Ethiopian Rainy Season Revives, Ravages Small Businesses

Corn Roasters in Addis Ababa
Hasena Sherife (centre) and Zewdinesh Habte (right), stake out their positions in the Sarbet area – Pushkin Square - a few hundred metres from the contemporary Adams Pavilion. Everyday from four o’clock in the afternoon to eight o’clock in the evening they sell their corn fresh or roasted to passers-by who cannot seem to pass up the delicious smell of corn roasting on charcoal.

Though it is summer in the rest of the northern hemisphere, the rainy season in Addis Abeba makes it seem more like winter. This provides unique opportunities and challenges for small businesses. Some battle through the difficult times with price cuts, while others take advantage of the unique needs people have during this time of wind, rain, hail, and fog, writes  EDEN SAHLE, FOrTUNE STAFF WRITER.

Wednesday night, July 28, 2010, was cold and windy. At around 6:30pm in the Saris Abo neighbourhood, the sidewalks were crowded with many people despite the weather conditions.

Most of them were couples holding each other close to keep warm and chewing yetatebese bekolo (fresh roasted corn). Some of them were standing and talking or laughing with each other in front of the coal stoves while waiting for their corn to fully roast. On the side of the street there were drivers sitting inside their cars enjoying the freshly cooked corn. The heat coming from the charcoal stoves added a little warmth to the area.

Aselef Yelikal, 36, a corn seller in Saris Abo, is busy taking orders from her regular as well as new customers, as part of her seventh year in the business.

She sells 80 roasted ears of corn per day from 4:00pm to 8:00pm. Four unroasted ears cost six Birr. The price increases if one wishes to buy one or two ears only. However, roasted ears cost 1.50 Br to three Birr, depending on their size.

“This is what I like about keremt (the rainy season),” she said. “My three children and I always get our fill, because we can eat the corn even if there is nothing to eat at home.”

During the corn season, which usually starts in June, she is able to save money which she invests in her daytime retail business selling vegetables. She makes at least 30 Br in profit per day from the sale of corn.

“The corn market is good; even the rich people with cars are among my regular customers,” she says. “They buy both roasted and unroasted corn in large quantities and do not argue about the price. This gives me the luxury of bidding for a higher price than the pedestrians who always argue about the price and size of the corn.”

Shoe Shiner in Addis
One of the beneficiaries of this wet season is the listro, ever present and ever ready to provide his service – for a price and maybe a tip. His profit during this season is the mud that everyone looks down on. “I only made 10 Br on average per day during bega, its sunny months, but now I make at least 30 Br per day,” says Tesfaye Teshome.

The business begins at dusk because it takes time to negotiate prices and collect corn from wholesalers in Merkato and because the weather gets cold, attracting customers to the hot corn, she says.

Yelibe Tilahune, 24, is a seller at Shola Market. He sells four big ears for five Birr, but he does not sell roasted corn. If the buyer wishes to buy smaller ears of corn, the price of each corn increases to one Br. He earns at least 40 Br in profit on a daily basis, he says.

Although selling corn is very profitable, the season is limited. Before the rainy corn season arrives, Yelibe sells contraband clothing on the streets. However, the rainy season is good for him since he does not have to run away when the federal police come to take his contraband clothing.

“It is one of the business areas where you cannot get busted.” he says.

Each day he sells at least 300 ears of corn to individual buyers and retailers. He also buys his corn from wholesalers in Merkato. Buying in large quantities enables him to get a discount from wholesalers and resell the corn at a lower price than other retailers who only purchase in small quantities.

“I buy one ear of corn for 50 cents from the wholesalers.” he explains.

Zewdinesh Habte, 18, and Hasena Sherif, 22, who sell corn in the Sarbet area, agree with the above sellers on the profitability of the corn market. They usually sell what they have on hand by the end of the day.

They buy 80 ears of corn per day from wholesalers in Merkato at a price of 1.50 Br apiece. In contrast to Aselef and Yelibe, they sell roasted ears for two Birr, irrespective of the size but still only make 25 Br in profits, each, they say.

The rainy season also brings a business boost to umbrella sellers.

Before the rainy season, umbrellas sold for a maximum of 30 Br, but now they sell for 80 Br minimum, and the price goes up from there depending on the quality of the umbrella, according Yesuf Omar, a boutique owner around Mexico Square.

He sells three umbrellas per day during weekdays and as many as seven umbrellas on weekends, he says. He also sells ladies’ cotton jackets for 400 Br. The price of the jackets also increases depending on their length and where they are made.

Sales quantities also increase during heavy downpours. However, the price and demand always begins to decrease as the rain subsides, at which time Yesuf will be forced to make discounts to attract the market, he says.

Charcoal Seller in Addis
Elias Zeleke (front), 17, works for Bedru Mohamed (rear), who owns the shop where he sells charcoal. He buys the charcoal “wholesale” – the whole sack – and divides it up into small plastic bags – cherecharo – which he sells at a profit. Elias is seen here dividing up the charcoal evenly, taking care to mix in the crushed pieces, which produce more smoke than heat, evenly with the rest.

On the other hand, the price and demand for warm weather clothing has been going down due to the rain. Clothes that used to be sold for 200 Br or above are now being sold for 120 Br. Prices should go back up when the rainy season is over, but it also depends upon the timeliness of the fashion, according to Yesuf.

Mohammed Ahemed is another boutique owner in the Haya-hulet Mazoria area. He sells women’s boots at 400 Br to 500 Br depending on quality and country of origin.

Boots that have smaller heels have lower prices than those with longer heels. He sells two pairs of boots per day and finishes his stock by the end of the week.

Just like the corn market, the boot market is limited to the rainy season.

“Now the market is booming, but this is the only season when boots are needed,” he says. “I am taking advantage of the seasonal demand by bringing new styles of boots to my customers.”

The rainy season always brings cold weather which forces people to dress up in warm clothes when they go out of the house. Warm clothes are even needed in homes, especially because fireplaces and heaters are not customary in Ethiopia. Most people only use portable charcoal stoves to heat their homes during the rainy season.

Consequently, the charcoal market has shown a 20 Br increase since the rainy season began, says Tadesse Taddele, 50, a charcoal seller in the Meskel Flower area. Although traditional charcoal sellers have been affected by those who now deliver the charcoal directly to people’s homes by an Isuzu truck, he still sells five sacks per day, he says.

He buys the 100kg and 50kg charcoal sacks which are brought in from suppliers all the way from Afar Regional State at a price of 100 Br and 75 Br, respectively. He receives up to 20 sacks of charcoal per day from suppliers and claims to sell them for 130 Br and 85 Br, respectively. Even though the charcoal comes in sacks which hold 100kg and 50kg of grain, it doesn not weigh that much. The 100kg sacks hold 13kg of charcoal and the 50kg sacks hold 10kg of charcoal, according to Tadesse.

Previously, when the trucks were not doing direct deliveries, he was able to sell at least nine sacks per day, Tadesse said.

Gerum Belete, a charcoal customer who was buying the 100kg sacks, is a regular purchaser of charcoal, even during bega (the dry season), because his rented house is very cold, he says.

He notices the price increments each time the rainy season approaches, but, even though the price is high, he always comes to the shops to purchase rather than buying the charcoal directly from Isuzu trucks making house deliveries, he says. This is because the latter’s charcoal is poor in quality and one cannot return it after finding out that it is poor quality, he says.

Another customer, who requested that her name be withheld, was buying charcoal in Lideta District from Isuzu trucks. She was happy to get charcoal at the cheaper price.

She saves the cost of transporting her charcoal from the shops to her home and pays 60 Br for a 50kg sack which is 25 Br less than the shop price.

“This is the modern way of doing business,” says Aseffa Tesema, an Isuzu truck driver who was delivering charcoal to Lideta District. “Since we do not have shop rental expenses included in the price, the customers get the charcoal at a much lower price, compared to that of the price of charcoal shops.”

On average, he sells 24 sacks per day and receives 10 Br in profit from each sack he sells to individual customers or retailers.

Dendiro Ahimed, a shoeshine boy on Halie Gebrselassie Street, is another beneficiary of the rainy season. His customers and his income have increased since it began, he says. His earnings have doubled from 10 Br per day to 20 Br per day, and sometimes he can even earn as much as 40 Br per day when it rains.

Although there are many people who benefit from the rainy season, there are also those who are disadvantaged and challenged by the rain.

“People go out less during the rainy season,” Yared Alemayehu, the manager of Bon Cafe on Africa Avenue (Bole Road), told Fortune.

Bon Cafe has five heaters and two fires to help drive away the cold at night, one on the terrace of the coffee shop and one inside.

“The rainy season is difficult for people,” he said. “Our . . . coffee shop and bar are open, [yet] it (the weather) is not comfortable for people. Everybody knows that the rainy season is a slow season for many businesses . . . except for movies.”

Still, homeless people are the ones to bear the brunt of the negative impacts of the rainy season.

Yonase Kebede, 20, who has been homeless since losing both his parents when he was fifteen years old, is among the many homeless people who have nowhere to go even in rainy season.

He has to fight with other homeless people to get a place under the bridge because that is the only place where he can find shelter from the rain.

“I cannot wait until the rainy season is over, so that I can sleep anywhere I want to,” he said.

Everything has it is own advantages and disadvantages. With each change there are some who benefit and there are others who suffer. As homeless people grapple to survive in the rainy season, some businesspeople enjoy extra income during this particular season.