“It is very hard to call [listros] illegal. If they would sell something stolen, it would be illegal. But they receive their goods formally and sell [them], so I would call them informal since they don’t have the proper licenses. And such small businesses grow and usually reach a formal status through time.…These migrants recognized their entrepreneurial capacity.…You can name a lot of examples of people that started with nothing in the informal, then founded a formal business after some time and now became millionaires.”
—W/ro Mulu Solomon
Ato Shewalem migrated to Addis Ababa in 2009. He decided to stop his education, leave his mother and five siblings in the Gurage area and move to the big city in order to earn money for his family back home. One of his brothers sold him a shoeshining kit, and through friends and their connections he found a spot on the street in Piazza to work. At that moment, Shewalem became a so-called listro, a self-employed, informal street vendor in Addis Ababa.
Today, besides his shoeshining business, Shewalem sells toilet paper, chewing gum, candy and phone cards. Every morning at six he sets up his stand on a busy intersection and every evening he takes it down again, seven days per week. He wears a blue cape at work to signal that he is recognized listro, who stands against criminals and has some sort of claim to the square metre of space he sits on. Through his sales, Shewalem earns about 40 birr net (1.90 US dollars) per day, enough to support himself and his family.
Shewalem has big plans: He wants to open a formal, registered business once he has saved up enough money. From there, he will continue to grow – at least in his vision. He sees his time as an informal entrepreneur simply as an unfortunately necessary step on the path from rural farmer to urban businessman. Most of his estimated 50,000 colleagues share this plan.
Even though listros seem to fill a gap in the service economy of Addis Ababa, it is undisputable that in doing so, they sometimes privatize public space and disrupt pedestrian and vehicular traffic. A listro defines his area of business by setting a shoeshining box on the ground. He brings a chair to claim the space. In time, a plastic shade covers the customer’s seat. As the space defines itself, side businesses emerge. Daily, on the streets of Addis, public space turns into private and vice versa. Supporting Spaces documents the use of public space in Ethiopia’s capital. Based on the story and experience of Ato Shewalem, this movie relates the general experience of thousands of migrants in Addis Ababa. In Piazza over the course of a day, one notices the positive and negative influences of microeconomies on the public realm.
Ato Fasil Giorghis
Chair of Conservation of Urban and Architectural Heritage, EiABC, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Chair of Entrepreneurship, EiABC, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Dr. Heyaw Terefe
Chair of Theory and History of Architecture and Urbanism, EiABC, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Ato Kamil Abdela
CEO Arada Sub City
Woreda 01Administration, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Special Thanks to
Ato Shewalem Abza
Ato Kore Wogsema
research and movies by
Felix Heisel and Bisrat Kifle
supported and financed by
Ethiopian Institute for Architecture, Building Construction and City Development (EiABC)
next studio plc.