Merkato has been a major marketplace in Addis Abeba since the Italian occupation. It is known to be the largest open market in Africa and famed for its chaos. Times are changing, however, with new multi-storey buildings replacing the ground level shacks. With the shopping culture yet to catch up, some located on the upper floors of the new modern malls complain that they receive almost no customer. Some buyers prefer to shop amongst the shacks, which they believe provide better value; others prefer the convenience of the malls. With changes picking up pace, it will be interesting to see how the modern Merkato will look, reports JEMAL ABDU, FORTUNE SFAFF WRITER.
Mestawot Gebre, a mother of two, came to Merkato with her children to buy clothing and shoes, with the holiday fast approaching. She comes to Merkato, on average, twice a year when the holidays come. She speaks of the changing facets of a place that claims to be ‘the largest open market in Africa’.
“There is positive change now in the view and structure of the market,” she says. “The buildings are making the market system more simple and suitable.”
The shabby and crowded shops in Merkato were, and still are, the predominant image of the marketplace. The market is home to many vendors, including blacksmiths, potters, carpenters and weavers. In Merkato, there is no limit on the items exchanged for money. One can buy anything from used or new clothing, shoes, souvenirs, herbs, spices and incense to truck tyres.
The closely pitched shabby huts facing each other have pavements that barely allow two people to pass side by side. But these pavements help thousands of pedestrians trying to move from one shop to another, or cross from one tera to the other.
Merkato is said to have been established as a marketplace during the Italian occupation, when it was called Merkato Indigino – market of the indigenous. The intention was to marginalise the local marketers from the centre of the city, Arada Ghiorgis, which the Italians called Piazza and where they opened shops for their convenience.
Through the expansion of the place, different products began to have their own specific selling places, called Teras. These teras began to attract new people and this created a disorganised settlement. The major teras in Merkato include, Saten Tera, Shera Tera, Mesob Tera, Work Tera, Ched Tera, Menalesh Tera, Dubai Tera, Military Tera, Bomb Tera, Shata Tera, Mentaf Tera, Frash Tera and Sidamo Tera.
The view of this marketplace is recently being transformed into a rather modern setting, with most of the shops in slums climbing onto multi-storey buildings. Tilahun Gebre has been trading carpets in Military Tera for more than ten years. He speaks of the Merkato he knew previously and the present Merkato.
“Before this building was built, for example,” he says, pointing at the Addis Abeba Shopping Centre from his small shop by the opposite side of Raguel Church, “there were small retailers and the road was muddy. There was difficulty in moving from one shop to the other. But now the change is clear and the buildings are transforming Merkato into a modern market place.”
But this development does not seem to comfort small traders, who used the ‘fittest ones’ as their host to trade commodities, like books and small items, such as belts, underwear and socks etc.
Demise Asfaw has been selling books in Merkato for ten years in front of shoe shops in Merkato. He has been sitting on the steps of the shop that hosts his trade, desperately waiting for the tea girl to serve him with a cup of tea and lemon.
“The change is against small traders,” he says. “The government didn’t consider the fate of small traders when it decided that the merchants in this place have to organise themselves into share companies and own buildings.”
This change is displacing such small marketers from the centre of the market to other margins of the City, such as Akaki, Saris and Megenagna, as Demise puts it.
But, how is the consumer getting used to this changing Merkato?
Akinda Niga is a shop owner at a new building called Negat Berhan Shopping Centre, which became operational three years ago. He sells jackets, belts, bags and shoes on the second floor of the building. He pronounces the effects of the building on his market. The speaker operated by his daughter spreads holiday songs, calling for potential buyers.
“We were 196 merchants on the ground before the centre was built. Then we organised ourselves into share companies and built this mall by making preparations over ten years. Those on the first floor have good market, but we do not as the building is new and people are not accustomed to buying goods at malls,” he claimed. “When I was on the ground, I used to have sales of 600 Br on average a day, but now we open our shop in the morning and close the doors at night without even selling a single item. As you can see, there is no one to visit the shops on the second floor, even on the eve of the holiday.”
The land in Merkato is regulated according to the lease law and, for ten years now, the government is working on transforming the traditional market system into a modern marketplace. The trade centre in Merkato is to be transformed into buildings and, whenever this is done, the land is transferred to the investors on lease, according to Yidenek Andualem, compensation estimation and replacement officer at Addis Ketema District Administration Land Development Management Office. Then the people are to be compensated according to the amount of estimation on the inputs used in construction per square metre – the minimum payment being 51,875 Br. Then the place will be cleared within three months.
When decisions are made to renew a trade centre like Merkato, things like the standard of services required, the nature of trade and customers, and the image of the place are considered. When one loses his or her land because of renewal, they have the right to get 25 square metres of land in that area.
The document from the Office shows that there are three levels of places, labelled level one, two and three, each having five sub-levels for the determination of lease values. Central trade areas are level one, with the first level priced 1,686 a square metre and the fifth 896 Br a square metre.
“But the case of Merkato is different from other leased land. The land here is not auctioned, as the traders there are given the chance to organise themselves into share companies and build malls by the dissolved Lease Committee in 2009,” says Yidenek.
With this procedure being used in the renewal of Merkato Indigino, there are buildings sprouting out in the middle of the market proceedings. But still there are people who are not keen to enter the buildings to make their purchases because of the price hikes they face, preferring instead to go to the shanties they used to. A woman who trades bed sheets and other household appliances in the Tana Shopping Centre believes the price issue, but prefer the quality of products supplied in the buildings.
Adugna Wube is the manager of a four-storey building in the middle of Merkato – the Addis Abeba Shopping Centre. He remembers the Merkato he knew when he was a student at the present Addis Ketema Preparatory School. The market then was small and partitioned into huts for each possessor and looked like a “refugee camp” at night. He foresees a smooth market system when the road construction gets into line. He speaks of the advantages of the buildings and the peoples’ culture of buying in malls.
“The buyers will be able to buy anything they want from one place and save their time. They will also have safer transactions, free from theft and crowded places,” he says. “The shop owners also have the opportunity to put their goods in a safer place. Retail sellers and whole sellers will meet closely.”
One major change coming to Merkato in relation to the development of buildings is the availability of parking space. Many buildings are coming up with underground parking.
“These buildings are bringing Banks close to us, saving much of our time spent on searching for banks,” says Seifu Tilahun, a stationery wholesaler at the Kennedy Shopping Centre in Sidamo Tera. “Before we had to go far to warehouses to bring items, but now this building helps us to have a wider space to use both as a warehouse and a shop. And again our materials used to be soaked in rain, but now we can directly take our goods from the truck to our shop.”
“I do not have to go to another place to buy the shoes after buying the clothes,” says Mestawot. “This saves the time and there is space for seeing things carefully as the shops are wider.”
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