The bars and cafes are full and lively in the northern Ethiopian town of Mekelle – but they are no longer smoke-filled, with the strict implementation of a smoking ban in public places.
“It’s a good thing,” said Hiriti, the owner of a small bar in a busy street. “Of course, some customers are not happy, but it also depends on the way you tell them not to smoke.
“I tell them it is not only about the law. It is also about your health,” he said. “They react better if you tell them that way.”
The town of Mekelle is bucking the trend in Africa where tobacco use is increasing driven by companies that see a growing market on the continent amid a tightening of smoking laws elsewhere.
Tobacco consumption in Africa – excluding South Africa – increased by almost 70 percent between 1990 and 2010, according to a study by the American Cancer Society. The number of African smokers could grow by 40 percent by 2030, the study predicted.
Ethiopia is not the first country to impose a ban, but is one of the few to act on the law. Kenya’s capital Nairobi has designated smoking cabins, with smoking on the street illegal, although the rule is widely flouted.
Several African countries have a complete ban on smoking in public – most recently, Uganda passed a law banning smoking within 50 metres of any public place – according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), but such laws are rarely implemented.
Nearly 80 percent of the more than one billion smokers worldwide live in low and middle-income countries, “where the burden of tobacco-related illness and death is heaviest”, according to the WHO, which estimates that 600 000 people die worldwide each year from the effects of second-hand smoke.
‘People really stopped’
In Ethiopia, parliament passed a law banning smoking in public places in 2014 and Mekelle is the first city to implement it.
The town of some 200 000 people is the state capital of the far northern Tigray region. Since January smoking has been banned in cafes, restaurants, schools and hospitals, as well as cultural, sports and religious centres.
Those who break the ban face a fine of 1 000 Ethiopian birr ($50) fine, a small fortune in Ethiopia where salaries rarely exceed $100 a month.
“We hardly see more smokers. People really stopped,” said Teklay Weldemariam, the head of the city’s health department and one of the architects of this law.
“The speed of non-communicable diseases is increasing. Cancer is one of them. So it is high time to ban cigarettes in public areas.”
He hopes Mekelle will be an example to others.
“I know other Ethiopian towns are interested in the experience of Mekelle. This can also inspire other East African cities,” said Teklay.
Some grumble at the ban, frustrated at the restrictions, but others say the law is necessary.
“If you enter a cafe with smokers, you could not say anything because it was part of social life, it was fully accepted. This prohibition is a very good idea,” said John Haile Selassie.
After targeting tobacco, the authorities are also aiming to stamp out khat, a leafy green herb that is mildly narcotic when chewed.
“Consumption is rising and the government wants to do something,” said Teklay. But he recognised the subject is “sensitive” as chewing khat plays a role in some customs and traditions in parts of Ethiopia.
In 2012, nine Ethiopian men and women came together to create a blogging collective known as Zone 9. In an autocratic country rife with political corruption and where state-run media is utterly dominant, this was a bold move.
Writing in both English and Amharic, the bloggers covered some of the country’s most pressing social and economic issues, giving life to stories all but absent from local media.
Zone 9 believed it was imperative to speak publicly about the national constitution, which claims to protect freedom of expression and the right of assembly, and which demands elections every five years. The bloggers thought that if citizens could hold their government accountable through a free press, the country’s civic fabric could become stronger. Citizens could have some say in how the country was run.
On April 25 2014, the writers were taken from their homes and detained by police. After 11 weeks behind bars, they were charged under Ethiopia’s anti-terrorism laws.
Ethiopia currently ranks fourth on a list of the world’s most censored countries, according to a Committee to Protect Journalists report released [last] week.
In the run-up to elections in May, the report found that the government had filed lawsuits accusing six publications of “encouraging terrorism”, forcing 16 journalists to flee into exile, while the sole internet provider, Ethio Telecom, stand accused of routinely suspending critical news websites.
This is nothing new: over the last 24 years the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front has fine-tuned its social and political control, whilst simultaneously being credited by western governments for transforming the once poverty-stricken country into a rising, dynamic and stable one.
They weren’t the first. A series of Ethiopia’s successive and diametrically opposed regimes – from the military regime under Mengistu Haile Mariam (ousted in 1991) and the imperial rule under Haile Selassie before him – have had one thing in common: all have jailed and killed opposition activists, journalists and dissidents.
The Zone 9 name is in part inspired by this history. Kality, a prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, is divided into eight different zones, and it’s the last which has gained infamy – zone eight – home to journalists, human rights activists and dissidents.
Endalk Chala, one of the three Zone 9ers who remains free today, said that when the group formed “we decided to create a blog for the proverbial prison in which all Ethiopians live: this is Zone 9.”
The Ethiopian government accuses the bloggers of attempting to “overthrow, modify or suspend the Federal or State Constitution; by violence, threats, or conspiracy”.
The bloggers are expected to face trial later this year. If convicted, all of them face a minimum of eight years in prison.
With a genuine terror threat emanating from neighbouring Somalia, the government has developed sweeping anti-terrorism laws with the blessing of the international governments. But these laws are frequently used to suppress any hint of dissent within its own population.
From late 2005 until 2012 there were no major public demonstrations from the political opposition. There was also little critique: Ethiopia does not have a single independent daily newspaper, only a handful of state-sanctioned FM radio stations, and one government television station.
After the 2005 national elections, the regime banned opposition groups and labour unions, including religious groups, and imposed state control over their websites.
After the following 2010 election, where the government claimed to have won 99.9% of seats in parliament, the regime took control of all of the country’s major institutions including the courts, the media, mosques, churches, schools and universities. By 2012, the internet became the sole option for public communications and discourse.
‘Freedom of expression is considered immoral’
In 2013 amidst a climate of mounting intimidation and surveillance the Zone 9ers let their blog go quiet for six months.
They were unnerved by the treatment of award-winning journalists such as Eskinder Nega, Reeyot Alemu and Wubeshet Taye who had been, along with nine others, sentenced to between eight and 18 years in prison.
All had written columns criticising the anti-terrorism laws, the very same legislation they were later charged with violating.
But in 2014 the bloggers decided they could not remain quiet any longer. They published a letter explaining their silence.
“Last time we published a piece on our collective blog was about six months ago,” they wrote. “We know that Ethiopia is a country where freedom of expression is effectively repressed … Our rulers consider freedom of expression as something immoral.”
“When we became quiet, we thought we would be at least forgotten.” But they weren’t.
On April 25, just a week after posting the letter on Facebook, six members of the blogging team and three journalists apparently “affiliated” with them were arrested.
One year on they still await trial. The charge sheet accuses the bloggers of having received training in communication encryption in Security-in-a-Box – a digital security toolkit to help human rights groups protect themselves from surveillance, which is widely available online.
It also highlights their efforts in organising social media campaigns to engage more Ethiopians in conversations about human rights and national law.
In a letter about his experiences in prison and his hopes for the future, imprisoned blogger Natnael Feleke recently wrote: “To be honest, how much time I will be spending in prison is not the most pressing issue on my mind right now. Rather, I am worried about what will happen unless the international community assumes a firm stance on Ethiopia, demands progress with democratisation, and halts the millions of dollars pouring the regime’s way.”
“But ultimately,” Feleke writes, ‘it is the willingness to suffer and sacrifice [for our cause]’, in the words of Nelson Mandela, that will determine our fate.”
Ellery Roberts Biddle and Endalk Chala for Global Voices, in collaboration with the Guardian Africa network
One reason farmers in Africa mostly produce so much less than those in other parts of the world is that they have limited access to the technical knowledge and practical tips that can significantly increase yields. But as the continent becomes increasingly wired, this information deficit is narrowing.
While there are other factors, such as poor infrastructure and low access to credit and markets, that have helped keep average yields in Africa largely unchanged since the 1960s, detailed and speedily-delivered information is now increasingly recognised as an essential part of bringing agricultural production levels closer to their full potential.
In Ethiopia, which already has one of the most extensive systems in the world for educating the 85 percent of the population who work the land for a living, this recognition has driven the development of a multilingual mobile phone-based resource centre.
The hotline, operated by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, and Ethio Telecom, and created by the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), has proved a huge hit. Since its July launch and still in its pilot phase, more than three million farmers in the regions of Amhara, Oromia, Tigray and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) have punched 8028 on their mobiles to access the system, which uses both interactive voice response (IVR) and SMS technology.
“On average we get approximately 226 new calls and 1 375 return calls per hour into the system,” Elias Nure, the information communication technology project leader at ATA, told IRIN. When the number of lines doubles from the current 90, he said, “these numbers should significantly increase.”
More than 70 percent of users are smallholder farmers, he said.
Timely, accurate Ethiopia has the largest agricultural extension system in sub-Saharan Africa, the third largest in the world after China and India, according to the UN Development Programme.
This system has led to the establishment of about 10,000 Farmer Training Centres, and trained at least 63,000 field extension workers, also known as development agents. It facilitates information exchange between researchers, extension workers and farmers.
However, the reliance on development agents means that sometimes agronomic information reaches farmers too late or is distorted.
Push and pull factors
The agriculture hotline was proving popular due to its “pull” and “push” factors, according to ATA’s chief executive officer, Khalid Bomba.
Farmers could pull out practical advice, while customised content could be pushed out, such as during pest and disease outbreaks, to different callers based on the crop, or geographic or demographic data captured when farmers first registered with the system.
Recently, it warned registered farmers about the threat posed by wheat stem rust.
“These alerts and notifications were not available to smallholder farmers in the past and could greatly benefit users of the system by getting access to warnings in real-time,” said ATA’s Elias.
According to Tefera Derbew, Ethiopia’s minister of agriculture, ATA should boost its content to meet more needs.
“The IVR system offers users information relevant to the key cereals and high value crops, but I envisage that in the near future there will be the opportunity to upscale the service to include content relevant to all of the major agricultural commodities in the country, including livestock,” said Tefera.
The hotline currently focuses on cereal crops such as barley, maize, teff, sorghum and wheat, but plans are under way to provide agricultural advice on other crops, such as sesame, chickpea, haricot beans and cotton, while incorporating farmers’ feedback on needs.
For Ayele Worku, a teff farmer in Gurage zone of Ethiopia’s SNNPR State, the system’s benefits outweigh the frustrations of a patchy mobile network.
“The way of farming, especially for row-planting for teff is kind of new for me although I heard rumours about its advantage a while ago,” he told IRIN.
An agricultural extension and rural development expert working at Addis Ababa University, Seyoum Ayalew, said: “The new service could build a synergy with the previous approaches of the public extension system, which is largely based on trickle down approach of communication.”
Seyoum noted that within the traditional extension system, “where information passes through different channels before reaching the farmers, [it] is subjected to distortion through filtering and translation errors.”
After decades battling high maternal death rates – at least a third of which were due to botched abortions – Ethiopia took a stand: it prioritised newborn and maternal health, and in 2005 it relaxed its abortion law in an effort to save women’s lives.
Stopping short of legalising abortion, the new law decriminalised the act. It also allows women to terminate pregnancies that result from rape or incest, if the foetus has a severe defect, or if a girl is under the age of 18 and cannot care for the baby herself. Before 2005, a woman could only have an abortion if it was a matter of life or death.
“Anecdotally, I would say [the law] has had a huge impact on saving lives of girls and mothers,” said Addis Tamire Woldemariam, general director for the minister of health, but he said he did not have official numbers on the law’s impact. The latest statistics available are from 2008, which show that 27% of women who sought abortions in Ethiopia did so legally and safely. That still suggests more than 70% of abortions were done in unsafe conditions by untrained providers, but before 2005, that figure was much closer to 100%.
“Before, women would drink a tea made of plants to induce abortion,” said one health extension worker in the northern village of Mosebo. The women would then have extremely painful cramping followed by heavy bleeding – too heavy, she said. “It is much better now. We encourage them to go the health centres or clinics.”
Lack of access
But one major reason women are not getting safe abortions is that most Ethiopians live in places even less accessible than Mosebo, which is just off a bumpy gravel road that stretches 43km to the northern city of Bahir Dar. Getting to a health facility that provides abortion care is extremely difficult.
In Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, Dawit Argaw owns a Blue Star Clinic – a private health facility partnered with Marie Stopes, a global provider of newborn and maternal care, contraception and safe abortions. He explained that if he did not perform the abortions women sought at his clinic, they would just end up choosing a dangerous option. “The main reason that we do this is that we have seen so many complications [from abortions performed illegally], by [untrained] persons,” Argaw said. It used to be common that women would come to his clinic with puncture wounds or severe infections from botched abortions. “But since 2009 [four years after the new law was implemented], we have seen this maybe two or three times.”
While the vast majority of women seeking abortions are still getting them through unsafe means, in large cities like Addis, women can get to clinics and doctors more easily.
But women’s health is also helped by increased access to contraceptives, and the number of women who have unwanted pregnancies is in decline as more women use birth control. “Ten years ago, contraceptive prevalence was 6%, and the most recent figures are at 40%,” Woldemariam said.
Grateful for the service
At the Marie Stopes Clinic in Addis Ababa, a woman sits in a small room with a desk, a bed with stirrups attached and a thin curtain. Here, she receives contraceptive advice. “We consult with her and have her choose a family planning method before she receives the abortion care,” Sister Tihish, the nurse, explains. The patient, who withheld her name, also did not disclose how she got pregnant, “but many of the cases we receive are because of rape,” the nurse says.
In cases of rape or incest, women are not required to give proof. Woldemariam of the Ministry of Health said making a woman relive the psychological trauma of rape by asking for evidence would be “immoral” and “inhumane”, so many abortion-providers have adopted a “don’t ask” policy. For many, that leaves a gaping loophole in the law and gives women a way to get abortions for reasons beyond what is legally allowed.
Dr Seyoum Antonios vehemently opposes the abortion liberalisation. The general surgeon explains the requirements are far too lax. “You look at the books at these clinics and all of them say `rape, rape, rape’ with no proof,” he exclaims. “My country is being painted as a land of rapists.”
But for 29-year-old Khadija Ali, who asked that her real name not be used, access to an abortion was a matter of life or death. “I was working as a housekeeper in Bahrain when my employer raped me,” she explains, wringing her hands in pain from cramps as the abortion pills she took a few hours earlier took their toll. “I became pregnant, and immediately returned to Ethiopia because no one could know it happened, or else I would be seriously hurt or even killed.”
Her friend told her about the Marie Stopes Clinic, which provides abortion care and contraceptive counselling. “I am very glad,” she said, for the service. Still, Khadija says she will never tell anyone – including her husband – what happened, and definitely not about the abortion.
Social stigma reigns
Khadija is not alone in keeping her silence. “This is something very sensitive in the community,” Woldemariam said. “I mean people practice it, but they do not want to talk about it,” which is fine, he said, as long as women are getting the care they need.
The vast majority of Ethiopians are socially and religiously conservative within their respective beliefs. Orthodox Christian leaders, who have the most followers in Ethiopia, are willing to privately consult families on family planning but would never discuss abortions. That is the case with almost all communities, Woldemariam explained.
A local priest in Mosebo village said that is how he advises families and what he practices in his own family. “Children are a gift from God, but having more children than you can feed is an even bigger sin,” he explained. Magadesa Mugeda, a resident of Mosebo pregnant with her second child, agrees. Her daughter was born five years ago, and she used an injectable contraceptive to plan her family. “With our land and our resources, we could not afford to have more kids,” right away, she said.
When asked about abortions, Mugeda immediately tensed up. “I do not know or care to discuss these things.”
Abebe Asrat, a no-nonsense midwife at the Marie Stopes clinic agrees with Mugeda. “Do not ask me what I think of government policy,” when it comes to abortions she said. “Almost everyone is against abortions… but we do what we have to,” she explained. There are alternatives, she insisted: women should be encouraged to use contraceptives and family planning methods to prevent the whole ordeal.
Argaw said if he did not see that safe abortions saved women’s lives, he would have a harder time accepting how his work was conflicting with his religion. “Religiously [abortion] may be forbidden. Even in my religion it is forbidden. But for me as a human being I accept it [is necessary],” he admits. “So that is why I do it.”
The grape names – merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay – are distinctly French, but the label on the Rift Valley wines is surprising: made in Ethiopia.
The French beverage giant Castel, one of the world’s biggest producers of wines and beers, is raising a glass to its first production of 1.2-million bottles of Ethiopian Rift Valley wine.
The African state’s former president Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, encouraged Castel to develop vineyards in Ethiopia, one of Africa’s poorest countries, as a way of improving its image.
Half of the bottles are destined for domestic consumption and half for export to countries where the Ethiopian diaspora have settled, though 26 000 have already been snapped up by a Chinese buyer.
Although Castel does not expect its Ethiopian wine business to make a profit until 2016, it hopes to more than double production to 3-million bottles a year. Though Ethiopia is better known for its production of another drink, coffee, Castel says the African country has the potential to rival the continent’s main wine producer, South Africa.
“It’s not that difficult because the climate is good and it’s not too hot,” Castel’s Ethiopia site manager, Olivier Spillebout, told Agence France-Presse. “Exports are small now, but year after year they will grow.”
The company has produced a better quality wine called Rift Valley, selling in Ethiopia for the equivalent of €7 (£5.50) and a grape-mix wine called Acacia, retailing at the equivalent of €5.
It is not the first wine to be commercially produced in Ethiopia. Vineyards established near Addis Ababa and in the south-east by Italian troops who occupied part of the country from 1936 to 1941 were later nationalised, then privatised, and are now run by Awash Winery, which boasts Live Aid founder Bob Geldof as a director.
Landscape perfect for grape growing Wine experts say parts of Ethiopia’s diverse landscape, which include high plateaux and verdant valleys as well as six climatic zones, are perfect for grape growing.
Pierre Castel, the billionaire founder of the family-run group, could see the potential in the sandy Ethiopian soil, the short rainy season, cheap land and equally cheap and abundant labour for wine production. The Castel company had been producing beer in Ethiopia since 1998 after buying the state-owned brewery called St-Georges.
After striking a deal with the Ethiopian government in 2007, Castel immediately dispatched the company’s best French experts who spent seven months looking for areas for the vineyards.
They finally chose a site 160km to the south of the capital, near the town of Ziway, where 750 000 vines, brought from Bordeaux, were planted over 125 hectares by 750 local workers. Merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon grapes were chosen for the reds that make up 90% of Castel’s Rift Valley production, and chardonnay grapes for the white wines.
A member of the Castel team, who did not want to be named, told the Guardian the aim of the company’s “considerable investment” in the Ethiopian vineyards was to produce a wine of international quality.
While there had been several grape harvests since 2007, this was the first time the company had bottled the wine produced.
“We have used the same savoir faire we used on our French vineyards and as we do on those in Morocco and Tunisia, to produce this Ethiopian wine,” he said. “Our objective is to produce a wine worthy of international standards so we preferred to have multiple trials before engaging in the process of commercialising the wine.”
He said the wine produced was “aromatic and fruity”, with a pleasant, middle-of-the-road taste.
A delighted Ahmed Abtew, the Ethiopian industry minister, said in a recent interview: “People who live outside Ethiopia remember the drought a decade ago, but when they see a wine labelled ‘Made in Ethiopia’ … their whole attitude immediately changes.”
Growing grapes in the Horn of Africa is not, however, without its hazards and French winemakers lament their vines being devastated by disease and a series of catastrophic hailstorms.
Castel’s Ethiopian vineyards are also surrounded by a two-metre-wide trench to deter pythons, hippopotamuses and hyenas.