Brand Ethiopia

From NW15: An anthology of new writing, June 2007

In the mid-1800s in Texas, every cattle owner would brand their herd with an individual symbol to distinguish their cows from those of other ranchers. Samuel Maverick made a decision not to brand his cows. It would be simple to identify his herd: any cattle found without a brand must belong to Samuel Maverick. Once this scheme was known, all other ranchers had to make certain that their cows were safely branded to prevent them becoming ‘Maverick’ cows.

These days a brand has a different meaning. It does not mean ‘these cows are mine’; it means ‘these customers are mine’. A successful brand creates an allergy to buying an alternative product. The standard economic argument for the existence, indeed necessity, of brands, is that they ensure that the market functions; in the parlance, they ‘make trade happen’.

It strikes me that the country where I live, Ethiopia, is not particularly brand-conscious. National music and ‘cultural’ food have a much stronger presence than imported music or food. Even when pasta is eaten, Ethiopians might use injera – a patriotic spongy pancake which serves as a plate, cutlery and starch for all Ethiopian meals – to scoop up the spaghetti. Non-Ethiopian music is rarely heard, unless in a restaurant or hotel aimed at foreigners. Many people wear the national dress and can be seen swathed in white cotton shawls. in so far as there is any cinema, much of it is home-grown and in the official Ethiopian language, Amharic. The majority of the billboards advertise local shops and products.

There is certainly a strong national identity at work, but, of course, poverty is effective at restraining global brands. With fifty percent of Ethiopians living below the poverty line and a very localized economy of small traders, paying extra for branded goods is inconceivable. An interesting consideration is whether the lack of western brands supports the distinctive national identity; which, if Ethiopia develops as it hopes to, might turn out to be fragile after all.

Evidence that poverty is behind the lack of brands, rather than a strong national identity is provided by the litany of fake brands. You might choose to stay at the Mariot in Addis Ababa, feeling that an international chain cannot allow standards to fall – even in the Ethiopian capital – in case you subsequently refuse to visit its Paris branch, unless you realize that one less ‘R’ and a missing ‘T’ can make all the difference between quality assurance and free-riding. There us Abibas merchandise, Crust toothpaste and even a T-shirt promoting the Boing 737.

Rich Ethiopians are no more immune to the lure of brand identity and the easy route to whatever image it provides than anyone else in the world, including the first world. There is no McDonald’s (although there is a McDils burger drive-in, and a Burger Queen with a similar logo to its more common masculine version). There is no Starbucks, but there is a Kaldi’s café. Yes, its logo it a motif in a green and white circle; though it contains an Ethiopian-style coffee cup and some beans, rather than Starbuck’s more familiar mermaid. Ethiopia’s traditional coffee ceremony (which is not exactly a ceremony, but it does take a long time) is still more common, yet Kaldi’s is full of smart young Addis Ababans consuming cakes, lattes, frozen caramel moccaccinos and the like. To be more accurate, it is not always full because rich Ethiopians prefer to be served and drink their coffee sitting outside in their cars.

Coke and Pepsi are here, of course. Arguably the most affordable consumer good (far cheaper than sports shoes, iPods or cars), cola is perhaps the first to arrive in any developing country. People in Ethiopia have become brand-conscious about cola in an interesting way. Pepsi production in Ethiopia is owned by a half-Saudi, half-Ethiopian businessman who owns many other factories, including garment makers and the Sheraton hotel (it’s the real thing this time). He is perceived as being close to the government, though I would like to know which beyond-wealthy businessman can afford not to be close to the government in a country where he owns half the manufacturing capacity. Ethiopia’s government is unpopular after recent elections and subsequent troubles; hence so are its allies and so, therefore, is Pepsi. Apparently people have been switching away in such numbers that Coke is considering building another factory. This is the only way in which p[political messages impinge on brands – by buying less. This switch suggests that, although people are aware of what they drink, they are not brand-loyal. You order a leslassa – the name for all soft  drinks – and see if you like what comes: be it Coke, Pepsi, generic orange or lime.

The strongest Western brand in Ethiopia, by a long way, is the English football Premiership. It is very common to see a ten-year-old boy herding goats with a ragged – or even pristine – Manchester United shirt; a twelve-year-old ‘Thierry Henry’ pushing a wheelbarrow of rubble up a hill; or a taxi with ‘I love Chelsea. Jose Mourinho’ painted by hand on the back windscreen. In the middle of nowhere, a small boy will materialize wearing a (last season only) Wayne Rooney short. Local blue and white minibuses might label themselves ‘O2’ in honour or Arsenal’s sponsor: impressive brand awareness, although useless in a country where the government owns and controls all telecommunications.

The obsession stretches slightly wider than the Premiership: the occasional Barcelona FC shirt, for example. David Beckham is everywhere: a large batch of T-shirts printed with his fuzzy face must somehow have found its way to Ethiopia because I have spotted them in towns several hundreds of miles apart. Is David Beckham perhaps the most famous man in the world? It makes one think that footballers’ stratospheric salaries are almost justified if their names and faces can reach this far. I flew to Jinka in the south of Ethiopia, where the plane was required to land on the local grazing area (the livestock were temporarily cleared). Even here, we counted ten Chelsea, twelve Arsenal and sixteen Manchester United shirts before we gave up. I tried to arrange a meeting but no one was available that afternoon because they planned to watch ‘Bolton vis-à-vis Arsenal’ in the local bar. Later that evening several people filled us in on the score.

In an even more remote area of Ethiopia, several hours drive from Jinka, I met a young man, Baila, from the Banna tribe. He walks two hours to market each week to sell cows and butter. He was wearing a traditional, (very) short wraparound skirt, beaded earrings and headgear decorated with feathers. He also wore a Juventus shirt. This is serious brand penetration, I thought, but when I said ‘Juventus’ his face was blank. This time, it was all about image in its purest form: this young peacock simply loved the black and white striped design.

What about Ethiopia itself? These days every country has a brand, though some (Rwanda, perhaps?) might prefer not to. How does the word ‘Ethiopia’ sound to you? Perhaps like a door opening – and, no doubt quickly shutting – on a bare room. The place in your mind which refers to this country is unfurnished Or, more likely, there is something in that room: a starving child with a distended belly, wide-eyed and desperate, too weak to brush the flies off her face.

In some ways, Ethiopia is a maverick country: unbranded. Or, fairer to say, mis-branded. Your most powerful impression of Ethiopia is almost certainly the famous famine of the mid-1980s. Over twenty years on, people sometimes discreetly enquire when booking with Ethiopian Airlines whether there will be food available on the flight. Ethiopia has been ‘branded’ with the famine, in accordance with the OED’s second definition of that word: ‘stigmatize’. Its association with famine makes Ethiopia the poster child for poor, starving Africa. Many people eat well in Ethiopia, and famines occur elsewhere too, but brands are about the media and one of the most powerful global media events of the past few decades, certainly by far the most high-profile event to mention Ethiopia, is Live Aid. Brands are about reinforcing quick, simple associations: Ethiopia = Famine.

It would be easy for the lazy, uninformed mind for whom that equation is obvious thus to see Ethiopia as the epitome of all that Africa represents to the Western mind. Ethiopians would not see it that way, of course; and not just because there is so much more to their country than famine, nor even because they are too proud to acknowledge dependence on external aid. No, the problem is the troubling association with Africa. Ethiopians speak of it as Britons do about Europe: as a friendly place to visit but not a category to which they belong. ‘When did you get back from Europe?’ a man in London might say to a friend.

Ethiopians tend to view Africa as a continent of black, pagan, colonized slaves. Not the only people to have thought this way, perhaps, but surprising from the country which petitioned for, and won, the privilege to host the headquarters of the African Union. I heard a story of a delegate to the African Union who offered money to a beggar in Addis Ababa. The diplomat, a dark-skinned man from West-Africa, spoke a little Amharic and so understood the beggar’s response: ‘Why would I accept money from a slave?’

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