The Future Train

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Most major cities in sub-Saharan Africa have a design flaw:

They have very few public transportation systems.
Research by the World Bank shows that this lack of mobility has devastating consequences. It is limiting the economic growth of Africa's cities. At the same time, their population will double by 2040 - to about 1 billion people.

If nothing changes soon, Africa's cities could be threatened with collapse.
Ethiopia is currently trying to find a solution.
When Ethiopia's capital city christened its brand-new light rail system, local residents threw a big party, with lots of music and dancing. Long lines formed at the stops. Many of Addis Ababa's approximately 4 million inhabitants wanted to test out the trams on the new system.
The atmosphere in the city's administration, however, was tense. In the span of only three years, they had created a completely new infrastructure for Addis Ababa. A $475-million-dollar system, with which few in Ethiopia had had any previous experience. Could it meet the high expectations that had been set for it?
The Ethiopians ran up significant debts to build the light rail system that promised a better future. The Export-Import Bank of China supplied 85 percent of the project's funding in the form of low-interest loans. Chinese state firms delivered the trains and coordinated the construction of the tracks.
The light rail experiment was as expensive as it was risky. But it was also a necessary one given the disastrous chain reaction Addis Ababa's lack of mobility had caused.
Workers usually sit at two adjacent desks in the offices of the city-owned company that operates the tram. One belongs to an Ethiopian employee and the other to his or her Chinese counterpart.

All important functions in the company, from the tram driver all the way up to the company director, are double-staffed for the first three years. This provides the Ethiopians, who are new to this kind of transport system, with someone to speak to if they run into problems.

This knowledge transfer is costing the country an additional $300 million.
The employees of the light rail agency are annoyed by the Chinese. "We are trying to get rid of them as quickly as possible," one of them says. But that might not be so easy.

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Officially, 370 people fit into a tram. In practice, however, up to 500 often squeeze into one, says a manager at the operations center. A total of up to 150,000 people ride the tram each day. High demand also often translates into the chaotic operation of the light rail system.
There are reasons for the high demand. One is that the city has made riding the tram extremely affordable. The cheapest ticket costs two Ethiopian birr, the equivalent of 6-euro cents, making it affordable even for low income workers. But many people from the middle class, especially commuters, also ride the tram.
According to its operator, the opening of the light rail system immediately improved mobility in the city in two ways. People are now moving more often through the city than they did before, and they are traveling longer distances.
It remains uncertain how this has affected the job market. But it's clear that it is changing it. To see this, you need only to ride the tram and talk to people.

Adisu Olana, banker:

"Before, I spent up to five hours a day in traffic. Now, I manage to complete my commute in an hour."

Raya, customer service representative:

"Without the tram, I wouldn't be able to afford to pay for the long trip to my job."

Raya's boss:

"Most of my employees now arrive to work on time."

Fantaye Habte, 65:

"It allows me to see my family more often now."

Endale Bogate:

"The overcrowded tram cars are torture. When I get off, I'm often completely soaked with sweat."

Tesgaye Chome:

"The city should build more stops. I need to take a long minibus ride from my house before I even reach the tram."

Although the commuters are happy with their improved employment prospects, the mechanics at the light rail operating company are often working up a sweat.
One-third of the trains are parked in the depot for repairs. The wheels often break down because of the high usage levels. And mechanics can't always repair them on-site because they still lack the necessary machinery.
Entire trains can be out of commission for weeks at a time because the wheel sets need to be sent to China to be repaired. This increases the load - and the wear and tear - on the other trains on the line.
The defective wheels are only one of the many problems plaguing the tram company. "I'm guessing we will need the Chinese for a long time yet to come," says one mechanic. The Ethiopians won't be able to get rid of their doubles as fast as they'd like to.
The tram isn't just affecting the commuters, but also the city more broadly. Addis Ababa's municipal administration is restructuring entire neighborhoods along the tram lines. The extent of this metamorphasis is particularly visible at Megenagna Square, a central hub in the city.
Four years ago, Zefmesh, a three-story luxury department store for Addis Ababa's growing upper class, opened next to the tram station. The government provided a low-interest loan to cover 50 percent of its construction.
The investment has already proven worthwhile. Wubshet Abrera, 29, the building's general manager, says profits are increasing by 15 percent every year, and revenues by one-third.
Zefmesh is one of hundreds of high-rises being built around Megenagna. Many more offices and businesses are to be built in the streets around the station.
The good transit connection has been a boon to the neighborhood overall. And the city is consolidating this development in a targeted manner with generous property loans.
But some businesses are losing out. Seifu Tesfaye, who repairs electrical appliances on the square, recently had his monthly rent more than doubled from 5,000 to 13,000 birr, or just under 400 euros.
Kidane Asgedom will soon be forced to close his mobile phone shop altogether. He wants to reopen in a different neighborhood, but he worries that development will soon overtake him there, too.
The slums have been the hardest hit by the transformation taking place here. Tens of thousands of people have already been driven out of their homes in the center of the city because of the tram's construction and the gentrification that has accompanied it.

One is Elani Yilma.
On the outskirts of Addis Ababa, hundreds of identically shaped high-rises are located in a large area. Yilma and her four children live in a small, one-room apartment in the center of the development.

Out of fear of harassment, the single mother has asked that we not use her real name or show photos of her children.
Yilma says she used to live in the city center. When one of the most important tram stations opened at Mexico Square, the surrounding slums, including her home, were torn down. Around a year ago, the government forced her to move to the planned community here.
A study conducted by UN-Habitat, the United Nations' housing and settlements program, found that over 23,000 slum homes were destroyed in Addis Ababa between 2009 and 2015. By 2020, an area of slums as large as 504 football fields is to be rebuilt. Most of the inhabitants of the poor neighborhoods are being pushed out to the outskirts of the city. Many of them are losing their jobs and many of their belongings as a result.
The restructuring is being driven by apolitical strategy described by economists as developmental dictatorship. The government of Ethiopia subordinates everything, including human rights and social welfare, to its economic development.

Elani Yilma says she has been unemployed since being relocated. She says that she can no longer reach her job in the center because the minibus ride costs more than she makes in wages. And the nearest tram station is much too far away.
The things Ethiopia's capital has managed to do in just a few years are as remarkable as they are alarming.
It's remarkable how quickly the city has forged a completely new infrastructure from the ground up - and how quickly it is fueling growth.
But the ruthlessness with which the government is removing obstacles to progress is alarming. Tens of thousands of people have already been moved from the center to the city's periphery, where they have largely been left to their own devices.

And soon, many others will no longer be able to afford to live in the affected areas. Rents for apartment buildings rose by an average of 61 percent between 2012 and 2016 and as high as 100 percent in some neighborhoods along the tram lines.

It's urgent that more be done to help the people who have been left behind by these changes.
Overall, mobility can clearly hold the key to greater prosperity - also in other sub-Saharan countries. But the cities affected by these changes need more international money and know-how.
In Addis Ababa, the Chinese won the tender. German companies should perhaps take a closer look at the light rail project. The mobilization of half of a continent, after all, could represent a lucrative future market for them as well.


This report is part of the Expedition #BeyondTomorrow project.

Text: Bernhard Riedmann, Stefan Schultz

Editing: Yasmin El Sharif, Jens Radü

Photos: Bernhard Riedmann, Stefan Schultz

Videos: Bernhard Riedmann

Animation: Arne Kulf

Mood-Videos: Lorenz Kiefer, Saka Tourè

360-Degree Videos: Bernhard Riedmann

Graphics: Chris Kurt

Photo Editing: Nasser Manouchehri

Fact-Checking: Mara Küpper

Copy Editing: Bastian Bredtmann

Programming: Chris Kurt

Additional video footage provided by the City of Addis Ababa.

Additional photos from: dpa, Getty Images, Google Earth, Imago/Chromorange, Imago/photothek