Addis Ababa and its Sibling Cities: Explaining the Development Gap


What’s the reason behind Addis Ababa's progress ahead of the rest of the country?

In 1935, mere months before the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, Chekosolovakian explorer Adolf Parlesak went to Addis Ababa. He described the city as “steps ahead of the rest of the country.” The paved roads, modern schools, and electricity he found in Addis were a rarity in the rest of Ethiopia. Thankfully, most Ethiopian cities now have roads, schools, and electricity. However, noticing a disparity between Addis Ababa and the rest of Ethiopia’s cities doesn't take much observation. Addis Ababa appears to be significantly more advanced than other cities in Ethiopia regarding technological advancements, overall infrastructure, and business climate. This raises the question:

What’s the reason behind Addis Ababa's progress ahead of the rest of the country?

Crown Jewel of the Ethiopian Empire

Since its founding over 130 years ago, Addis Ababa has served as the capital city of Ethiopia. The city was founded during a time when rapid technological progress was happening throughout the world. Ethiopia sought to embrace these innovations, and Addis Ababa naturally emerged as the epicenter for this progress. This gave Addis Ababa a competitive edge over other Ethiopian cities when it came to modern technology. Despite its short history compared to other Ethiopian cities, Addis Ababa was in the right place at the right time.

Exposure to the World

Ethiopia’s modernizing efforts in the 19th century included forming diplomatic relations with other countries. Several countries started opening their embassies and consulates in the city, with France being the earliest to open a consulate in Addis Ababa. These diplomatic ties exposed the city to foreigners in a new way. Foreign businessmen were suddenly interested in opening businesses in the city.

Of course, when we mention foreign business owners, we can’t fail to mention the role of the Greek and Armenian communities in the city’s commercial progress. These expat communities contributed to the growth of international trade in the city. The boom of trade in the city brought relative prosperity and progress that the rest of Ethiopia had yet to enjoy.

As time progressed, so did Addis Ababa’s significance. On May 25, 1963, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was established with Addis Ababa as its headquarters. The city went on to earn the nickname “The Capital of Africa”.  Successive Ethiopian governments consequently invested more in the city to enhance its infrastructure and ensure that it lived up to its name.


When talking about Addis Ababa, it’s important to understand the role of post-secondary education in its progress. Since its establishment in 1950, Addis Ababa University remained the only university in the country for decades. This meant that young minds from all over the country came to Addis Ababa to receive education and continued to work and live there. Consequently, a substantial portion of the nation's educated populace became concentrated in Addis Ababa, further fueling the city's progress. Although there are currently more than three dozen public universities in the country, disparities in educational attainment continue to persist. Even considering secondary school enrollment, a study by Ethiopia’s Ministry of Education indicated that the Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) for regions like Afar and Oromia was as low as 14.2% and 35.4%, respectively, while Addis Ababa had a 100% GER. It’s obvious then that modern-day businesses, which are technology-heavy and require educated manpower tend to be concentrated in Addis Ababa. This pattern unintentionally creates a cycle: Businesses clustering in the city attract educated people, which makes Addis Ababa more appealing as a business hub.

Another manifestation of this disparity is evident in the high Human Development Index (HDI) enjoyed by Addis Ababa. In a nation with an overall HDI of 0.498, categorized as low, Addis Ababa stands out with an impressive HDI of 0.741, deemed high. Notably, this figure surpasses the HDI of some developed African countries, including South Africa.

What are the implications?

As Addis Ababa advances, the repercussions for other Ethiopian cities are less favorable. Not only do they suffer from disparities in wealth, education, infrastructure, and technology, but their prospects of developing are also hindered by the very cycle we previously discussed. Private business owners are often hesitant to spread their innovative ideas, as they anticipate a lack of profitability.  For instance, despite the existence of numerous ride-hailing services in Addis Ababa, none are operational in Gondar or Mekelle, Ethiopia's second and third most populous cities. This trend is further exemplified by the fact that the well-known ride-hailing service RIDE expanded to Djibouti as its second destination after Addis Ababa, bypassing other Ethiopian cities.

What should be done?

The solution to this problem is complex, but it can be described with one word: Investment, lots of it. Both regional and federal governments need to ramp up the efforts to catch the rest of Ethiopian cities with Addis Ababa. There are some good initiatives in this regard, with the Dire Dawa free trade zone being inaugurated last year. Such projects will be instrumental in speeding up the commercial, technological, and overall development of Ethiopia’s cities. The problem arises, however, when it comes to the private sector. The private sector invests with its interests in mind, and as previously acknowledged, cities beyond Addis Ababa remain less appealing for innovative ventures. Therefore, there must be great incentives for the private sector to invest in Ethiopia’s cities. Beyond this, a call for pioneers is essential — individuals willing to venture into uncharted territory and illuminate the untapped potential of cities like Gondar, Bahirdar, or Jimma, mirroring the opportunities present in Addis Ababa. In the meantime, it’s up to the government to improve these cities, striving to lay the foundation for the trailblazers of tomorrow.

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