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Story Publication logo August 14, 2017

Ethiopia to Djibouti: A Journey Along the New Beijing-Backed Ethiopia-Djibouti Rail

Authors:
Azindo Nchegir is a subsistence farmer, and also a local agent for Chinese gambling interests. Image by Noah Fowler. Ghana, 2017.
English

For more than a decade, China and Africa boomed together. China gave African states access to...

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BISHOFTU, Ethiopia—The shoe factory felt endless. Thousands of Ethiopians in yellow and red jumpsuits sat in neat rows beneath a cavernous ceiling, assembling, inspecting, and packaging women’s shoes. Overhead, red banners flaunted slogans in English, Chinese, and Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language. 

“To enlarge career platform for China and Africa employees,” said one. “To live and work in peace and contentment.”

The China-based Huajian Company employs 6,000 workers in Ethiopia, churning out shoes for Guess, Tommy, Mark Fisher, and other American shoe brands. Huajian is bullish on the country, where labor is cheap and the government is China-friendly; it hopes to expand its Ethiopian work force to 50,000 people within eight years.

We came to Ethiopia to report on Africa’s first fully electrified cross-border railway line, a Chinese-backed project stretching more than 450 miles from the country’s capital Addis Ababa to the Red Sea port of Djibouti. Although the line hasn’t opened yet, Ethiopian officials hope it will turn the impoverished, landlocked country into a manufacturing powerhouse, not unlike China in the early days of its industrial boom. 

We’d been reporting on the railway for two days when we decided to visit the factory. Fortunately, the company’s CEO Zhang Huarong was in Ethiopia on an inspection tour, and he agreed to an interview.

Zhang stood to benefit tremendously from the new rail line. But almost immediately, he shifted the conversation towards America. 

“I hope that America, over the next 50 years, stops only considering its aircraft carriers, and starts using its technology to help the whole world develop together,” he said. At first I took the statement as a dull platitude—in my six years as a China correspondent, I’ve heard countless Chinese officials express similar sentiments. But then I thought about his clientele. 

Every pair of shoes produced in his factories, both in China and Ethiopia, is exported to the U.S., he told us. President Donald Trump’s increasingly bellicose rhetoric on China may have spooked him; if Trump, acting on a campaign promised, slapped a tariff on Chinese-manufactured goods, Huajian would surely suffer. His words may have been less of a platitude, and more of a plea. 

(Huajian also produces shoes for Ivanka Trump’s clothing line, though Zhang refused to talk about that). 

The Ethiopia-Djibouti railroad stops in Adama, where some residents feel left behind by the development. Image by Noah Fowler. Ethiopia, 2017.
The Ethiopia-Djibouti railroad stops in Adama, where some residents feel left behind by the development. Image by Noah Fowler. Ethiopia, 2017.

ADAMA, Ethiopia—There’s not much in Adama, Ethiopia, a city of about 300,000 roughly 60 miles southeast of Addis Ababa. Small, blue auto-rickshaws jostle for road space with hulking Chinese trucks, kicking up so much dust that you can feel it in your teeth. Rows of low, concrete houses stretch up into the scrubby hills. 

Then, just outside of the city center, it rises like a mirage—a hulking train station, the first stop on a Chinese-built railway from Addis Ababa to Djibouti’s Red Sea port. When we visited, the station lay empty; its interior, the size of a small concert hall, was covered in dust. The road in front of it wound up a steep hill to a small village, where we found ourselves sitting in Tashoma Kafani’s dusty front yard.

Kafani, 72, was born and raised in the village, and spent his life farming barley, maize, and teff, a fine grain that grows predominantly in Ethiopia. Before construction began on the railway five years ago, he said, he could walk to his fields in about two hours; now, he needs about five. The rail “divides the village into two,” he told us.

“We are happy about the project and the development,” he continued. “In the future our children will be able to get a job. Our only problem is the road. There is no bridge, no crossover—that is the problem.”

Other villagers echoed the sentiment. It seemed to perfectly embody the pitfalls of rapid development—many Ethiopians have been forced to swap their traditional way of life for the promise of a brighter future, with no sense of when it might arrive. 

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