McCormack Speaks

Ethiopia and the Green Economy


by Michael Denney, PhD candidate in Global Governance and Human Security.

earthThis is my 5th trip to Ethiopia, and my 3rd stint living here doing research and working on development projects, such as sustainable business development and youth climate negotiation workshops. Each time I return to Addis Ababa, the capitol city, it seems that the whole country has transformed. Where there were once dirt roads, there are paved multilevel thoroughfares. Informal housing has been replaced by dozens of new high-rises, malls, and restaurants; the former occupants of which now reside in government-built condominium developments that have sprung up all around the city. The skyline has forever changed, as a new electric light rail systems silently weaves through seemingly endless construction projects. As a relative newcomer to Ethiopia, it is always shocking to come back and see what has changed. I cannot imagine what it feels like to have lived here over the past 15 years ~10% annual economic growth that is quickly propelling Ethiopia to middle income country status.

Perhaps the most exciting part of Ethiopia’s rapid growth is how the government, NGOs, and even private businesses are deeply concerned about environmental impact. On the national level, the government has formally committed itself to green growth through its Climate Resilient Green Economy Strategy (link). The government has also pledged the whole country to be carbon neutral by 2035. Government proclamations are one thing, but implementation of environmental goals among public and private institutions is where the rubber meets the road.

Fortunately, as I work to finish my dissertation research on the influence of international organizations in Ethiopia’s agricultural development, I am coming into contact with a growing number of private businesses that see tremendous profitability in environmental sustainability. For example, enormous flower farms are turning towards biological pesticides, artificial wetland wastewater treatment, and organic fertilizers. In turn, they see new markets open up as wealthy consumers become more conscientious about the environmental and social impact of the products they purchase. Cosmetics producers are embracing organic and socially sustainable production methods for crucial ingredients like honey and shea butter. In sum, there is a growing suspicion among Ethiopian businesses that the traditional model of minimizing costs and maximizing profits with no concern for the social and environmental impacts is no longer the best way to do business.

Ethiopia is in a unique position with regards to sustainable development. Despite its rapid growth, it remains one of the poorest and least economically developed countries in the world, and the private sector is small and nascent. Therefore, there is tremendous opportunity to build a sustainable economy, as there are fewer entrenched interests to combat. As the economy grows and new investors identify business opportunities, they often do so with the government’s environmental goals in mind. Moreover, governmental lending mechanisms favor businesses that structure themselves around social and environmental goals. The question, “how do I make my business sustainable?” is one that entrepreneurs ask at the outset of their work, not one that they ask after 50 years of operation. This is an exciting time to be in Addis. If the country continues to sustainably develop, Ethiopia has a good shot at being one of the first truly green economies.


Michael Denney is a PhD candidate in Global Governance and Human Security. He currently resides in Addis Ababa as part of the partnership between Addis Ababa University and UMass Boston. His dissertation is on the changing use of science in international agricultural development policy in Ethiopia. He works at the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Center and Network, where he fundraises and manages projects related to climate negotiation.

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