Price controls on many staple food items ordered by Ethiopia's government early this month have reduced grocery bills for many low-income families. But now shopkeepers are upset and some basic items are disappearing from store shelves. Economists are concerned about the long-term effect of the government's price-fixing strategy.
Confusion has been the order of the day at shops and markets across the Ethiopian capital this month. The government surprised businesses on January 6, the Ethiopian Christmas Eve, by announcing price caps on such items as meat, bread, rice, sugar, powdered milk and cooking oil.
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said the caps were a response to price gouging by merchants taking advantage of global price hikes. He vowed to put a stop to what he called "market disorder.”
The news was seen as a Christmas gift by many cash-strapped consumers, who had seen food prices jump after the government devalued the local currency, the Birr, by 17 percent in September.
In the first days after the price controls went into effect, Shenkut Teshome was among shoppers who rushed to markets to scoop up goods at newly lowered prices. He applauded government intervention as the only way to save impoverished Ethiopians from starvation.
"People are hoping they can buy with their salary a fair material at a fair price," said Shenkut. "[Prices] were exaggerated and people cannot afford to buy with their salary and live at the same time, paying rent, this and that. The main thing is that they have enough food for their children."
The price controls, however, have triggered chaos and tension in the local marketplace. Arguments, even occasional fistfights have been reported between irate shoppers and business operators as price controlled goods, such as cooking oil and oranges, have disappeared from shelves.
One customer at a local shop, who spoke on condition of anonymity, quipped that the net effect of the price controls is that nothing has changed. He said that earlier, goods on the shelves were too expensive to buy. Now the prices are lower, but the goods have disappeared.
Business owners said the past few weeks have been unbearable. Customers are unhappy, some products they bought before the price caps must be sold below cost, and neighborhood government representatives drop by several times a day to check that they are in compliance.
Shopkeepers contacted for this report all said they were afraid to give their names, but one who agreed to speak anonymously said she was ready to give up.
She said, "This is way too much for us. We are small traders. We don’t make much money. We get everything on credit, so when this stock is gone, we are closing up shop."
Representatives of Ethiopia’s Trade Ministry did not respond to numerous interview requests for this report. But government officials have been quoted as saying price controls were needed because retailers had raised prices blaming global price increases and the devaluation, although such factors had had no influence on the availability of their products.
In addition, four economists not affiliated with the government, all of whom have previously spoken to VOA on the record, declined to be quoted this time, saying the subject was too sensitive. But all four privately predicted that price fixing would not help in solving Ethiopia’s deep-rooted economic problems.
Temesgen Zewdie, finance chairman of one of Ethiopia’s main opposition parties and a former Member of Parliament, called the price controls a step toward a Communist-style command economy.
In a free market economy, the preferred way of doing this is to increase the supply and increase competition," said Temesgen. "But the government did not do that. Instead they went directly to the producers and retailers, telling them to reduce prices and supply these products. These practices happen in Communist states, not in western democracies."
Retired opposition leader Bulcha Dimeksa is a former deputy finance minister and also a former World Bank director. He said history has proven time and again the folly of price controls.
"This government is doing exactly what all the classical dictators in the past have done and have failed," said Bulcha. "I do not understand how people do not learn. It does not work. Price control never worked. It will not work. It does not work. It may work for one month, but what’s that? The farmer is discouraged, the producer is discouraged, the retailer is discouraged."
Despite the uproar, government officials are hoping their experiment in price-fixing will help to curb inflation. Recently released figures show the inflation rate jumped from 10.2 percent in November to 14.5 percent last month.
Ethiopia is among the world’s poorest countries. The CIA World Factbook lists per capita purchasing power of $1,000 a year.