Merkato Addis: A Beauty in a Chaos


Merkato is the largest open-air market in Africa, covering several square miles and employing an estimated 13,000 people in 7,100 business entities. the Merkato was launched during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, hence the name of Italian origin (” Merkato” meaning” market” in Italian and “new market” in Amharic).

The Market is vast. A good start would be the Old Italian archways to the north. You can find countless electronics stalls. To the west of Addis Ababa is a bus station (not to be confused with the main bus station, called ‘Autobus Terra’.

Merkato is arranged into separate areas for different items. This should make it easier for finding what you are looking for, but with the chaos there, it could still confound the best shoppers.

Everything from electronics to clothes, heavy industrial steel girders to tires, and all that goes in-between, can be found, some hidden up small alleys away from the main streets.  The newer buildings here offer a wide range of traditional Ethiopian clothes. There are a number of shops that will give you a good opportunity to bargain.

To the south into the grid-iron pattern of the newer market you can find the grain stores, often highlighted by the presence of people and donkeys alike struggling to carry huge sacks. One thing that Ethiopia is famous for its coffee and you can find plenty of that in the market. 

In fact, coffee can be found in abundance there. If you want to do some shopping for some coffee beans in Addis Ababa then head to Merkato. When the rain subsides and a ray of sun hits the streets it’s an explosion of activity. People who had been huddled into corners trying to stay dry hit the streets and join those who were not put off by the rain.

The buses from the nearby bus station come rolling out, along with more trucks filled with produce. The place doubles in traffic and movement in a heartbeat. You can wander through it all fascinated at everything going on. After leaving Merkato Market and getting back on the main streets of Addis Ababa, you enter a different kind of chaos. As the train rolls back in.

The Merkato’s merchants sit on small three-legged stools or burlap mats within the mountainous piles of grains and spice. The fresh produce of the market is usually grown in small lots just outside or even inside Addis Ababa and tended by city residents.

It is carried to the market by foot or loaded onto the tops of cars and trucks. Children carry the goods from wagon to stall in large baskets on their heads. Foreigners are typically charged more than natives in the market, as is true for accommodation and transportation in the city.  

Grain soon gives way to perfumes and stalls selling shampoos and soaps. It’s a fast-paced market with just about every type of business under the sun, from food to souvenirs and even building materials. Anything from food and drinks to chairs, saws, shoes, blankets, or stoves can be found at Merkato. It is home to 7,100 businesses that employ around 13,000 people.

This is not counting the thousands of informal stands that constitute an entire parallel economy within the market. Addis Merkato appears to be a small city within the city. It is an interesting slice of business life, its busy and packed people.

The must-see parts of Merkato include the Spice Market, the handmade baskets market, and the second-hand items market. It is closed on Sundays. Merkato is especially interesting for the fact that it is a museum of locals. You can meet different people who come from the more than 90 tribes of Ethiopia and communicate in the Amharic language. The order of trading here is bargaining.

Merkato isn’t one of those nicely photogenic markets with goods laid out on the ground or in little stalls. Most vendors now have permanent tin shacks to house their wares, so in many eyes, this changes the market from a scene of exotica to just a slum.

The mass of stalls, produce and people may seem impenetrable, but on closer inspection, the market reveals a careful organization with sections for each product. You can spend your Birr on pungent spices, silver jewelry, or anything else that takes your fancy.

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There’s even a ‘recycling market’, where sandals (made out of old tires), coffee pots (from old Italian olive tins), and other interesting paraphernalia can be found. In fact, Merkato is a kind of ‘little Ethiopia” as far as its demographic composition is concerned.

For instance, we find people of south Ethiopia in what is known as the shemma terra were amazing works of arts and crafts combine to give you outstanding clothes that the local people wear. This is a process that combines skills with culture and identity.

You can go to the butter and honey quarters of Merkato and find scores of people from the Gurage ethnic group. Sidamo Terra is mostly frequented by merchants from Sidama Zone in the south. The Amahras are represented by the grain, salt, honey, and butter merchants of Gojjam Berenda, a place in Merkato where people from the Amhara Region abound.

There are Oromo merchants of Merkato you find around.  In brief, every part of Merkato exhibits its evolutionary past that it carries forwards into its present and future.

If you destroy the link between their past and their present and future, it may destroy the entire chain this is what is sometimes happening when we reconstruct a place under the flagship of modernity.

We should rather think about preserving the past as we build the present. The facelift that is going on around the old Menelik Palace these days can give a good example of how to build the future without destroying the past. If you pull down the old structures and replace them with state of the arts buildings, it may sound modern but without the soul of the past.

merkato addis ababa chaos

Thus, there is nothing you hand down to the present and less to posterity. Merkato, like any part of Addis Ababa, needs modernity without the destruction of its past. It has already lost its past when old houses were destroyed entirely and replaced by high-rising structures. In the process, it loses its flavors, smells, cultures, people, and traditions.

No one thought about preserving these relics while modernizing the market. Fortunately, it is not yet too late to do so. Merkato is no more an open market. The old terras (parts of the market) are leaving the area to high rise buildings. The narrow alleys and footpaths are being replaced with cobblestone lanes. A new modern era is certainly dawning over the old market which was once called Addis Ketema (new town).

Another new town is emerging on the ruins of the old town. Yet, Merkato is also committing cultural anthropological and historical suicide by getting its past destroyed in the name of modernity.

Merkato is a low-roofed house sheltering the cultures, habits, odors, and flavors of the tens of thousands of the people of all cultures that come and go to Merkato every day in a kind of collective enterprise of doing business the Ethiopian way.

Merkato largely resembles the houses, alleys, and footpaths Egyptian writer, the late Naguid Mahfouz so intimately, lovingly and clinically described in his classic novel, “Middaq Alley” and used them as backdrops for the drama that was unfolding in the backyards where the book’s characters fight their daily battles and survive.

The web-like alleys and footpaths of Merkato, and those particularly around Etan terra (the incense quarter), bomb terra where they don’t sell bombs but mainly light consumer goods imported from distant lands. How are you going to preserve all these things or even memories of these things if you destroy everything in the name of modernity and profit?

The modernization of Merkato is a fact but its modernizers should think about preserving what is worth preserving from its glorious past when people came there and rose from rags to riches.

The story of the rise and growth of Asfaw Wosen Hotel and the family of tycoons who built it is not a legend but a real part of Merkato’s lore. How many tycoons lived and did business in Merkato and left for better opportunities elsewhere?

There were indeed many of them. Merkato is not a one-dimensional story. It has its failures as well as its success stories. It was frequented by the insane that loiter around chat terra, where the narcotic leaves are sold and consumed, and where distributors have made themselves of famous tycoons and built so many high rises right in the heart of the capital.

The old Merkato is not totally demolished at this stage. There are still vacant plots and spaces that could perhaps be used to construct a kind of exhibition center for the old Merkato.

man holding ethiopia coffee

Pictures, a sample of goods, statues, and statuettes (from the present artifacts quarter) could go into making the visible culture of the slowly disappearing old Merkato.

We can preserve the traditional dresses and clothing, the musical instruments and tools sold and bought in Merkato not only to preserve for posterity but also to hand them down to the coming generations of merchants who would certainly get inspiration from the achievements of their predecessors. The stories and tales of famous tycoons can be preserved in the exhibition center to be visited by local as well as foreign tourists.

We can even preserve the smell and flavor of Merkato by creating a stand for the multitudes of incenses and peppers and spices that are parts of Merkato’s specialties. Merkato’s old Tej bets where the famous honey-flavored alcoholic drink is sold and where the loonies, the thieves and respected gentlemen of Merkato frequented, did business or discussed politics and daily life.

These are also anthropological pieces whose worth may not be evident now but might one day become rare souvenir pieces worth making money and providing invaluable information. It is, of course, one of the defining ironies of tourism that the traveler often values most what caters to him least, and on that score Merkato triumphs.

There’s one bunch of stalls peddling the same generic souvenir Africana I’ve seen as far away as Cape Verde and Swaziland. At a couple of antique shops on the edge of the market district, I’m offered gloriously illustrated 15th-century, wood-bound Amharic bibles and Haile Selassie’s own pith helmet (in my admittedly inexpert view.

I think it prudent to maintain doubt about the provenance of both). Other than those concessions to the tourist, Merkato couldn’t care less: almost everything else sold here are the basics for survival. tourists might not be interested to walk into the new high rises to see what the old Merkato looked like.

They would certainly ask about the old Merkato and its life, they might have read in books or seen in video clips. That is the Merkato they are going to ask you to show them in the future. A new museum for the old Merkato would not only be a feast for the eye. It will also be the place where the memories and lives of millions of people who shaped Merkato in its old days. That would be a place worth preserving not only for its anthropological worth.

It would also be a potential money-spinner as foreign tourists might flock and see it and compare it with its new and modern face and marvel at the transformations that have taken place and the histories that had been written with the sweat of its merchants, its memorable and ordinary people that frequented it for decades and left their indelible marks. Throughout this endless act of negotiation, the marketplace has increasingly become a microcosm of a nation that absorbs the frictions caused by its lack of uniformity.

Merchants and customers who speak more than eighty different languages meet and negotiate over sales with varying degrees of spatial and legal formality. This allows for a growing number of registered and unregistered businesses to operate in the slippages between structured and loosely defined means of trade.

Because most of the original architecture in Merkato was built cheaply from eucalyptus framing systems clad with corrugated sheet metal, modifications have been relatively affordable, allowing it to adopt various material and spatial identities over its seventy-five-year history.

In their everyday activities, merchants and shoppers challenged the separationist order, approaching the inscriptions of colonial power as sources of potential women have spread out their assortment of plastic containers; some women load donkeys with canisters, others carry baggage on their backs. A woman walks by. On her back, she carries a baby, and in front of her, there is a large metal tray with cups of tea to go.

In the warehouses, where trucks come in from the farms to unload their grain, one merchant fishes into several different pockets to show me samples of his wares: wheat, lentils, teff (the primary ingredient of injera, the spongy bread staple of Ethiopian cuisine).

Around a corner, a cluster of weavers makes and sells the colorful, circular baskets in which injera is stored. A little further on, a canvas tent shelters retailers of the jugs from which Ethiopians traditionally pour coffee, the drink with which they first energized the world in the 9th century. Other shops have with the signifiers of developing world marketplaces: electronics made by brands you’ve never heard of and clothes of brands you sort of have Behind the women, the building under construction is six stories high.

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With its ostentatious glass front and bright red decor, it seems fully out of place, but it is also easy to imagine that as construction begins creeping around every corner, the spatial verticalization might soon outdate Merkato’s currently more fluid, horizontal organization of exchange.

Those left behind will most likely include the women with plastic containers: How will they fit into the multistory commercial building? How will their economies, charged with a multiplicity of small—and for many outsiders—invisible services, find their way into the new order of enclosure.

To avoid displacement, some shop owners have formed cooperatives to introduce a common structure; others now rent spaces from developers. But the overall move to enclosure not only challenges Merkato’s spatial organization, but it also affects its social fabric: when merchants move into multistory buildings, they often lose access to the vibrancy of the old Merkato.

They find themselves cut off from the multiple networks of informal economies that rely on more fluid, intermediate spaces, and the economy of services and small favors. In effect, spaces of production and reproduction are often unlinked in the enclosed spaces of consumption, informal economies expelled, prices fixed, and social roles defined (as, for example, buyer or seller). Hence, some visitors to Merkato refuse to walk up the stairs to the upper floors.

As seen Merkato is a place where most of the Ethiopia business activity happens, following this it’s filled with too many ongoing activities that causes a lot of unpleasant smell, traffic, noise, but nothing else in Addis Ababa – or most of anywhere else, come to that – fascinates quite like Merkato.

To wander within its limits is to acquire the quickest and most bracing imaginable appreciation of Africa’s industry, its possibility, its genius for improvisation, its insuperable will, despite everything, to live. despite having all the uncomfortable scenes Merkato is a place where all the country’s people work together as one and have a positive relationship with each other.

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