years– we have been immensely grateful for the contributions of University staff. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Coffee culture is rife in Mekelle with numerous coffee-houses lining a series of tree-lined streets close to the centre. We asked a new business owner why she had chosen this area in the face of such established competition. She had opened her coffee-house just one month ago, but her reply highlighted the social and economic role the businesses play in this area. They serve as meeting points for local business-people through which they engage with and build their professional networks. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Coffee culture is rife in Mekelle with numerous coffee-houses lining a series of tree-lined streets close to the centre. We asked a new business owner why she had chosen this area in the face of such established competition. She had opened her coffee-house just one month ago, but her reply highlighted the social and economic role the businesses play in this area. They serve as meeting points for local business-people through which they engage with and build their professional networks.
Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Messebo cement factory, the fifth largest in Ethiopia, dominates views towards the outskirts of the city. It is by far the largest business and employer in the region and a key contributor to the local construction sector. Slow-build developments are common in Mekelle – this is evidently not due to a lack of available resources, but more often than not a consequence of financial difficulties which delay progress. Image: Tsuyoshi

Messebo cement factory, the fifth largest in Ethiopia, dominates views towards the outskirts of the city. It is by far the largest business and employer in the region and a key contributor to the local construction sector. Slow-build developments are common in Mekelle – this is evidently not due to a lack of available resources, but more often than not a consequence of financial difficulties which delay progress.
Image: Tsuyoshi Aiki

Young boys roam the popular streets of Mekelle offering their services as shoe cleaners. While they often appear to be working independently, these boys actively contribute a small amount each day to an informal savings scheme in order to increase their financial capital. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Young boys roam the popular streets of Mekelle offering their services as shoe cleaners. While they often appear to be working independently, these boys actively contribute a small amount each day to an informal savings scheme in order to increase their financial capital.
Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Farming within and on the outskirts of the city contributes to the security and affordability of food in Mekelle. The split between the two spaces is more than just spatial, however; it is also reflected in government attitudes. For example, peri-urban farmers are not able to obtain a license to sell their produce in the city centre – a restriction that others do not have to contend with. In spite of having more space to grow crops if greater quality in greater quantity, peri-urban farmer are therefore forced to sell to middle-men to reach consumers, which in turn has an impact on their income.  Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Farming within and on the outskirts of the city contributes to the security and affordability of food in Mekelle. The split between the two spaces is more than just spatial, however; it is also reflected in government attitudes. For example, peri-urban farmers are not able to obtain a license to sell their produce in the city centre – a restriction that others do not have to contend with. In spite of having more space to grow crops of greater quality and in greater quantity, peri-urban farmers are therefore forced to sell to middle-men to reach consumers, which in turn has an impact on their income.
Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Mekelle is a regional hub for business and part of the ‘Garaltar Triangle’, a popular tourist route. The local tourist board believes that 95% of visitors come through the airport for tourism, however initial research by MSc UED students, through a series of surveys at the airport, suggests that the majority of travellers arriving by air do so for business purposes.  Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Mekelle is a regional hub for business and part of the ‘Garaltar Clusters’, a popular tourist route. The local authorities believe that 98% of visitors come through the airport for tourism, however initial research by MSc UED students, through a series of surveys at the airport, suggests that the majority of travellers arriving by air do so for business purposes.
Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Towards the suburbs of the city an expanding manufacturing sector exists. One factory we visited produced honey for domestic consumption. The factory manager elaborated on the hope that they might be able to reach an international market. For the emerging manufacturing sector in Mekelle, and elsewhere, this challenge must be overcome if the sector is to become a key driver of national economic growth. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Towards the suburbs of the city an expanding manufacturing sector exists. One factory we visited produced honey for domestic consumption. The factory manager elaborated on the hope that they might be able to reach a wider international market. This challenge must be overcome if manufacturing is to make a greater contribution to national economic growth. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Urban Agriculture sites often exist where vital infrastructure services are not available, thus making it unattractive for commercial or residential development. Mekelle is not a densely populated city at present, so urbanisation tends to happen close to infrastructure and services. Urban farmers put these unoccupied spaces to productive use, but rely on motorised pumps to extract water from shallow wells to irrigate their crops. Image: Matthew Wood-Hill

Urban Agriculture sites often exist where vital infrastructure services are not available, thus making it unattractive for commercial or residential development. Urban farmers put these unoccupied spaces to productive use, but rely on motorised pumps to extract water from shallow wells to irrigate their crops.
Image: Matthew Wood-Hill


Matthew Wood-Hill is the Media & Communications Officer at the DPU. He has been in Mekelle, Ethiopia with the MSc UED programme for the past 11 days. The MSc Urban Economic Development has been working with Mekelle University for 5 years now, understanding urban economic development in practice.