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close this bookThe Courier N 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)
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View the documentEritrea: the start of a renaissance?

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 was destroyed.

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) loan.

'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 for itself.

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 spiralling downwards.

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 Agriculture's statistics.

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 ashes.