Asmara Expo 69: the Lost Age of Industrialization in Eritrea

Friday, 04 April 2014 03:56 Zekre Lebona [

Asmara Expo 69: the Lost Age of Industrialization in Eritrea

Eritrean nationalists and particularly the political writers often point out to the legacy of the industrial base left first by Italy and then by the British who later resuscitated the Eritrean economy in 1943, though all were intended for the purpose of waging war. They point out to the industrial assets and infrastructure left by the European powers to compare Eritrea with the allegedly backward and feudal Ethiopia, accusing the latter for only conducting a long and sustained war against the cause of independence in Eritrea, subsequently decimating and relegating Eritrea’s famous industrial enterprises into total ruin. Purposely hidden and forgotten by the political actors and the credulous public, however, was a major industrial and agricultural expansion under the regime they blame, a period which lasted almost two decades. What arguments do they use?

Strange as it may seem, they seem to look at the war economies of the European powers in a positive light, while attacking and condemning the remarkable peace-time economic policy adopted by Ethiopia in the early phase of the conflict in Eritrea. War has its own dynamics, and blaming its depredations and damage on one side of the combatants is insincere to say the least. When the war escalated later, the inhabitants of Eritrea, that is the farmers, workers and civil servants, were certainly all affected by the violence from both sides; the war was fought out in the midst of the Eritrean landscape, whose effect on the resources and livelihoods was very negative.

Strange as it may seem, some of the Eritrean elite and many ordinary people vilify the former Ethiopian monarch for having stated, (somewhere in the late 60s), “We are after the land of Eritrea but not its people”, caring little to examine the veracity of the story.

Strange as it may seem, a foreign scholar who did a study on the economic history of Eritrea failed to see the pro-active industrial policy of Ethiopia and labeled the period between 1946 and 1974 as a depression.1 This assertion is nothing but a poor economic dictionary on Eritrea.

Buried under these massive propaganda and the layers of time, purposely ignored for scholarly examination and hidden from the public, lies the most notable Ethiopian industrial policy as displayed by Asmara Expo 69. This essay will discuss and attempt to bring the event into the open, so that many curious readers and some unbiased (who are very rare) Eritrean scholars will debate and critique it.

In the eyes of Eritrean nationalists, Ethiopia committed, maintained and persevered a war economy to defeat the armed insurgency until the military debacle in 1991 with nothing in between to show any type of economic development. Is this narrative true? Or is it a myth conveniently made to justify the war of separation from Ethiopia? Why do Eritrean scholars and other experts on the region omit the only “peace-time economy”, which began after Eritrea’s Federation with Ethiopia and survived its annexation until the early 70s; that is about 20 years? Why do the elites avoid discussing and writing about this political and economic interlude with the unbiased approach it deserves. an epoch to which Ethiopian rulers and their representatives in Asmera dedicated Asmara Expo 69 in commemoration of the economic progress made in the then province of Eritrea.

This industrial exhibition deserves the credit denied to it for several factors: it was launched after the closure of the Suez Canal in 1967 resulting in the contraction of the economy in Eritrea and the region and was carried out during the occurrence of a drought, challenges no serious policy maker will ignore. Most crucially, the industrial event was convened when Eritrea was immersed in a low intensity war, refuting the assertion made by the nationalists that Ethiopia’s policy in Eritrea was singularly war. The two ports and the industrial base in Eritrea (estimated as one third of the mainland) which Ethiopia obtained were too precious resources to be left degraded and unused. Similarly, the local Ethiopian authorities were aware of the potential problem emanating from a high unemployment in Eritrea, and made substantial attempts to address the problem.2

People who have visited the Expo sight may not have forgotten a couple of things; they remember being anxious having seen a couple of watch towers with soldiers posted on them, and being in laughter having watched themselves in what looked like the early models of closed circuit televisions mounted in some hallways. Children, in their thousands, who never had a chance to visit the factories, arranged by their schools, were fascinated observing the skilled workers making glassware and other things in their stalls. This was a novelty that the public was mesmerized with for there were not even regular TVs in the city except at Kagnew Station and the American households dwelling outside it. The importance given to the occasion by the investors possibly explains the presence of this novel technology largely absent in the continent except may be in South Africa.

A government that moved factories out of Eritrea, and wants the region to remain stagnant and neglected, will certainly not invest its time and precious resources on some exhibition project. No scholar or historian worth his salt should ignore this watershed moment in the annals of Eritrean history for many of the political actors, particularly the kebesa intellectuals and their generation  have visited and witnessed the industrial exhibition and lived the times. After all, aren’t these same people who diligently search for any data on Italian colonial Eritrea, with little concern for its validity? They did not stop there.

The present political-minders of the land always make sure to guide the curious reporters to the Medeber complex in Asmara (a huge recycling place), which evokes the alleged industrial parks made in the Sahel, Eritrea, in which place the Eritrean insurgents spent a large portion of their time. In contrast, the Expo complex in its original purpose has been purposely sidelined, a sign of the weakness of the argument of Eritrean nationalism. The irony is that the local authorities, such as Dej. Tesfajohannes Berhe, president of the Executive Committee of Asmara Expo 69, (proud of the achievement made in the educational system) felt comfortable living the challenge of the economic modernization to the same “elite”, (that has been schooled through the largesse of the Ethiopian state).3

The elite of this generation later completely embarked on a journey to undo the the epoch to which Ethiopian rulers and their representatives in Asmera dedicated as Asmara Expo (60 in commemoration of the economic progress made in the then province of Eritrea after its reunion with Ethiopia. What transpired since then, however, was the gradual escalation of war with Eritrean fronts led by the elite, for among many reasons Ethiopia’s alleged removal of factories from Eritrea to Ethiopia, for conspiring to stop direct foreign investment and emasculating the economy. A case for illustration is the “Volkswagen Company.”

The popular story asserts that the Ethiopian authorities declined the offer of the German firm to build an auto assembly plant in the town of Dekemhare, Eritrea. Widely accepted by many fellow travelers, nobody questioned the veracity of the proposal or its economic rationale, at a time where no middle class appeared neither in Ethiopia nor in most of the rest of the African continent, except perhaps South Africa. In Eritrea and beyond, neither the purchasing power nor the skilled manpower critical for the auto line assembly was in place. Assuming this proposal was true, why would the German investors quit? Wouldn’t any rational investor pick another place in Ethiopia or another country in the continent of Africa for that matter?

In the same angle, the alleged dismantling of factories was likewise treated the same way giving little thought for the decision of the few investors, who may have chosen to relocate to the mainland, either in search of a bigger market and raw materials in Ethiopia, or to avoid a double taxation in both autonomous Eritrea and the metropolitan.4 This essay will examine the policy of the Eritrean autonomous government and the Imperial Ethiopian government in sequence.

Eritrean autonomous government

The characteristics of the economy, which relied on its unique role of being an outlet or port for the region, which is mainly Ethiopia was not only maintained (as in Italian colonial Eritrea) by the local Eritrean officials, who had, as natives tasted and seized power for the first time, but also showed a great effort to keep and encourage foreign investors by providing loans, land grants and other incentives. The native elite’s task was to shift the war economy left by the Italians and the British into a normal economy involving the skills, resources and opportunity in share-holding of the indigenous population. Try as they might, however, ownership and top management was largely in the hands of mostly Italian and other expatriates, a fact that the nationalist revolutionary elite often misconstrue as Eritrean management know-how.

Among the beneficiaries of this policy during the Federation era can be cited the firms such as SAVA, Melotti, etc.5 Biziouras, puts the period this way: “Additionally, the Ethiopian state upheld its long-standing policy of supporting European-owned, large scale agricultural endeavors that were explicitly export-oriented. The pro-industry economic policies of the Eritrean administration increased the number of proto-industrial and light manufacturing firms in Eritrea between 1946 and 1956. Its industrial sectors firms, specializing in textile, glassware, and consumer products such as tobacco, continued to remain a primary source of employment for urban Eritreans.”6

The Cotonifico Barattolo & Co; exploited the policy to its maximum advantage; it obtained a loan $315,000 from the government, almost 30% of its capital, which partially enabled it to use 1003 hectares of partially claimed land, 578 kilometers of roads, 13 steel bridges, 39 concrete bridegs, 52 kilometers of telephone lines, bore wells, airfield at Alighdir, and the Ekit airstrip etc. The Barattolo cotton farm was one of the largest agro-industries in Eritrea, with nothing to rival it in the rest of Ethiopia then, deploying one 100 tractors. In 1968, it had 5,000 hectares under cultivation.7 Above all, what distinguishes these factories and agricultural companies is their being shared enterprises involving both foreign and Ethiopian capitalists (including Eritreans).8

Ethiopian Government

Small scale peasant agriculture was the mainstay of the economy. The growth of several factories in mostly Asmara absorbed a small percentage of the rural folks, but was not large enough to make a big dent on the migrants looking for work. Therefore, modern irrigation, limited in the highlands for geographic and proprietary reasons, was directed into mostly the western lowlands parts of Eritrea. The Elaberet Estate (a private capital) comprising a thousand hectares of land and Ghinda (a share-holding) under the technical management of De Nadai were the largest and most complete irrigation based schemes in Ethiopia then, employing tens of thousands of workers and tractors, fertilizers etc. These firms met the growing demand for tinned tomato sauce and of peeled tomatoes, fresh fruit and vegetables for markets in Aden, Jeddah, and later Europe.

In the same spirit of the autonomous Eritrean government, the Imperial regime continued the policy of encouraging both foreign and Ethiopian investors to open new light scale textile, plastic, metallurgy and food factories by providing land, financial loan and other incentives. A number of industries (among them, around 36 in a 5 year period: please see the table at the bottom of the article) were therefore established in a short period generating income and employment for thousands of jobless Eritreans, and particularly women who had migrated from the rural areas. These were added on to the hundreds of the small enterprises, which made their appearance during the federation period.

In support of this opinion, the scholar Biziouras stated “…Eritrea benefitted from the increased integration of the Ethiopian economy in the international economy far more than other regions did. Interethnic, elite level agreements between the Eritreans and the Amhara did not breakdown; at the very least, they became stronger over the course of the federation years and up through the unification period, even incorporating sectarian differences”.9

He further stated, “…Eritrean Christians used federation with Ethiopia to gain public sector employment in other parts of the empire, but Eritrean Muslims, given their limited education, were not as adept. Indeed, a significant number of Christian Eritreans found employment within the Ethiopian public sector as officials and teachers. Confronted with these changes, Eritrean Muslims leveraged their niche as small –scale merchants to expand their trading networks in Ethiopia, often serving as the key trading intermediaries and distributors in a variety of Ethiopian provinces. In the early 1950s, the market economy of neither Eritrea nor Ethiopia had not yet been ethnicized”.

In the same vein, he stated, “…the Ethiopian state did not intervene in the Eritrean economy in an ethnically discriminatory manner. It increased Ethiopia’s industrial base while providing it with much-needed access to international markets through the ports of Assab and Massawa”.10 Incongruously, the scholar contradicts himself later when he attributed the escalation of the war to an economic policy imposition that favored Ethiopian officials, allegedly demoting or passing over Eritreans for promotion.11 In the attempt to lump together the causes of conflict of many countries, scholars often commit a cardinal error. Biziouras too has fallen into the same trap. Having done a thorough study of the economic policy of the autonomous Eritrean government and the Imperial Ethiopian government and having found it supportive, he nonetheless arrived at a wrong conclusion without backing it with any relevant data.

Labor and industry were understandably not in harmony (a characteristics of capitalist economy) resulting in strikes and disturbances. This industrial strife is often singled out and seized upon by Eritrean nationalists for political purposes without mentioning the growth and expansion of the industrial firms which caused it. The irony in it is that most of these nationalist actors, who allegedly were supportive of the proletariat of those times, are now in collusion with the slave-type economy in present Eritrea and the regime which treats its subjects in a horrendous situation.

Having looked at the number and type of light scale industrial establishments, data on the industrial and agricultural products for the export sector of a few years compiled by the Ethiopian government is provided below.

Value in Ethiopian Dollars

57,510,515 for 1964

62,597,369  … 1965

75,289,476  … 1966

68,201,476 …  1967

56,609,236  … 1968

Export figures for the years 1964 to 1968 are generally on the upward except for the years 1967.12 They naturally include products whose origin is in some parts of northern Ethiopia.  The closure of the Suez Canal was responsible for the dip. The figures for the year 1968 were not complete, they only show the data until the month of August. Nonetheless, the increasing trend is clear to notice.

Its corollary, the import figures were also growing, reflecting particularly the upsurge of industrial equipment needed for modern irrigation, which was mostly absorbed in Eritrea for obvious reasons: there weren’t other modern agricultural concerns in the rest of Ethiopia competing for it.13 What we gather from here is that the balance of trade, though negative, was slowly narrowing; a unique achievement that both colonial Eritrea and cotemporary Eritrea never achieved. Huge trade deficit in present day Eritrea has become the norm.

Value in Ethiopian Dollars

66,768,060 for 1964

80,028,722 …  1965

91,492,860 …  1966

82,238,130 …  1967

55,880,293 …  1968

Illustrating the economic performance of Eritrea was a line graph, slowly going upwards, in the hallway of the Chamber of Commerce in Eritrea around the mid-90s.  Puny as the data is, one can still recognize the bright economic perspective awaiting the industries in Eritrea had it been sustained for a longer time. The prospect was, however, violently interrupted by the escalation of the war between the absolutist military state, Derg, and the equally violent Fronts, mobilizing the society for a total war and a war economy.

Then the Expo facilities became the military headquarters of the Ethiopian army, a jail and an interrogation center for some Eritrean nationalists and many innocent people. The final fate and use of the Asmara Expo 69 as an incarceration camp is sadly the only surviving memory in both the mind of the locale people and the nationalist literature. Ironically, the plastic sandals that have achieved a revered status in Eritrea, for which a huge statue was made at Bini Plastic Shoes Factory, was one of the companies that mushroomed in the mid-60s industrial venture.

In order to completely obliterate the memory of the event, the contemporary regime in Eritrea has converted the place into a yearly event of dancing and celebrating the independence struggle lasting almost a fortnight without anything resembling the industrial show of the past. In its ruins, hundreds of thousands of people have been reputedly visiting the site, most of whom depend on remittances or products brought from outside for most of their daily existence. What remains now is only a caricature of it.

The Phony Expo

After the demise of the Mengistu regime and the capture or dispersal of his big army in Eritrea, the Eritrean authorities confiscated the Expo facilities and the Chamber of Commerce, just as they did to the rest of the properties and the land in the country. However, they appeared not to know what to do about it. The industries that Asmara Expo stood for were not only old and rusting, their skilled workers have also become old and dispersed everywhere. Their products having been obsolete and expensive, they lost the markets captured during the thirty years of the war of “liberation” to other countries, who stayed doing commerce. They therefore came up with the ingenious idea of converting the place as a stage for dancing and a display for their type of communist kich, an art form learned and practiced in the meda and abroad among the diaspora.

The mass festival performed in this location is prepared by the regime cadres as much as what happens at the Asmera Stadium, where North Korean experts were once invited to do training. Abbebe Kifleyesus however may tend to disagree with this description; he believes that the “folk-fairs” are unlike museum exhibitions, lively, the curatorial hand less evident and serve as the primary agents of cultural conservation.14 The scholar seems to equate the occasions with the jovial, rowdy and spontaneous type of carnivals popular in Brazil and the state of Louisiana, United States. He speaks of folk-fairs in a country where the large majority of its youth are exiled outside the towns and villages in boot camps such as Sawa and others for the purpose of indoctrination.

He writes about the wide participation in the event with people numbering about 500,000,15 but forgets to mention that a majority of them are either slave workers or unemployed people with little means to purchase the imported products in the shelves and to support themselves, excluding those who arrive from overseas. Though the large majority of the visitors of the Expo complex in the late 60s had little purchasing power, they depended for their livelihood on many of the import substituting industries. Remittance from overseas was not a major feature of the Economy. Once again, the scholar seems to have missed the face of the totalitarian state that has usurped the power of the villages, families and decimated the traditional culture. He seems not to have understood that the state, in its zealous effort to erase anything before the ghedli, has tampered with the location of the golden age of industrialization, leaving the succeeding generations in the dark.


The Eritrean armed struggle squandered the chance for economic take-off that Walter Rostow wrote so much about in the middle of the last century – an opportunity for industrialization that other nations such as South Korea, Singapore and Thailand used. Having missed the industrialization period during its ghedli sojourn, leaving itself with obsolete technology and uncompetitive products, it had to force itself into Ethiopia’s economy using the means of pressure and contraband, forgetting that they were fiercely opposed to the symbiotic relationship with the same entity in the past.

The Eritrean state considered Ethiopia’s policy of industrialization, currency of exchange and protection of its market etc. as a threat to its very existence. When Ethiopia resisted, it launched a war, which left it decimated and in tatters to this day. Ethiopia, on the other hand, with its huge market, resources and attractive investment climate is on the path of becoming a middle income country in a few decades. It would probably have clinched this status many decades back, were it not for the protracted and violent path in its own recent history.

Having missed the industrialization and the containerization revolution, the Eritrean armed struggle that began in the 60s has now in a strange twist adapted the containers for the use of jailing thousands of its subjects, a testament to its famous recycling culture. The containers are not only escape-proof, but are the most cheapest and efficient places for torturing prisoners with extreme heat and cold. The containers are also used as check points and holding cells throughout the land in order to identify and monitor the hapless population. Paranoid, control-freak, combative, adrift and lost from the rest of the civilized world, the regime’s use of the container for ghoulish purposes is surely a quintessential Oblomovism in the cruel sense, as put by Yosief Ghebrehiwet in his latest article. The container box symbolizes the true state of Eritrea in both its real and metaphoric sense substituting the vibrant image of billowing smokestacks and blaring sirens of the era of industrialization in Eritrea.

P.S: Finding the book on Asmara Expo 69 was not easy; it seemed the book had disappeared from the face of the earth. Thanks to the wonderful Library of Congress, the item was finally found. What made it so rare and almost disappear can be gleaned from the same essay.


New Industries Created From Jan. 1964 till August 1968



Capital in Eth $


Cotton hosiery


Pastificio P. Santi



Ethiopian Shoe Factory

Leather shoes


Bini Plastic Shoes Factory

Plastic Shoes


Eritrean Cement Factory



Ethiopian Industry and Commerce



Ethiopian Stocking Factory




Cotton hosiery



Canned meat


A.C. Assuad

Skin works


National Soft Drink Corporation



Ethiopian Mineral Water Factory

Mineral water


Asmara Tile Works Industry




Cement handworks


Aram Utudjan

Cleaning of oil seeds


Negasc Bescir

Cleaning of oil seeds


The Steel Company of Ethiopia

Corrugated Irons


National Factories

Cotton threads


Textile Industries

Cotton Items


Ethiopian Fabrics

Cotton dresses



Women’s dresses


Laces Manufacture Factory

Laces for Shoes


National Oil Industries

Edible Oils


Nasazzi Flour Industry

Bread and biscuits


C.V. Vaid & Bros

Cleaning of Oil Seeds


Tip-Top Plastic Factory

Rubber & Plastic Sandals


Tipografia Asmara

Printing Press


Ahmeddin Bros.

Cleaning of oil seeds


Ethiopian Cotton Ginning Mill

Cotton ginning


Kasdana Industries

Cotton ginning



Plastic articles


Adem Kusmellah

Tomato sauce


Asmara Battery Industries



Ethiopian Household Utilities

Household utilities





Ethiopian Aluminum Co.

Household utilities






Source: the Executive Committee of Asmara Expo 69; Asmara Expo; Il Poligrafico P.L c, Asmara, p.35.



[1]Killion, Tom C.; The Eritrean Economy in Historical Perspective; Eritrean Studies Review; spring, pp.91-118, 1996.

[2] Biziouras, Nikolaos; (2013): The Genesis of the Modern Eritrean Struggle (1942-1961), The Journal of the Middle East and Africa, 4:1, 21-46.

[3]The Executive Committee of Asmara Expo 69; Asmara Expo; Il Poligrafico P.L.C., Asmara, p.13.

[4] Negash, Tekeste; Ethiopia and Eritrea: the Federal Experience; p.140.

[5] Ibid, p.143.

[6] Biziouras, Nikolaos; (2013); p.39.

[7] Dolce Vita: the Italian Lifestyle; a website.

[8] The Executive Committee of Asmara Expo 69; Asmara Expo; Il Poligrafico P.L.C.; p.36.

[9] Biziouras, Nikolaos; (2013); p.24.

[10] Ibid, 38.

[11] Ibid, 39.

[12] The Executive Committee of the Asmara Expo 69; P25-27.

[13] Ibid, p.29.

[14]Kifleyesus, Abbebe; Folk-fairs and Festivals; Cahiers d’Etudies africaines, p.26, 2007.

[15] Ibid. p.17.