Walelegn Getahun, who is in his late 60s, was drinking tej, a local
drink made of honey and sugar, at Teklu Amersho’s
tej bet (house) on Haile Gebreselassie Street in
Haya-hulet Mazoria on Wednesday, March 23, 2011.
Both the inside of the shop and its blue tent extension were packed
with customers, all of whom were drinking tej from
birele (pitchers) and holding a takeaway drink in
one-litre plastic bottles. They were making so much
noise it could be heard from a little distance away.
The shop, somewhat untidy and unkempt, also offers roasted beans and
bread; however, the customers were only interested
in the drinks, which they claim have a reduced sugar
Walelegn works as a security guard at a residential house in the area
and rents a mud and wood house in Wereda 08/09
around Megenagna for 15 Br per month. He shares the
house with Etagegn Debebe, his wife of 20 years, and
Walelegn and Etagegn, who washes clothes for a living, are the family’s
main breadwinners, earning a combined income of 500
Br per month. Of this, he spends a good deal on the
tej for which he pays two Birr per glass in the tej
bet that can hold at least 50 people at a time.
Despite his low income, he drinks every night to protect himself from
cold during his night shift, Walelegn claimed.
However, lately he encountered a problem in obtaining his preferred
drink from his favourite place due to a shortage of
sugar, the main ingredient. The situation has also
alarmed other residents of the city over the past
The shortage of sugar has forced Teklu, the owner of the tej bet, to
close his shop on some days, frustrating his regular
customers, he admitted. It is becoming increasingly
difficult to acquire the quintal of sugar his
business required monthly, Teklu claimed.
This conundrum is shared by many in the metropolis who suffered acute
sugar shortages these past two weeks as retailers
have either stopped or cut down on selling sugar.
The price cap imposed by the government on 18 food and non-food items
at the end of December 2010 leaves little room for
retailers to earn meaningful profits, they claimed.
While the government plans to build seven sugar factories to meet the
high demand, it has three factories supplying the
whole country with an annual combined output of
290,934tn. Most of this comes from Metahara Sugar
Factory, which annually produces 120,035tn.
Sugarcane is grown in private smallholdings in a few areas of the
country, amounting to no more than 18,000ht, which
yields more than 6.72 million quintals of sugar,
used mostly for household consumption, according to
an Agricultural Sample Survey conducted by the
Central Statistics Authority (CSA) in 2009/10.
The production of sugar cane, which is dependant on weather conditions,
has seen a sharp fluctuation in production, the
Production in the 2004/05 fiscal year was a little over one million
quintals while in 2005/06 it was more than 16
million quintals. In 2006/07, the production was
reduced by five million quintals of sugar and it
decreased by another four million quintals the
Production increased by more than one million quintals in 2009/10, when
compared to the production rate in 2008/09, which
was only a little over five million quintals.
To cover the production deficit, the government had imported 180,000tn
of sugar and confectionery at a cost of a little
over one million Birr this fiscal year, according to
import data from the Ethiopian Revenues and Customs
It is importing another 80,000tn, a source from Merchandise Wholesale &
Import Trade Enterprise (MWITE) told Fortune on
condition of anonymity.
When retailers stopped supplying sugar, claiming they had run out, many
of the city’s residents crowded outlets of the
government, which has begun to distribute the sugar
Abebech Zerihun, a housewife, was one of the desperate customers lining
up at the government supply stores for at least two
hours to buy the sugar she needs, on Tuesday, March
22. She must prepare a combination of milk, baby
formula, and sugar for her six-month old son three
times a day.
She also bakes 60 cakes of injera that she sells everyday for three
Birr apiece. However, much of her time is being
consumed by awaiting her turn to purchase sugar with
which to feed her baby.
For the previous two days, she had also faced a problem to cover her
other household expenses because she has less time
for the injera, she claimed.
A person is allowed two kilogrammes, while those using sugar to provide
services are allowed three quintals every two weeks
from wereda offices, MWITE, the Ethiopian Fruits &
Vegetables Market Enterprise (Et-Fruit), and
The sugar cane, grown by small holder
farmers and sugar factories, covers little more than
18,000ht, according to the results of the Central
Statistics Survey. During the 2009/10 fiscal year,
the total harvest of sugar cane stood at 6.7 million
quintals. Using this amount of sugar cane, the three
sugar factories: Finchaa, Metahara, and Wonji
produced 290,934tn of sugar. To close the gap
between demand and supply, the government imported
180,000tn of sugar.
Initially, a person was allowed four kilogrammes, but this was reduced
to evenly distribute the sugar, Girma Gessese,
senior public relations officer for MWITE, told
However, since customers are not asked for their identification cards,
they can line up numerous times.
Abebech is in favour of limiting how much a person can buy at a time
because some resell it at higher prices.
Coffee and tea vendors on the street have also been affected by the
shortage, although those who Fortune spoke to were
willing to pay up to 25 Br for a quintal on the
Zebeba Hamid, in her early deep 20s, sells coffee and tea with fried
dough (pastie) in Piazza and has been forced to
reduce the amount of sugar she uses for each
customer from two spoons to one.
“I used to allow my customers to have as much as they wished,” she told
Fortune. “However, I now deny them this privilege
because it has become such a dilemma to obtain
One of her disappointed customers, Yonas Zeryihun, a taxi driver’s
assistant, complained that his coffee contained too
little sugar, much like Walelegn’s tej.
On March 1, 2011, the MWITE, which has 14 branches, in Addis Abeba
bought 35,000ql of sugar out of which 28,000ql were
sent to the regions. This sugar was acquired from
local factories at an average price of 1,311 Br per
quintal, including VAT and transportation costs.
The enterprise then sells it to service providers such as cafés,
restaurants, and hotels for 1,320 Br per quintal and
to associations for 1,320Br per quintal.
Due to high demand, its small compound is usually crowded with more
than 30 customers trying to buy sugar, but during
the past two weeks it has been serving up to 200
customers per day, according to Girma.
Sugar Corporation, which sold 150,000ql of sugar over the past two
weeks, is offering 20,000ql more for sale, according
to an official at the corporation who was not
authorised to comment. There is no shortage of
sugar; it is a distribution problem, he alleged.
Some retailers, like the employer of Ahmed Mustefa in a shop located
around Megenagna, considers the set price
insufficient to cover his expenses, let alone
produce a profit, Ahmed said.
On Wednesday, Walelegn got drunk and was kicked out of the tej bet with
his takeaway plastic bottle an hour after speaking
to Fortune. He had stayed later than his usual
10:00pm, according to his friends. He spends more
time at the same shop because it takes him longer to
get drunk on the tej with a reduced sugar content,
not to mention costing him additional money to keep
refilling his glass, they said.
Meanwhile, Abebech continues to lose working hours by queuing to
purchase sugar until retailers start offering it for
sale as they used to.