Ethiopia: What does it have to offer?

  • Alexandros Michailidis /
Published on 2019-10-24 at 08:48 by Maria Iotova
Last week, Ethiopia made history with Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, winning the Nobel peace prize for establishing a peace agreement with neighbouring Eritrea, challenging media censorship, fighting corruption, and increasing women's social and political presence, among others. But what is it like to be an expat in Ethiopia? dives into Ethiopia's profile as an expat destination and speaks with a long-term expat in Addis Ababa for a first-hand insight of what expat life in Ethiopia is actually like.

Ethiopia: An overview

Ethiopia is claimed to be the birthplace of humanity. It is in this east-African country in the Horn of Africa that the three-million-old human fossil “Lucy” was found. Ethiopia's modern days aren't less thrilling than its ancient heritage — the country has never been colonised, apart from Mussolini's five-year-long occupation, and during the colonial times, it was a symbol of African independence.

Ethiopia is the second most inhabited country in Africa after Nigeria, with 102,5 million people and over 80 ethnic groups. However, Omoro and Amhara ethnicities are making up almost 60% of the total population. About 90 languages are spoken in Ethiopia, but the most common are Oromiffa, Somali, Amharic, and Tigrinya; English is also widely spoken, especially in the capital city of Addis Ababa. 

Ethiopia is home to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian denominations. Indeed, Christianity is the country's chief religion, followed by Islam. Even though it's been centuries since Christians around the world adopted the Gregorian calendar, which is the one in current use in the West, Ethiopia has its own calendar system with 13 months in a year. The Ethiopian New Year is celebrated on September 11 of the Gregorian calendar, and one may be pleased to know that in Ethiopia one would be seven years younger. Correct; the current year in Ethiopia is 2012. 

Ethiopia experiences the tropical monsoon climate, which is characterised by abundant rainfall and mild temperatures throughout the year. Addis Ababa, at the base of Mount Entoto, enjoys moderate weather with an average temperature of 16°C, whereas cities such as Gondar and Axum tolerate cooler temperatures due to the high elevation. The dry season in Ethiopia lasts from October till February, followed by a three-month light rainy season, followed by the heavy rainy season between June and September. 


Ethiopia's most booming sector is agriculture, and no less than 45% of the GDP is agricultural products. Precisely, agriculture accounts for 80% of exports and for an equally high percentage of the labour force. Coffee is one of the top crops in Ethiopia, with more than half of the foreign income coming from the seeds. Other leading exports include maize, sugarcane, sereals, gold, leather, and khat. 

Personal Income Tax in Ethiopia ranges from 10% to 35%, and all fiscal residents must pay tax on their income (i.e., salary, rent of a property, company shares, etc.), whether it comes from Ethiopia or abroad. Every business must obtain a TIN (Taxpayer's Identification Number), and business tax rates also vary from 10% to 35%, depending on the type of business. Recently, in an effort to promote Ethiopia's investment opportunities to foreign and domestic investors, the government has simplified the process of registering a business. For more information on starting a business in Ethiopia or obtaining a work permit, address the Ethiopian Investment Commission (EIC).   


Ethiopia's healthcare system is made of hospitals and healthcare centers, which are smaller and not as well-equipped medical facilities in rural areas. Healthcare in Ethiopia is free, and even though the government is working to improve services, state-run hospitals and clinics suffer from lack of staff, budget, and equipment. Private hospitals offer a higher standard of healthcare, which is costly and unaffordable for the greatest part of the population. Expats are advised to obtain an expat health insurance plan before coming to Ethiopia. 

The majority of the population has limited access to clean water, sanitation, and health services. In spite of significant advancements, diseases such as HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria, and diarrhea, as well as infant and neonatal mortality, remain a severe threat among Ethiopia's vast, rural population. Also, deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents are remarkably high.

Before entering Ethiopia, expats must visit a travel doctor to advise them on the vaccinations (e.g., yellow fever, typhoid, meningococcus, hepatitis A) they are required to have, as well as other diseases prevention measures while living in Ethiopia.  


In spite of reported financial and operational challenges, the Chinese-built, Addis-Ababa-Djibouti railway is Ethiopia's pride in international conversations about development. The 752 km-long tracks have turned a once perilous journey into a ten-hour-long trip — as long as one overcomes the difficulties of navigating the ticketing system. Besides having the first transnational, electrified railway in Africa, the Ethiopian government owns Africa's largest airline, carrying the most passengers than any other company in the continent, serving the most international destinations, and securing the highest revenue. 

As mentioned above, driving in Ethiopia is rather unsafe due to inadequate road markings and non-existent traffic rules. Expats who wish to drive in Ethiopia must obtain first an International Driving Permit and then an Ethiopian driver's licence from the Ethiopian embassy. As in most countries of the world, Ethiopia drives on the right.

Visas for Ethiopia

Most nationalities can obtain a 90-day tourist visa upon arrival to Ethiopia or via an in advance online application (e-Visa), as long as they hold a passport which is valid for at least six months from the date of entry to Ethiopia and pay the visa fee. On the other hand, business visas are only issued upon agreement with the Ethiopian embassy in the applicant's country of residence. Expats must apply for a residence card and work permit at the Ministry of Immigration and Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs respectively within 30 days of arrival. Expats need to know that it is illegal to start working before the issue of the work permit.  

Interview of an expat in Ethiopia: Alistair, South African

Alistair from South Africa has been living in Ethiopia for the past five years working in the development sector. Here's what he told us in a conversation about expat life in Ethiopia. 

Which job sectors are attracting expats? 

Intergovernmental, the non-profit, and embassies. However, the biggest attraction is the African Union, similar to the EU institutions in Brussels.

How do you find the cost of living in Addis Ababa? 

Addis Ababa is very expensive. Especially if you are buying imported stuff. Local fruit and vegetables are cheap, though. 

What type of accommodation is available in Addis Ababa? 

Accommodation is mainly houses. However, more and more apartments are being built, but they are still high-priced. Regarding value for money, expats-to-be should bear in mind that a place with a generator and back up water tanks will set you back at least $1500. 

What is your favourite thing about living in Ethiopia? 

Coffee! Also, the culture is vibrant and unique. I love travelling out of Addis Ababa to Gondor and Lalibela, for example. The journey is fascinating, and it opens your eyes to the proud history of the country. 

What are some downsides to being an expat in Ethiopia? 

Ethiopia is not an easy environment to live in. But once you stop comparing it to other places, and learn to appreciate it, then it is really great. Basic “luxuries” such as your favourite cereals, chocolate, etc. are not always easy to come by. There are also shortages of essentials such as sugar, milk, etc. Water quality is not great. But you adapt and get used to all this. Another downside for me is that expats tend to stick together in cliques, missing out on the people and authenticity of the place. 

What would you say to those expats who are concerned about safety in Ethiopia? Coming from South Africa, I find Addis Ababa safe. But if you come from Sweden, for example, you may not find it as safe in terms of crime. Having said that, there is always a chance of political violence. So before travelling out of Addis Ababa, consult your embassy.

What would you advise a newly-arrived expat?

Don't compare Ethiopia to other places, but rather absorb what it has to offer and you will enjoy it  — or at the very least, survive it.