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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.

UCL’s Urban Agriculture Society – A Green Champion in the Making

JosephineWilka2 May 2013

Written in collaboration with Iwona Bisaga 

Interview UAS 034

London is a sprawling megacity. Sadly, its ecological footprint of more than 34 million hectares is also outsized. The area required to provide for services and resources as well as waste locations to support the city’s functioning is thus over 200 times the size of London, (UK Environment Agency). This provides striking evidence that London’s sustainability issues are critical challenges that urgently need to be addressed. A group of passionate and ambitious DPU students with green ideas are determined to become part of the solution by introducing urban agriculture to UCL. It is the clear way forward!

The Resource Centres on Urban Agriculture & Food Security Foundation defines urban agriculture as “the growing of plants and the raising of animals within and around cities.” It not only advocates food production to enhance urban food security, but is also an integral part of the city’s economic and ecological systems. Many cities in developing countries have preserved small-scale food production: the streets of many African cities, such as Accra, are still enlivened with goats and chicken. Residents of large urban centres in the developed world, on the other hand, rediscovered urban agriculture a few decades ago. Here, urban agriculture is developing alongside more traditional urban development patterns. In regions around the globe, urban agriculture awareness has spread and the number of practitioners has been rising dramatically. This growing popularity comes at a time when global food crises are occurring at a greater rate threatening both developing and developed countries.

In London, the concept has captured the attention of government departments, local authorities and businesses stimulating the introduction of programmes to tackle climate change and unemployment by the means of urban agriculture. Some Crouch End supermarkets for example have started growing vegetables on their roof terrace and numerous schemes have been introduced, including Cultivate London (a farm with an innovative approach to urban agriculture) and Good Food for Camden (a strategy developed by the NHS Camden). In fact, urban agriculture has become so successful that new urban farmers now, ironically, have to venture outside of London to find plots of available land.

Interview UAS 004

“They were waiting for a group of students to start doing this!” (Maria Neto)

With the above successes in mind, a group of DPU students have taken action and created the Urban Agriculture Society (UAS). With the knowledge of similar initiatives at fellow institutions such as LSE, UAS have a clear vision (and an even stronger determination) to ensure that UCL participates in confronting London’s food challenges and in developing greener and improve sustainability strategies.

 But what does it take to make students want to dirty their hands growing food they could find in the any supermarket?

When asked about the reasons why they have decided to focus their efforts on bringing the idea of urban agriculture to life at UCL in an interview, UAS members Maria, Martin and Thomas unanimously answered: because there is something in it for everyone!  Some, such as Martin, find it important to increase food autonomy in urban areas and import less agricultural products from overseas, especially since the diet of about 2 billion people does not contain sufficient nutrients or calories and the exported food is needed elsewhere. Naturally, this would also have a positive impact of CO2 emissions. He says: “potentially, every lettuce that you do not import from Spain and just grow in your backyard is a contribution” to alleviate these issues of the global food production system.

Additionally, Thomas and Maria, emphasise that urban agriculture is not just about farming in an urban setting or making effective rooftop insulation, but also about the social benefits.

Interview UAS 009

“Urban Agriculture has social implications and provides an opportunity for community building as well.” (Thomas Chung)

Many feel a lack of connection with their urban space, the concrete and cement, and are looking for a way to connect to their urban surroundings. It is a hobby, but also educates citizens on the possibilities that exist in their surroundings. Thus the three interviewees agree: the UAS is not only an attractive way to reduce UCL’s CO2 footprint, but has the potential to change the university through the creation of green spaces in which staff and students can work to connect with themselves, the city or the world.

Interview UAS 004 (2)

“Let’s take over the rooftops!” (Martin Lichtenegger)

For an initiative conceived during a fire alarm evacuation and created with as much enthusiasm as sense for urgency, the UAS has filled a conceptual gap in UCL’s sustainability strategy. It is prepared to overcome the numerous expected challenges such as fighting for space – a rooftop or other patch of land at UCL. Action will be taken must be taken soon to obtain this land after the lengthy winter has delayed plans and the UAS founders are eager to finish what they have started and leave an urban agriculture legacy for a new generation of students to build upon in the next academic year.

If you have ideas, want to stay informed or get your hands dirty, join the Facebook group: (Growing UCL – Urban Agriculture Society)