Eritrea: the start of a renaissance?
In the Courier's issue of July-August 1994, we published a
country report on Eritrea. This country became independent in 1993 after almost
30 years of fighting which had bled the county white. Loss of human life,
displaced persons, socio-economic disruption and environmental damage have been
Eritrea's sad fate in recent times. However, there has now been peace for three
years and the Eritrean people are attempting to pick up the threads. Alfonso
Artico, a freelance journalist who recently travelled to Eritrea, now offers us
a few on-the-spot impressions of his trip, focusing on some current projects
which offer hope to this sorely afflicted people
Fisheries at Massawa
The port of Massawa is located on the Red Sea, whose blue waters
are teeming with fish. In 1986, the European Union suggested that it would be a
suitable place for fisheries development. At the time, the city was a maze of
back streets, baking in the sun. Few could have predicted the fate that would
befall it five years later. For in 1991, war came to Massawa and 80% of the city
The Italians, it is said, have 'always' been here, and they once
had great plans for the city. Together with Assab, further to the south, Massawa
was to be a key point of access to the sea, and a potential launch pad for the,
country's struggling economy. The colonial days are long past but, when the
Eritrean Popular Liberation Army took over the country after the recent war, the
Italians came back to help tackle an immense task. The city, by then, was little
more than a pile of rubble.
Help also came from somewhat further afield, in the shape of
Professor Seichi Etoh, a Japanese specialist in marine biology. He had made a
study of the city in 1989 and he chose to return in 1992 to help in fisheries
development. At the outset, his working methods disconcerted the Eritreans who
were used to a slightly more relaxed attitude to labour, under the hot sun and
eternally blue sky.
Armed with the experience of working in Kenya and a number of
other developing countries, Professor Etoh arrived in Massawa and installed
himself in a house looking over the sea. After a period of adaptation, to gain
his bearings, he took up his new challenge.
The challenge in question is a fisheries project whose main
funders are the UNDP, Japan, Italy and the African Development Bank. A total of
$7 million has been committed with payments spread over a five-year period. The
project began operating in January 1993.
The main problem at the outset was one of skills and
qualifications. Important posts were often filled by high-ranking former
solders, whose administrative skills were less than satisfactory. Conversely,
those with the right qualifications - some of whom were criticised for spending
the war years in the lecture theatres of European universities - had problems
finding work. This was particularly true in the closed and conservative world of
the fisherman. After a few teething troubles, Etoh was able to announce that he
had the confidence of the government, and his efforts rapidly bore fruit
thereafter. He set about reorganising the fishermen's cooperative - a task which
entailed overcoming the reluctance of members to adopt new practices. He also
arranged for the construction of jetties where vessels could take on supplies.
Fish were to be unloaded at one spot, and their diesel tanks would be refilled
at a different location. The cost of diesel is 1.41 birr (ECU 0.17) per litre.
The fishermen's cooperative, which has 440 members, has 35 000 birr (ECU 4000)
in its funds. It is also making repayments on a 1.8 million-birr (ECU 200 000)
'In the beginning, there was frenzied activity, which some
regarded as chaos', Seichi Etoh recalls. However, in less than two years, the
jetties have been completed and the ice plants - essential for preserving the
fish - are running flat out. Now they are producing eight tonnes of ice a day.
The daily catch is about two tonnes of fish.
The real revolution occurred when Seichi Etoh decided to try and
organise cooperatives for women, who represent 25% of the workforce in the
production chain. He followed up with an even more radical scheme, offering them
paid work in the relatively unrewarding but essential field of ship maintainance
and repair. This freed the fishermen, most of whom had no remunerative activity
outside the fishing season (November to March), to seek work elsewhere during
the other seven months of the year. Eritrea, a country where women's potential
has not traditionally been acknowledged (or tapped) had never seen the like
before. Nowadays, of the 200 who fish out of Massawa, 50 are women who have
formed their own organisation - and they generate a considerable profit. They
have even opened up a fish restaurant!
The overall standard of living has increased considerably. This
year, fisheries-related production has risen 120% compared with 1995. And the
port is doing reasonably well in quality terms. Using the international scale,
which ranks the catches from 0 to 10, the quality of fish landings by the
Massawa fishermen is rated 6 overall - as against 8 for Japan. 5 for China and
6.5 for Europe. The local market has expanded as a result of efforts to modify
local eating habits. People have been taught to grill fish instead of frying it
in expensive (and somewhat unhealthy) oil. The message - 'eat grilled fish' - is
going out daily on national radio, and women are going into the schools and
villages to teach this 'latest' cooking technique.
The local market may be important, but the main target for the
increased production is Ethiopia. With the purchase of four refrigerated
lorries, it is now possible to transport fish products over long distances.
Another important customer is Italy, which currently takes about a third of the
total production. Seichi Etoh is hopeful that, following this example, new
markets can be found in other parts of Europe.
The success of the Massawa project has exceeded all expectations
and, although he downplays the achievement with typical oriental modesty, it is
clear that Etoh's bet has paid off. The fishermen have come to understand the
advantages to be gained in reorganisation and maintaining their 'tools' of
production. And as anticipated, the bulk of the profit from the project is going
back to the fishermen. The government has taken care not to cream off too much
Other projects are now under way. Etoh is attempting to persuade
the fishermen to give up their wooden craft in favour of ferro-cement vessels
but after centuries of doing things in a certain way, it will take more than a
few months for the new plans to be adopted. The monthly meetings with
representatives from the cooperatives are stormy and animated. However, two
vessels are already being built, on the assumption that a practical
demonstration is worth far more than a long speech. The 60 people working
directly on the project are awaiting the outcome.
This change has become necessary owing to the cost of wood -
which is one of the reasons why the fishermen have grown progressively poorer.
Timber prices have been rising sharply for some years, particularly in Dubia,
the regional centre of the wood trade. The war, in the meantime, sent incomes
Overall, the Eritrean fishing fleet has 500 vessels, all made of
wood, of which 250 have Massawa as their home port. In previous years, the wood
(known as tengi in Eritrean) came from Ethiopia. But this country is facing
ecological problems and fishermen have been forced to search elsewhere for
building and maintenance materials for their unstable and costly vessels (a
13-metre boat requires 8 m³ of wood). Etoh explains that the new boats,
while slower, glide more easily over the water on account of their stability.
However, the first attempts at change have not been easy. Indeed, things got so
bad that Etoh went on holiday 'for longer than expected', he said, though he
took advantage of the break to visit Singapore and buy Chinese tricycles - which
can now be seen in the streets of Massawa. The reign of the bicycle with a
simple wicker basket which could carry just 20 kilos is over. Now, each tricycle
can deliver 100 kg of fresh fish, packed in ice. All in all, the programme is
running smoothly. Etoh has only to check it from time to time. After all this
labour, will the smiling Japanese professor be taking a well-earned rest?
'Probably not,' he says, adding 'I am currently thinking about a chain of
restaurants. Fish restaurants of course !'.
An unusual 'bank'
The road leading to Gersteti village is so beautiful that it
takes your breath away. Multicoloured birds fly lazily above the vehicle
carrying the journalists and humanitarian aid workers - who are deep in
discussion about the kind of world they wish to create. However, there is a
switch in the conversation once they reach the Seraye plateaux. Their attention
is drawn to the fields which stretch as far as the eye can see. It doesn't take
long to discover that demand for land here far outweighs supply. The situation,
which is already critical, has not been helped by the influx of refugees
returning from neighbouring countries.
When the war ended in 1991, everyone's prime concern was to
relaunch an agricultural sector ruined by 28 years of combat. Farmers and
farming communities, the lifeblood of the countryside, had been mobilised to
fight on the front line. In 1990, agricultural production was at such a low
level that the word 'negligible' featured prominently in the Ministry of
Oxfam, which first came to Eritrea in 1978, has been running an
unusual project on the Seraye plateaux. Located to the south of Asmara, the
capital, this region is the second most densely populated part of the country.
Five districts containing 65 villages and 17000 families, were chosen for the
project - on account of their low rainfall and the fact that it is difficult,
and in some cases, impossible, to cultivate the exhausted soil. Local
communities, village leaders and politicians all understood that only full-scale
collaboration could prevent a food-supply disaster in the province. An
organisation was therefore created: the villagers elected 13 representatives (12
men and one woman) and began by setting up a seed bank. There was a severe
shortage of seed materials in this devastated country.
The project got off the ground in November 1995 and is set to
run for three years. Its objective is simple: to guarantee self-sufficiency in
seeds and to provide a reserve during hard times. The 'Seed Bank Committee' has
also given training to 40 farmers in seed conservation, terracing and basic
agricultural economics. Two wells have been sunk, but these are insufficient for
the 40 square kiLomes that require irrigation. Oxfam is putting up the money
for the various initiatives while the local community is providing the labour
force. It is worth noting that a bag of averagequality cement costs 35 birrs
(ECU4), equivalent to one third of a worker's monthly wage. Fourteen different
varieties of seed have been stored in sheds - which the locals visit to obtain
their supplies. The purchase of 230 quintals of local seeds and the donation of
70 quintals from elsewhere have started the programme off. Next year, Individual
farmers will have to repay this 'loan' in kind, with a 10% 'interest payment',
also in the form of seeds. The surplus generated will be retained by the bank as
a resource to be drawn upon, if necessary, when times are hard.
The local community was quick to understand the advantages to be
gained from this system. They were all too aware of the low productivity of
their land and up to then, were powerless to resolve the situation. The
possibility of falling back on traditional resources to offset production
difficulties no longer existed. And the skills they had acquired over the
generations were now insufficient, given the poor condition of the soil. In
these circumstances, one can well understand their enthusiasm when they saw that
100 kg of seeds per hectare yielded a harvest six times larger than previously.
Other elements which contributed to a progressive improvement in conditions were
the sinking of new wells, a reduced influx of refugees from Sudan, and a slow
but appreciable improvement in the country's general economic situation.
As well as being involved in this project, Oxfam is an active
member of Acord, an NGO association which extends cash loans at rates much lower
than those demanded by the banks. (Acord's rate is 12% per annum with a minimum
repayment of 5 birrs per month). Targeted mainly at the most deprived sections
of the population, the loans enable the poor to set up small businesses or, more
commonly, to purchase agricultural implements, repair irrigation channels and
buy cattle. Once again, a village committee manages the transactions. The scheme
has brought renewed hope to the most deprived groups. Individual loans have been
available since 1994 and the association currently has 163 clients. The total
amount lent so far is 878 000 birrs (ECU 110 000).
The combined effects of these programmes - seed banks and
preferential loans - are already visible. It would take months to visit all the
farms and fields, workshops and stores, where men and women have invested their
energies and hopes. Seraye province now produces a third of Eritrea's cereals, a
telling illustration of the fact that one does not need billions of dollars for
development and humanitarian aid for the work to be effective. In the final
analysis, a country's wealth lies in its citizens.
An up-to-date printing plant
As one strolls down Liberation Avenue, which cuts the city of
Asmara in two, one might be forgiven for thinking that 28 years of war have
already been forgotten. Surveying the multi-coloured neon signs of the shops, it
certainly appears as if the country has turned the corner and the wounds are
healing rapidly. One building whose restrained frontage stands outs in sharp
contrast is the Adulis printing-works. Adulis was the name of a semi-mythical
city founded by the Greeks on the Red Sea in the third millennium before Christ.
'But there is nothing insubstantial about this place', comments Mohamad Shiffa
Osman, with a smile. He is one of three expert typesetters who went on a
training course in Belgium earlier this year.
The Adulis printing works has its own particular memories of the
Eritrean people's struggle for independence. As far back as the 1960s, when the
first shots were being fired, the resistance recognised that their fighters and
the civil population both had to have access to information. However, it was not
until the 1980s that a true propaganda structure came into being. During the
war, the Eritrean People's Liberation Army ran a clandestine ministry of
information. In Eritrea and elsewhere, this became the channel for conveying
practical information, and providing the latest news from the front. It was also
used to transmit personal messages, which were delivered to the heart of areas
occupied by the Ethiopian Army. 'Our presses were hidden in caves, up in the
mountains, and everything was run on generators', Mohamed remembers. The initial
amateur approach was quickly replaced by a more professional one. 'We did have
professional printers working for us, but it was mainly self-taught comrades'.
On-the job apprenticeships had to be fitted in between bouts of fighting!
'At the time of liberation, in 1991, we set about restoring this
printing works, which was founded in 1896 by the Italians', Mohamed explained as
he gave us a guided tour of the works. The effort put into relaunching this
essential activity soon bore fruit. Within the year, the printing operation was
running at a profit - indeed it had a virtual monopoly of printing in the
country. The presses were brought down from the mountains on the backs of camels
and then taken to Asmara by truck. 'You see this Aurelia 48?', asks Mohamed,
pointing to a machine. 'Well, it was up in the north, hidden away in a village'.
Throughout our visit, Mohamed draws attention to equipment from an earlier age -
candidates for the museum which are still in operation.
Some items have their own story to tell, like the press donated
years ago by Oxfam which still churns out thousands of sheets every day. During
the war, it was taken from cave to cave, following the army's advance as it
conquered new terrain. Most of the Adulis machines, however, were already there,
when the decision was taken to restart the operation.
The initial budget for the works was a tidy five million birr
(ECU 620 000). Today, Adulis has an annual turnover of 20 million birr. Monthly
salaries range from 400 birr (ECU 50) for maintenance staff to 1800 birr (ECU
225) for the director, Michael G. Bakhli.
The printing works also acts as a testing ground for workers'
social progress. According to Mohamed and the director, the 350 or so people
employed at the works benefit from exceptional social cover. If a worker falls
ill, his wage is guaranteed for one month, then it drops to 50% in the second
month and stops altogether at the end of the third. if a woman is pregnant, she
has to take a month's statutory leave and is granted a further two months on
full pay. In the event of dismissal, an employee receives two months' wages,
although this latter arrangement is gradually changing to one month's wages for
each year of service.
Far from resting on the laurels of their success, the Adulis
works' directors have appealed for assistance. In order to be at the cutting
edge of technology and to have the resources to break into new markets, they
need to supplement their knowledge. Therefore, three 'volunteers' spent the
three months from January to March this year working in Belgian companies, to
the satisfaction of everyone, both hosts and visitors.
Under Mohamed's gaze, the walls of the workshop have been
brightened up with posters which provide a splash of colour. Although the noise
from the presses often drowns out conversation, you cannot escape the feeling of
hope here. It is like a breath of fresh air, and one leaves with the strong
impression of a country that is rising from the