The Ethiopian informal settlement jigsaw puzzle: an opportunity to re-sort the pieces?

Informal settlements are increasingly housing Ethiopia’s growing population – laying bare gaps in policy that must be addressed.

Guest blog by
25 October 2018

Gemechu Desta is founder and manager of Econvalue Consult, and a research fellow who works with Social Development Direct; Emma Grant is a senior technical expert at Social Development Direct

Informal housing in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia's cities are struggling to meet demand for affordable housing and settlements are growing (Photo: Olli Pitkänen, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Ethiopia is predicted to be Africa’s fastest growing economy – with this growth reflected in its burgeoning cities. Increasing rural to urban migration, booming sectors (such as construction, transport and services) and an influx of young migrant workers, are factors contributing to the rapid urbanisation. 

But Ethiopian cities are struggling to meet mounting demand for affordable housing, land and accompanying infrastructure. The government has been seeking solutions: 232,915 condominium units have been built under the Integrated Housing Development Programme, intended for poor or lower-income groups – but the units are beyond their financial reach. Meanwhile, demand on land leaseholds heavily outstrips municipalities’ short supply.

More and more people are renting or building in informal settlements – juggling trade-offs of costs, location, services, security and quality of construction. Today, 30% of the country’s housing is found in these settlements. Although significantly lower than in other sub-Saharan countries (PDF), this figure is set to grow as the housing sector struggles to keep pace.

The dilemma facing a new generation in government

Since coming into power in April 2018, prime minister Dr Abiy Ahmed has introduced a series of landmark reforms and replaced hundreds of senior government officials. Against this backdrop of enormous political, social and economic change, Ethiopia’s new generation of policy makers face a major dilemma: how to manage the continuing rapid expansion of informal settlements.

The jigsaw pieces of building, demolition, re-building or regularisation do not form a coherent whole, resulting in unplanned sprawl, poor quality shelter, and a heightened risk of land-related conflict. 

Missing pieces in policy: Hawassa

The East African Research Fund (EARF) is carrying out research into shelter in cities across East Africa, as part of an IIED-led consortium. 

Under the project, Social Development Direct and Econvalue have been examining trends in shelter provision and access in Hawassa. Here, demand for housing has grown exponentially since the recent opening of an industrial park, set to provide 60,000 jobs in the manufacturing industry, mostly for low-income rural women: in turn, this could increase the city’s population of 380,000 by a staggering 15%, driving up demand on the city’s housing stock.

Schemes have been trialled to house these workers, yet many still choose to live in informal settlements. Residents find themselves in a precarious situation: under Hawassa’s housing policy, settlements constructed after 2010 are liable for demolition, with no obligation from government to relocate residents. 

Nonetheless, more and more informal settlements on the cities’ peripheries are emerging. Purchase of land on the outskirts – by developers, speculators and wealthier city residents – continues and housing is then leased to low-income groups.

This process has not been without disputes: in 2011, the municipality demolished around 500 illegally-built houses, and in June 2018 people who had illegally settled on land allocated for investment were forcefully evicted. Some people who already sold their land for an informal settlement are returning to reclaim it, confronting new settlers who had by then built houses on the land.

Turning a challenge into an opportunity?

Policymakers and city officials will need creative thinking to meet the country’s affordable housing challenge. While the success of government-sponsored housing schemes remains unclear, the government is focusing on cooperative-based solutions and PPP (public private partnership) schemes, which could offer an alternative way forward.

These schemes allow individuals to form ‘associations’ and borrow between 60-90% of a loan’s value (depending on income level) to construct their own apartment block. 

The associations are recognised by law, bringing various benefits to residents such as access to subsidised household infrastructure and cheap finance. Low-income public workers, including teachers and police officers, are given preference under these schemes – although early findings suggest the current model is too expensive even for better-paid public servants.

Co-production of shelter, enabling partnerships between civil society and community groups alongside government entities, may also offer an innovative approach. With greater scope for civil society voice and engagement – under review by the government as elements of the Charities and Societies legislation are relaxed – a range of new ideas and approaches could be tabled around design, management, resourcing and sustaining of shelter options. 

Learning from other African cities like Nairobi (also part of the EARF-funded research) where communities and government have had some notable successes in co-production of shelter could offer valuable insights.

Inclusion is key

Beyond accommodating industrial park workers and other residents, housing policy also needs to foster community safety and social inclusion for Ethiopia’s diverse residents. The pressure to accommodate large numbers of people can mean that inclusivity – such as ensuring housing access for people with disabilities, female-headed households, internally displaced persons and other groups – may be overlooked. Any new policy needs to ensure that these issues are fully considered and integrated, so that equity and inclusion are properly addressed.  

The EARF team will continue grappling with these policy questions as their research goes forward, seeking to understand the vision of this new generation in government and learn from the experiences of other East African cities. A new future is dawning for Ethiopia’s urban poor – and now is the time to foster creative thinking.

With thanks to Sophie Stevens, senior technical specialist at Social Development Direct, who also contributed to this blog.

About the author

Gemechu Desta is founder and manager of Econvalue Consult, and a research fellow who works with Social Development Direct in the EARF Research into Shelter provision in East African Cities focusing on the Hawassa City. Emma Grant is a senior technical expert at Social Development Direct

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