State of African Cities report – Does it reflect the reality of Addis Ababa?

On 28 of February UN-Habitat released its State of African Cities report, with a focus on “re-imagining sustainable urban transitions.” Having lived in Addis Ababa for the last nine months, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to compare the information presented in the latest report with my own personal experience and knowledge of the city. From which I could assess the relative accuracy and usefulness of the information presented in the report and whether is reflects the reality ‘on the ground’ so to speak.

The section headings below reflect those used in the State of Africa Cities report where Addis Ababa is mentioned and I have added my reflections on the information provided.

Urban Spatial Transitions

The first reference to Addis Ababa comes in the report’s discussion about urban spatial transitions, specifically the stage referred to as Extended Metropolitan Regions. These Extended Metropolitan Regions are defined as “…a large to very large regional urban system comprising multiple towns and other settlements, centred on a single metropolitan core and which functions as a de facto single urban entity.” Presumably in the case of Addis Ababa this refers to the urban corridors that link the city with the nearby towns of Bishoftu, Sabeta, and Holeta, which have a combined population of approximately 4 million.

The report states that the Extended Metropolitan Region of Addis Ababa and other African cities “…could soon qualify as de facto “megacities” if a wider concept than that dictated by somewhat artificial administrative municipal boundaries is taken into account.”

This prediction has some merit, particularly given that the Addis Ababa-Bishoftu corridor is part of the busiest transport route in the country (with the worst traffic!). It will also soon be linked by a brand new expressway that will extend all the way to the regional city of Adama/Nazret, which is likely to encourage further urban development and growth. However, the area between Addis Ababa and Adama/Nazret remain important agricultural areas and rapid urban development along this corridor could be problematic and highly contested.

In addition, it is worth noting that many areas on the periphery of Addis Ababa retain a very rural character, with agricultural land-use practices still predominating and only limited urban development. So it remains to be seen whether the classification as an extended metropolitan region or mega-city would be an accurate description, given many areas close to Addis could not really be considered as ‘metropolitan’ in the conventional sense.

Urban Greening

The next reference in the report to Addis Ababa is regarding the city’s “urban greening strategies.” In this section it mentions the construction of the new light rail, the management of ecosystems that provide critical environmental goods and service to the city, and the establishment of green growth priorities. There isn’t enough detail to make any judgements on the information presented in this part of the report. But suffice to say these strategies are still yet to prove themselves as making a significant contribution to the environmental sustainability of the city.

Population and Urbanisation rates in East Africa

According to the data contained in this section of the report, Addis Ababa is the third largest city in the region with a population of just under 3 million in 2011. Albeit is projected to have the slowest urban growth rate of the nine largest cities in East Africa from 2010 to 2020, reaching a population of 4.7 million by 2025. This seems at odds with the report’s earlier prediction about the Extended Metropolitan Region of Addis Ababa becoming a de facto mega-city, given that implies a population of over 10 million (unless they are expecting another 3-4 million people to be living in the urban corridors).

It is also worth highlighting that Ethiopia remains a predominantly rural population with only about 4% of the total population living in Addis Ababa itself. As such, there is the potential for the projected population growth rate of the city to increase dramatically, due to an influx of people from rural areas as a result of climate change or other factors that could trigger rural-urban migration. Therefore, the projected growth trends given in the report need to be taken with some caution.

Poverty and Inequality

In this section the report states that Addis Ababa had an unemployment rate of 31% in 2008 (presumably this refers to formal employment). The accuracy and usefulness of this statistics is questionable, given that the data is somewhat dated and the important role played by the informal sector in the city. I can’t help but wonder if this figure would be very different now due to all the urban development and construction activities occurring across the city, which is providing employment opportunities but also negatively affecting some small businesses. However, it is very difficult to assess these figures based on my experience alone.

Urban Governance

The report states that Addis Ababa has the highest proportion and the highest absolute number of slum dwellers in the East Africa region. I certainly can’t dispute these figures as I have seen many of these so-called ‘informal settlements’ across all parts of the city. However, many of the houses in the informal settlements in Addis Ababa are made from traditional materials (mud, timber and straw). As a result, the character of informal settlements in Addis Ababa is somewhat unique compared to the other African cities I have visited, such as Nairobi, Durban, and Cape Town, where informal housing often consists of corrugated iron shacks or a combination of corrugated iron and concrete bricks.

Moreover, given that this type of housing is also prevalent in rural areas and regional cities in Ethiopia, it begs the questions of whether ‘slum dwellers’ is an appropriate term for the Addis Ababa context. It also makes the distinction between conventional classifications of urban and rural poverty and formal and informal housing somewhat fuzzy.

The report also notes in this section that “strong centralised governance in exercised in Ethiopia…over functions, control mechanisms, and services…although a level of decentralised has occurred in Addis Ababa.” Presumably this refers to the devolution of responsibility for service delivery to the Addis Ababa City Government and its status as a charted city.

However, there is no discussion of whether this has resulted in any genuine improvements in service delivery or urban management. Anecdotal evidence and my own observations indicate that there remains enormous gaps in the administrative capacity within public sector organisations at all levels in Ethiopia, including the City Government.

In addition, an authoritarian culture remains pervasive in many government agencies reducing the ability for autonomous and responsive governance. In my experience it seems that it is primarily the adaptability and resilience of the residents in Addis Ababa (as discussed in a previous post), particularly those working in the informal sector, that enables the city to continue functioning relatively effectively in the absence of effective urban management and governance.

This section of the report also states that “in Addis Ababa some 40% of housing stock is formal, yet 26% of those in formal housing lack access to toilets; 33% share toilets with more than six families; and 34% rely on public water taps that have unreliable supply.”

These figures date back to 2008 and so the accuracy and relevance of these figures is questionable given the high levels of urban development and housing construction that has occurred in Addis Ababa over the last five years. However, it is likely that many people still lack access to sanitation facilities as it is very common to see men urinating in the streets or people bathing in drains and rivers located in the city. Moreover, due to the construction of new urban infrastructure in the city, most prominently the light rail network, many houses and businesses have faced intermitted and unreliable water and electricity supplies across the city, which has affected residents of all socioeconomic standings.

Access to Services

In this section the report states that “…in 2005, 96.9% of Addis Ababa’s population enjoyed access to electricity, 68.8% had access to piped water but access to sewerage was still low, at 8.9%.” This is arguably the most misleading statistic in the report, because ‘access’ to electricity and piped water does not mean that power or water are actually available, not to mention that these stats are almost a decade old.

As mentioned above, there have been city-wide electricity and water shortage in Addis Ababa over the last year, which is largely as a result of ageing electricity and water distribution networks and large-scale construction activities. Some of these networks are being upgraded, which will hopefully improve the reliably of water and electricity supply as well as extend access to more residents. However, it remains to be seen what the improvements will be and more up-to-date data is required.

Culture and Identity

In this section the report states that “…even in cities that were once praised for diversity and pluralism, such as Addis Ababa, the emergence of gated communities and sprawl threatens to eradicate any memory of tolerant coexistence.” This appears to be an unsubstantiated statement, and from my experience in Addis Ababa the city still retains many areas where households from different socioeconomic standings and cultures live side by side. Moreover, as I mentioned in a previous post, the city does not have the same stark contrast between rich and poor areas that is exhibited in many other African cities.

However, this pluralism is likely to change if the growth in urban development projects targeted at middle and upper class households continues and in the process squeezes out the remaining lower class households. But as it stands the current ad-hoc nature of urban development in Addis has yet to result in the development of large-scale enclaves of prosperity or poverty and it is still very common to see informal housing next to high rise apartment complexes.


As the analysis above demonstrates, the information presented in the State of African cities report about Addis Ababa does not always depict an accurate picture of the current circumstance facing the city and it residents, at least when compared to my own experience and knowledge. I am sure that the authors of the report would concede this fact, and would have been happy to include more up-to-date data if it was readily available. However, I think UN-Habitat should be more up front regarding the reliability and accuracy of the statistical data it presents in reports such as these.

Given the dearth of data and the dynamic nature of urbanism in African cities, I think that the UN-Habitat should radically rethink its approach to the production of reports such as this. For example, they could consider a more open approach and transparent approach that enables people from African cities to contribute their own stories and data. Alternatively, publishing reports in a wiki style format could enable data to be updated more easily and comments and feedback to be provided on the accuracy of the information being presented.

One of the key messages in the State of Africa Cities report is that “Africa has few realistic options other than a profound reimagining of what exactly constitutes the road towards sustainable urban transitions.” So perhaps UN-Habitat could lead the way by reimagining how is compiles its data and publishes its reports.

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The Problem with Output Targets – Ethiopia’s Faidherbia Programme

I recently attended a stakeholder workshop in Addis Ababa regarding the development of an action plan for the national Faidherbia programme. This initiative dates back to December 2011 when the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced the country’s plan to plant 100 million Faidherbia albida seedlings within smallholder farms. This target was expected to be met through the combined efforts of both national and regional government agencies and local and international NGOs.

This is a very noble and worthy target, particularly when one considers the deforestation that has occurred in Ethiopia, the declining fertility of farmlands, and the enormous rates of soil erosion most notably in the northern highlands.

However, there are a number of potential problems associated with the specific target of the Faidherbia programme that could see a lot of time, effort and resources wasted, which I will discuss in this post.

Firstly, what is faidherbia albida and what are its benefits/uses?

Faidherbia albida (aka acacia albida) is a unique and valuable tree species that is indigenous to parts of Africa and the Middle East, including Ethiopia. It provides a number of ecological goods and services including timber, animal fodder, fuelwood, nitrogen fixation, and erosion control. A unique feature of the Faidherbia albida species is that is sheds its leaves and becomes dormant during winter.

The species has thus been recognised and promoted as being particularly beneficial for crop production on smallholder farms as part of an agroforestry system referred to as Evergreen Agriculture. This is because it not only improves the soil condition but also doesn’t  prevent sunlight from reaching the crops during the growing season, thus increasing the yield of crops within the vicinity of the tree. Research in Ethiopia and Zambia have shown that an agroforestry system of Faidherbia albida trees with crops can significantly increase yields.

Given the potential benefits of this tree species it is understandable that aiming to plant a significant number of trees would appear to be a very worthwhile target for Ethiopia, especially given the persistence of food insecurity and land degradation.

So what are the potential problems with the 100 million target?

There are four potential problems with the 100 million seedling target. Firstly, there are a number of technical and capacity challenges associated with the implementation of this target. Secondly, it is an output target that risks becoming a be-all end-all focus of implementing agencies. Thirdly, it is a potentially inflexible target which may detract from the objectives of planting Faidherbia albida. Fourthly, the target represents a long-term transformation of small-holder agricultural systems without any clear connection to long-term regional land-use strategies or agricultural policies. I will briefly discuss each of these issues below and then provide a few ideas for improving the Faidherbia programme.

1. Technical and capacity challenges

There are a number of technical and capacity issues that pose a significant challenge to the achievement of the 100 million target. First and foremost, the survival rate of tree seedlings planted in Ethiopia is very low, with an average around 10-20%. There are a number of factors that contribute to low survival rates including poor seed/seedling quality, lack of appropriate seedling care, poor soil quality, and, in particular, free grazing by livestock. Secondly, Faidherbia albida is a relatively difficult tree to grow because of its unique propagation requirements. Therefore, successfully improving the survival rates of Faidherbia albida seedlings will require advances in tree seed/seedling quality, the establishment of community-wide initiatives to control free grazing and/or innovative seedling protection measures, and the effective dissemination (and application) of technical information to extension agents, implementing agencies, farmers, and nursery operators. Each of these alone are significant challenges that require boosting the capacity of a number of actors as well as obtaining the coordination and cooperation of multiple stakeholders at different levels.

2. Output targets that become the overriding focus of implementing agencies

The second potential problem with the target of the national Faidherbia programme is that it is a singular output target that presupposes it will automatically lead to the desired impact. In other words, the goal of the programme is to plant 100 million seedlings on smallholder farms with the assumption being that once this target it met it will generate improvements in crops yields and the environmental condition of farmlands.

However, such output targets are particularly problematic when it comes to large organisations, particularly government bureaucracies. Often such outputs become the overriding focus within these organisations resulting in the subordination of quality in favour of quantity. This is because the business units within the organisation are ultimately only responsible and accountable for the achievement of these outputs. In addition, the centralised organisational structure means deviation from plans and targets are very difficult, even if they are obviously failing to meet the desired outcomes due to poor quality.

For example, setting targets for school enrolments in developing countries is a very common output target of national education programs. However, achieving this target may lead to minimal improvements in educational outcomes, either because of poor quality teaching and facilitates or enrolled children can’t actually attend school on a regular basis. Unless less this target is accompanied by other performance targets related to the actual quality of education (and attendance rates), then such an output target may not have the expected impact. Ethiopia provides an typical example of this, for although it has made significant achievements in reaching 95% enrolment rates for primary school education, a study by USAID in 2010 found that reading and writing outcomes for students were below minimal national standards. Moreover, according to UNESCO, very limited data is actually being collected regarding the quality of education in Ethiopia highlighting the emphasis being place solely on reaching the output target of school enrolment rates.

As such, it is reasonable to suggest the same issue could arise with the Faidherbia program if there are no quality indicators attached to the output target. For example, if 100 million seedlings are planted but only 10-20% of them actually survive then only minimal benefits are likely to be realised. And given the existing survival rate of tree seedlings in Ethiopia this represents a likely scenario.

3. Inflexible targets and distraction from actual objectives

Another potential problem associated with the use of an output target as the primary focus of a programme is that it often reduces flexibility and responsiveness, and may distract attention from the actual objectives.  For example, if the main focus of the implementing agencies involved in the Faidherbia program is on reaching the seedling planting target, they risk losing sight of from the underlying and over archiving objectives, which are to improve the environmental condition of agricultural lands and increase crop yields.

Moreover, the output target may restrict the ability of the implementing agencies to adapt and refine their approach in response to feedback, or to adopt new methods for achieving the same objective.

For example, there are alternative methods that could be used to achieve the desired objectives in addition to the planting of Faidherbia albida tree seedlings, such as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) or a range of other agroforestry or agro-ecological methods. However, these approaches may be subordinated or excluded if they are difficult to include as part of the measurement of the output target by implementing agencies, regardless of their effectiveness in meeting the objectives.

4.  Strategic transformation of smallholder agriculture without a regional land-use strategy

The target to plant 100 million Faidherbia albida on smallholder farms represents a fairly significant transformation of Ethiopian small-holder agricultural systems into agroforestry/evergreen agriculture systems. It is also a medium to long-term investment on behalf of the farmers given that it will take about 5 years to realise the benefit on crop yields and environmental conditions. However, it is not clear how this transformation fits within regional development strategies, land-use planning processes, or agricultural policies, or what areas will remain designated for smallholder agriculture. There are a number of areas in Ethiopia that have been converted from smallholder systems into industrial agricultural plantations or special economic zones, although the government remains a strong supporter of smallholder agriculture. Yet in the absence of certainty about the future location of smallholder agriculture systems, it may be difficult to convince farmers of the benefits of this long-term investment in their farms. Ethiopia is in the process of developing a Master Land-use Plan which should hopefully provide some specific guidance on these matters

Ideas for improving the Faidherbia programme

Based on the potential problems outlined above, I would like to suggest a few ideas that could help improve the Faidherbia programme:

  • Consider refining or changing the output target. For example, an alternative target for the programme could be a certain number or percentage of smallholder farms transitioning to evergreen agriculture systems that incorporate Faidherbia albida. This target could be calculated based on the original target, e.g. one million farms with 100 trees on each. Defining the target in this way would make it easier to include the planting of seedlings, FMNR, or other agroforestry methods as strategies to achieve the desired objectives. If the output target of 100 million seedlings is retained, then it should be accompanied by some performance targets related to quality that implementing agencies are responsible for achieving,  such as minimum acceptable survival rates.
  • Identify overarching programme objectives and targets that are agreed and shared by different stakeholders. This would involve a collaborative effort to identify the overarching programme objectives, e.g. increasing crop yields and improving environmental performance, and then selecting suitable key performance indicators and targets that align with them. Ideally these targets and performance indicators would be shared across different organisations so they are all accountable and responsible. In this way, existing programme and initiatives will similar objectives could also help contribute to the attainment of the targets.
  • Engaging with smallholder farmers and providing them with certainty. Currently the Faidherbia programme has been a relatively top-down initiative with limited engagement with smallholder farmers. Efforts should be made to engage with smallholder farms so that they understand the potential benefits of transition to evergreen agricultural and that their views and perspectives are incorporated into planning and implementation processes. They also need to be provided with certainty that the areas in which they farm will remain dedicated to smallholder agriculture systems. This would most likely require careful consideration of how the Faidherbia programme and smallholder systems will be integrated with the new Master Land-use Plan.
  • Focus on quality before scaling up. This would involve an initial emphasis on building the technical capacity of implementing agencies and stakeholders to develop and propagate high quality seedlings and take care of them after they have been planted. Once a satisfactory level of technical capacity is developed then the focus could shift to scaling up the number of trees being planted. This would likely help to improve the survival rate of seedlings being planted on farmlands. However, it would also need to be incorporated with the established of community-led initiatives to protect the seedlings from browsing livestock.
  • Creating a collaborative platform for sharing information and feedback. Regardless of what the targets and performance indicators are adopted for the programme, effective collaboration and communication will be very important. Therefore, establishing an appropriate collaborative platform would be a practical way to enable all the relevant stakeholders and implementing agencies to share information and lessons learned and discuss issues and challenges.

Fortunately, a number of these concerns were raised in the stakeholder workshop so hopefully the taskforce overseeing this program will take such considerations into account when finalising the action plan.

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My article in the Guardian on the taxi network in Addis Ababa

After published my blog post last week on the taxi network in Addis Ababa, the Guardian asked me to write an article for their ‘Cities in Motion’ series.

I would like to add that the article probably should have acknowledged the role of the government-run Anbesa bus network in public transport Addis Ababa. I had mentioned this in my original blog post but due to word limits on the article I didn’t have space to squeeze it in.

I also think the sub-heading in the article is somewhat misleading and should have said something like: can the taxis and the railway coexist in harmony? rather than will a new rail light railway aid or hinder the city? The key point I was trying to make in the article is that trying to regulate a complex system is more than likely going to fail unless careful attention is paid to its unique operation dynamics. I also think the taxi system is unfairly maligned and actually provides a relatively good service in the face of many challenges.

Lastly, I was also made aware of another interesting blog post on the taxis in Addis that is worth a read if you are interesting in a more detailed account of the experience of using this form of transport.

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The informal taxi network in Addis Ababa: A complex-adaptive system?

In Addis Ababa there are three main forms of public transport: government-run buses with set routes, contract taxis, and an informal network of buses and minivan taxis that operate on a range of different routes across the city based largely around commuter demand.

I have been a regular user of the minivan taxis for my daily commute over the last seven months, and I have come to view this network as exhibiting many of the characteristics of a complex-adaptive system.

As explained in the first post on this blog:

A complex-adaptive system is made up of autonomous yet interrelated agents (system components) which are capable of learning and adapting and whose interactions are non-linear. It is also a system that is constantly evolving and in the process creating new system structures and patterns of behaviour, which makes it difficult to predict and control how the system will respond to changes and interventions. In short, it can be viewed as an ecosystem containing a diverse range of species that is slowly evolving over time and which responds to changes in unexpected ways.

When applying this concept to the informal taxi network of buses and minivans is it possible to identify a number of these elements.

Autonomous, interrelated agents: The primary agents in the system are the taxi operators and the passengers. The taxi operators are autonomous in that they can largely choose which routes and hours they will serve in order to maximise their daily earnings, within the limits of the system (e.g. the available road network). Most taxi operators usually own only one or two vehicles enabling them to operate independently thus making them free to identify which routes suit them the most. The passengers are of course free to choose which route, or combination of routes, will get them to their desired destination in the fastest and/or most cost effective manner. They can also choose at which point on the route they will get on and off the taxis, however, they are of course also limited by the availability of taxis. There are also taxi station coordinators and government regulators who pay a role in influencing the operation of the system by coordinating the flow of vehicles at major taxi stations and establishing some of the ‘rules of the game’. For this reason the station coordinators and government regulators are much less independent that the taxi operators and passengers but they remain autonomous agents.

Taxi station at Bole Bridge.

Taxi station at Bole Bridge.

System structures and patterns of behaviour (emergence): The informal taxi network is composed of a multitude of operators serving a multitude of routes. The majority of these routes are relatively short return-journeys from one destination to another, and in most cases at least one destination is a major taxi station. Although each of these routes on their own are simple return-journeys, the combination of all these routes together forms a complex transport network that is constantly evolving in response to changes in the system. This makes it difficult to fully understand the scale and coverage of the network let along gather accurate information the volume and transfer of vehicles and passengers through the system (i.e. the stocks and flows). An effort was made to produce a map of the main taxi routes a couple of years ago but many of the routes have since changed since then due to major infrastructure projects and constructions activities in the city.

Taxi station at Meganegna.

Taxi station at Meganegna.

Learning and adaptability: The system is adaptive in that the operators and passengers can change their patterns of behaviour in response to changes within the system. This is due to their ability to gather information about changes in the system, learn from other agents, and then respond in the way that meets their individual objectives (i.e. maximising earnings or efficient commuting). For example, taxi operators often modify their routes due to major construction activities disrupting or blocking the regular route. This may initially affect their journey times and profitability until the most suitable alternative route is located but they can still continue to operate relatively unhindered. On the other hand, passengers can change their choice of route(s) in response to such changes if necessary in order to reach their desired destination in the fastest available manner. They can also try to avoid disruptions by exiting the taxi they are travelling on and then walking a relatively short distance to catch another taxi on a different route (I have done this a number of times to avoid traffic jams).

Informal taxi stop on the roadside.

Informal taxi stop on the roadside.

Non-linearity: The question remains as to whether the interactions between the agents in the system produce non-linear outcomes. In other words, whether small changes within the system cause major changes to the overall functioning of the network as a whole (e.g. an increase/decrease in the number of passengers/vehicles, or physical changes to routes). My personal observations are somewhat limited in terms of assessing this aspect. I have certainly observed how construction activities can cause major disruptions and delays to the operation of specific routes. However, the impacts seem to be isolated to one area or route and don’t necessarily cause impacts that spill over onto other routes. In this regard, the system perhaps functions more like a distributed system with a certain degree of redundancy. However, it is likely that there may be tipping points or thresholds which once crossed could cause a major breakdown in the system. For example, delays or disruptions occurring on multiple routes at the same time or an incremental but significant increase in commuter demand.

What insights and considerations can be made from viewing the informal taxi network as a complex-adaptive system?

The observations above indicate that the informal taxi network exhibits many of the characteristics of a complex-adaptive system. However, the question remains as to whether it meets all the criteria, specifically non-linearity, and it would require a detailed study to test this out. Nevertheless, some preliminary insights and implications can be drawn from this analysis:

  • Despite a lack of planning and coordination the informal taxi network operates relatively effectively and efficiently. Generally the assumption is that well planned and centrally coordinated public transport systems are the most efficient and effective at meeting commuter demand. The case of the informal taxi network in Addis Ababa suggests that some types of public transport can operate effectively and efficiently without such planning and coordination, although the outcomes of the system may be sub-optimal. The main failure of the network (putting aside safety and sustainability issues) is where commuter demand is not being met on certain routes at certain times of the day. The reason for this unmet demand could the result of a number of factors, such as insufficient information, lack of information exchange between agents, lack of incentives for taxi operations (e.g. profitability of certain routes), or merely the lack of sufficient taxi operators in the system.
  • Government efforts to improve the public transport system and planning in Addis Ababa need to take into consideration the role and function of the informal taxi network, in particular its operational dynamics. Currently there are a number of initiatives being implemented to improve the public transport system in Addis Ababa, most notably the construction of a light rail network. At this stage it is not clear if or how the informal taxi network will be integrated with the light rail network (based on the limited available information here and here) although the Transport Policy of Addis Ababa does indicate that intermodal connections will be facilitated by the construction of suitable rail terminals.
    Light rail network under construction in Gurdashola.

    Light rail network under construction in Gurdashola.

    The government is also seeking to regulate the informal taxi network to improve safety and ensure routes are being served adequately. This appears to be having positive and negative impacts. On the one hand the regulators have been relatively successful in limiting overcrowding on taxis. One the other hand they have caused delays and confusion at taxi stations by trying to dictate which route a taxi should be operating rather than letting the taxi operator make that choice. A better approach could be to identify where commuter demand it not being met and then finding ways to incentivise taxi operators to serve those route or increase services by government-run buses on these routes. Alternatively they could try to improve the flow of information across the system to make it easier for both taxi operators and passengers to meet their individual objectives. Either way the key point is that developing a better understanding of the dynamics of the system is important before seeking to regulate it or integrate it with other modes of public transport.

I would interested to hear other opinions on whether the informal taxi network in Addis Ababa does indeed exhibit the characteristics of a complex-adaptive system and also to know if any modelling of informal transport networks has been undertaken either in Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa. So please share your thoughts below.

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Some useful links to urban issues in Addis Ababa

This week the Guardian launched its new Guardian Cities website.

According to this article, the purpose of the new website is:

…as an open platform for critical discussion and debate about the issues facing the world’s metropolitan centres…Featuring regular contributions from established experts and new voices, we’ll be peeling back the glossy veneer of the computer renderings, and going beyond the facts and figures of the city sales pitch, to ask what our future cities will actually be like – and how we can influence them for the better.

My blog was lucky enough to be featured on the website’s interactive guide to the best city blogs around the world as the ‘local urban voice’ of Addis Ababa. Given that I have only recently started this blog, and have lived in Addis Ababa for just over 6 months, this is a bit of on overstatement and I want to clarify that I do not wish to make such claim.

However, as an outsider who has visited and lived in a number of cities around the world I do believe I can make a useful contribution to the discussions around urban development in Addis Ababa and cities more broadly (along with other issues related to complexity, sustainability and development).

In the meantime, given the increase in traffic I have experience thanks to my inclusion on the Guardians lists of city blogs, I have compiled a short list of links that may be useful to those looking for further ideas and information related to urban issues in Addis Ababa:

If anyone has any further suggestions please post a comment and I will happily and them to the list.

I also recommend checking out the blogs from other African cities listed on the Guardian website which have a lot of interesting content.

Coming soon, my next blog post on urban transport in Addis Ababa…

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REDD: A window of opportunity to protect forests in developing countries? Or a threat to multi-functional landscapes?

Even since I first heard about the REDD concept (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) I have been concerned about the potential negative impacts of the use of this financial mechanism on forest-dependent communities and the provision of a broad range of ecosystem services in developing countries. As a student of both international development and environment management I could see that this concept (as it was originally conceived) was very naïve in regards to both the realities of forestry in developing countries and the complexity of ecosystem services provided by forests.

Like many ideas conceived by theorists and researchers in developed countries, this approach seemed to be based on a poor understanding of the function, usage and management of forests in developing countries. It also subordinated the multiple environment services and benefits provided by forests by focusing purely on carbon storage. Moreover, it seemed as though this mechanism was, at least in part, designed to enable developed countries to offset their carbon emissions through the purchase REDD based carbon credits rather than taking direct action to reduce emissions in their own economies.

Over time the REDD concept has been refined in response to these concerns and other important considerations. The latest version of this concept, REDD+, now seeks to incorporate participatory forest management approaches and a larger range of environmental services within projects that are funded through this mechanism. There is also a push to minimise the use of this mechanism by rich countries to purchase carbon credits to offset their own emissions.

But taking a step back. Why was this idea naïve to begin with?

Seemingly this concept was conceived in a developing country paradigm/context in which forests are viewed as distinct, stand-alone landscape features with clearly demarcated boundaries and ownership structures, and where forestry activities, whether commercial or recreational, are largely well-regulated. Moreover, it is also assumes that forests are largely unoccupied by humans.

In the developed world this is a relatively accurate representation of reality because land-use planning and forest management systems are well defined and regulated, for the most part at least. This makes it easy to define and identify specific areas as ‘forests’ (whether natural or plantations) within regional land-use planning systems.

However, in the case of many developing countries the situation is essentially the opposite. Forests generally do not have clearly defined or effective governance structures and mechanisms. Forestry activities are usually unregulated or poorly regulated, and there is a much greater exploitation of a broad range of forest resources, such as firewood, medicinal plants, bush meat, and resins. The boundaries of forests may not always be obvious due to the absence of governance mechanisms or even when boundaries do exist on paper, in practice may be ignored or poorly defined without fencing or signage. Moreover, the exploitation of the forest by different users may have reduced the forest cover or its edges may be integrated with farming systems or other local land-use practices, thus blurring the distinction between the forest and agricultural land.

Most significantly, forests or forested areas in developing countries are often populated and/or frequently used by local people, whether to exploit its resources, to perform cultural activities, as a place to feed livestock, or to travel through to reach water access points, markets or towns. Ethiopia is a prime example of this situation as many of its forests, including designated protected areas and national parks, face encroachment from small and large scale agriculture and livestock which is largely unregulated. While in some parts of the country forests hold important cultural value and significant and are managed by traditional indigenous governance mechanisms such as the Sheka Forest.

‘Monotypic Masses’ versus ‘Multi-functional Mosaics’

A useful categorisation of these two different landscape typologies was recently developed by the IIED, namely Monotypic Masses and Multi-functional Mosaics. The first category, Monotypic Masses, is where large packages of land are used to produce a single product or service, whether food, fuel, fibre, biodiversity or carbon sequestration. The focus of this type of land-use system is on scale, efficiency and identifying the most suitable and profitable areas for these purposes, as well as providing public ecological goods and services to the global market. An example of this would be the identification of a forest with high carbon storage and the removal or regulation of any activities that would impact on the carbon storage capacity. Under this approach displacement of people and the prohibition or removal other land-use practices is essentially mandatory in order to protect the investment and to maximise the production of the designated ecological good or service. This category typifies the land use practices and systems of the developed world and increasingly large parts of the developing world, particularly emerging economies such as Brazil and China.

The second category, Multi-functional Mosaics, is where a range of different land-use practices are applied in an integrated fashion on smaller parcels of land in order to produce multiple ecological goods and services. The focus of this type of land-use system is on meeting the social and economic needs of local communities by maintaining the local community’s access and rights to land and natural resources, as well as providing global public ecological goods and services. An example of this would be the use of agroforestry practices that produce food and other products for local consumption but also enhance carbon sequestration and soil protection that has local and global benefits. Under this approach the displacement of people should not be required, although some local land-use practices may need to be changed or phased out in order to maximise the provision of the ecological goods and services. This category typifies the land-use practices and systems in much of the developing world (and some small areas of the developed world where permaculture and other ecologically-based mixed-use agricultural methods have been adopted).

It should be clear from the two categories above that the REDD+ mechanism was designed to fit within the Monotypic masses category. This means that the mechanism faces a number of challenges and potential issues if attempts are made to implement it in countries or areas where the conditions associated with the Multi-functional Mosaics category are predominant.

REDD readiness or REDD relevance?

Ethiopia is an interesting case study for assessing the suitability of the REDD+ mechanism as it a country where the majority of land-use practices sit within the Multi-functional Landscapes category. It has also incorporated REDD+ as a key component in its Climate-Resilient Green Economy strategy and is in the process of building its ‘REDD readiness’ capacity. Based on my observations in Africa and my understanding of this concept, I believe the following challenges associated with the implementation of REDD need careful consideration before countries such as Ethiopia commit themselves to the use of this mechanism on a large scale:

  • REDD+ requires the imposition of clearly defined and effective forest governance, ownership and management mechanisms. In many countries, including Ethiopia, this would represent a radical shift from existing structures and practices, and more than likely would involve the displacement of existing forest-dependent communities and/or heavy restrictions on forest activities and restricted access to forests. In Ethiopia, governance structures in the forestry sector have historically been very weak and the sector has only just recently been elevated to its own Ministerial portfolio from its subordinate position within the Ministry of Agriculture. This suggests that Ethiopia has a long way to go when it comes to enhanced governance structures at the national level, let along improving implementation and monitoring capacity at the local level which would be critical for the effective implementation of REDD+.
  • The technical capacity and financial resources required to undertake carbon monitoring and accounting to meet international standards is not likely to exist in developing countries for some time. Therefore, REDD involves a built-in dependency on external technical and financial assistance. This raises serious questions about the sustainability of REDD-funded projects and the possibility of shifting government resources and efforts away from poverty reduction initiatives or the delivery of other basic services in order to meet its REDD monitoring and verification requirements. In addition, questions are being raised about the scale of funds that will be available through REDD+ and how those funds will be distributed in a equitable fashion.
  • REDD+ may result in a higher value being placed on the carbon storage capacity of forests over and above other ecological goods and services, which might deliver some global public benefits but severely disadvantage local communities.This relates to the Myopic Masses category described above. By providing financial incentives that are directly linked to the volume of carbon storage of forests the other ecological goods and services provided by forests may become undervalued and marginalised. This could result in a situation where forests that provide critical ecological services, such as watershed protection or biodiversity, but have a low carbon storage capacity are not seen as having the same value, at least in financial terms, as forests with a high carbon storage capacity.
  • The signing of a large number of REDD based funding agreements and contracts may severely limit the ability of local communities and governments to adapt and respond to future changes, whether economic or climatic. The long timeframes and stringent conditions associated with REDD+ based financial contracts means that the forest resources included under these agreement would essentially become a form of sunk capital. This is because the usage of the forest resource would be limited to carbon storage any other activities agreed upon at the outset. While understandably this is important for maintaining the carbon storage levels of the forest, it may make it very difficult for communities or governments to take advantage of new economic opportunities or implement new regional land-use and climate change adaptation strategies that may necessitate incursions or changes to the forested area included in the REDD contract to be successful.

But what then could be the alternative to REDD?

In the case of Ethiopia it would seem more appropriate to focus on the concept of sustainable agriculture and food systems rather than pursuing the REDD approach. This would require less of a dramatic shift away from its current agricultural-led development strategy and would likely be more aligned with existing local capacity. This would involve continuing its efforts to support small holder farmers to increase yields and improve the environmental condition of their farms and watersheds through the development and implementation of appropriate agroforestry techniques and other such approaches. If these methods were scaled up effectively they would potentially provide the same or higher levels of carbon storage as well as a range of other ecological goods and services with local and global benefits.Although it must be noted that under this approach it would be more difficult to calculate carbon storage levels and attribution within such multi-functional land-use systems. This would also require the development of innovative and flexible funding arrangements which most major donors generally have a strong aversion to because they prefer large-scale projects that are considered easier to negotiate and administer. However there are examples of where such flexible funding mechanisms have been successful, such as the Asian Coalition for Community Action program.


The above analysis seeks to demonstrate that the REDD+ mechanism is not likely to be a good fit in many parts of the developing world due to the absence of the necessary preconditions for successful implementation. This is not to suggest that REDD+ funded projects might not be appropriate in certain contexts, but that careful consideration needs to be given to whether the right conditions exists before a significant amount resources are committed to this approach. In particular, developing countries should assess which type of landscape typologies, myopic masses or multi-functional landscapes, are predominant in their countries and whether they wish to pursue policies and strategies that encourage one or the other.

In the case of Ethiopia, the local context suggests that REDD+ may not a good fit in many parts of the country and therefore the position of REDD+ as a key pillar in the Ethiopian government’s Climate-resilient Green Economy strategy should perhaps be reconsidered. As an alternative, it may be more effective for the Ethiopian government to continue to build upon its agricultural-led development strategy and pursue REDD+ projects in a limited fashion where the appropriate local conditions already exist or could be established relatively easily without displacing or disadvantaging forest-dependent communities.

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No pain, no gain? Rapid urban growth and urbanism in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Addis Ababa, the high altitude capital of Ethiopia, is a city undergoing one of the fastest rates of urban growth in the world. The huge scale of development and change that is occurring makes it seem like the entire city is just one big construction site.

All across the city new houses, condominiums, offices, roads and other pieces of urban infrastructure are being built more or less simultaneously. This includes the city’s first light rail network that is part of a plan to make the Ethiopian capital city’s public transport system more sustainable, by shifting it away from the current dependence on an informal network of minivan taxis and buses.

Unfortunately, a side effect of all this development activity is a number of negative social, environmental and economic impacts.

For example, poorly regulated construction activities cause a great deal of inconvenience for city residents and businesses. Many major and minor roads are cut off or have limited access due to the extension of building sites onto roads and footpaths, forcing some businesses to close down due to the lack of customers. Large potholes on roads (often where new water pipes have been laid and filled in without a sufficient amount of gravel or a new coat of asphalt) create traffic hazards, particularly for cars with a low wheel base, and cause wear and tear to vehicles imposing additional maintenance costs. Pedestrians probably fare the worst however, as they are forced to trek through muddy or dusty streets and to walk along the edges of busy roads to avoid construction sites.

Construction site in Addis Ababa extending onto the road and forcing pedestrians to walk on the second lane of a busy road.

Construction site in Addis Ababa extending onto the road and forcing pedestrians to walk on the second lane of a busy road.

Another issue is the apparent lack of urban planning mechanisms and regulation, which in some areas of the city has resulted in poor urban design outcomes. For example, some tall commercial buildings have been constructed in areas which are primarily residential and overshadow the surrounding homes. While some large apartment blocks are sometimes built without any provision for car parking for tenants. A number of major arterial roads have also been built without sufficient provision for pedestrian bridges or crossings, as such many pedestrians jump fences and risk themselves in busy traffic in order to cross to the other side of the road rather than walk the long way to the nearest bridge.

Typical street in Addis Ababa showing small shops and the mix of low rise and medium rise buildings.

Typical street in Addis Ababa showing small shops and the mix of low rise and medium rise buildings.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Ethiopian government is strongly influencing this situation by providing incentives that encourage quantity and speed in the implementation of infrastructure and urban development projects, rather than incentivising quality of implementation or minimising disruption to residents and businesses.

But what is the upside of all this construction chaos and urban activity?

In short, Addis Ababa is experiencing rapid economic growth rates, which is creating jobs and raising tax revenues for the national government to spend on its largely rural population. It is also providing new homes for the city’s expanding population, and once finished the new infrastructure should greatly improve the city’s transport network and provide safer and more sustainable public transport options.

Despite the apparent lack of urban planning and regulation, some sections of the city also possess an ‘urban village‘ type of urban environment. These medium density areas are host to a mix of housing types, social classes, and small and large businesses. Albeit cars remain predominate and accommodations for pedestrians are minimal. This is likely to be part of the reason that Addis Ababa has a much lower crime rate and is considered much safer than other African cities, although petty crime and harassment are not uncommon. The city also has only a limited number of gated communities, which are very common in other Africa cities (and many other developing countries) and have emerged in response to high crime rates. They are also representative of a growing gap between rich and poor.

Typical residential street in Addis Ababa with no footpath and pedestrian walking on the road.

Typical residential street in Addis Ababa with no footpath and pedestrian walking on the road.

There is also a notable lack of modern supermarkets in Addis, at least the enormous types that are taken for granted in developed countries. While there are a small number of larger ‘hypermarkets’ that certainly resemble modern supermarkets, these only stock a limited range of products and are easily outnumbered by a high number of smaller specialist retail outlets and a plethora of markets, street stalls and food vendors. This can be seen as largely a positive situation as it escapes the traps of supermarket-dominated and monopolised food systems in countries like the United States and Australia. But on the negative side there are a number of food safety and quality issues that are difficult to address under the current situation. For example, it is common to see dairy products being delivered in unrefrigerated vehicles or fresh produce being packed, transported or handled unhygienically.

So what insights can be gleaned from these observations in relation to complexity, sustainability and development?

A few things that come to mind include:

  • Better planning and sequencing of new infrastructure and other urban development activities could result in less negative social and economic impacts. However, this also needs to be weighed against the cost of enhanced regulation of these activities and whether regulation would actually achieve the desired outcome given the low levels of capacity within the city and national administrations.
  • Despite the inconveniences and costs of living in city undergoing rapid urban development, people are very adaptable and have found ways to live and cope with such conditions. For example, informal retailers can easily pack up shop and move to a new location if need be, and minibus taxi services can change their routes to avoid road works or construction activities.
  • The prevalence of smaller supermarkets over large modern varieties is likely a reflection of the socioeconomic standing of the majority of city residents. Modern supermarkets are reliant on consumers having access to a motor vehicle and relatively high incomes in order to purchase large quantities of food products and transport them home again. Given that the majority of residents in Addis Ababa do not have ready access to a motor vehicle and very low incomes, they are more likely to shop for food close to home and to only buy smaller amounts of food at a time. They may also not own a refrigerator (or have secure access to electricity to power it) so buying large amounts of perishable goods is out of the question anyway.
  • Alternative forms of urban development are possible and in many ways Addis Ababa appears to have charted its own unique version of urbanization, possibly due to the fact it never inherited an urban planning system from a colonial power (Although the brief occupation by the Italians during WWII left a cultural legacy that is still very visible today).


The rapid pace of urban development in Addis Ababa is resulting in social and economic costs to city residents and businesses due to a lack of consideration for the social, environmental and economic impacts of urban development activities. However, urban growth is also contributing to economic growth and raising government revenues, although the benefits of this growth are not distributed evenly. The situation in Addis Ababa also highlights the fact that urbanisation is a complex and dynamic process, with many actors and systems interacting and influencing each other. And despite the efforts of governments and planning authorities, the outcomes of these interactions are difficult to control and are sometimes unpredictable.

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