Ethiopia

FEATURE: Addis Ababa – A community alliance faces up to Covid-19

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In the peri-urban areas of Addis Ababa Ethiopia, community members are collectively saving money to deal with multiple hardships posed by the global pandemic. Ephrem Tesema reports. This is the 36th in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Addis Ababa, the capital city Ethiopia, is the country’s largest urban centre. Sitting at an elevation of 7,726 feet above sea level, Addis Ababa is one of the highest capital cities in the world. It has a population of 4.8 million people in the larger metropolitan area and 2.7 million people in its city area.

The urban areas of Addis Ababa face emerging risks associated with climate change including floods from unexpected rain, scorching heat during the day and extreme cold in the evening hours. The existing challenges such as uncontrolled urban expansion, poverty and inadequate urban infrastructure further exacerbate the situation.

Urban and peri-urban agriculture is a fast growing livelihood option for the inhabitants, while many of them are also involved in small businesses such as vegetable vending, food and coffee shop keeping and street side fast food catering.

There are three vegetable cooperatives and about 16,000 individual farmers engaged in vegetable farming in Addis Ababa. Apart from the vegetable sector, urban dairy farming and fuel wood collection remain as important livelihood options in Addis Ababa city. The Addis Ababa City Administration showed its commitment to the sector by establishing the Addis City Urban Agriculture Department to support urban farmers.

Abebech Bekele, locally known as Abe, is a 47 year-old woman living in Addis Ababa. She and her husband run a small food stall that serves food, drinks and spices. The food stall is located in Ayata condominium in the northern peri-urban periphery of Addis Ababa.

Most of Abe’s customers are people resettled in condominiums after they transferred from the old part of Addis Ababa (Fillwuha, Teklehaymanot and Aratkilo) some ten years ago during the onset of the first urban renewal project initiated by the Addis Ababa City Administration.

Every day about 50 regular customers visit Abe’s food stall. While the stall is mostly visited by elderly people in the morning, the lunch is mostly served to day labourers, street vendors and female traders. In the evening, she caters to a wide range of people with coffee and beer.

Serving customers during Covid-19

The onset of Covid-19 brought about new frontiers of challenges which demanded the reorganising of service provisions, imposing restrictions and the rebirth of new social learning within the context of the small food stall.

Abe first heard about Covid-19 in February 2020 through the Ethiopian Community Health Institute. Soon it started taking a new turn in the everyday interaction of people everywhere in the country. “The Covid-19 related preventions sounded to most of us very vague, hard to cope with and contrary to the socio-cultural norms of our Ethiopian everyday way of living” Abe recalls.

When the lockdown was eased, safety precautions put business owners like Abe in a precarious position and at times at odds with the diverse nature of customers’ behaviour and perceptions. Abe and her husband started working hard to maintain physical distancing by reorganising the sitting arrangement. They divided the space inside the food stall into three parts so that customers can avoid the transmission of virus.

They introduced obligatory use of masks during entry, washing hands before entering the food stall, using sanitiser before and after using facilities (rest room, tables, and glasses), sterilising glasses and coffee cups using heat and deep freezing. The local police and the condominium committee leaders also monitored the stall and made sure all the customers abided by the safety precautions and prevention mechanisms.

Forming Kiya Mahiber to help each other

Covid-19 brought new hardships for Abe’s entire community such as unemployment, food insecurity, and health issues among the elderly. The daily statistics on the number of deceased and infected people led to further mental trauma. People were desperately looking for a solution to come out of all the hardships.

To cater to that need, Abe and her husband, with support from a few of their interested customers, initiated Kiya Mahiber. It is a form of social support system or a network of individuals established to share labour, material, financial and psychological support to its members. *Kiya *means “my own” in Oromo language. *Mahiber *is an Amharic term referring to “an association or grouping of people with social responsibilities.”

The intention behind forming Kiya Mahiber was to support its members in case of financial distress, illness and death. It started with a contribution of 50 Birr (worth of 1.5 USD) per month per individual. They also gathered additional 100 Birr (worth of 2.5 USD), which means a total of 1,300 Birr (32.50 USD) through crowdsourcing.

Members of Kiya Mahiber also started organising a rendezvous once in a month where they would serve free food including meat to members who can’t afford to buy protein rich food items. During the rendezvous, members discussed how to further support two elderly and one sick members who are not able to leave their homes to pay their utility bills. Kiya Mahiber has 10 male and 3 female members in total. Recently the Mahiber has drafted a bylaw and started receiving requests from new members who want to join the group.

Information on medical, financial, and material services available through government structures, NGOs, youth and women volunteers were also regularly disseminated among the members so that they can access the services. Moreover, information on relevant job openings were also discussed.

Interviewer’s perspective

The Kiya Mahiber initiative during the time of pandemic, helped forge strength among the members to fulfill their needs. It also created a platform for community members where they can interact, share information and stories comfortably without any hesitation. It helped members envision an ideal world with safety amidst the grim reality created by the pandemic. Although Covid-19 is not over yet, its onset has inspired novel efforts of group reorganising and mobilisation of resources to share economic hardship and looming stress. Despite being beneficial in so many ways, *Kiya Mahiber *still faces survival issues on every day basis largely due to lack of funds.

About the interviewee

Abebech Bekele, a 47 years old married woman, got into a small private business some five years ago with her husband, Ato Getachew Tefera. Abebech works full time in the small food stall while her husband gives a hand in his free time as he is working as a driver for a private business owner. In addition to running the small business Abebech takes orders from customers to prepare spicy sauce such as dilih( Pepper, oil, mustard and other mixed spices), shiro (refined beans), berbere (refined pepper) and Besso (roasted and refined barley).

About the interviewer

Ephrem Tesema Antenh, born in Jimma, Ethiopia, is a social anthropologist by training. In 2011, he took his PhD in Social Anthropology from University of Basel, Switzerland. For the last 15 years, he has served several organisations including Ethiopian Parliament, National Population Office, ACORD Ethiopia, ILRI, and Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia. He is currently working as an Independent Consultant and social development advisor in Addis Ababa.

Read more Voices from the Frontline

Read the whole ‘Voices from the Frontline’ series from communities across the world.