Old ideas are sometimes best

Elissa Jobson

A comparison between the long-term costs of using imported asphalt versus locally available rocks for paving roads and pavements in Ethiopia shows one clear winner, writes Elissa Jobson

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the pavements can be treacherous to walk along. Many are simply dirt tracks strewn with stones and boulders, and even on the tarmac sidewalks that run alongside the main arterial roads, potholes and crumbling asphalt mean that pedestrians have to carefully watch their step. In the dry season the wind whips up dust, stinging the eyes and burning the throat, and when the rains come the paths turn to mud. The same is true in towns and cities across the country.

Adama, situated about 100 kilometres south-east of the capital, has, however, applied an age-old solution to this problem: its roads, pavements, marketplaces and public piazzas – including Millennium Square, the focal point of urban life – are being paved with locally sourced, locally-produced granite setts. The resulting cobblestone paving has made transit around this central Ethiopian city easier, leading to an increase in commercial activity and a reduction in crime, it has also provided work for thousands of unemployed men and women who quarry, transport, cut and lay the stones.

The idea for the Cobblestone Project, as it is known, developed out of a government decision to use setts to pave the walkways, roads and courtyards on new university campuses being built at 15 separate sites across the country. With help and expertise supplied by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ, formerly GTZ), the aim was to encourage the formation of small local companies which would be awarded contracts on the campus, and whose employees would be taught how to make the cobbles and construct the paving.

By August 2007, long before the project had started on the university construction sites, the municipal authorities in Adama had begun their own paving programme, initially providing work for 80 stonecutters and pavers. Soon a regional training centre was established and people from all over Oromia Province and beyond travelled to the city to learn the skills they would need to pave their own towns and villages.

Granite setts have numerous benefits over tarmac, the more common alternative. “Cobblestone roads are easy to maintain and no asphalt need be imported. Only the local currency is needed and the raw materials (basalt, granite and trachyte) are available nearly everywhere,” explained Roland Moezer, leader of the Cobblestone Project at GIZ.

By using local resources and eliminating the need for expensive imports of oil-based materials, Ethiopia is pioneering a greener and more sustainable method of road construction. Plus, cobblestone roads are more durable – according to Moezer, the areas in Adama where he supervised construction are still in perfect condition four years on. As well as being easier and cheaper to maintain – if a pothole does eventually appear the affected cobbles need only be lifted and replaced – the technique can also be effectively used to repair damage to existing tarmac roads. On top of this, granite paving is much cheaper to lay than its asphalt equivalent. While the cost of preparing the ground and sub-base is the same for both materials, the price of laying 1 metre square of cobblestone is less than half that of asphalt, costing 280 and 680 Ethiopian birr ($17 versus $41) respectively.

The whole process is extremely labour-intensive – but this is hardly a bad thing in a country where unemployment is high, especially among the urban youth. On average one paver can lay around 15 square meters a day for which they need 1,500 setts. So to keep one paver fully occupied, 25 stonecutters producing 60 cobbles a day are required. The labour may be physically demanding but the wages, paid on a piece-rate, are good by Ethiopian standards; those laying the paving earn, on average, 150 birr (around $9) per day, while the lesser-skilled chisellers are paid a daily rate of approximately 78 birr ($4.5). And the employees seem happy. “This is a wonderful thing for our lives. The wages are very nice – we receive good money,” said Kelamu Getachew, a paver from Adama.

At the end of 2009, when the Ethiopian government took over the project, more than 2,000 small and micro-enterprises had been created, providing employment for around 84,000 stonecutters and 4,700 pavers who had laid 1,230,000 square metres of cobbles across the country. “I’ve been in the development cooperation business for 30 years and I have never seen a project take off so quickly,” said Stefan Helming, former Director of GIZ in Ethiopia, who oversaw Cobblestone from the beginning. “It started with the training of a few chisellers and stone-layers and it mushroomed in no time at all.”

Today, only three and half years since the first cobbles were laid, the project is still growing. The programme has been rolled out to 120 towns and cities across the country; around 2,200,000 square metres have been finished; and an estimated 130,000 people (45 percent of them women) are employed in the trade. Awassa, Bahir Dar, Mekelle, Dire Dawa, Harar and Addis Ababa have now established their own training schools. And, with the private sector showing an increasing interest (in Addis Ababa foreign embassies, hotels and businesses are using granite paving in their own compounds), the programme’s future looks bright.

The Cobblestone Project has proved that by using the best technology for the job – not necessarily the newest or most widely used – sustainable, local solutions can be found for pressing infrastructural problems.

About the author:

Deputy Editor, Global


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Amnesty International