On 9 October the Ethiopian government declared a state of emergency in the face of widespread protests across the country. There has been unrest since last November, brought to the attention of the world by Olympic marathon silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa on the winners' podium in Rio. I was in Addis Ababa two weeks ago to launch Creative Futures, a two-year programme investing in Ethiopia's creative economy. It felt like a strange time to be there, advocating for a more interconnected world whilst there are restrictions on travel outside of the capital, countrywide curfews and a shut-down of most social media and internet services. Lemn Sissay's fine poem Let There Be Peace, one of his large-scale landmark poems which is displayed on the wall of the British Council's office in Addis, is poignant; the country desperately needs a stable future.
Creative Futures is funded by the European Union and implemented in partnership with the Goethe-Institut and iceaddis. In my view this kind of collaboration is key to the UK's ambitions for stronger influence and relationships in the countries that matter most - and Ethiopia is indisputably one of these. A regional power with a growing economy, until recently the country was relatively stable in a region of considerable strife; and the political hub of Africa. The economy has grown at an average of 10.8% since 2003-2004, twice the regional average. The programme will work with creative professionals in visual arts, photography, design, fashion and film, increasing their local audiences and building their international profiles and networks.
It is important for several reasons, not least the fact that the arts provide a safe space, a place where we can have difficult conversations about democracy, about governments, about difference. Equally important is the opportunities that this kind of systematic development of the creative industries can provide to young people across the region, improving their skills, employability and life chances.
The arts are vibrant in Addis and iceaddis is Ethiopia's first creative business hub. They offer advice to start-up businesses on funding models and a space for young creatives to gather and work. They have pioneered 'Locally', a new app connecting businesses and services with communities across Africa; and supported Duka, a young design company making waves across the country. As part of the programme they will provide a space for young artists to meet, share ideas and showcase their work both locally and internationally. At the heart of this programme are Ethiopia's highly entrepreneurial and innovative core of small and medium businesses that offer huge potential to generate exports and employment. From fashion to gaming, from film to music, the younger generations are actively seeking to find and own a space both in Africa and the wider world.
Ethiopia is unique in Africa in that it was never successfully colonised by European powers - save for a couple of brief attempts by the Italians - and it has retained a strong sense of its rich and varied culture. The birth place of Dinkenesh (also known as Lucy, our three-million-year-old ancestor) and coffee, Ethiopia can boast a long and complex historical contribution to our global narrative. With more than 80 different ethnic groups, Ethiopia is a melting pot of cultures, languages and heritage as well as topography. This heritage has and continues to be a rich foundation for its artists. Let us hope the government and people can resolve their differences peacefully and soon.