The Role of Infrastructure in Ending Hunger: Ethiopia’s China-built Railway Case Study

Hussein Askary

Board member of the Belt and Road Institute in Sweden

The global community, as reported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in July 2019, was already “off-track” in terms of reaching the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal number two, zero hunger, by 2030. When the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed the world, matters got even worse, as global supply chains were severely affected by the preventive lockdowns in almost every part of the world from February 2020. The import-dependent nations, also the poorest, were impacted more than others.

The problems of hunger and poverty are not new but have been neglected for many decades. The means to mitigate them are available, but need a concerted effort by all nations, especially the industrial ones, to launch a coordinated, three-tiered effort, a “World War on hunger and poverty”. The steps are, rationally, prioritizing emergency relief, but also moving immediately to enabling communities to grow food for the next season like providing seeds and fertilizers in the same aid shipments. As for the long-term strategy, building the necessary infrastructure to ensure that societies in the most affected regions are made capable of producing in a sustained manner at least the minimum requirement of their food security.

Famine relief: Biblical proportion

In April 2020, David Beasley, UN World Food Program (WFP) Executive Director, now winner of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, warned in blunt terms in a virtual session of the UN Security Council, saying: “I must warn you that if we don’t prepare and act now – to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade – we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.” Beasley clarified that the WFP offers a lifeline to nearly 100 million people, up from about 80 million just a few years ago. “This includes about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive”, he added. He sternly warned: “If we can’t reach these people with the life-saving assistance they need, our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period.” He also clarified that this number does not include the increase of starvation due to COVID-19, if enough funding is not secured.

While governments in the industrial world poured trillions of dollars and Euros to save financial markets and banks, the few billion dollars demanded by the WFP were not secured. In October, Beasley shocked the world by saying that so far in 2020, “7 million people have died from hunger”, and that the numbers could be 2-4 times bigger if we don’t sort out COVID-19. He argued that $US 6.8. billion will be needed in the next six months.

The WFP is not the only UN organization that is involved in providing food aid, but there is a plethora of organizations, governmental and non-governmental, working each on its own in a different part of the world. However, given the severity of the crisis, a concerted international operation would be required to meet the immediate needs of the hungry in the world, most of whom are located in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The role of the military

One ironical aspect of this effort should involve the military forces of NATO and other world powers, like Russia, China, and India. Most of these nations, especially NATO, are involved in costly anti-terror or peace keeping operations in the most affected regions of the world. That includes nations outside Africa like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Iraq. These operations involve a large degree of logistical infrastructure and coordination. The same infrastructure can be utilized for delivering food, and later, a COVID-19 vaccine whenever available. The logistics involved in these operations include sea, air and land transports. Although the “Oslo Guidelines” of the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) argues that military relief operations are more costly, and should not be preferred to civilian operations, in certain situations, it argues, the superior logistic capabilities of the military could become more important in providing timely life-saving assistance, overriding cost considerations.

Moving beyond aid

Although dealing with the immediate situation and relieving the hunger crisis is the most moral and practical matter at hand now for the world community, a long-term solution is urgently required. The downside of humanitarian aid is that many societies in affected regions, like in southern Sudan, have become dependent on food aid for survival for decades. While there are political and security reasons for certain such conditions, the general problem is the lack of infrastructure, technology and skills for producing more food for the local population. Therefore, hunger is connected to its Siamese twin, poverty. It was for this reason that eradicating poverty comes as number one among the UN SDGs and ending hunger as number two.

Humanitarian aid is inherently expensive, because the areas this relief is provided to, lay often far away from the transport and logistics lines and hubs, as in the case of the landlocked sub-Saharan African nations. (See WFP’s “hunger map” and the location of most affected nations). The lack of transport infrastructure to bring large quantities of food to the affected communities makes it imperative to use airlifting. With the absence of adequate airstrips and airports in these regions, small aircrafts are used to transport small “well-packaged” portions. The packaging often takes place in the states of origin such as the U.S., China, Australia, or Europe, etc. This makes the transport, logistics and administration share of the cost of the humanitarian aid the biggest, rather than the food itself. If the food is produced in nearby regions and better transport means are built, this effort will be become a much less costly and time-consuming matter.

China-built Ethiopian railway case study

In 2015, Ethiopia suffered from one of the worst droughts in its history, but unlike 30 years ago, hundreds of thousands of people did not die of starvation. The difference can be attributed to two important changes. First, the government had aggressively implemented an economic development policy which focused on eliminating poverty and reforming the agricultural sector. Second, a 750-km-long railway built by Chinese companies. At the time the China Railway Group (CREC) and the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CRCC), were putting the final touches on the two stages of the standard gauge railway (SGR) connecting the port of Djibouti and the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

In 2015 farmers in Ethiopia suffered crop failures of between 50% and 90% due to the disastrous drought, and more than 100 million people of Ethiopia were bracing for the worst food crisis in decades. When food aid and food purchased by the Ethiopian government arrived in the Port of Djibouti, shipments were jammed in the port and ships were waiting for days to unload their cargo of wheat and other grains Thousands of trucks that were supposed to carry the food, would spend many days to cross the badly maintained roads in the mountainous terrain to Addis Ababa. Although construction was still in progress on some sections, the completed portion of the railway from Djibouti to Merebe Mermersa, 112 km south of Ethiopia’s capital was put into emergency operation in November 2015 to carry grain. A costly trip by trucks that took between 8-10 days, now takes 8 hours by train. Larger amounts can also be transported by the train compared to trucks. The official opening of the railway took place in 2017, but it had bought life-saving time for the Ethiopian nation.

The Ethiopian government has developed a plan to connect all parts of the country together by rail and modern roads, and some projects are near completion, like the 420-km north-south Mekele-Wildaya-Awash railway (built jointly by Chinese and Turkish-European consortia). Beyond its borders, Ethiopia is planning to connect to its neighbors Sudan, Kenya and landlocked South Sudan. From there, other landlocked nations like Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, (eastern) DR Congo, Central African Republic and Chad can be connected to the shores of the Indian Ocean. All these nations are among the highly affected nations in the “Hunger Map” of the WFP.

Today, the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway have become a two-way route for food security and prosperity for Ethiopia. It is not merely importing grains for its needs, but more importantly fertilizers and machinery to be able to grow its own food. Besides, it exports fruits from its newly developed agricultural projects to balance its trade. Well-known Ethiopian coffee is also an important export item. In an interview with Xinhua, Tilahun Sarka, Director-General of Ethiopia-Djibouti Standard Gauge Railway Company (EDR), said that in just the first few months of 2019, the railway was able to carry more than 70,000 tons of fertilizer from the Djibouti port to Ethiopia, just before the start of the main harvesting season and the beginning of a new season. “Fertilizer is a very important commodity to Ethiopia’s socio-economic wellbeing,” Sarka said, adding “It is by far considered as a major imported priority item by the Ethiopian government.” Xinhua reported that Ethiopia imported a total of about 1.3 million tons of fertilizer during the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

While Ethiopia enjoyed adequate weather conditions for a good harvest season in the last year and this year, the locust invasion that overwhelmed the Horn of Africa this year and destroyed many crops, is making imports of large quantities of food to these countries a necessity once again.

The Correlation between good infrastructure and food security

As this author explained in a previous article in Global Times about the correlation between the access to good infrastructure and the provision of resilient healthcare in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the same principle should apply to food production and distribution.

A scientific paper on that correlation in Ethiopia, titled “Port rail connectivity and agricultural production: evidence from a large sample of farmers in Ethiopia”, proves this point both positively and negatively. It does so “negatively” by showing the disastrous impact of the collapse of the transport infrastructure and the ending of the old railway’s operation on the same Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway now rebuilt by China. One important focus of the study is on the question of imports of fertilizers. “In theory, railways have the advantage of shipping bulky freight, such as fertilizer, at low costs”, it indicates. The study surveyed comprised of over 190,000 households in Ethiopia from 2003 to 2010, concluding that the deterioration of the transport routes from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, especially the shutting down of the old narrow-gauge railway in 2009, severely impacted the agricultural activities and food security for the majority of the population sample. Calculating the correlation of the transport costs and agricultural production functions, the paper concludes: “It is found that deteriorated transport accessibility to the port had a significantly negative impact. The use of fertilizer particularly decreased with increased transport costs.”

Regarding Africa generally the study laments the collapse of the railway systems in the 1990s. “This must have significant negative impacts on African economies, particularly landlocked countries. In the region, there are 15 landlocked countries.”  The study compares the cost of transport and trade and their impact on agricultural input, showing that the high costs become prohibitive for agricultural activities. For Malawi, which is a landlocked country, the cost of importing a 20-foot container of goods from East Asia is US$2,895 and takes about 39 days. The cost and time for Tanzania which has a port on the Indian ocean is (US$1,615 and 26 days, respectively). For Ethiopia, the importing cost is as high as US$2,960 compared to the Djibouti (US$910).

The Djibouti-Ethiopia railway was and is today the main route for 95% of Ethiopia’s imports and exports.

In a report published by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development titled “From Land of Famine to Land of Hope: Will Ethiopia Become a Model for an African Upswing?” the authors indicate that Ethiopia’ economic rise hinges to a great degree on its investments in infrastructure. Although the report suffers from a few typical misconceptions about Chinese loans and strategies, it does convey the point of the importance of infrastructure in Ethiopia’s economic rise. “Besides the service sector, which acts as a magnet for jobseekers, huge investment in infrastructure is another component of the government’s strategy that has likewise created jobs and boosted the economy, the report states.

It further emphasizes: “The combination of population growth, productivity gains in agriculture, massive infrastructure investment and the shift of labour to sectors with more value added has been key to Ethiopia’s growth for more than a decade.” Concerning the China-Ethiopia joint project, the report indicates that such major projects “such as the railway line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, the most important link to world trade, and the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the largest reservoir in Africa, will help drive the economy forward and attract investors”.

The contribution of the Belt and Road

As proven by the case of Ethiopia, the current drive to extend the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) into all parts of Africa is the policy under which Africa’s vast agricultural potential can be realized. Until now, the constraints to farming, due to various political, economic and geopolitical reasons, have meant the continent has been forced to be a net importer of food staples, and home to millions of people in desperate need of emergency relief.

However, now the vectors for full-scale agriculture development can take off, based on the coming-into-being of a new economic platform of production (based on building modern transport, irrigation, power generation and new production techniques), the circumstances can come together for potentially spectacular farm output across whole regions of the continent, given its outstanding agro-climatic features.

The present-day situation of inadequate staple food production in Africa shows that in recent decades, the import dependence for grains (all types—wheat, rice, sorghum, etc.) has increased. In 1990, African nations imported 26% of their staple grain needs. As of 2014, this import dependence had gone up to over 40 percent. Over 90% of the wheat imports comes from nations outside the continent. This means that 10 percent or less of wheat imported by African nations, comes from other African nations, and even then may originate abroad (and transit through a “hub” nation, such as Djibouti.

In a world of economic growth, and mutually beneficial trade, this reliance on distant sources—even long-distance—for food necessities, might represent a favorable and deliberate worldwide “division of labor” in supplying people’s “daily bread.” However, that is not at all true of the present situation.

Sign of hope

In August this year, Ethiopia inaugurated its first “refrigerated” food export operation, thanks to the Djibouti-Addis Ababa electrified railway. The pilot project is reportedly part of the National Cool Logistics Network, launched from Modjo Dry Port south east of the capital. The first refrigerated containers, carrying avocados bound for the European market, were launched in the ceremony. The fruits were produced by dozens of farmers, and later collected and packed by KogaVeg Agricultural Development, owned by Belgian investor Durabilis.

The General Manager of KogaVeg, Jan Michielsen is cited as saying: “With reliable and competitive logistics solutions and lead times, we will be able to increase our export of fruit and vegetables rapidly in the coming years.” Chairman of the Djibouti Port and Free Zone Authority, Aboubakar Omar Hadi  explained that the shipment marks a major milestone in the development of a cool logistics corridor by sea freight via the Port of Djibouti.“This innovative cool supply chain Modjo-Djibouti-Europe for fruits, vegetables, flowers and other perishables will balance the trade and maximize the use of Ethio-Djibouti railways.”

Africa is forced, by the lack of adequate infrastructure for enough food production, to seek imports and food aid. Yields per hectare for most crops in Africa are far below half the world average. Plus, much food is lost to spoilage, pests, and lack of logistics for handling and transportation.

With the availability of more and more such infrastructure, as proven by the case of Ethiopia, more signs of hope can emerge to end, once and for all, the scourge of hunger from the continent. The cooperation among all nations, especially between China and the West along the BRI principles and visions is key to achieving this goal.


Speech by the Ambassador of Ethiopia to Sweden in the BRIX semina on Africa and the Belt and Road, December 2019.

Speech by the author, Hussein Askary, on the impact of the BRI on food production, Beijing, 2018.