Even though Merkato has undergone tremendous transformations over the years, much work remains to be done before it is upgraded to the desired level of a marketplace where standard services are provided.
The histories of many markets in the world show that they evolve from small meeting sites into bigger markets where people converge once or twice a week to exchange goods and services. The history of many cities, including Addis Abeba, shows that markets are established after cities are first founded and then increase both in quantity and quality.
The first market in the capital on record was located near St. George Church at the site where the City Hall stands now. That plot used to be known as Arada Gebeya, gebeya meaning marketplace in Amharic. But it lasted only until the invading Italian forces of the 1930s moved it further west to the area around the premises of Fitawrari Habte Georgis.
According to records and even eye witnesses, the centre was moved because the occupying fascist forces wanted to keep the indigenous people and their pack animals away from the areas where they resided and ran businesses. At any rate, the native merchants may have found the new arrangement convenient for their herds and pack animals finding areas for grazing their animals and providing them with water from the nearby river.
The Italians built Piazza separately and opened some European style shops that displayed commodities and cookies through glass windows, a strange practice which was not welcome by natives.
The marketplace allocated for indigenous people, rightly coined Mercato Dijino did not have any strategic plan for growth or expansion. It grew in width and breadth randomly. Polarisation of stalls of similar stock grew into what were called terras.
Land grabbing and possessing plots became part of the business. Over the years, the market became an amorphous entity where millions of people converged from all corners of the country to exchange commodities and information. In fact, Merkato in those days was not only a marketplace serving as an institution for buying and selling goods but also serving as an information centre where people inquired about what was going on in the hinterland. That is no longer a virtue at present.
This trend of haphazard growth left a legacy of hurdles embedded in the quantitative growth of the market place. Many of these hurdles linger to this day.
Small landholdings and temporary shelters have grown into congested shanties and slums leaning against each other. A minor spark of fire could trigger the devastation of hundreds of shops and sheds standing side by side into a pile of ash in a matter of minutes. Even the removal of one of the squats could cause the downfall of the adjacent slums like a deck of cards. This has happened on several occasions. In fact, occupants of the Tana Supermarket building or the shopkeepers at the St. Raguel Church high-rise buildings may consider the accidental fires that brought the previous slums down to shambles as blessings in disguise. They would not have moved into the newly built shops otherwise.
Many shop owners have found a new goldmine by leasing their shops to as many people as the standing space can permit. Many have modified their shops, demolishing the partitioning walls to fit more lessees. Others have since formed some kind of cooperative to jointly construct multi-storey buildings on the same plot of land where once their shanty shops stood. Some of these buildings are currently occupied.
What was once known as the largest open-air market in Africa seems to be foregoing its prestige and glory for the modern convenience of operating indoors. If there are any open spaces left in Merkato, they are roads and backyard spaces which are densely occupied by peddlers and sidewalk vendors who stand or sit by the side trying to sell little articles ranging from plastic bags to lottery tickets.
The growth of the capital city within a short span of time is reflected in the growth and evolution of Merkato.
Decades ago the late poet Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin in one of his popular poems, entitled Ay Merkato, had described Merkato as the melting pot where vendors and consumers alike shoved and jostled, yelling and barking trading calls. And where thieves snatched and ran. Everybody being bent on speeding up to sell whatever was left in hand. Expediency and noise were the central points around which the focus of the poem circulated. That aesthetic value of the Merkato in the poem seems to have been lost in the size of the market these days, although the focus on money movement has remained intact.
New buildings are no substitute for the development of good service. These buildings should offer sufficient space for display and mobility. They must have adequate space for cashiers and assistants. All goods and commodities should have price tags fixed on them. Proper receipts of sales and taxes should be indicated so that all traders pay due taxes.
There are very few eateries and tearooms as well as toilets in Merkato. Parking lots are almost nonexistent. Taxis park at odd places, thus jamming the flow of traffic. Street vendors pester potential customers nagging them to buy their articles.
Having said all this, one must consider the credibility of Merkato and its role in the socioeconomic development of the country. Many people consider Merkato to be the Wall Street of Ethiopia. Ikub or the traditional mode of forced saving is one typical feat of businessmen in Merkato.
Almost all the imported goods and commodities are transacted either physically or through documentation. Millions of Birr change hands every day. Merkato even provides repair and modification services.
Merkato is a melting pot where businessmen come from all parts of the country to do business with both local and foreign businessmen. Merkato is also a tourist attraction in that souvenirs are available for sale at nominal prices.