An Ethiopian Tale Of Ships And Ports

An Ethiopian Tale Of Ships And Ports
Ethiopian Shipping Lines

AFRICANGLOBE – Mastewal Fekadu, a 23-year-old insurance employee, has been working at one of the insurance companies around one of the more popular areas of the city, Leghar. He often ponders on the statue of a lion placed there.

Indeed, he knows that statues are a common sight in parts of the city that have certain links with the history of the city and former rulers. Adjacent to the lion is the headquarters of the Ethiopian Shipping and Logistics Services Enterprise – the former Ethiopian Shipping Lines – which turned 50 last week celebrating its golden jubilee witnessing a grappling story of the success catering to a landlocked land by being a reliable shipping line.

For many, young people like Mastewal, the former Ethiopian Shipping Lines is a somewhat young enterprise that operates shipments of goods in and out of the country. However, its 50-year long operation would have meant little if it hadn’t been for the creation of the Imperial Navy.

The navy, which was destroyed in 1991 following the downfall of the Derg regime, was once referred to on BBC as “a very small but effective navy. PC 1616, Ethiopia’s first warship was granted from the American government and it was one of the first fleets that crossed the Mediterranean after the Suez Canal was opened while ORCA 49, the flagship arrived second. PC 1616, later named “Zeray Deres,” was the patriot who fought with Italians in Rome. “It’s a huge contrast as one looks into the success of Ethiopian Airlines provided with Ethiopian Air Force,” said Gashaw, a retiree Navy officer in an attempt to compare the then Navy and the Shipping Lines today.

The story begins with the ancient Axumite Dynasty, one of the strongest kingdoms of the 5th century. Adulis, the ancient port was part of the Kingdom. It’s now a famous archeological site in the Northern Red Sea region of Eritrea situated about 30 miles from Massawa, previously Ethiopia’s naval base.

According to historical accounts, Ethiopians traded with Greeks, Arabs and Egyptians via the Indian Ocean using their famous port Adulis. It had the size of a football pitch with a radius of 650 km squares and faced the massif of the Axum Mountains in the Red Sea horizon. “City of slaves” as translated in Greek, Adulis might have remained one of the world’s strongholds for archeology, but a living legend for the then Ethiopian political and economic superiority. Incense, barks, gold, ebony, commodities and precious stones were among the goods Ethiopians exported to India and Greek at the time. Some historians revealed that it was as famous as Alexandria was in Northern Egypt.

Adulis, the ancient and historical port that lasted four hundred years was left remembered with the first few ships bought from the Italian Ship Dock Yard. The Ethiopian Imperial Kingdom along with the American Toroso Investment Incorporated Company and Volorme United Shipyards and Engineering of the Netherlands launched the Ethiopian Shipping Transport in 1964. When the Kingdom owned 51 percent of the enterprise the rest was part of the companies.

Despite the fact that companies were ordered to buy ships in order to start operation, it was the government that brought in and maintained ships because of the problems encountered on the Suez Canal. “Adulis,” “Tana,” “Hashengie,” and “Zeway” were the ships that started the first operation, according to literature. In fact, Ethiopia had started sea transportation on Lake Tana in 1947, and that contributed a lot to the start of trade. When many of the old ships were aged and sold out for other purposes, the last flagship, known as “Atbiya kokeb,” which translates into ‘as morning star ‘was left rented to an Israeli company by the name of Zeime Line in the early 1970s.

The long historic ups and downs of Ethiopia’s maritime affairs finally reached the current Ethiopian Shipping and Logistic Services Enterprise. The newly formed Ethiopian Shipping Logistics Services Enterprise consists of three sub-enterprises; Shipping, Maritime Transit and the Dry Port.

“It’s been an enormous contrast in this influential sector,” Chief Engineer Alemu Ambaye, Vice CEO of the Shipping Department, says. In spite of all the positive outcomes achieved in the last decade to restore the sector, he proudly hails the ancient Ethiopian Shipping enterprise, which he rebuffs as one of the leading sea traders of the 5th-7th centuries, before the colonization era that brought the doom of the supremacy after the Axumite Kingdom.

He does rely on the current status of the shipping lines. “We strive to cope with the demanding nature of the sector in realizing the country’s renaissance,” he vows. Currently, the shipping department owns nine national carriers, of two of which are for oil transport. USD 300,000,000 was spent on their construction, 80 percent of which was secured as a commercial loan from the Chinese EXIM bank while 20 percent of the cost of an outlay was obtained from the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE.) “We are confident we will return the sum back to loaners in the near future,” he assures.

In the past five decades the enterprise has owned 34 ships whose destinations have long been directed to three main sea routes: via Djibouti to the Middle East Sea Strip, Djibouti to India, and Djibouti to the Far East.

Nevertheless, the South European ports in Italy and the Mediterranean were also major destinations in the 80’s. Now, the ports in the Black Sea and Turkey have emerged as new destinations for Ethiopian flagships as well, according to the Vice CEO. The newly formed ESLSE sets to revamp the country’s shipping line and transit by increasing the number of ships, opening training centers for captains and striving to retain the ancient glory of Ethiopia’s sea trade by multiplying the size of goods it transports.

Babogaya Training Center in Bishoftu, 40 km in the South East of the capital has already started coaching youths who have graduated from technical and vocational institutions. According to Alemu, to the plan of the enterprise is to upgrade its shipping capacity from a total of 47,000 tons to 400,000 tons in a single shipment


By: Henok Reta