Chinese bring Ethiopia sub-Saharan Africa’s first electric tramway


Fueled by Chinese investment, Ethiopia’s capital now proudly boasts sub-Saharan Africa’s first electric commuter tramway. The continent’s second-most populous nation, once known for terrible famines, is now one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Long queues are forming to buy a ticket for a ride on the new Chinese-funded fully electric light train in Ethiopia’s capital, the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa.

“I recently bought a car but I just wanted to be on the new train,” says 37-year-old Taye Worku, an event organizer. It’s a “milestone” for the country’s development, he adds.

The air on the platforms is ripe with excitement. “Everyone is now trying out the new train,” says Taye. The carriages are already crowded.

Ethiopia was infamous for poverty and famines that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1980s. Nowadays, Africa’s second-most populous nation with some 95 million people, seeks to promote itself as East Africa’s new business hub.

The 17-kilometer railway line boasts 22 stations from the northern to the southern end of Addis Ababa. Its rails cannot be crossed, and the carriage resemble new European tramways.

“The Light Rail supports the movement of the fast-growing labour force across the capital, easing the gridlock found in many other African capitals, and improving its regional competitiveness,” said Emma Gordon, an Africa analyst with the global risk consultant Verisk Maplecroft.

The 475-million-project project was built in just three years, largely by Chinese firms. Eighty-five per cent of the funding came from the Chinese Import-Export bank, making the light train one in a series of infrastructure projects here fueled by Chinese money and manpower.

Even the train conductors are Chinese. China’s Railway Engineering Corporation will be involved in running and maintaining the trains for five years, before handing over to the Ethiopians.

“Chinese investment is not enough to cement economic transformation; rather it lays the groundwork for this to occur. Further structural changes are still needed, and the Chinese preference for bringing their own supplies and workers means that their investment does not support job creation or boost the local manufacturing industry,” Gordon said.

Government officials are confident the train will improve residents’ quality of live and ease congestion. And they have yet more ambitious plans: a second east-west line is to be added in the coming months.

However, Ethiopia first needs to produce sufficient electricity to power the next line.

“The power supply was one of the main challenges why the launch of the train was delayed by several months,” acknowledges the light train project manager, Behailu Sintayehua.

Ethiopia is building several large-scale dams, including what is supposed to become Africa’s largest hydropower dam, the Grand Renaissance Dam at the Blue Nile River near the Sudanese border. It is forecast to generate up to 6000-megawatt.

The country’s unsteady and insufficient power supply is, along with slow internet speed, one of the main obstacles on the road to dethrone Kenya’s capital Nairobi as East Africa’s business hub.

For ordinary Ethiopians, frequent and unannounced power cuts are the norm. The new light train, however, will keep running even when neighborhoods along the tracks are plunged into darkness, promises Sintayehua.

The train was directly connected to the national grid and has an functioning system of backups, he says.

For Addis’ estimated four million residents, taking the train will be cheaper than using the ubiquitous minibuses filling the streets.

Travelling the entire distance costs 6 Ethiopian Birr (0.25 euro), as opposed to about 20 Birr by minibus. The shortest distance costs 2 Ethiopian Birr.

Daniel Worku, 21, is thrilled as he and his friend just bought tickets to experience their first ride.

“We could take a minibus-taxi but we are excited to try it out,” Daniel Worku says, as he and his friends buy tickets for their first ride. “If this is faster, I will use the light train from now on.”

Ethiopia’s ruling party has an iron grip on power since 1991 after ousting the military junta of former communist leader Mengistu Hailemariam. There is virtually no opposition. Human rights groups say dissenters are harassed and freedom of expression is curtailed.

However, Ethiopia’s state-led model of economic development is bearing fruit. The International Monetary Fund forecasts a growth rate of about 8 per cent.

The government has more ambitious infrastructure spending plans, seeking to build, among others, highways with Chinese help. Another project of national pride is a 600 kilometers railway line to the port of neighboring Djibouti.

Yet for all the shiny projects and promising growth forecasts, hunger still lingers in the countryside.

Following a lean rainy season, an estimated 4.5 million people will require food assistance this year, the UN has warned last month.

On the UN’s human development index, Ethiopia ranks a poor 173rd out of 187 nations.

Residents of Addis, however, are overwhelmingly joyful about the leap to modernity brought on by the commuter train.

At the end of his first ride, Taye is convinced. He sees the train as a better way of commuting than his own car.

“Everyone thought this was not a possible project for Ethiopia just a few years ago,” he says.