Halfway through the long queue withstanding the scorching sun, Zeinab Alazim, a mid-30s mother waits for food handouts from the Hope Enterprises Feeding Center at the Piazza Churchill Road.

"I'm here every day around lunchtime," she told Fortune.

The mother of one left her home in Jimma town, Oromia Regional State, seeking possibilities of a better livelihood after the untimely demise of her husband three years ago.

Zeinab pays 50 Br a night for a room, sharing it with six other people near the Autobis Tera area. It was a decision made after failing to keep up with rent payments since last year. As she walks the roughly two-kilometre distance to the feeding centre, she asks strangers for whatever they can spare.

"We would not eat most days if it were not for the centre," she told Fortune, pointing to her son with a defeated smile.

Her story echoes the plight of numerous individuals who find themselves trapped in the relentless cycle of poverty. It is a poignant reminder of struggles that unfold within the shadows of Addis Abeba streets, whose lives are overshadowed by the pangs of hunger and persistent struggle for survival.

Hope Enterprises Feeding Centre is among 21 similar establishments across the capital, which provides meals six days a week for close to 40,000 people.

The frontwoman observes people from all walks of life make their way to the doors, with the number of people escalating by the day. Some are part of the nearly 3.4 million internally displaced people across the country who have made it to the capital over the past few years while others are urbanites dislodged to deeper poverty amidst soaring inflation.

Inflation rates have wavered in the double digits for the past few years, reaching a high of 37pc in May last year. It has dropped to 28pc the previous quarter, according to official figures from the central bank, while economists like Steven Hanke (Prof) from the John Hopkins University have heightened it to 48pc last week.

The cost of essential goods has skyrocketed over the past two years, driven by a combination of regional conflicts and domestic market fluctuations. The price of Teff has nearly tripled to over 10,000 Br, while the price of onions has almost quadrupled and that of flour has increased by half since last year, despite Ethiopia becoming a wheat exporter.

The Centre serves up to 500 meals during lunchtime and 200 people for breakfast, prioritising the elderly and women amidst the steady stream of individuals from all age groups.

"Everyone is served until the food runs out," said the woman.

The long queues at feeding centres across the capital are in lockstep with worsening poverty levels nationwide. The confluence of shocks in the form of conflict and the uptake in the living cost caused impoverishment.

A report published in 2023 by a multitude of international organisations paints a grim picture. Around 70 million people are plagued by inconsistent access to meals and over 25 million people go by days without food in Ethiopia.

The stark reality where poverty ratios in conflict-ridden regional states like Tigray and Amhara have risen by 45pc and 30pc, respectively, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report.

This harrowing trend extends to urban areas considered hubs of economic opportunity. In cities like Addis Abeba and Dire Dewa, net food buyers have witnessed a disturbing increase in poverty rates, reaching 24pc and 23pc over a five-year period.

In response to the burgeoning threat of urban poverty, the World Bank inaugurated Ethiopia's first Safety Net program seven years ago. It has implemented a versatile approach encompassing public works, livelihood grants, and direct cash transfers for some of the city's most impoverished households.

These public works initiatives involve sweeping the bustling streets, undertaking beautification projects, and carrying out minor constructions to protect flood-prone areas, all endeavours that contribute to the community.

A 40-year-old Birtukan Taddese, a street cleaner in the capital who earns around 3,700 Br a month, is a beneficiary of the program. She supplements her income with occasional housekeeping jobs in the neighbourhood.

"I haven't purchased Teff in two months," she laments.

The mother of two has been forced to withdraw her sons from private school as food prices have skyrocketed to unprecedented levels over the past two months.

Birtukan finds solace in the knowledge that her children's nutritional needs will be met through the feeding programs. They are offered across public schools in the capital, generously funded with a budget of over three billion Birr by the City Administration.

Even with her husband's income as a police officer, the family of four, living in a Kebele home scrape to make a living alongside government assistance.

"Nearly everything I make still goes to buying food," she despairingly told Fortune.

The Urban Safety Net Program, implemented under the auspices of the Ministry of Urban & Infrastructure with a budget of 608 million dollars, stands as a beacon of hope amidst these challenging circumstances.

Spearheaded by Birhanu Teshome, head of the secretariat office, the three-year program has made commendable progress in alleviating poverty, providing a lifeline to nearly 1.8 million individuals.

"Poverty reduction is the ultimate goal," he said.

He indicated that daily salaries paid to primarily women beneficiaries have increased by 30 Br in recognition of the inflation rate which has engulfed the country.

"We instil the culture of saving," he said, emphasising the need for financial independence after beneficiaries finish the three-year program.

Safety Net operates with over 3.4 billion Br budget in the capital. Nearly a third of 222,000 citizens under the program receive direct payments without any public work provided. The rest are obliged to four days a week work with 150 Br daily wage while expected to save about 20pc of their earnings.

The combination of migration pressures to the capital, greater incidences of failure at university entrance examinations and galloping inflation rates have all conspired to birth a novel poverty dynamic in Addis Abeba.

Temesgen Mulualem (PhD), the coordinator of the Addis Abeba urban safety net program, points to the financial literacy with 100 million Br in savings by beneficiaries and skills training that many develop through the program as an enabler to extricate them from poverty in the long run. He explained that soaring inflation rates had created complaints about the insufficiency of the 600 dollar grant offered to beneficiaries who complete the three-year program.

He indicates that there is a significant demand for the project, with 5,193 graduating the past week from a six-month program. It was targeted at students who failed to obtain passing grades on university entrance exams last year.

"They will be able to support themselves at least," he said.

The program is stratified into four categories. There are 130,000 who receive support in recognition of their contribution to public works and 70,536 are directly given monthly assistance. Around 15,000 benefit from skills training and money after 12th-grade exams and about 6,100 obtain psychosocial support and reintegration into society after being mobilised from lives in the street.

Private institutions like the 12-year-old Macedonia Humanitarian Association provide accommodations alongside food assistance for 7,500 people. It operates in 26 cities across the country where nearly half residents are elderly.

Founder Binyam Belete has observed an increase in demand over the past few years as inflation climbed. Despite daily expenses of around one million Birr collected through crowdfunds and donations, his desire is to increase the number of facilities to 120 across the country, serving up to 100,000 people.

"We continue to survive through divine intercession," he said.

Macedonia initially provided meals and a roof over the heads at Binyam's home, gaining momentum through the years with close to 1,000 active members. He revealed that the costs of building a new three billion Birr sanctuary have tightened their financial capabilities over the past four years as they struggle to put the finishing touches.

All the while, the sight of children trying to fend for themselves has become frequent in the capital. They mostly migrate from the regional state in search of a better life and are engaged in several forms of labour.

For the teenager Minassie Eshetu, a peak day after cleaning shoes ranges between 120 Br to 150 Br as he chases customers around the Bole area. He saves a few hundred each month and has not been to school since he fled from the Wolaita Zone in the Southern Regional State.

Fetching 500 Br a month for a backwood flat around Chefe Meda, he spent the last three years with his two friends who travelled with him to the capital three years ago.

"The hotels usually give us food," he said.

The dynamics of food security in an urban landscape with significant poverty levels has no straightforward solution, according to economists. Instead, it needs several factors to function smoothly simultaneously.

Atlaw Alemu (Prof), a lecturer at Addis Abeba University, indicates that urban food insecurity will remain a problem devoid of a rise in income levels, country-wide peace and a consistent supply of food items from regional states.

"It is more than just about production," he told Fortune.

While he recognises the potential of emergency reliefs provided by non-governmental organisations in mitigating short-term spikes of food insecurity, Atlaw argues that their reach is limited in addressing the problem. He reasoned that the government needs to increase its transparency in regulation to attract non-state actors that can provide a little respite for urban food security.

"Most [charity organisations] turn corrupt within a short while," he cautioned.

Atlaw points to a cultural tendency that prevents many Ethiopians from seeking support and states: "Many are too proud to ask for help."

PUBLISHED ON Nov 18,2023 [ VOL 24 , NO 1229]

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