Fortune News | Dec 04,2021
Last week, Mebrat Melese travelled from her home in the Kolfe area to one of the main markets in Addis Abeba - Shola. A mother of four, Mebrat has been making the trip to Shola for years, looking to buy goods and cooking ingredients for the holiday feasts she prepares for her family.
This time around, her 15-year-old daughter accompanied her to the market. She wanted to experience the frenzied perusing and haggling associated with holiday shopping. They arrived at Shola, located off Fikremariam Aba Techan Street near the Megenagna area, on the morning of Thursday, two days before the Ethiopian Christmas - "Ghenna" - on January 5, 2022. The marketplace was already buzzing when they set foot there, alive with the sound of consumers quibbling with traders and the clucking of chickens.
The stir was noticeably less hectic than in the holidays past.
Poultry was priority number one on Mebrat's shopping list. She makes the trip to Shola in the days leading up to every major holiday because the market offers chickens at lower prices than she can find elsewhere in the city. The mother-daughter pair were left sorely disappointed by the prices on offer. Vendors were asking for no less than 800 Br for a good-sized chicken. Some refused to sell for under 900 Br, a far cry for Mebrat, who had budgeted half that amount.
Though she tried, Mebrat and her daughter had no luck cutting a deal with any of the dozens of traders. They promptly left the marketplace when Mebrat realised her haggling was no use.
"I'm not going to pay this much," she told Fortune. "I'll just buy beef."
Shola market reflected Mebrat's sombre mood, as its stalls and narrow thoroughfares were perceptibly subdued. The un-holiday like ambience was not a riddle.
Many of Addis Abeba's residents have little to look forward to in easing the heavy burden brought on by the incessantly ballooning cost of living. It is difficult to imagine that a chicken that would have sold for around 12 Br barely two decades ago now costs a little short of 1,000 Br. Buyers like Mebrat have all but accepted the reality and persevered. Families would be compelled to do away with long-held traditions and customs as a trade-off.
Spices have not been immune to the price surges observed in this year's Christmas markets. Imported spices have seen prices double over the past few months.
Last month's report on inflation published by the Ethiopian Statistical Service reveals that headline inflation had soared to 33pc in November. Food prices were higher, with the consumer price index registering at nearly 39pc. The months leading up to the holiday exhibited some of the highest inflation rates in recent years.
Beyond the numbers, economic stagnation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in the north, which has disrupted crucial market routes and trade activities, are bleak signs of the tough times the country is going through. They are bad omens for the hurdles to come.
A widening budget deficit caused by growing public expenditure has led federal officials to cut down on subsidies, further pressuring the already buckling public. Last month saw the highest-ever increase in retail fuel prices (without adjusting for the depreciation of the Birr to a basket of major currencies). Surges often follow increases in fuel prices to goods ranging from food to clothing. The phenomenon was readily observed in the wake of a price adjustment introduced a year ago.
This time around, prices on most commodities seemed relatively stable, possibly due to the stringent supervision from officials at the Ministry of Trade & Regional Integration and the Addis Abeba Trade Bureau, cracking down on businesses allegedly charging prices consumers deem "unreasonable".
The price of chickens, however, was not on that list. The birds were sold for around 400 Br apiece or even less during the last Christmas holiday, half of what traders asked last week. Traders blame the war in the north for causing the 100pc price jumps. Chickens make their way to markets in the capital mostly from Wello in the Amhara Regional State, an area that has been devastated by war. The trade route has largely been blocked off since last August.
Geremew Kassa is one of the many chicken traders in Shola. He had chicken on sale brought from Aleltu in the North Shewa Zone of the Oromia Regional State, offering 750 Br the day Mebrat visited. Perhaps due to the slightly lowered price, Geremew had sold seven chickens by midday.
"It's not so bad," he said.
A few kilometres farther from Shola, the disparity between the markets is as evident as ever.
On Christmas Eve, dozens of trucks parked at Megenagna Roundabout were offering chickens at 350 Br apiece. The traders claim the prices are markedly lower than at other markets in the city as they had sourced their chickens from farmers in Batu (Ziway), 165Km south of Addis Abeba. In the Saris area, chickens were traded for around 600 Br.
The contrast is something shoppers have not witnessed in years past.
On the bright side, the prices of other commodities have relatively stabilised. Butter, a crucial ingredient for the traditional holiday dish "doro wot", was sold for 500 Br a kilo in Shola.
Tewodros Teshome, a trader who sources butter from Wellega and Gojjam in the Oromia and Amhara regions, respectively, has observed a shift in consumers' behaviour. Most would buy one kilo or half a kilo of butter before. Many buy larger quantities now, some asking for as much as five kilos. This has led him to conclude that many of the low-income patrons he served have been driven away from the market.
Still, disparities exist in the butter trade as well. Shoppers could find relatively lower prices in the Saris market, where a kilo of butter was sold for about 80 Br less.
Another item bought in bulk during holidays is onion.
An everyday commodity for most of the population, the onion market had been anything but stable over the past few months. In the weeks following the Ethiopian New Year, the price of a kilo of onion had skyrocketed to never-before-seen prices, hitting 60 Br. The jump in retail prices was attributed to production shortfalls and higher transportation costs.
Prices have fallen since then, though marginally. A kilo of a domestic onion variety typically used to make "doro wot" was selling for anywhere between 35 and 55 Br at Shola. The regular array was going for a little over 25 Br.
Prices were considerably lower in markets located on the outskirts of the capital. A kilo of the domestic onion variety cost 10 Br less on average at the market in Saris, while it was sold for 26 Br at the Lafto Vegetable & Fruit Market Centre in the Haile Garment neighbourhood.
Things are not much different when it comes to spices and herbs. A finishing spice mix often used for stews has seen prices double since September to 800 Br a kilo. Meseret Tefera, a spice trader around Saris, says the surge results from rising import costs as one of the ingredients is shipped in from abroad.
The livestock market is also subject to soaring prices, mainly due to the increasing cost of fodder. According to the Trade Ministry, the lowest price for an ox in a livestock market in Adama, 92Km southeast of the capital, was 30,000 Br. Some were selling for as much as 90,000 Br. For sheep, traders were asking between 3,000 and 7,000 Br.
Ministry officials admit the price hikes are a result of the conflict. But they also point fingers at the cost of fodder, which has seen prices quadruple over the past year.
Mesfin Assefa, deputy head of the Addis Abeba Trade Bureau, says his office stabilises market prices. The Bureau distributes eggs, chickens, butter, cooking oil and vegetables at discounted prices through cooperatives.
"Prices have not changed from the levels we'd observed a few weeks ago," he told Fortune.
The authorities' concession may amount to little to consumers like Mebrat, who cannot recollect ever having been unable to buy a chicken for holiday meals.
PUBLISHED ON Jan 07,2022 [ VOL 22 , NO 1132]
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