The iconic Christmas tree has become a standard feature of Christmas in the west. Ethiopians have begun to adopt this symbol in their observation of this holiday. SOLIANA ALEMAYEHU, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER explores the environmental impacts of Christmas trees and their disposal. Her findings may affect sales, one way or the other.
The city is starting to feel like Christmas. The deep forest greens of Christmas trees, and the reds and golds typical to the season are becoming visible. As the date of the holiday approaches, more and more businesses are sprucing up their venues by holiday themed decorations.
Hotels, shopping malls, and individual stores are not only succumbing to the trend, but also competing in it. This trend is indicated in the rates of imported the country is recording. Indeed, in the years leading up to 2014, the amount of imports has been doubling year on year.
At what is, arguably, one of Addis’s more frequently visited places at this time of year, the gate is crowded. People are clamouring this year not just to get in, but, more importantly, to take a selfie with a 12m tall Christmas tree as a backdrop.
What is perhaps more interesting than the tree, or people’s reaction to it, is the man, crouching by the corner and spray-painting what looks like dead grass, but are actually weeds.
Shine Up Advertisement, had been outsourced the task of constructing the tree by Eyoha Entertainment & Events who is hosting this year’s christmas Bazaar. The 120,000 Br custom-made Christmas tree took two and a half months as well as a team of 30 to complete. Once the design and metal skeleton were finished, the team went to the rural outskirts of Bishoftu to collect the weeds growing on the paths and on farmers’ lands, said Freddie Jhones, the general manager. After that, the team worked nonstop for 72 hours to prepare, paint these weeds and cover the full length of the skeleton to create a semblance of a tree.
The Morning Star mall, located behind Edna Mall, has also invested 120,000 Br on their Christmas tree. Their 12m tall tree, located in the centre of the building is as tall as three of the floors it is surrounded by in the central atrium that is open all the way up.
Yet that sum is hardly extravagant when compared to other major spots Fortune paid visit to. Mafi City Mall are reusing their Christmas tree for the third year. When they bought the five-metre tall tree four years ago, they had had to dish out 300,000 Br, they claim. In addition to that, decorative materials and set up had cost them an additional 35,000Br this year alone.
The designers, namesakes by the name of Ejigayehu, are one of the tenants at Mafi. Having first set out to do graphic designs, this is the fourth holiday season they have been able branch out into décor. While some worry about the cultural aspects of celebrating Christmas in a completely western way, the two Ejigayehus have instead tried to incorporate cultural elements in their work.
The use of traditional straw hats on their piece in DH Geda tower and the incorporation of people playing the traditional Yegena chewata at Mafi, Adey Abeba flowers during New Year’s design are all efforts extended to bring some of Ethiopian culture in to the design, one of the Ejigayews told Fortune.
It goes without saying that they turn a pretty penny for their work.
“Those amounts are mere fractions of the revenue the businesses make,” said Alazar Ahmed, a lecturer and marketing expert with over 15 years’ experience in the field.
The businesses are investing in moments, he explains, moments that clients will value and will talk about.
“They are creating a hype,” he said, and that is impactful as it generates traffic.
In a New Year event he had recently carried out, he had witnessed business increase three to five-fold.
Mafi are not the only ones who reuse their trees and Christmas decorations. Dembel City Centre had bought their Christmas paraphernalia 10 years ago for a 50,000Br payment. The Center is still reusing those trees, even though they invest yearly on the decorations. This year, the addition of lights, vines, and decorative balls has cost them 27,000 Br.
“We did want to buy trees as the ones we had were getting old,” said Biniam Mohammed, sales supervisor at Dembel, “but we couldn’t find any that befit the grandeur we wanted to present.”
Across the street at Getu Commercial Center, the management has reused the tree it had bought six years ago, but the addition of lights, vines, and multi story decorations had required hiring a professional decorator. The added materials and professional help had cost 60,000 Br.
Attitudes and perceptions are changing in Addis Abeba, and the increasing amount spent indicates as such. Christmas lights, hand and machine made decorations accounted for 22 million Br, according to the customs data for 2015, including two million Birr under one category artificial trees and accompanying decorations. Total customs duty paid for these products was another19 million Br, according to the data, making a total of 41 million Br.
The year 2014 had recorded even more imports, amounting to over 35 million Br. This figure has been increasing since 1997 when imports only amounted to 46,000 Br. The value and attention Ethiopians are giving to a Christmas culture of Western origins is clearly increasing. So much so, that Yod Abyssinia, a cultural restaurant located in the Bole area is also setting up a traditional western set up, as it has done last year.
The impact can be seen on those who come across the decorated set-ups. Sheraton Addis, who have, in addition to the tree, a Santa Claus, doll houses and even a sleigh receive much more traffic at this time of year.
A lady Fortune met in the Sheraton Lobby said that she had gone to the hotel for a different purpose. However, once she saw the elaborate decorations, she came back with her kids so she could take memorable pictures and let her children have some fun.
In addition to Ejig Design and Shine Up, there is also an enterprise that is hoping to grow into and benefit from this market.
Having seen the potential in the demand of Christmas related extravaganza, a British and Ethiopian couple, running Ziway Lodge, close to its namesake town, in an area called Batu, have asked for land on which they could grow Christmas trees commercially.
The couple had started out planting as hobby in their hometown in Somerset UK. The business later became the only fresh Christmas tree grower in their county, says Michael Russell, the husband.
“In terms of the environment, we have knowingly had a very positive effect, having converted bare grass hillside into thick evergreen forest up to nine metres, that stops flooding, shelters the land, provides habitat for many forms of wildlife, captures carbon dioxide etc…”
The trees they planted grow at a rate of about 30cm/year, and the public demands an average of two meters height. As the cycle from planting to harvesting takes about seven years, annual planting is required for a continuous production at Christmas time, Russell says.
If it comes to fruition, the Russells’ Christmas tree farm would be making use of a decline in the import of Christmas trees that possibly occurred due to foreign currency shortages.
The mere coincidence of the nations record tall trees have come in the same year and with the same price, with but different materials, one representing a creative way of using the natural, while the a traditional method of applying the artificial. Of all the places Fortune has gone knocking, not a single place has used actual, natural trees. Both the use and re-use of what are predominantly PVC plastic trees may have impacts on the environment.
If one need to dispose the trees and use a new one it has to be in a way that should not hurt the environment; however, the problem is we don’t have an organized waste management system, said Tadesse Amera, Director Pan Ethiopia, an NGO working on Environment protection for the past 10 years, specialized in assessing the impact of hazardous chemicals.
He goes on to explain that Ethiopia’s so far undeveloped system of waste disposal and recycling can impact the environment in a negative way.
Most people would be surprised to find out that in many ways, artificial trees actually do more harm to the environment than cutting natural trees; in other words, the idea of artificial trees being eco-friendly is, as a researcher at Kansas State University put it – “an urban myth”.
Another peer-reviewed study released in 2011 found that the impacts of natural and artificial trees are almost similar, with the artificial ones being slightly worse. The key here is PVC. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a petroleum-derived plastic. The main raw material for fake Christmas trees is both non-renewable and polluting, and you can’t recycle it. Furthermore, PVC production results in the unhealthy emission of a number of carcinogens, such as dioxin, ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride. Also, in order to actually create the needles, lead is often times used – and lead can have a number of significant negative health effects, including kidney, neurological and reproductive system damage. Touching the tree, especially with your face can be quite hazardous. Also vacuuming around the tree can spread tiny lead particles in the air, which could be inhaled.
A comparative lifecycle assessment study carried out in Canada in 2009 concludes that the natural tree is better than the artificial tree considering an average life span of six years for the artificial tree. It continues to say that artificial trees will have to be re used at least 20 times before their impacts are reduced.
The natural tree, however, is not a perfect solution as it also results in important impacts on ecosystem quality. Yet, data show that 33 million to 36 million natural Christmas trees are produced in America each year, and 50 to 60 million in Europe.
The Russell farm hopes to do the contrary, by reforesting parts of the Rift Valley escarpment, to the point of establishing a wildlife habitat and develop eco tourism, Mike said.
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