Ethiopian Camel Boys Take Their Herd to Market

Driving through Tigray in the north of Ethiopia, we encountered a long line of camels walking to Khartoum (in Sudan, about 400 miles away), where these beasts of burden will fetch a huge price at the market. Throughout my Ethiopia trip, I noticed parallels to medieval Europe and the Wild West of the USA. Rather than cowboys taking their herd to market, this herd was run by camel boys.


Climate-Smart Agriculture at an Ethiopian Farmers Training Center

I just visited Ethiopia, on a mission to learn about smart development. I’ll be sharing a sampling of my travels here over the next week — and stay tuned for my new one-hour special, “Ethiopia, Guatemala, Hunger, and Hope,” airing on public television across the US this November.

Join me now in this clip at a Farmers Training Center (FTC) in Tigray, in the north of Ethiopia. It takes a proactive government to help a poor country develop — and one reason why Ethiopia is becoming a model for African development is because of its proactive government. The country is divided into 18,000 districts called “kebele,” and each kebele has an FTC. There are about 60,000 government workers serving the FTCs, who coach farmers on climate-smart agriculture and ways to increase their yield.

As with farmers elsewhere in the world, Ethiopia’s farmers are very conservative and change-resistant, and it’s a big challenge to get old-school farmers to embrace modern techniques. They find that rather than merely decreeing a new technique, it’s most effective to convince one farmer to run with a smart idea — and when he prospers, others will want to follow his lead.

A Ravine of Your Broken Dreams

I’m in Ethiopia with my crew, filming an upcoming hour-long special called “Ethiopia, Guatemala, Hunger, and Hope” — and I’ve been grateful for the chance to be able to incorporate scenes I’ve always wanted to share. For example, when poverty drives people from the countryside into a big city, they often end up living in ravines that the city considers unsafe. The desperate don’t have the luxury of living a bus ride away from their employment — that would eat up a big chunk of their meager income. So, they inhabit shantytowns in unsafe ravines. One violent rainstorm or mudslide, and their world collapses.

Here in Addis Ababa, I’ve been reflecting on the eerie uniformity that the look of poverty has throughout the world. Culture is stripped away, and it’s just bodies in tattered clothing under corrugated tin. Travel as a political act helps a privileged person be thoughtful — and appreciate.

Ethiopian Coffee?

I’m in Ethiopia, filming an upcoming special called “Ethiopia, Guatemala, Hunger, and Hope” — and I’ve been learning a lot about smart development. Coffee is the biggest export here, but it only generates $700 million a year — not much for a teeming country of 100 million people. Ethiopians would like to add a little value to their coffee by exporting it roasted, but the developed world makes it tough for the developing world to add value. We like our imported materials raw — so we can make the big bucks.

The industrialized world’s aggressive trade policies are part of the structural poverty that keeps what some call the “Two-Thirds World” underdeveloped. It’s thought-provoking — and a good example of travel as a political act.

A New Era of Hope in Ethiopia

picture of dr. abiy ahmed, the prime minister of ethiopia, with text that says "we support dr. abiy ahmed" - it is a poster


It’s a hopeful time for Ethiopia. The country’s young new leader, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, is a peacemaker — and he seems to be moving this multiethnic land toward democracy. Two of his first actions as prime minister: releasing thousands of political prisoners and ending a 20-year war with Eritrea.

Under Dr. Ahmed’s leadership, the federal government seems to be striving for good, decentralized governance — by taking full advantage of the “kebele” system, a network of several thousand small administrative units with locally elected leadership, stretching across the whole country.

While there will always be poor people, overcoming extreme poverty in our lifetime is well within reach. Two big hurdles: climate change and conflict. Economists believe that by 2030, nearly half the remaining people living in extreme poverty will be citizens of war-torn countries. All too frequently, national borders — often drawn by colonial powers — ignore ethnic regions. That’s certainly a basis for the strife in Libya, Iraq, and Syria. And it’s been a challenge in Ethiopia, which has a proud ethnic group for each of its many languages.

In countries with multiple ethnic regions, good governance means decentralizing — with regional governments that are empowered, but still accountable to the national government. Development needs stability rather than conflict, and that requires respect for ethnic regions.