The humble corner shops and pavement tea stalls that dot Ethiopia’s cities, catering to customers with modest means, form the lifeblood of the nation’s economy.
These past few years have been an ordeal for Ethiopia’s less fortunate, in particular. Still reeling from the fallout of the COVID crisis and a European conflict that sent the prices of essentials skyrocketing, soaring inflation, a plummeting currency, widespread unemployment, and the lengthy conflict in the north have crippled the economy, plunging multitudes into poverty.
Now, it seems, the government’s drive to demolish ramshackle stores is only adding salt to the wounds. For many storeowners, their tiny enterprise represented their sole means of support for themselves and their families. Now they find themselves compelled to tear down in an instant what they have spent years constructing, with the very foundations falling out from under them.
Mekdes Melaku, a 27-year-old young woman, began working by selling coffee and tea around the Saris area. The small, shaded stores in the vicinity were built and distributed to her and 86 others five years ago by local Kebele authorities to assist small businesses.
At the time, Mekdes had an 8-month-old infant she carried on her back all day. Determined to provide for her family, Mekdes endured the inconvenient circumstances.
“Everything was so dirty, and there was even open drainage at the store entrances,” she recalls. “But I bought materials with what little money I had and began serving coffee and tea to customers.”
Over the years, her business gradually improved. Mekdes developed a loyal customer base who depended on her services. She saved money alongside her association members, hopeful things would improve over time.
Officials from the kebele abruptly informed Mekdes and the other shopkeepers one morning that they had less than a day to demolish their stores and remove their belongings or face confiscation by law enforcers.
“I remember it was a Friday morning,” Mekdes recalls. “The woman from the kebele came and told us we had until noon to tear everything down, pack up, and leave. I was completely shocked and mortified, given that we had no warning at all. So I threw out the coffee I had prepared for the day, packed up, and left.”
That eight-month-old infant, Mekdes’ son, is now five years old. And Mekdes, six months pregnant with her second child, had no idea what she would do next as she contemplated her family’s future while sitting idle at home for a whole week—something she hadn’t been able to do for years.
Mekdes’ woes were compounded: her husband was also out of work at the time, and they had many debts to settle. By the week’s end, she knew if she didn’t act, her family would face homelessness.
“I thought of all the possibilities I had,” Mekdes said. “I knew I couldn’t afford to rent a store given the high prices and requirement of three to six months’ rent upfront. Luckily, a neighbor offered to rent a small space to me and Bizunesh Nigussie, a 28-year-old single mother of two whose store was also demolished without notice.”
Bizunesh was one of the 86 people who received shops from local authorities five years prior to help small businesses. But officials’ abrupt decision to demolish the stores within a day left both women in shock, struggling to find a way forward for their families.
The neighbor’s offer of affordable rent gave Mekdes and Bizunesh a lifeline.
Bizunesh ran a makeshift cafe, serving affordable meals to customers, before she was forced to move. Like Mekdes, over the past five years she has worked hard to grow her business, hoping one day it would become stable enough to support her and her children.
To run her business, Bizunesh purchased perishables like injera and bread each morning on credit, paying her suppliers from her daily sales. Though she typically made only around 100 birr daily, the ability to provide meals for her children was enough for Bizunesh.
“We were so hopeful things were getting better,” she said.
“In fact, a month before our stores were demolished, officials from our association told us the money we had saved was enough to improve the stores with steel sheets, giving us much hope,” Bizunesh explained.
Bizunesh thought the plans to improve the stores with steel sheets would finally offer stability for her business. But for unknown reasons, the plans were scrapped. When officials told her to demolish the store and leave, Bizunesh wished she could give up but knew she couldn’t.
She went three weeks without any income until joining Mekdes to rent a new space. Though they started working again, earning what they used to proved difficult since they lost most of their customers.
Others in the city are complaining of similar store demolitions. This comes amid high inflation, a depreciating currency, and severe economic hardship that disproportionately impacts the poor. The cost of living in the city has soared while incomes remain relatively stagnant.
Many others who had their workplaces demolished are mostly out of options, with thoughts of giving up lingering. Some remain idle at home, struggling to find a way to work and support their families in the current economic environment.
Unemployment and economic hardship loom large, a bleak reality for those already most vulnerable before their shops and stalls were demolished virtually overnight.