The undertaking of a number of large mega projects throughout Ethiopia has catalysed the emergence of prominent new towns. One such centre is Gilgel Beles in the Beneshangul Gumuz region. Here, what was little more than a jungle has been transformed into a busy business hub, influenced by its proximity to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, reports TESFALEM WALDYES, SPECIAL TO FORTUNE.
In remote parts of Ethiopia, new towns have been founded and flourished following the launch of large national projects in nearby areas. After South Korea’s support of a large agricultural project in the South Omo Zone of the Southern Region, a plain field turned into a town called Omorate. After Russians built the Alwero Dam, settlers flooded to Abobo Town in Gambella Region.
The now defunct Tana Beles project brought Pawe town in the Beneshangul Gumuz Region into life and attracted farmers from all over Ethiopia to settle in the area. Just a few kilometres away from Pawe, a new town, Gilgel Beles, emerged from the jungle, with the country’s two ongoing mega projects contributing hugely to its rapid growth.
Just 45km further north of Gilgel Beles, one of the new mega projects is in full swing. The mega project involves the construction of three different sugar factories. In an area located 210km far from the town, a second mega project, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), is picking up pace.
Gilgel Beles’ link with the GERD is more substantial than with the sugar factories.
The town was named after one of the tributaries of the Abay River that crosses the town and flows towards the flagship project. The shortest route leading to the GERD, 750km from Addis Abeba, passes through the town. Many employees of the GERD choose Gilgel Beles as a stopover. The bulk of the financial flow witnessed in the town is mainly attributed to the GERD project.
If one was to visit this location 15 years ago, they would literally find nothing except a single sesame farm and a jungle. For Gumuz people, the main inhabitants of the area, the surroundings were not good for anything other than hunting. The area has seen sweeping changes after Beneshangul Gumuz Regional State changed the seat of the Metekel Zone from Pawe to Gilgel Beles and officially inaugurated the town in October 2000.
Turning the jungle into town, installing infrastructure and building offices and residential houses was a difficult task. Located in a woreda with less than 1,000 people, even local officials were forced to clear sites. Mengistu Tebeje, head of Security Affairs at the Mandura Woreda Administration, was one of them.
In the early days, he recalled how married local officials were obliged to be roommates, due to the shortage of residential houses. During that time, only four hotels were available in town. Even those were just grass thatched houses and had only a few rooms. The efforts of Mengistu and other officials to convince businesses to invest in their town were futile.
“They said investing in our town was like throwing money in the jungle,” Mengistu recalled.
Within a decade, the town has created its own businesses and won the hearts of others. Starting from petty trading, the homegrown investors went as far as erecting buildings. Once suffering from a shortage of rooms, Gilgel Beles now proudly claims that it has 60 hotels. Former President of the Benshangul Regional State, Yaregal Aysheshum, who is now in jail after convicted on corruption cases, owns one of the hotels by the name of Soliana.
Though the number of hotels grew very fast, it sometimes struggled to accommodate the huge influx of people. The fact that the population of Mandura Woreda has skyrocketed to 70,000 and many employees and visitors of the GERD choose to sleep over in Gilgel Beles has swollen the town. Since its launch, around 40,000 people visited the GERD project, according to official reports.
Hotel owners told Fortune that since the launch of the GERD project, the rooms are occupied at full or half capacity every day. Their main customers are drivers of Salini Costruttori S.p.A – the Italian construction company undertaking the civil work at the GERD.
Every night, around 100 to 150 vehicles stay over at Gilgel Beles, according to residents of the town. Salini’s famous bulk cement trucks, commonly known as “Cocot”, make up the largest proportion. The cement trucks are among the 1,900 heavy-duty machineries and equipment currently involved in the construction of the mega project.
While drivers of the cement trucks travel back and forth to the Messobo, Muger and Derba cement factories, they rely on service providers in Gilgel Beles. Such a non-stop in flow of people encouraged pioneer investors of the town to upgrade their businesses to the next level.
Tadeese Fisseha, a former employee of the Tana Beles project, was one of the few businesses who entered Gilgel Beles when the town was chosen as the seat of Metekel Zone. He built the first hotel in the town, with tukul style rooms, even before the civil servants came to the town. After 13 years in the hotel and transportation business, he is expanding his hotel, Tinsae, with a four-storey building for an additional 20 rooms.
The expansion, which has reached its final stages, has so far cost 8.5 million Br and, when it is finished, this will go up to 10 million Br, according to Tadesse. When Tadesse began the hotel expansion eight months ago, he took into consideration the booming business after the inauguration of the GERD.
“Since the launch of the Grand Renaissance Dam, we called Gilgel Beles a business hub.” Tadesse told Fortune. “Compared to other cities on the route, Gilgel Beles has a high business activity.”
His assertion was echoed by Siltanu Dagne, manager of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia’s (CBE) Gilgel Beles Branch. Out of the 55 branches that fall under the Bahir Dar District, one of the 15 under the CBE, his branch came top in terms of deposits in the second quarter of this fiscal year. Over the last three years, it has also never been outside the top five positions.
For the good performance of his branch, Siltanu attributed the GERD project. Like the hotels, banks benefit from serving employees and visitors of the GERD. Other than the CBE, the Construction & Business Bank of Ethiopia (CBB) and Abay Bank have branches in the town.
Though the CBE opened its branch in Gilgel Beles eight months ahead of the commencement of the GERD, high financial transactions came after the launch of the project. From depositing to paying compensation for road construction, the branch undertakes the transactions in bulk volume.
Considering the two mega projects in the area, the Ethiopian Road Authority (ERA) launched a 3.5 billion Br road project in September 2013. The 175km asphalt concrete road construction, which stretches from Enjebara town up to Pawe junction and Aima town, sought to bring easy access to the three sugar factories and the GERD. The project is scheduled to take two and a half years.
“When the road construction is finalised and the area has better transport access, the business boom will look like what we have seen on the Adama line,” Siltanu forecasted.
In addition to the GERD, the ongoing sugar projects and the large sesame farms in nearby areas will have more positive impacts in the town, according to the bank manager. For Tadesse, the future of the town will compare with the golden times of Dire Dawa, when the city became a business hub in the Eastern part of Ethiopia.
Despite what people visualised for Gilgel Beles, one feels the sense of a big city when seeing the current status of the GERD. The panoramic view of the GERD brought the image of a planned but under construction city. Some visitors shared that feeling, while observing the layout of the project from a hilltop during the third anniversary of the GERD’s launch on April 2, 2014.
The lined-up residential houses that accommodate 8,500 employees of the project give the site a look of town. When more houses get built for the expected additional 4,000 work force, the area will definitely turn to a small city.
One of the two outdoor powerhouses currently under construction on the right bank of the diverted Abay River is another structure that catches one’s attention. The right bank powerhouse is expected to be equipped with10 units. When the water in the dam reaches its full supply level, each unit will have a generation capacity of 375Mw.
Currently, the excavation of the right bank powerhouse and the filling with reinforced concrete and bars is ongoing. Simultaneously, the filling of the main dam with Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC) is underway. Even during the anniversary ceremony, staff of the GERD project were busy with their heavy trucks and earth moving machinery.
Such discipline combined with a round the clock working schedule create confidence among staff that power generation will be realised before the planned period. In order for the early generation of electric power, two of the 10 units that will be built on the right bank powerhouse will be put into operation.
Each of these two units will have the initial capacity of generating 108Mw; this will reach 375Mw when the water reaches the highest heights of the dam. The main dam that will be built across the Abay River will be 145m in height and 1,786m in length.
“The generation capacity depends on the height of the dam and the amount that will be accumulated,” Simegnew Bekele, project manager of the GERD, told Fortune. “We do not have any plans to finish the dam and to start the accumulation of water.”
The dam will have a 10.2 million cubic metres capacity and when it is fully completed will create a 1,680sqm reservoir.
“Taking into consideration the downstream flow, or to avoid effects, we are following a progressive filling strategy,” Simegnew added.
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