A $475 million light-rail system serving Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa shows how some China-funded infrastructure investments across the continent are now suffering from neglect.

By Fasika Tadesse | April 12, 2024 at 4:00 AM UTC

The Addis Ababa skyline is seen from the light rail system on Nov. 19, 2023. Photographer: Michele Spatari/ AFP via Getty Images

Almost a decade ago, the light-rail system in Ethiopia’s bustling capital of Addis Ababa was hailed as a revolutionary solution to the city’s transportation woes. Envisioned as a project that would redefine urban transport, the system promised to sweep up to 60,000 passengers per hour along its tracks.

Today it sits as a daily reminder of the broken promises of China-funded infrastructure investments that swept Africa in recent years. Frequent breakdowns, inadequate maintenance funding and operational constraints mean barely one-third of its 41 trains are operational, ferrying 55,000 passengers a day, a fraction of initial projections.

Once bustling and vibrant train stations now exude an air of desolation and neglect, contrasting sharply with the city’s urgent transportation needs for its almost 4 million residents. Inoperable trains are regularly parked at the railway’s garage, awaiting maintenance.

Overcrowding on those trains that do run has forced many commuters to seek new ways to get around. Yared Mekuanint, 36, who has been using the train since its launch, has largely abandoned the system.

Waiting times for a train can now stretch to 20 to 25 minutes, he said, four times the six minutes between services in the early days.

“You might not even get onto the train after all this wait, especially during peak hours,” he said. “You may realize it’s full, and no space to accommodate you, when the train arrives after all that wait. You have to wait another 20 minutes to try your luck with the next train.”

At its 2015 opening, the light rail network promised low-cost, efficient transport. Some users then said their commuting time was cut by two-thirds.Photographer: William Davison/Bloomberg

Despite the critical shortage of transportation options in the city, commuters are increasingly opting for public buses and privately operated mini-buses, albeit at a slightly higher cost compared to the light-rail system.

The light rail is among 70 mega projects that Ethiopia undertook with a $14.8 billion loan from the Chinese government and related financial institutions between 2006 and 2018, data from the Ministry of Finance show. The works include construction of the Ethio-Djibouti railway, an airport expansion, and major road-infrastructure projects.

From Kenya to Nigeria and beyond, China over the past decade has loaned billions across Africa and other parts of the so-called Global South as part of its drive to gain sway and counter US influence, build markets for its products and gain access to the natural resources needed to drive its economy back home. The US says the money simply leaves host governments mired in debt.

China Railway Engineering Group spearheaded the three-year construction effort, followed by an additional three years of managing operations and maintenance post-launch along with another Chinese firm, Shenzhen Metro Group. The project, with a total cost of $475 million, relied heavily on an 85% loan from the Export-Import Bank of China, with the remaining funds sourced from the government’s coffers.

During the ribbon-cutting ceremony in September 2015, former Transport Minister Workneh Gebeyehu, who is currently the executive secretary at the Intergovernmental Authority on Development regional economic bloc, said the railway would have a transformative effect.

“We’re confident that this railway will bring about significant improvements in the transportation network,” he stated.

As time passed, lofty promises made by officials and the high expectations of commuters have failed to materialize. And numerous obstacles mean no turnaround is imminent.

Key hurdles include frequent power outages, inadequate local maintenance facilities, limited availability of spare parts, and challenges in accessing foreign currency for importing spare parts from China, says Mitiku Asmare, head of the city’s transport agency.

The greatest concern is the project’s inability to repay its debt, resorting to local bank loans to stay afloat. And running the system below capacity means revenue is insufficient to cover future payments.

The project may have prioritized short-term political goals over long-term operational sustainability, says Frangton Chiyemura, a lecturer in Global Development at the UK Open University’s Development Policy and Practice Group who studies China-Africa relations and Chinese-funded projects in Africa.

The project’s original sin was poor planning, with insufficient arrangements in place to cover needs including maintenance work, spare parts, and the required local skills to sustainably run the project, Chiyemura said. He cited a standard-gauge, China-backed railway in Nigeria as an analogue to the Ethiopian metro, saddling the government with infrastructure and its associated maintenance costs.

Addis Ababa officials are now seeking solutions for a turnaround. Previously run under the management of the Ethiopian Railway Corporation — the national operator overseeing the Chinese built Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway — the local system has now been transferred to the city transport agency.

“We are currently looking for a consultant to examine the challenges, identify their sources, and provide recommendations on how to improve functionality,” Mitiku said, declining to estimate when fixes will be made.

The Chinese government has pledged support by repairing the dysfunctional trains. Last year, the government signed an agreement with China that will provide hundreds of spare parts worth $23 million to maintain the units and an additional seven trains.


States scrambling to build intracity light rail need to take a deep breath and learn lessons from the Addis metro experience.

First, you need deep pockets. Building the infrastructure is one thing. Sustaining operations is another. London underground with its 4m a day ridership doesn’t make profit and is subsidised by government. So you must understand what you are letting yourself in for and the implications. The Lagos light rail is also a loss leader. it won’t cover its costs but the benefits of opening up spaces, greater mobility, improved productivity etc are supposed to compensate government for the investment but in Africa, the promised benefits are seldom realised.

The starting point in any decision to build a railway must be a credible independent study. Most African governments miss this critical step. They go into discussion directly with a contractor, usually Chinese, and before you know it, construction contracts are signed. No studies, no FEED, no ESIA … no business plan.

The contractors are operating in Africa in ways they cannot in their home environments. The technical people in the government generally have little understanding of how to build and run a railway business from scratch successfully. They are civil servants not businessmen, so governments are signing up blindly or misguidedly. Imbibing sweet nothings from snake oil merchants that contractors mostly are.

The Lagos-Kano standard gauge modernization project was signed on the back of an interaction between the presidents of Nigeria and China. The civil servants just shuffled the papers. A 4 yr contract is yet to achieve 25% completion 18 yrs on. That’s what you get!

Experience has also shown that African governments lack fidelity to schedules and pso payments could be delayed suffocating the life out of the operations.

10 years after, they find themselves in a cul de sac of debt and depreciating and unsustainable infrastructure with operations at a halt.

So what is most important is the business plan. Its feasibility and importantly sustainability, else history repeats itself as farce.