Rasheeda Bhagat

The lure of India in Ethiopia

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on January 22, 2018

Indian or Chinese Hamara Bajaj rules FABIO LAMANNA/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Teachers from India have carved a special place in this country with their unstinting efforts across generations

Ethiopian industrialist Teshome Kebede is driving me to the small but strategic town of Debre Birehan where we will see surgeons of an Indian medical mission perform free eye operations.

“Oh, there are very positive feelings in Ethiopia about India,” says Kebede. And it begins with Indian teachers: he, his wife and his children were all taught by Indian teachers. The road is wide and smooth. More than a decade ago, when the modernisation of Ethiopia began, a decision was made to provide good roads. The Chinese were quick to grab the opportunity.

Just like us

Clearly an Indophile, Kebede, whose company manufactures 8,000 leather gloves a day which are exported to the US and Japan, says another reason why Ethiopians like India is that “just like your people, our people are also very conservative and traditional and we find that in Indians and admire it. Our food is also like yours, hot and spicy! All these things built a fraternity between India and Ethiopia. With China of course it’s a new relationship”.

In this predominantly Christian country — about 65 per cent Christian, 34 per cent Muslim — many people also believe that the highly revered Christian saint Abo (Gabra Manfas Qeddus), after whom many churches have been built, came from India. “If you ask a rural farmer about India, he will either say it is Saint Abo’s country or he might say I went to school where there was an Indian teacher.” Wikipedia, of course, tells another story; this 562-year-old saint is believed to have lived in Egypt for a couple of centuries before coming to Ethiopia. Then, of course, there is Bollywood, India’s biggest ambassador in most countries.

Addis Ababa displays ample evidence of being a modern city with a network of wide roads and flyovers, shopping malls, restaurants and bars, office complexes and fancy houses. Ashok Kumar, First Secretary at the Indian Embassy, says that Indian business activity is increasing and there is keen interest to invest in this fast developing economy. Earlier in November, Kanoria Chemicals opened its denim plant here with an investment of $30 million.

Indian investment

Rajeev Sharma, who came from Delhi to Ethiopia to explore business opportunities eight years ago, has stayed on to start his family’s paper factory here. “Actually the Economic Counsellor in the Ethiopian Embassy in Delhi was my brother’s friend, and he said that as their economy was growing fast it would give good returns on investment, and we are not disappointed.” He is the deputy convenor of the India Business Forum, an umbrella body for all Indian investment, and was recently in India along with the entourage brought by the Ethiopian Prime Minister. He says another $30 million investment has been made here by the Allama group, a major Indian exporter of halal meat, adding: “Raymond is also setting up a garment plant in Ethiopia and will be investing about $100 million in phases.”

But the biggest brand is the ubiquitous Bajaj three-wheeler. The bulk of these vehicles are old, rickety and painted blue, but they outnumber cars. Kebede says that while Bajaj vehicles were the first to come here, now Chinese three-wheelers have flooded the place. “But they are all called Bajaj; and the Chinese are not going to like that,” he grins.

With local manufacturing not being adequate there is heavy dependence on imports and hence the government is tight-fisted with foreign currency. “We have to import cars, and there is heavy tax… almost 400 to 500 per cent on new cars.” But if the car is more than two years old, there is a 50 per cent cut in import duty so people import used cars which are very old and emission norms go for a toss.

The opportunity for Indian auto-makers is immense, and Kebede would rather have Indian cars plying on Ethiopian roads than Chinese. “The Tatas have already opened an office and I hope they’ll expand soon,” is his wish.

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Published on November 23, 2015
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