Ethiopia’s takeaway army hits the streets

The lack of a functioning street address system in Addis Ababa hasn’t hampered growth in restaurant home delivery services.


After answering the ringing phone at Acapulco Mexican Grill and Bar in the centre of Addis Ababa, owner Abel Wondowsen scribbles on a pad of paper an order for quesadillas and tacos. Before long, a bundle of wrapped-up food is on the counter awaiting a motorbike dispatcher from Deliver Addis.

Western-styled restaurant home delivery is a new concept in the Ethiopian capital and, outside of it, all but unheard-of in a country where the vast majority of meals revolve around food freshly made at home, while many people don’t have the sort of disposable income to afford the time-saving premiums attached to food offerings outside one’s kitchen.

Added to which is another minor complication in Addis Ababa: buildings have no observable street addresses. All mail goes to mail boxes at post offices, while finding an office in Addis Ababa usually involves a confusing process of triangulation based on nearby landmarks and proximity to main roads – most of which are known by numerous names.

“No one has got this far before,” says Deliver Addis founder Feleg Tsegaye. “I found out why – it’s quite difficult.”

Difficult – but increasingly possible in the changing socio-economic landscape of the city.

“It’s irritating having to explain to taxi drivers where to go and pick up food,” says 26-year-old Shimi Neguse, one of the Ethiopian diaspora, who six months ago moved from the US to Addis Ababa. And, like many lured back to Ethiopia’s capital by a mixture of curiosity, national pride and opportunities, Shimi says she relies on the city’s fleet of blue-and-white Lada taxis to deliver restaurant food to her home.

“But if you ring your guy and he’s already busy then you’re a bit stuck,” Shimi says, before adding that as great as it is to be in Ethiopia she can’t handle eating injera – a grey, spongey pancake-shaped bread that is the country’s food staple – every day and often “craves something else”, be it a burger, Thai or Japanese food. “Addis needs some sort of food delivery system as we’re already creating our own version with the taxi drivers,” Shimi says.

Embracing instability

Born and raised in Colorado, 27-year-old Feleg first visited Ethiopia in 2000 when he was struck by meeting people who, like him, were interested in information technology but had no opportunities to pursue it. He made up his mind to one day return and try to create such opportunities, he says.

“If it was just about profit I would have stayed in the US,” he says. “But people who grow up in the Ethiopian diaspora want to try something new. You could stay in the US and do the usual nine to five or you can go to Ethiopia and change dramatically – admittedly it could be for better or for worse but whereas our parents wanted stability [in the wake of Ethiopia’s turbulent communist regime between 1974 and 1991] we have had the luxury of stability and so seek instability.”

After moving to Ethiopia three years ago, Feleg despaired of not being able to order home delivery after a long work day. So last March he decided to experiment with how it could be done.

“I put together a quick website, talked to a couple of restaurants, hired a motorcycle for a month, and invited about 30 people to use it,” Feleg says. “I just wanted to be lazy and to not have to cook in the evening. It backfired badly as this is the most busy I’ve been in my life.”

Deliver Addis now services 12 partner restaurants, using four motorbikes and riders kitted out with smartphones using GPS tracking to find customers who, when they sign up online, use Google maps to drop a pin locator on a residence.

The service has operated for free up till now to boost market share, Feleg explains, although its forthcoming fee system has featured on the website from the start – 60 Ethiopian birr ($3) for delivery within a 4km radius of a restaurant and 75 birr for further – to prove people are willing to pay such fees.

Trusting the numbers

Deliver Addis appears to have successfully navigated Addis Ababa’s missing street address system.

Once the service starts charging, probably by the end of October, Feleg says, he expects it to be profitable based on user numbers increasing – rising by nearly 400% when the business left its Beta stage in June – and the service in August generating 58,000 Ethiopian birr ($2,900) of business for partner restaurants.

“We’re approaching our one-thousandth delivery since March,” Feleg says in mid-September, before adding, “with no addresses.” For the private and public sectors in general, however, the city’s address situation continues to present challenges.

“Businesses have typically overcome this issue by providing landmark-based information,” says an employee with an Addis Ababa-based innovation and entrepreneur hub that is researching how to establish a form of address system.

“But giving such information means that ambulances, for example, don’t get to where the patient actually is, rather the patient has to be moved to a landmark.”

Others note how such attempts to mitigate Addis Ababa’s address woes have occurred before – while nothing came of them. Perhaps this time will be different.

“If a fire truck gets to put out a fire sooner because the driver knows where to go, it could save lives and property from damage,” says the employee. “If security services can easily identify where most criminal offences occur that would mean safer streets; a food delivery service could get to hungry customers with meals still hot – the number of problems that could be solved are plenty.”

“When Feleg asked to put us on the list we jumped at the chance,” says Abel Wondowsen, owner of seven-month-old Acapulco Mexican Grill and Bar, who previously ran a Panda Express restaurant in Los Angeles before returning to Ethiopia.

“After a few days we had orders coming in – it gives us a competitive advantage.” Abel estimates the restaurant has gained an extra 9,000 birr ($450) of sales a week during six months of using Deliver Addis.

“Trust is a big issue,” he says. “Customers have to have confidence, which takes time – you have to demonstrate quality.”

To build up that confidence Feleg has eschewed mainstream advertising in favour of old-fashioned word of mouth and the digital versions on social media, such as Facebook.

While Facebook pictures indicate the service is going down well with foreign and Ethiopian diaspora early adopters, Feleg says expanding the customer base beyond those two demographics is key.

“The culture here is to eat together as a group, and we will run into that,” Feleg says. “But there are always those moments when you have to eat alone – we just want to supplement the traditional and not change it.”

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