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Sub-Saharan Africa’s first light railway opens in Addis Ababa

Signal of change / Sub-Saharan Africa’s first light railway opens in Addis Ababa

By Adam Sadiq / 26 Jan 2016

Capable of transporting 60,000 residents an hour in Ethiopia’s five million strong capital, the Addis Ababa light railway is a sign of the increasing pace towards modernization, interconnectivity and cosmopolitanism that is developing throughout African metropoles beneath the Sahara desert.

The first line, which opened in September 2015, connects manufacturing and industrial areas in the south with the city center’s state buildings, businesses and the headquarters of the African Union. A second line connecting eastern and western districts of the city opened in November 2015.

The first 32km line has 39 stations and took just three years to build, with 85% of the projects finance coming through a $475 million loan from the Export Import Bank of China. In addition to investment, the project relied heavily on engineering expertise from the China Railway Group (CREC) to construct and carry out the ongoing operation of the line. The UN has classified the project as environmentally friendly as it will have its own independent 160MW grid, powered by four gas-fueled substations.

So what?

Ethiopia, one of the poorest nations on the planet, is trying to position itself as a centre of developing world manufacturing. In a 2008 report by Price Waterhouse Coopers detailing urban growth projections for 2025, Addis Ababa is projected to have the fifth greatest economic growth and the fastest of all African cities of the 151 urban areas analysed. This metro line in the country’s capital is a symbol of its ambitious trajectory for modernisation. In line with these ambitions, Addis Ababa is one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world: as of 2010, it had expanded to twelve times its size in 1973. With GDP per capita being six times higher than in the rest of Ethiopia, the pull factors for the rural poor to migrate to Addis will continue its population increase.

The World Bank estimates the infrastructure gap in African nations causes business productivity to fall by 40%, reducing national growth by 2% each year. The government is subsidising fares in order to make the service affordable for low-income workers' daily commutes. The light rail opens up jobs to those without cars, reduces commute times and thus enables a larger and more productive urban workforce. As such this project offers many opportunities to Ethiopians and may signal a change for the wider Sub-Saharan region.  

The financing of the railway is in line with a consistently growing number of African infrastructure projects backed by money from abroad. A similar project, part-funded by the World Bank, is in development in Lagos, Nigeria, as well as another $440 million Chinese-funded project in Kampala, Uganda. In 2013, the state-owned Export Import Bank of China pledged $1 trillion of finance to African development in the years running to 2025. As this trend continues, questions must be raised regarding the transparency of these financial investments: namely, what resources are leveraged from the receiving country in return? And as these projects rely not only on foreign finance but technical expertise, we must ask how long will it take for similar projects to be engineered and financed from within African nations themselves?

Image credit: mwmbwls / Flickr


Mail and Guardian Africa (September 21, 2015) Sub-Saharan Africa’s first light rail system starts operations—you guessed it, in Ethiopia

Railway Gazette (November 12, 2015) Addis Ababa opens second light rail

All Africa (June 13, 2015) Ethiopia: Addis light rail to get 160MW power

New Geography (November 6, 2012) The evolving urban form of Addis Abeba

Price Waterhouse Coopers (November 2009) Global city GDP rankings 2008-2025

Railway Gazette (December 17, 2015) Kampala light rail agreement signed

South China Morning Post (November 18, 2013) China to provide Africa with US$1Tr Financing

World Bank (September 2008) Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic

The Herald (December 1, 2015) China: largest investor in Africa


What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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