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“Ethiopian authorities giving highest priority to protecting foreign companies”

Unrest in Ethiopia has seen foreign food businesses being attacked during recent protests by the Oromo ethnic group. This has left foreigners with businesses in the country with a difficult choice: to stay or leave and lose their investment, reports The Guardian.

Ian Derry is the director of africaJUICE, a Dutch company whose fruit processing plant in Ethiopia was one of almost a dozen factories attacked during the most recent outburst of protests. “No one could have seen this coming,” says Derry.

Political analysts beg to differ, saying Oromo dissent has been gaining momentum for decades. Despite constituting a third of Ethiopia’s population, Oromos feel abused and marginalised by a political regime dominated by the Tigray, who make up only 6% of Ethiopians. The nation’s economy has experienced an average 10% growth over the last decade but Oromos say development has come at their expense.

As the vast majority of Ethiopians work in the agricultural sector, their biggest grievance is the issue of land ownership. Since the mid 80s, Ethiopia’s government has embarked on what it calls a “villagisation” programme to help scattered farming communities access better services. Critics, however, say its main objective is to forcibly relocate Oromo families and sell their land to foreign agri-businesses. According to a study by the Oakland Institute, a US-based thinktank, “villagisation” has increased food insecurity and disrupted the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Ethiopians.

Yet africaJUICE and vegetable producer FV SeleQt – the other recently-attacked Dutch firm – insist their main goal is to help Ethiopia’s development. According to their government, Dutch companies alone provide 70,000 jobs in the country. “We have a great relationship with the local community,” says Bas Rensen, director of FV SeleQt. His company had only been exporting beans for a couple weeks when their farm was attacked, but was already supporting a local school. AfricaJUICE is a Fairtrade certified business and ran a free health clinic for its workers.

Still, both companies have ties to Ethiopia’s regime. The Ethiopian government owns approximately 10% of africaJUICE, while FV SeleQt’s supplying farm, says Rensen, is run by “someone very close to the government”. Both firms, however, say they were not aware of any land-rights issues where they operate and believe their political connections were not the reason behind the attacks. “It was purely bad luck,” says Rensen.

Ethiopia’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment but Marjolein Busstra, spokeswoman for the Dutch minister of foreign trade and development cooperation, says “Ethiopian authorities have assured us that they are giving the highest priority to protecting foreign companies”. Security forces have been deployed to the site of the africaJUICE attack to provide safety during the clean up.

Experts, however, warn the unrest is far from over. “The moment the troops leave, there will be new attacks,” says Mohammed, who believes the best thing foreign companies can do is reach out to local elders and negotiate a deal for protection in exchange for land.


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