“Colonialism in Africa is long over” Interview with Grum Abay, Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Belgium

Avenue de Tervuren is known to be a busy street, thanks to its multiple embassies, regional representations and NGOs. N°64 on this avenue is home to the Embassy of Ethiopia to the Kingdom of Belgium and to the European Union. Last week, n°64 was undoubtedly the busiest door on Avenue de Tervuren due to the visit of the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. 

This was Abiy Ahmed’s first official visit to Brussels and to the European Union institutions. He met with Jean Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Federica Mogherini. The full package. On this occasion, Ethiopia and the European Union signed a 130 million euros cooperation agreement divided in three pillars: job creation (50 million euros), sustainable energy (35 million euros), and the establishment of agro-industrial parks in Ethiopia (45 million euros).

It was in this overloaded week that I met the new Ambassador of Ethiopia to the Kingdom of Belgium and to the European Union: Ambassador Grum Abay. 

I was waiting, at the charming conference room of the Embassy, for the Ambassador, when suddenly, I heard a friendly voice saying “Buongiorno Antonio!” I did not want to disappoint him and immediately replied “Buongiorno Signor Ambasciatore!”. 

“You know” he continued “I’ve served as a diplomat and as an ambassador in Rome for several years! I love your country!”

“Well thank you” I replied, “but I only have Italian origins…in fact, I’m Portuguese”. 

“Even better! Now you really must visit Ethiopia because both Portugal and Italy are old countries in the relationship between Ethiopia and Europe”.

This is how my conversation with the Ambassador started. 

Can you tell me an anecdote about the luso-ethiopian relationship? 

Of course! There are many, but I’ll tell you this one. The Portuguese came in the 16th century to Ethiopia. Funny enough, they came and told us that they were there to Christianise us and we explained to them that we were already Christians before they became one. Ethiopia accepted Christianity in 330 AD. We were in fact the second country in the world to accept Christianity after Armenia.

Ambassador Abay, you were appointed Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium in 2018. You also are the representative of Ethiopia to the European Union, and also the other Benelux countries. It’s quite a challenging position.

I’ve been serving as a diplomat for 33 years now. Since the beginning of my career,  I’ve been mostly dealing with European affairs. In fact, my first foreign position was here in Brussels back in 1992. At the time, I was working as a Counsellor in this same Embassy, so I’m not new to Brussels. Between my first time in Brussels and this new chapter, I was the Ambassador of Ethiopia to Italy and most recently to Russia. I was transferred directly from Moscow to Brussels, where I presented my credentials last September 25th. Obviously, most of the job here concerns the European institutions. On a bilateral basis, it’s Belgium and Luxembourg that we are covering. We used to cover the Netherlands but since we opened an Embassy there last April 2018, we longer cover it. 

How do you describe the relationship between Belgium and Ethiopia?

We have a strong and old relationship with Belgium. In fact, our diplomatic relations started in 1906! You are the 5th country that opened an official diplomatic representation in our land. The order is Italy (1896), France (1898), United Kingdom (1899), 1900 (The United States) and 1906 (Belgium).  So, as you can see, we have long history…way before the European project. During the Italian invasion, Belgians were the ones who helped establish the Ethiopian body guard unit, which was responsible for the security of the Imperial Palace.

Ambassador Grum and King Philippe
Ambassador Grum presenting his credentials to King Philippe of Belgium

How do you describe diplomatically Belgium? 

Belgium respects the sovereignty of other countries. I think Belgium is a soft power country. It doesn’t engage on issues that are not critical to its own interest, and that’s why you don’t hear that much about Belgium on some of the global crisis situations. But Belgium’s voice is heard through the EU.

But in Africa you hear about Belgium. What about Congo?

The problem about colonialism in Africa, for us Ethiopians, it really doesn’t figure. Therefore, I don’t have the authority to comment. Luckily, we have not suffered under colonialism. 

I assume there were many attempts…

Yes, many. Starting with your fellow countrymen, the Portuguese, but none of them succeeded. That is why there is a very strong sense of patriotism in Ethiopia. We might argue or fight with each other time to time, but whenever there were attempts of external aggression, we always find a way to come together. When our African brothers and sisters tell us what they went through under colonialism, it is difficult to understand them because that was not our experience. I’m not saying that they didn’t suffer. I’m just saying that we haven’t gone through that experience. Nonetheless, we Ethiopians were at the forefront of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa. Coming back to the Belgian colonization, let’s not forget that Congo was the property of King Leopold and not really Belgium, as a State. I think other European States have more responsibility. What about the British, French and Portuguese? They had almost the entire continent. 

Do you think colonialism in Africa is over?

Yes, I feel that the story of colonialism in Africa is long over. Many in Africa still talk about colonialism as the cause of their lack of development. I categorically disagree with that because as far as I’m concerned, 70 years already passed. You cannot always go back to the past and blame colonialism for your own shortfalls. Frankly speaking: always blaming colonialism for the lack of good governance, for the lack of economic development, for the lack of political stability, for the lack of security is not intellectually honest. You have been independent for the last 70 years, that it is a long time to do things right.

Map Colonial africa
Map of colonial Africa just before World War I

You are sending the message that Ethiopia doesn’t behave like its continental neighbours. 

I would put like this: we are very proud of our history and that gives us a psychological predisposition in feeling that we are equal to anybody. We don’t have any inferiority complex. We don’t feel that the Europeans or Americans – because they are rich, white, blue or yellow – are superior to the Ethiopians. Our job consists in trying our best to develop our country without using any past, external or psychological excuses. 

I understand the European Union is your main developing partner. What’s your strategy?

We feel that the economic development of Ethiopia is much linked with Europe and whatever assistance we get from the European Institutions, Ethiopia is renowned for implementing projects partly or fully financed by the Europeans. You don’t find in Ethiopia any European budget being stolen or put to use for other purposes. 

Can you share an example of a successful project?

Well, for instance our national road development program. The amount allocated from the European institutions was exclusively used for this project. You know, everything is monitored. We have a very strict mechanism. The money is released on tranches so our partners can check the implementation of the project. 

How much has the European Union allocated so far to Ethiopia? 

About 745 million Euros from 2014 to 2020. Ending in fact this year in 2019. 

How do you describe your economy in 2019?

Multiple international experts are being testimony to the incredible growth of the Ethiopian economy. We have been growing by 10% on average for 12 years. We are among the top 5 countries with the most impressive economic growth in the world. In Africa, we are number 1. Our economy is based on agriculture. Our challenge is to modernise Ethiopia’s agriculture in order to be more efficient and productive. Lately, we have focused our attention on the manufacturing sector by building industrial parks where we can attract foreign investors to create job opportunities for our youth. This is an important concern for us: to create jobs for our future generation. Our government believes that job creation will flourish in the manufacturing sector with input from an efficient, productive and technically-advanced agriculture.

And what about coffee? What is the weight of this sector on your economy? 

Agriculture as a whole used to represent nearly half of our GDP and nowadays is around a third. Nevertheless, coffee still remains as the main export item from Ethiopia. Coffee exports are 40% of exported items, which represents about 10 % of our GDP.

40%?! Almost half of the economy?

Yes, 40%. Well, it used to more than 60%.

Most of coffee producers in Ethiopia are local farmers. How do they deal with the multinationals? 

The farmers do not sell directly to the multinationals. There are two ways of selling coffee from Ethiopia. The first one, the farmer will sell the product to Ethiopian national companies that are exporting coffee. We have several of them by the way. Those Ethiopian coffee exporting companies are registered into the Ethiopian commodities exchange and through that they have market links with multinational companies who buy coffee. The second one is the farmer sells the product to Ethiopian coffee distributors. 

Who are the main clients?

Starbucks for example. But the Starbuck coffee you drink in America is not really pure Ethiopian coffee. 

What do you mean?

They buy Ethiopian coffee – aroma and taste – but they mix it with the robusta they buy Nicaragua, Honduras or Brazil. So in the end it’s doesn’t give you the real Ethiopian coffee taste.  

But who are the big importers? 

The Japanese, Germans, Saudis, and the Americans. 

Could you share the coffee ranking worldwide?

First of all, I want to clarify that there are two types of coffee: robusta and arabica. Robusta type of coffee is cultivated widely in the world. Most of the countries who are coffee exporters produce robusta coffee. Namely, the Latin American countries and some countries in Africa. Arabica coffee is produced in very low amount, but it’s the best coffee. And that is the real Ethiopian coffee. You can also find it in Ivory Coast, or in Uganda. The rankings don’t reflect the difference in quality between robusta and arabica. But to reply to your question, Brazil is leading the ranking and we are number 7 worldwide.

A Coffea arabica tree on Lake Tana in Bahir Dar
A Coffea arabica tree on Lake Tana in Bahir Dar

I asked you this question because one can be surprised to see countries like Germany, Italy or Portugal as main coffee producers worldwide when they exclusively import coffee. As the Ambassador of Ethiopia to the European Union how do you analyse this situation?

That’s why when I told you we want to create jobs for our youth, it’s also about creating added value. We are actuality doing good in that process of adding value to Ethiopian goods that are being exported. We have been engaging with foreign companies, including Italian companies, to cooperate with Ethiopian exporters in value adding processes inside Ethiopia. The results are still very low, frankly speaking, because the companies in Italy, Portugal or Germany who buy the coffee, process it, package it, have their market networks already in place and get more money for Ethiopian coffee than any Ethiopian farmer. That is one of the reasons we are disappointed with European multinationals in this sector. We are demanding more money for our farmers. Starbucks buys a kilo of Ethiopian coffee for 6 dollars and they sell it for more than 17 dollars. This is unacceptable. 

I’m curious to know how did you defend Ethiopian coffee in Italy. For us, Italy is home of quality expresso.

Well, let me tell you a story. One time I was in Luigi’s café, just a few meters from the Ethiopian Embassy in Rome, and  I heard an Italian guy asking Luigi “fammi un bel caffè italiano!” – make me a good Italian coffee – and then I just laughed. This guy looked at me and asked me “why are your laughing”?  I replied saying that this was the first time I heard about Italian coffee. And he says “yes, we have good Italian coffee” and I replied, “you don’t even have one coffee tree here!” And once again, we come back to the main issue: to add value. We are trying to add value to our coffee production and we have started to move in that direction; value-addition to our primary products. We will soon start to sell the whole package from the farms to the shops.