For long, Debre Berhan was a village transitioning into a full-fledged city. In the 1980s, it was of many dotted mud huts and few villa houses that were housing international aid workers as hotels and architectures belonging to its past constructed during the era of Emperor Zara Yaqob that founded it. There were as well lots of destitute migrants who had come from other parts of the country escaping the infamous Ethiopian famine of 1984-85 – exchanging their own survival for the safety net in substitute of the bitterly cold weather of the town.
This as they were looking for assistance from aid organizations, including the largest shelter housing thousands of orphanage children on a large plot of land belonging to a Swedish missionary that has since been turned into housing units for the area’s growing middle class with little character.
This as the main office of the historic place sits ideally with no recognition of what transpired in this city, which has now become a hub of national and international investment that is fast changing its character as well as narrative.
“My own father and of his generation who were leading aid efforts rushed to help accommodate the needs of vulnerable children from the capital that was in the midst of celebrating the 10th anniversary of the brutal Derg as the world was about to discover the devastation that was taking in Ethiopia. They also took notice of the city,” says Getachew Jembere, an elderly who frequently visit the city since the 1960s.
“I recall arriving in the city of little resources but doing much with what we had. There were many children and we were forced to bring much of what we needed from elsewhere because the city has no infrastructure and produced little on its own. There was lots of poverty. To see it progress and embrace moderation is something I did not think I would see,” he told FP.
About 10 years ago, sensing what was taking place, the local administration opened its first area higher institution, the Debre Berhan University preparing much of the youth for its future. Today, much of the youth who used to go to the capital looking for economic opportunities are here, taking advantage of the economic boom.
In the center of the city, where there are public employments opportunities are advertised, young people line up to glance at the opportunities offered.
From Habesha Beer, which has invested much of its capital in the city, to Dashen, Zafree Papers, a pulp processing plant, and a slew of Chinese companies and the Debre Berhan Industrial Parks are now in this city making it the City of the Future, or an “investment magnet” as it is often referred as the city’s fast-growing champions.
According to local authorities, as reported by the Ethiopian Herald, there are now “506 investments in the town with a registered capital of over 31 billion Birr” which are expected to create 63,000 employment.
Since Habesha beer came to town, it helped create thousands of jobs and has since teamed up with local farmers to make them partners into its operation as bare producers.
In 2019, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a unit of the World Bank offered 50 million Euro, giving it a chance to expand and reduce some of its pressure from the shortage of forex that has limited its brand from growing and introduce new brands – Habesha draft and Kedame – it has since been able to introduce to the local market.
The Queen of Holland, Queen Maxima who concurrently serves as the United Nations Secretary-General Special Advocate for Inclusive Financial for Development also visited the town highlighting the efforts of the company in this city.
Inside one of the city’s hotels, owned by a local athlete who gutted Debre Berhan’s first gas station to make way for a reasonable hotel with all functions of an international hotel – GetVa Hotel – where Habesha has placed much of its foreign workers described the city as “boring”, but safe.
“Let’s face it, the city has few amenities, charm, or any nightlife for someone still in my 20’s, but is safe and I have taken the liberty of running in the early morning and bike on weekends. I feel safe and I have accepted it as my home and a great adventure,” he said as he sipped his coffee.
The night-life of Debre Berhan is limited but there are places.
In a dusty part of the city, where its endless Bajaj taxis are parked in the wee hours of the night is a place called “North Korea’ – with no association for the infamous nation, but famous for the local delicacy, ‘Areke’. This is where the locals come to enjoy a night of looking into a city that is fast-changing and living some behind.
“I am now in my 60’s and lived my life as a laborer. I witnessed a city that changed much, with few roles with us. But I made sure I educated my own children so that they can take advantage of the opportunities that came of my city,” a frail-looking man said, describing a city of the past – and the future – that is Debre Berhan!