“The airport we are planning to build is going to be huge. Very huge,” Tewodros said one recent afternoon as he examined project plans in his office in Addis Ababa. “It will be one of the biggest airports in the world. I don’t know what other countries are planning in this regard for the future but no country has created this much capacity so far in Africa.”
Ethiopia, once known for epic famines that sparked global appeals for help, has a booming economy and big plans these days. The planned airport is one of several muscular, forward-looking infrastructure projects undertaken by the government that have fueled talk of this East African country as a rising African giant.
Addis Ababa increasingly looks like an enormous construction site, with cranes and building blocks springing up in many corners of the city. Britain, long a source of charitable aid for Ethiopia, announced last month that Ethiopia’s growing economy means the time has come for “transitioning support toward economic development to help generate jobs, income and growth.”
Over the last decade Ethiopia’s economy has grown at an average of 11 percent, more than double the rate for sub-Saharan Africa, according to U.N. figures. The growth is fueled in part by huge public expenditure on energy and infrastructure projects that make the country attractive to long-term private investment. The projects are being funded mostly through loans obtained from partners such as China, India and the World Bank.
Tewodros, the chief executive of the Ethiopian Airports Enterprise, said the planned new airport would have the capacity to handle up to 100 million travelers per year, a figure that he said dovetails with the ambitious plans of national carrier Ethiopian Airlines. He said the new airport would relieve Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, whose passenger terminal is undergoing a $250 million expansion amid growth in passenger numbers from 900,000 in 2000 to more than 7 million in 2014. The old airport has been engulfed by residential areas — a major reason behind the decision to build a new airport on the capital’s outskirts.
Ethiopian Airlines, Africa’s largest based on fleet size and its most profitable, has been rapidly expanding over the years as it focuses mostly on the booming Africa-Asia market, according to the aerospace consulting firm CAPA Aviation Centre.
“Ethiopian’s expansion in Asia has been much faster and its pursuit of Asia-Africa transit passengers is much more aggressive” than its big rival Kenya Airways, the firm said. Ethiopian Airlines now has daily non-stop flights to the Chinese cities of Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai. China has become Africa’s biggest trading partner.
Tewodros said the planned new airport, expected to be complete within a decade, would cost several billion dollars but offered no specific figure. The government is still assessing potential financiers, with a loan from Export-Import Bank of China a strong possibility. The government is expected to announce in the coming weeks which of three locations under consideration has been picked as the site, he said.
“It is only natural that Ethiopia plans on having a mega airport not only to host Ethiopian Airlines but also to host a lot of transit traffic that passes through Addis,” said Zemedeneh Nigatu, a managing partner in Ethiopia with accounting firm Ernst & Young who is also a consultant for Ethiopian Airlines.
This country of nearly 90 million people earned about $3.2 billion from aviation-related services last year, four times more than the traditional coffee exports, according to Zemedeneh.
“Already aviation is a major part of the Ethiopian economy and this is a financially feasible project,” he said of the new airport plans. “The country should keep its eye now on Gulf airports and carriers that are its competitors.”
Other projects recently completed or under construction include the $475 million Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit project aimed at eliminating the lack of public transportation options.
Behailu Sintayehu, who led the railway project, said the 34 kilometer (21 mile)-long system would have lines going under and above ground with the capacity to transport 15,000 people per hour in each direction. It becomes operational in less than two months, he said.
Road construction is also underway in many parts of the capital.
“The country was preoccupied with fulfilling its basic needs in the past. Now it has become ambitious and is undertaking massive infrastructure projects by itself,” said Abel Abate Demissie, a researcher with the think tank Ethiopian International Institute for Peace and Development.
Abate said the projects underscore what he called Ethiopia’s “I can do it attitude” amid the African stereotypes of poverty and scarcity. Ethiopia’s famine in the 1980s was so severe it spawned the 1985 Live Aid concert to raise funds to combat it. Today, the country has increased capacity to feed itself.
Ethiopia’s government has injected an average of 14.7 percent of government spending on the agriculture sector since 2003, according to Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency. Agricultural production of cereals has increased by 45 percent between 2006 and 2014, it said.
Abate singled out the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River as the crown jewel. The $4.2 billion dam is expected to produce 6,000 megawatts, making it Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant and giving Ethiopia the capacity to be a major exporter of electricity to neighboring countries.