Cities in Ethiopia, and why is the second largest one so small?

For a country of about 102 million people, this distribution of city sizes is remarkable, noting that the true population of Addis is likely larger yet:

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 2,757,729
Dire Dawa, Ethiopia 252,279
Mekele, Ethiopia 215,546
Nazrēt, Ethiopia 213,995
Bahir Dar, Ethiopia 168,899


It is striking that the population is still about 80% “rural,” even with ten percent growth for a decade or so.

It seems that most people don’t want to leave their villages.  Given that apparent constraint, many of the somewhat larger villages have evolved into mini-cities with very limited infrastructure and density, but lots more consumption.  And Addis still is not so crowded, which makes it quite pleasant.  We’ll see how this pans out, but I had never seen this “enhanced rural” model before and it is worthy of more attention.  Here is one account of what is going on:

An entire town is to be built here — with a school and a training center where the farmers from the surrounding area can learn new skills, which they can then put to use to earn money. The newly founded municipality, which is to gradually grow to around 15,000 residents, is called Buranest. The idea behind the project is that the city must come to the farmers in order to keep the rural population from flooding into the cities…An entire network of this new type of settlement is to be built as part of Ethiopia’s Nestown project — half village, half town.

Just for a point of comparison, the tenth largest city in the Philippines, total population about 103 million, has 675,000 inhabitants and even the fifth largest city, Cebu, has almost a million people.


Good for them. There are limits to scale.

In Ethiopia, rural population mouvements are closely controlled by local administrations, through a whole host of measures (kebele cards...etc.).

They are also self-restrained by poor finance, and the lack of the skill sets that would enable them to get a foothold in the city, and by a tightly woven social structure that mostly expects compliance with their conservative social norms.

This is not at all obvious to outside observers, including urban Ethiopians, who have come to expect a high level of individual liberty in the towns, and in particular in Addis Ababa.

And yet: freedom of movement in such a country as Ethiopia, due to the aforementionned factors, very much remains an urban phenomenon.

As the German saying goes: "The city will set you free..."

So that the lack of urbanization in Ethiopia is not due to lack of desire of people to move there, but rather is both the result of policy and of social tradition.

So most people moving to the big city, move there because they already have family there, or move there from a secondary town--and not from the countryside.

This is similar in a way to the process that sees Ethiopians migrate to other countries--many, if not most, immigrate from Addis Ababa itself to the West (and not from the countryside, although this is not true for migrants to Gulf countries, and is mitigated in some manner by the Diversity Lottery).

Also, until the aftermath of the 2005 elections, when the government shifted its focus somewhat, and began to invest in the cities, and in particular in Addis Ababa, the gripe of the urban dwellers had been that all the development was for the countryside, with nothing left for them.

Which was in a manner true, and quite obvious from the simple fact that the physical appearance of Addis Ababa had not much changed since the pre-Derg period, until the 2010s...but oh, how it has changed since!

As to Addis Ababa being " still is not so crowded, which makes it quite pleasant..." Ah, well, you should have seen it ten years ago.

It was then that most perfect of cities, as described by Alphonse Allais, who declared that, to solve urban woes all one should do was to "build the cities in the countryside..."

Perhaps that is precisely what the Ethiopians have in mind with this 8 000 new cities program?!

I wondered if the rural population was prevented from moving. Thanks for writing; this was interesting to hear.

Thanks for that explanation. It appears that Tyler reads the comments of these threads or perhaps the same idea occurred to him independently.

Perhaps someone can explain why Nigeria's population is so disproportinately large versus the rest of West Africa, despite having a relatively small landmass?

I thought the german saying was:
"Arbeit macht frei" - or "work will set you free"

Ah, well, no, not that one...

Although, the phrase does seem to have become the worldwide consensus these days (even if they seem to have stopped calling it the 'Washington Consensus' these days--maybe we should call it the 'Chinese Consensus'?).

But yes, 'Homo Oeconimicus' now comes in one form, from Beijing to Buenos Aires, by way of Addis Ababa: foreign investment, cheap labour and textile factories hopefully leading to more complex industry then a consumer market ...etc. etc.

What is startling to observe in a place like Ethiopia, is how fast this wholesale importation of 'modern' productivistic values steamrolls whatever held sway there before.

We were talking on a previous post on Ethiopia here, about the number of fasting days in Ethiopia (which, depending on how you'd like to count them, could reach above 165 days per year).

But another interesting number to look at, in the Christian highlands, were the number of holy days during which work was more often strictly prohibited. Always observant (ahem...) the Ethiopians religiously followed the days, which were numerous.

When you add to this the rainy season, a period of mostly enforced leisure, you had a society that was well, leisurely.

La Dolce Vita Aethiopica in other words.

Comparing "city" populations probably isn't the best. It would be better to look at urban population, or if that isn't possible then metro populations.

Looking at the link for the Philippines, for instance, has 6 of the 10 largest cities in the Metro Manila agglomerate. Or for a US example, Los Angeles is ~3 million people though the urban/metro population is somewhere between 12-18 million depending on definitions.

Regardless, that's a pretty fascinating distribution of city populations for a country with 100+ million people.

Ethiopia's per-capita income of $1800 in PPP terms is about the same as that of Bihar - the poorest of all Indian states (which is at $2200 or so).

Bihar is a province in Northern India with a population of 99MM people. About the same as Ethiopia - which has 102 MM people.

While Ethiopia is the cradle of Christianity in some ways, Bihar is the cradle of Buddhism, as well as late Vedic / post-Vedic Hinduism. Buddha was born in Bihar. So were many ancient Hindu seers and lawgivers.

Interestingly Bihar is also every bit as rural as Ethiopia. Its largest city, Patna, is about the same size as Addis Adaba. Followed by some very small cities.

Patna : 2.1 MM (as of 2011, arguably closer to 3MM now)

Gaya : 470K

Bhagalpur : 410K

Muzaffarpur : 393K

In all, 6 cities above 300K, including Patna.

Striking similarities!

Another striking similarity is that Bihar too has shown a strong growth in last 15 years or so. The annual growth has been in excess of 10% during this period. One interesting fact about Bihar is that while Bihar is the poorest state of India, its capital Patna has a pretty high PCI. It's higher than cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore!

I wasn't aware of the high PCI of Patna. That's surprising.

Bihar however has lesser incentive in building new 'Buranest' like village-towns- it is almost a remittance economy now: in many villages most of the young men migrate outside the state for 8-10 months a year, and the state becomes a source of low cost manpower for the rest of India.

I believe that Thailand and South Korea have similar distributions.

Thailand came to my mind as well.
67m total
Bangkok 5m
next largest ones 400, 300, 250k and then many around 200k inhabitants.

Paying lots of workers to build big city infrastructure costs too much, and the high costs kill jobs.

Only by slashing labor costs by killing jobs and slashing wages can profits increase to drive growth in population chasing the high profits.

Out of curiosity, did this make sense in your head?

It is not totally clear to me that private land ownership is legal in Ethiopia.

"when one looks at the land ownership in Ethiopia, the ground (surface earth) is not subject to private ownership (see Article 40(3) of FDRE constitution). Land belongs to the state and the people, and is not subject of sale and exchange. This means that it is futile to classify the land paradigms in Ethiopia from pure ownership perspective. Rather, the land right provided, as termed in the RLAUP, is known as “holding right.” It is less of ownership in that the holder lacks the power of sale and exchange"

There is no private land ownership in Ethiopia -- except, of course that there is: they call it a leasehold (just like in England, where technically you don't own the land your house sits on).

So, when you say you 'own' a house, or a land, what you have actually done, is buy the right from the government for a lease period (40 years/99 years...etc.). And if you do sell, you're not selling the land, but the house (so, that in Addis you sometimes have a mud hovel changing hands for millions, because of the value of the land it sits on, and its location).

Now, in actual fact, in the case of a house, you do own it (sort of), as it is relatively unlikely the government will decide to take it off you after the lease period ends (although they may decide to multiply the annual lease times ten... but that's another story).

Where this whole question gets a lot, lot more complicated in Ethiopia, is in the countryside, where farmers' rights to their land is always open to question.

This in turn prevents them from using them as collateral, and some have argued keeps them thus in poverty, and also is a disincentive for them to practice proper husbandry (as the local officials can take it off them tomorrow). In turn, the defenders of this public ownership argue that this prevents rent seeks and investors stripping poor peasants of their only asset (although the question is precisely if this makes their land an assset or not).

Of course, a corrolory to all this is that this probably prevents mass exodus of the peasantry to the cities...

This public ownership has roots both in the Marxist/Maoist background of the Derg regime, and the current government, but more deeply still, it harks back to the centuries old practise in Ethiopia of feudal lords and kings divvying out land to tax the many (by way of tithies) and express their pleasure to the few by granting them domains (always leaving the possibility of snatching them back at the drop of a hat, least anyone should get to comfortable or petulant).

To resume: plus ça change, moins ça change.

(You'll have to forgive me, but I've forgotten how that translates in Amharic.)

Maybe the power laws have gotten thrown off by the legacy of colonial borders? It looks like within a stone's throw of Ethopia you have a city of 1.1 million (Hargeisa) and a few others in the 250-500,000 range (Djibouti, Galkayo, Al-Qadarif).

Who needs cities when one has donkeys? The tourists love them.

Scratching my head, again. Maybe TC believes he has found the exception to challenge (prove) the rule with, which is probably the single most common reason researchers research, but I have my doubts. It isn't as if Ethiopia suddenly appeared as if transported from some alternate universe or time. That is, I'm guessing people are people there as much as here. So, the question is: for the (many apparently based on comments in this thread) countries with a singularity in population density distribution (i.e. most populous city) what are the causes of the distortion of the normal (pun?) distribution?
Surely, the jobs offered by an urban economy are little different in Ethiopia than in NYC, Berlin, or Beijing. Nor is it likely that the problems with poor rural life are much different for Africa as for India or China. So, I find it plain silly for TC to imply that the dearth of movement from rural to urban is due to "quality of life" considerations. Ridiculous, should be subject to ridicule.

"Surely, the jobs offered by an urban economy are little different in Ethiopia than in NYC, Berlin, or Beijing."

Pretty sure Addis Ababa isn't a center of the world financial system, nor does it employ many people to sell overpriced products to financiers.

"So, I find it plain silly for TC to imply that the dearth of movement from rural to urban is due to "quality of life" considerations. Ridiculous, should be subject to ridicule."

What's your alternative explanation? Countries like Nigeria and the DR Congo are much more urbanized. Ethiopia does seem to be exceptional here.

- Moving to a city like Addis Ababa is expensive (very high rents/inflation/transport/stress)
- There are not that many jobs there (urban yourth unemployement is between 30-50 %)
- A lot of the jobs require qualifications and networking

For a rural kid moving to the big city, save perhaps for the university educated, that's a hell of a move to make.

You're going to require funds, smarts, friends and luck--quite a bit of the latter.

"but I had never seen this “enhanced rural” model before "

Tyler needs to get out more, in particular to the rural midwest (I suggest eastern Iowa because i grew up there.)

People leave those places largely hunting for jobs, not for other "fancy amenities".... (Though there can be a lag-catchup relative to cities.)

"People leave those places largely hunting for jobs, not for other "fancy amenities".... (Though there can be a lag-catchup relative to cities.)"

It depends on the area. In places like rural Alaska which have a lot of natural resources, jobs are relatively plentiful and wages relatively high. This is so because people are reluctant to live in a town with four restaurants and no entertainment.

Reference Avner Greif, any of several papers, but

Just Google the largest cities in the UK and you find a similar disparity. 2nd city about 7 times smaller than capital, 3rd 10 times, etc. Timor Leste also but on a different scale. Very different from France and Germany but mostly due to largest city being smaller in proportion to rest of population.

Also, compare the city sizes within US states. NY state or Illinois are different in this from Texas or California. (Looking at states with 5 largest cities).

What is truly remarkable in Ethiopia, is the phenomenom of urbanization itself.

Rarely in history have so many/so large/so populous rural communities been transformed so quickly into towns/cities.

Ethiopia, an agrarian civilization for 2 000 years, is becoming urban inside of a couple of decades.

This is a huge shift, of tremendous import, no less than a wholesale cultural revolution.

And beyond ethnic grievances, this is the main driver of current tensions in the country.

In such a country the urban few, as long as equipped with a smattering of skills, can reap the tremendous rewards of fast track modernization.

America has its 1%, and Ethiopia now has its 0.0001% (and likewise much of Africa).

The 80 % living in the countryside feel they are watching the train glide past. Those that can scrambe to get a toe-hold, and they are deeply resentful.

Call it the Ethiopian trumpian trope if you like.

The Ethiopian government's helter-skelter drive to build towns all over the country recognizes this impulse, and is attempting to harness it while they still can.

The next couple of decades will be interesting, as the Chinese saying goes.

But of one thing we can be sure, the resulting Ethiopia will be of a dramatically different make-up (a different constitution if you will), from the one that went under that name for the preceding two millenia.

This is interesting discussion, especially with perspectives from non-Ethiopians. Having roots in Ethiopia, and living in US currently, let me add my observations about Ethiopia from a recent history (if you will). In my opinion, the biggest drive for growth of smaller towns around the country in recent years is population explosion. Within the last approx 25 years alone (since the current govt came to power) the population has more than doubled (from approx 50 million to over 100 million). Close to 70% of the population is under 30 years of age. This fast growing population couldn't be accommodated in dry and impoverished rural areas. So it tends to flock the nearby smaller towns, in search of life! Most of these so called towns were mere cottages 30 years ago. The land in the country side is very poor and can't feed explosive young population. The bigger cities like Addis Ababa and Bahirdar also have their fair share of growth partly due to many highschool and college graduates, looking for better opportunities. Unless the economic growth is fairly distributed (w/ more or less uniform income growth across rural areas, and increase in agricultural productivity and manufacturing) this trend will continue with potentially deadly consequences of intermittent uprising and instability (fueled by other political issues, including ethnic and religious tensions). The leaders have a huge challenge! God save Ethiopia!

Could not agree more---therein lies the crux of the Ethiopian predicament.

When I was born (1972), there were 30 Million Ethiopians. Today there are perhaps 107 Million.


This stratospheric population rise not only means that both industrialization and a massive concomittant agricultural revolution are a must, but also signifies vertiginous cultural change, and a speedy jettisoning of traditional values.

Not to mention the infrastructure build-up (cities in general, but also schools, hospitals and, soon, huge numbers of retirement homes...). And of course environmental pressures on land, fresh water...etc. etc.

Ethiopia, a million mutinies now?!

check 'the second largest' in Austria and Hungary, its similar

Austria: 1. Vienna (1,8 mil.); 2. Graz (0,3 mil.)
Hungary: 1. Budapest (1,7 mil.); 2. Debrecen (0,2 mil.)

This enhanced ruralism model seems to be common throughout East Africa.

1 Kigali 745 261
2 Butare 89 600
3 Gitarama 87 613
4 Ruhengeri 86 685
5 Gisenyi 83 623


1 Kampala 1,507,114
2 Nansana 365,857
3 Kira 317,428
4 Makindye 282,664
5 Mbarara 195,160


1 Bujumbura 331 700
2 Muyinga 71 076
3 Ruyigi 38 458
4 Gitega 23 167
5 Ngozi 21 506

Overall, the capital cities (like Addis Ababa, Kampala etc) are the cultural, political, economic and social centers in Africa (perhaps in other developing regions as well). Not only government jobs even the limited private sector jobs are for the most part concentrated in capital cities. As a result, everyone especially the youth from smaller towns and the countryside migrate to these cities looking for opportunities. It is uncommon to have a capital city smaller in size in these countries than other urban centers (unlike the west, in particular the US (e.g. Washington, DC vs New York City or for that matter Albany vs NYC for NY State. So, this phenomenon may be somewhat surprising for westerners (or Americans) but not so for Africans.

Wow population size in Ethiopia is bigger than I expected.

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