FabAfriq Magazine

Addis Abeba Mercato: East Africa’s Largest Market.

Addis Mercato (Amharic: መርካቶ for "New Market", popularly just Mercato, from the Italian for "market") is a large open-air marketplace in the Addis Ketema district of Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, and the name refers to the neighborhood in which it is located. Merkato is the biggest open market in Africa where, according to some studies, every week several million dollars worth transactions take place. Merkato is not only the economic powerhouse but also the entrepreneurial hub of Ethiopia where people get transformed from unskilled rural migrants into a useful productive part of society. Merkato is a melting pot of people with different cultures, languages, ethnicities, religions and social fabrics. It is estimated that Merkato hosts more than 13,000 people who are engaged in 7,100 business entities, and attracts over 200,000 people every day. Merkato also contributes to 20-25 percent of the annual revenue of the City Government.

The Merkato Local Development Plan (LDP) is aimed at demolishing and renewing the old inner city with a view to ensuring environmental protection and sanitation, infrastructure development and service delivery, and accelerating socio-economic development. According to the LDP study, 113.6 hectares of land has been allocated for redevelopment which includes the construction of shopping malls and modern infrastructures such as underground stormwater drainage, an efficient sewer system, and an internal transport system.




Initially, a public-private partnership arrangement by the name of Merkato Millennium Development in Partnership Forum (MMDIPF) involving the city government, residential communities, and other civil society groups were set to facilitate the redevelopment process with the help of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce and the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ). However, it was terminated after 2005. Now a redevelopment of Merkato is being undertaken by the businessmen and businesswomen who are organized in the form of block associations to construct multi-storey buildings.

The Addis Ababa Mercato is the largest open-air market in all Africa. Within the labyrinthian alleyways, it is possible to purchase anything you desire from cheap electronics to exotic fruits. Let the products be your landmark, for there is no map for getting around the miles wide trading center. The only way to distinguish your location is to notice the product being sold. Spices, papayas, mangos, lemons, oranges, pomegranates and passion fruits, lamb, beef, carved crafts, jewelry, and over one hundred coffee merchants, hawking their region’s variety, are crammed into the narrow streets of the Addis Ketema district.

The Mercato’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.



Due to such heavy and never-ending streams of pedestrian traffic, drivers have no choice but to just gun it and go when they have an inch of space, without paying any attention to walkers. The streets that surround the market are just about always choked. Whether you’re in a taxi, bus, or minivan, it’s much quicker to jump out of the vehicle and start walking. It’s considered Africa’s biggest market, an open-air sprawl of vendors that goes on for kilometers; It’s one of those markets that weaves in all directions and you never know what you’re going to stumble into or what you’re going to find. Many of the porters carry such huge and heavy (or just wobbly and odd-sized) loads that they can’t really see exactly where they are going. So they just have to go, and often quite fast as their loads are heavy. When you’re slowly strolling through the market, especially the narrow lanes, make sure you step out of the way of porters with loads, or you indeed will likely get hit. You’ll also find donkeys throughout the market helping deliver products throughout the market, especially the really heavy items.




Ethiopian spices, and a mix known as mitmita, is extremely important in flavoring nearly every dish in Ethiopian cuisine. Around the markets, in-between catching whiffs of countless other smells, all of a sudden you’ll be walking and a wave of Ethiopian spice will hit your nose with glory. Ethiopian spices are a beautiful smell. Coffee is at the center of Ethiopian culture, and the traditional way of brewing it is in a clay vessel known as a jebena.




Some Ethiopians in Addis Ababa say that Addis Mercato is changing… it’s not what it used to be. Land is being overtaken and developed, and longtime market vendors in certain areas are being forced to move or shutdown. Addis Ababa’s Mercato is a thrill of a market, and while it’s one of the most chaotic places in Addis Ababa, there’s so much beauty everywhere you look.







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