Trucks, tankers, camels and salt all ply the Djibouti-Ethiopia trade corridor


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This blog has been co-authored by Vincent Vesin and Graham Smith.

We drove 140 miles across the Djibouti desert to the Ethiopian border to gain a better understanding of the flow of transported goods between the two countries. Djibouti depends on its deep sea port around which the Djibouti city built up over the centuries.  It is the closest and best equipped port for Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, which has no sea coast of its own.  Ethiopia has a population of around 90 million, exceeding that of any one country in Europe, while Djibouti has less than one million, fewer than Fairfax County, Virginia. Almost all of Djiboutians live in the port city.  

For most of its imports, Ethiopia relies heavily on one highway across the mountains from Djibouti to Addis Ababa.  Transporting goods from the port city up to Addis Ababa is a huge business, dominated by large Ethiopian trucking firms. This trip was a picture that painted a thousand words.  On the narrow paved highway, partly fixed with World Bank and European Union loans, we dodged dozens of oil tanker tractor-trailers, convoys of container-carrying tractor-trailers and used car carriers. Yet, more trucks loaded to a breaking point with everything 90 million people may need (other than what they grow locally, of course).  

Why isn't there a railway?  Wouldn't that be more efficient?  Well, there was one, from 1917 to 2009, but it collapsed from old age, damage during a local civil war, and poor management. A big question is whether it is worth rebuilding or starting afresh? 

Contrast that big decision with these images: during the 3-hour drive each way to the border, we passed through only one major town and a few very small villages. In between, we marveled at the nomads’ ability to scratch a living raising goats and camels in the desert.  The nomads live in tents sewn together with dried palm leaves.  They draw water from widely dispersed wells in or near dried-out creek beds, supplemented along the highway by occasional municipal deliveries.  At one point, we saw a caravan of camels carrying large packages, probably salt, which the nomads collect from desert salt-flats and sell in towns. A timeless picture – as timeless as transport and trade have been in this part of the world. Whatever up-to-date efficiencies are brought into this environment will need to be done with a good eye for more than just a road or a railway line.

1.  Djibouti's older container terminal

2.  Its new container terminal, said to be one of the best in Africa

3.  Tankers waiting to load

4.  Heading for Ethiopia

5.  Long car carrier

6.  Traffic jam in small town

7. Roadside wreck

8.  Nomads' tent

9.  Salt caravan crossing the desert

10.  Salt caravan (close up)

11.  Stop for camels


Join the Conversation

April 03, 2014

i apprciate you because of your effort to develop ethiopia you are contribute your own role

Megersa Abate
December 19, 2014

Thanks for an interesting post and the telling pictures. Why isn't there a railway? That's really a good question and it is really well worth it to rebuild it again. Trucking is going to be always convenient for door-to-door services. However, rail has also its advantages, especially dedicated lines from the port to a dry port in the center of the country. Rail lobbyists in Europe and the US would tell you all its virtues. In Ethiopia, however, I don't think there is such a group to topple the strong dominance of trucking. That's said, its not hard to imagine potential benefits to Ethiopian freight shippers and ultimately to consumers from dedicated rail lines from the port. It would hard to convince Djibouti to part fiance such an infrastructure though?