For Emebet Sime and her young family, the toll of Ethiopia’s surging inflation hits hard each and every day. Crammed into a single room in Addis Ababa’s Bole Bulbula area, the 39-year-old mother of three is doing everything she can just to keep food on the table.
Just five short years ago, Emebet’s lifeline was the government’s Safety Net assistance program, which provided her around 2,000 birr monthly. But like all good things, it eventually came to an end. Due to rules limiting support to three years maximum, she lost this crucial income stream.
Now, Emebet’s days are packed with back-to-back shifts. Each day finds her hustling between two different homes, taking on the grueling but indispensable work of a housemaid. Her reward? A meager 1,000 birr from each employer – hardly enough given accelerating costs.
Her husband Yacob Legesse previously earned 3,500 birr as a guard but has since changed roles to work in a factory warehouse for a slightly higher wage of 4,500 birr monthly.
“Back then, we could buy 50 kilos of teff for just 2,500 birr, which easily sustained us for the entire month,” Emebet recalled. “Today, even with our combined incomes, we struggle to afford half that amount. We’ve had to reduce our teff consumption drastically to only 20 kilograms now.”
Emebet says meat has become a luxury they can no longer afford, even on holidays.
“We’ve stopped asking our relatives for support as well. We are detached from social life. I send my children to public school where lunch is covered, but my younger son attends private kindergarten so he needs food every few hours, costing me 1,400 birr per month,” Emebet said.
With costs rising by the day, simply working their regular jobs is no longer enough for Emebet and Yacob to stay afloat. “Life is very difficult now – we survive only by God’s grace,” Emebet laments.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, so on weekends the couple are pursuing any side work they can find. Emebet bakes injera to sell while Yacob searches for other jobs. “I’m even looking for a third job. I can do up to four jobs. Anything to earn more,” she says.
Public servant Sewnet Gebrenigus is likewise feeling inflation’s squeeze. The 51-year-old mother of two has worked over a decade at the Ministry of Agriculture, as an animal laboratory technologist, but her 6,000 birr monthly salary simply does not cut it anymore.
Between renting a home for 7,000 birr and school fees adding 4,000 birr more, expenses have more than doubled in five years despite her pay remaining stagnant.
“I have no choice but to take on extra work nights and weekends on top of my government duties to support my family,” Sewnet explained.
With basic items like oil and flour becoming increasingly unaffordable, she says she does not use this subsidized goods from consumer associations since it is inaccessible to renters like herself.
“Without a home, I have no access to the shops,” Sewnet says. And while lower-income public workers receive additional aid, her 6,000 birr salary falls above the threshold for support.
“Whether you earn 3,000 or 10,000 birr today, it all amounts to the same in this inflated market,” she says, adding, “The money has no value in the market.”
Sewnet says that poverty is also taking a psychological toll. “The only reason we’re not mentally broken is our preoccupation with larger national issues.”
Willing to take on multiple jobs, Sewnet’s challenge is a lack of available part-time work. “We live from day to day solely by God’s grace, not because of any support from the economy,” she asserts.
In fact, Sewnet believes the high cost of living is “man-made” due to conflicts disrupting production and supply chains. Even abundant regional harvests fail to reach consumers in Addis Ababa due to insecurity.
Not even Habtom Hagos’s income in construction can escape inflation’s grip. As the sole provider for his family of four, the 35-year-old well understands the daily struggle.
Earning 20,000 birr monthly, Habtom pays school fees of 3,500 birr as well as monthly installments toward eventual condominium home ownership. But registration costs alone came to a shocking 7,000 birr, he said.
“Food prices are maddening – onions, teff, oil, everything rises daily while our pay stays the same,” he said. A quintal of teff that was 4,000 birr five years ago is now nearly quadruple at 16,000 birr. Staples like tomatoes have multiplied fivefold in cost since then too.
To cope, Habtom has tightened the family’s belt significantly. “We have adopted the 5/11 scheme now and skip breakfast and combine lunch and dinner into one early meal,” he sighed.
Just five years prior, when earning up to 40,000 birr, 10,000 birr comfortably covered monthly expenses and regular breakfast were affordable, according to Habtom.
Further compounding matters, Habtom says the currently sluggish construction sector pays less due to budget shortfalls. “Projects are also awarded based on ethnicity rather than merit these days,” he adds, frustrated that economic and social issues alike are squeezing his livelihood at every turn.
Habtom’s circumstances have become truly dire. “Now I’ll do any job, even sell grass, just to get by,” he laments. Daily comforts are long gone: “We never eat out or stop for tea with friends anymore and meat is reserved only for major holidays
Even putting his child in public school was denied due to new transfer rules.
“The inflation came after conflict disrupted our ability to work elsewhere. Now we’re eating into savings while having nothing left to save,” he says. With social life destroyed and wife forced to quit school, Habtom sees no alternative but to leave Addis behind.
“Selling everything is our only option and live with relatives,” he says, adding, “We can no longer survive the inflation.”
For countless others, inflation may soon overwhelm their city lives completely.
Despite government claims that inflation stands at a severe 30 percent, independent researchers like Atnafu Gebremeskel (PhD), assert the situation is even more dire – with actual rates surpassing 70 percent.
In a session with Parliament this week, President Sahlework Zewde acknowledged the public’s hardships. She touted new measures aimed at assisting the most vulnerable, such as hundreds of subsidized bread shops and free meal programs now serving thousands.
However, not all are convinced these efforts scratch the surface of what’s needed.
Degiye Goshu (PhD) of the Ethiopian Economics Association believes the administration is not responding to the threat duly.
“We have said everything we should say regarding inflation. But the government is not taking action. This is not the right time to speak about the policy options the government should take to help people cope with inflation. During this time of instability in the country, the government has no ear to hear about inflation. The government is busy with other heavy national issues. So there would be no solution even if we spoke about inflation. It is not timely,” said Degiye.
As inflation continues to ravage the nation, the government faces serious limitations in supporting vulnerable communities, according to the Economist.
“The government is not in a position to take policy measures to support low income populations to cope with inflation. The private sector has also been affected since the political transition in the country,” he said.
If the country was under normal circumstances, Degiye says “policy adjustments are a must the moment inflation hits double digits. But currently, the capacity of both private and public employers is devastated by several constraints. Hence, the welfare of employees is depleted.”
“Today, both employers and employees are in a very difficult situation. The problem has become exogenous, added Degiye.
For Degiye, restoring peace and stability must come before talking about inflation.
“We cannot talk about welfare under the existing situations. Still, hunger is better than death. The better-off society in Ethiopia is now worse off. The formerly poor population segment is now poorer,” Degiye says.
If peace and stability are ensured, “it would be easier to formulate solutions step by step. Even foreign aid could have been mobilized. But today, we are not there. Today, everything in the country is directed towards conflict and war. Unless there is peace, you cannot find and support the vulnerable poor,” he explained.