Mekele is one of the fastest growing cities in Ethiopia. Capital’s Elias Gebreselassie sat down with Deputy Mayor Kidu Hailezgi during a recent visit to the capital of Tigray.
Capital: What challenges do you face as Deputy Mayor of Mekele?
Kidu: Lack of sufficient infrastructure for the city’s rapidly growing population. As you know Mekele’s population is reaching 280,000 and there are not enough roads to keep up with the new demands. We are working on cobble stone projects in inner city areas to solve what we regard as the city’s biggest challenge. We also need more drinking water because the water that comes from underground aquifers is not enough to meet the city population’s needs. Currently we only have 70 percent water coverage. We are working with the federal government to solve this issue. We need more electrical supply and street lights, especially in seven farmers’ kebele areas that recently were incorporated into Mekele’s perimeter. Poverty and unemployment put together are among are most formidable challenges. We are creating jobs through Medium and Small Enterprises (MSEs), organizing jobs like cobble stone projects and other sectors. We also want to improve health and educational facilities. We need to improve the quality of education. We are training teachers and supplying more textbooks and materials to schools. Capital: What are you doing to address housing issues?
Kidu: In the last three years we have done a lot to solve this problem. We have housing associations where we discount prices. If you look around Mekele today its grown three times from twenty years ago partly as a result of the housing program. The plan has been used to help thousands of associations and individual residents of Mekelle as well as Diaspora and people with vested interests who live outside the city. Three years ago we took 220 hectares from farmers who were subsequently resettled and given compensation and gave plots to 4,200 people from 125 associations. We include everyone from people who are disabled to military personnel. We have given plots to 1,000 people from the Diaspora. In total 10,000 people have plots of land thanks to this program. However the housing crisis is still there and to solve this we are working through the city’s land administration to find creative solutions. Previously thecity expanded outward, horizontally, and that has created plot shortages. We are trying to change this and have the city grow vertically. We want farmers to keep their farms and reduce the need for excess infrastructure that comes with outward expansion. So we are building condominium houses like in Addis. We are trying to incorporate rural areas under the city so that land owners can be secure and be eligible for benefits such as loans from banks. For the past three years we’ve had a project office to help with the 12,000 registered people looking for housing.
Capital: Is Mekele thinking of creating industrial zones to attract investors?
Kidu: We’ve been doing for nine years and so far there are three industrial zones. The Ayder Industry zone is the first and strongest one with over 230 investors and good infrastructure. Another one devised according to the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) is the provision of 127 hectares of land for an industrial zone. The land was taken away from farmers but they were given compensation. On that land we have constructed roads and access to water and electricity. We are leasing that land, which has everything you need to start a business, at a cheaper rate in order to attract investors. We are really trying to attract manufacturing to address the unemployment rate. An extra thing we’re doing is for those investing in urban agriculture. We are especially focusing on fruits and vegetables and flowers to be exported through the Mekele Alula Aba Nega International Airport. The urban agriculture investments are within the international airport radius taking on 200 hectares. One South African Investor already has 100 hectares.
Capital: What else are you doing to attract investment?
Kidu: Our biggest challenge is the long distance, 783Km, from Mekele to Addis Ababa. An investor is a person working for profits not salvation and for an investor the distance is discouraging because they have to take their products from Mekele to Addis Ababa to sell them. We want to supply people with land that comes with infrastructure they need. We need to compensate people when they lose their land. We also want to advertise the industrial areas and make sure they are big enough for business. We are working with the Tigray regional investment office to deliver services and make Mekele a place business is excited about.
Capital: Tell us about the status of the planned railway line from Mekele to Djibouti port.
Kidu: Well to really get a proper status update it would be better to talk to the federal government since they are handling the rail. Mekele city with Djibouti port through the Afar region is part of a project which also includes an asphalt highway that has already started and in progressing well. I don’t know when the railway is going to start but I hear that it is on schedule. We are also linking Mekele to the outside world through the Mekele International Airport whose status has been upgraded to make it suitable for direct foreign flight and an agreement has been signed already. This project will directly help abattoirs near Mekele as well as flower farms who will benefit from the new cooling storage area at the Mekele international airport.
Capital: Addis and other cities have a problem where people add plots illegally to the ones they already have legally. This is known as land invasion. Does Mekele have this problem?
Kidu: We don’t have a land invasion problem as much as Addis Ababa does. Although the problem of land invasion in Mekele is very small, it’s more prominent in peripheral areas that have been designated to be incorporated into the city. The problem is particularly related to farmers who sell their land to dealers in the city. Those dealers then build things illegally on it. This is a practice which we consider to be rent seeking. The problem was outstanding last year especially in the city’s surrounding areas, however it’s not the only problem that we face. People squat illegally on vacant plots as well. Nevertheless the biggest problem we face is the taking of land and developing it for undeclared intentions as well as fencing it and not doing anything on it and other associated problems. Since the end of Ethiopian Fiscal year 2019/10 the city administration has been working to stop rent seeking. We are focusing on those who’ve taken land and fenced it in without developing it. We are expecting an increase in price of land. After our investigation we took about 400 plots and returned them to the land bank in less than two years. We are also trying to help people who can’t afford material like cement for construction or metal. We want to help them with materials to make their projects more feasible by conducting forums with the city administration, the city’s populace and investors. After the discussions we allowed more time for the construction to be completed. So as I already said although Mekele’s problems regarding land impropriety and invasion are not comparable to Addis Ababa we’ve destroyed, in consultation with the public, those houses that are illegal, to take away lands from those who didn’t start construction within the provided time and returned the land to the land bank. If people are behind schedule we are encouraging them to go faster.
Capital: What are you doing to encourage good governance?
Kidu: The primary way of implementing good governance is ensuring development. The city administration has identified Mekele’s developmental handicaps and every year plenty of money is being allotted to development projects to be done in tandem with the population. In areas like service delivery, stopping corruption, implementing the GTP plans, reforming trade laws, providing land and eliminating “rent seeking” behavior, creating new for government procurement, revenue collection and land administration. This has lead to people centered government. Issues raised by the population about the city administration like service delivery problems, corruption are being addressed in a transparent way. So people in different positions from the highest to the lowest strata, suspected of corruption, implementation problems a cleaning act has been done and appropriate measures have been taken as per the level of responsibility up to position demotion and imprisonment. What makes this effort different is that it is was done in tandem with the population at the lowest level. Those rent seekers among the population who don’t pay their due taxes on time or don’t register for Value Added Tax have been identified by the society and have been held accountable.
Capital: Some city residents say they have repeatedly brought sanitation concerns to the city’s attention.
Kidu: We have a better track record of solid waste disposal because we’ve been working to improve the structure. If you asked me that question two years ago we had many problems. There were trash containers strewn throughout the city and we did not have enough garbage trucks. There were only a small number of Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) working in waste disposal. It got so bad you could smell the odor of garbage left out for too long. We worked with the Federal Ministry Urban works and Development to create more land fill sites for solid waste management. This helped stop open dumping sites which needless to say hurts farms. Now we plan to sort between inorganic and organic trash. We’ve removed the garbage containers that were seen all over the city and created four trash transfer stations. These are located in nearby Quiha town as well as the Ayder, Adi Haki and Hawelti areas of Mekele city. Now garbage is no longer being sorted near housing areas but instead only the four transfer stations. Secondary collection sites then take waste from the transfer stations to landfills where it is treated. These waste collection programs are being done by MSEs. They do door to door collection from homes to transfer sites, while in the case of transfer to land fill sites, since the MSEs don’t have the required capacity, the administration itself does it. So our waste disposal rate is improving every year. Right now we have 80pct coverage. This is because we have an efficient program and the public is more aware and organized. We still have issues with liquid waste. We have hired guards to inspect for liquid waste. People are also organizing city cleaning events; bringing attention to trash found within 20 meters radius of homes and businesses which enhances the city’s hygiene and beauty. Our solid waste management mechanism was recognized as the first place best practice city last November in the third annual “Ethiopian Cities Week”. When it comes to liquid waste however there are some problems. There is not an organized system like with solid waste. The solution is to build a liquid waste treatment plant which hasn’t been started even in Addis Ababa because it requires huge capital and is not foreseeable in the near future. However we’ve done design work of a treatment plant network and in the mean time we’re planning to make operational a “drying bed” or what we call a “lagoon” where liquid waste which emanates from the city will be disposed after it has been identified. We are working together with the Ethiopian Federal government authorities to accomplish this. However when liquid waste management is compared to solid waste management there’s a big problem. People know it is a health hazard and it creates an odor. The problem is exacerbated by unethical practices. Some large hotels and business have opened drainage facilities. This causes a bad smell. There have also been delays picking up liquid waste but we are addressing the issue.