Quo Vadis, Addis? Manufacturing-led Urbanization in Ethiopia – Empower Design!

The studio ‘Quo Vadis, Addis?’ addresses the question of how to integrate existing manufacturing zones in the textile and garment sector within the socio-spatial fabric of Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa, challenging the predominant tendency to treat these workplaces as monofunctional enclaves isolated from their context. Moreover, while the studio will be oriented toward the definition of design propositions, it will likewise foreground the ‘design’ of processes for empowering design as a platform to initiate socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, and spatially sensible habitats.

With new scrambles for Africa well underway, telltale tensions have arisen concerning which direction Ethiopia might take to resolve its many dilemmas: ethnic conflicts, widespread poverty, youth unemployment, foreign dependency, ecosystem deterioration, and lack of social and physical infrastructure, to mention just a few of the most daring problems facing the country. Ethiopia still finds itself torn between the desire for autonomy and the reality of dependence, between the desire for maintaining cultural identity and the reality of being ever tempted by mainstream values, between the desire for resistance and the tendency toward compliance with directives from abroad. 

Yet for Africa to really be ‘rising’, other more equitable modes of cooperation among all stakeholders must be devised if countries like Ethiopia can truly overcome their dependency syndrome – let alone never-ending debt entrapment, ever-widening disparities between rich and poor, and endlessly-proliferating environmental degradation.

Such tensions are nowhere more evident than in Addis Ababa, which has recently experienced an influx of foreign entities intent on using – if not exploiting – Ethiopia’s young and low-wage labor force to cost-effectively produce goods for the global market in manufacturing facilities on the city’s outskirts. These factories in turn have further accelerated ongoing urbanization processes, yet, unsurprisingly, with little regard for the quality of the urban environment. 

Aware of the situation, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is seeking to identify strategies for empowering his people via alternative, locally-embedded forms of economic development, providing socially stable working conditions in collectively-owned workshop neighborhoods based on local craft and integrated in Addis Ababa’s social and urban fabric. This is the task at hand!

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