Tsegaye Tegenu

Department of History, Uppsala University,

Uppsala, Sweden


This paper is intended to give an insight into the background history and status of technological capability of the Ethiopian community at home. The term technology is here understood to mean skills and methods related to the production and organization of goods and services in a society. It refers more to the technical capability of a people rather than an output, product of the system. The "transfer of technology" is in essence the impart, transmission of such know-how, sum of knowledge.

As I understand, one of the objectives of the EthCITA conference is to invite discussion on the transfer of information technology at home. Transfer of any technology, including information technology should in principle start from the needs and capacity of the target community. For an obvious reason, a discussion of such a level demands investigation report and account from experts of the field. As a historian, my profession allows me to make a review of the technological past of the society in question. Though it appears difficult to imagine the relevance of historical discussion in such a forum, I have a feeling that those who work on community (country)-wide electronic network strategy might find some interest in my scrutinized inquiry into the past.

Agricultural Technology

The first food plant to be cultivated in Ethiopia by the indigenous people was Enset (falls banana), which now forms the staple diet of the southern peoples of Ethiopia. The cultivation of Enset began some 7000 years ago. (See, Frederick J. Simoons, "Some Questions on the Economic Prehistory of Ethiopia" in Journal of African History, Volume I, Number 1, 1965). Slightly later we see in northern Ethiopia cultivation of Teff and around 4000 or 3000 BC cultivation of barely and wheat was introduced. Simultaneously plough made its appearance, thus marking a move from hoe agriculture to plough culture. The significance of plough agriculture is its capacity to support a strong state, wider members of the military and the clergy, than that of hoe cultivation. Much later, irrigation was practiced in many areas. Agriculture technology had therefore a very old history in Ethiopia, however, it remained static or stagnated? Why?

Building Technology

The obelisks of Aksum, and the existence of thousand rock-hewn churches between Aksum and Lalibela is an illustration of continuity and inheritance of art and architectural styles in Ethiopia. The churches of Lalibela, the 8-th wonders of the world, is an outstanding architectural achievement and an impressive testimony of an advanced technique of construction. What was the problem of continuing such building technology? With the exception of few kings residing at the palace of Gonder, most of the emperors spent their life in tents and temporary houses. What was the problem of emperors in building palaces and castles in a country where there was no shortage of material resource and building skill?

Metallurgy and Cloth-making Technology

In the past all craftsmen of the country worked for the emperors and regional governors. Smiths (jewelers and iron workers) were organized into workshops known by name as royal jewelers under the supervision of Iqabet Bejironde (treasurer). Weavers were also organized under the same office to make different types of cloth, both for the purpose of decoration and payment to palace soldiers. But the products of craftsmen, particularly of smiths remained crude and undeveloped. Why?

The cause for the static nature and stagnation of technology in our past is complex. For readers who are familiar with our history what comes readily as an answer is the militarization of the ruling class as source of power and survival. Ever since the formation of an imperial state since the time of King Amde Sion (1312-1342), the civil and military functions of the state exhibited a merged, particularly after the crisis of the 16th century. Fiscally speaking, the levying and spending of taxation was geared entirely for military purpose. To give an example from the 19th century, a peasant who cultivated Gasha land had to pay annually one Gundo of honey (ca.19 kilo) and three Dawula (ca 276 Kilo) of grain to a soldier assigned to use the tax as salary. In lieu the payment of grain, the peasant was forced to provide one Quna of grind Teff, one Quna of grinned Shiro, three Quna of grain and one bundle of wood every month. In other words the peasant had the obligation to fulfill the food and drinking needs of a soldier, in addition to an obligation to cut or provide grass to war horses. Under such circumstance the peasant was reluctant to produce more than was needed for his survival and for his soldier master. What ever the remaining surplus in the hands of Kings and governors was used to import firearms. Through the sale of ivory, gold and civet emperors and regional lords were buying fire arms.

Military Technology:

With all the interest in military matter and import of arms, one wonders why there was no development in military technology. Before the nineteenth century, there was no great fear of external threat, and kings had no fear of losing territory and power to external power. The problem was rather internal and as such there was no need for a centralized organization for the production of musket, balls and gunpowder. For instance a peasant can make gunpowder and present himself in the service of a king or regional prince.

Secondly, the technology of firearms could have been spread and developed had it not been for its limited effect in war. The loading and firing time of Musketeer could not much the speed of a cavalry. Firearms began to play an effective role in a battle after the second half of the nineteenth century, and this awareness made Tewedros and Menelik to establish gun manufacturing industry. Menelik's factory was closed down when the adjacent colonial power agreed to prohibit the transfer of military technology to Ethiopia. Continues war, particularly since the sixteenth century (wars of Ahmed Gran (1527-42), Oromo migration and the concomitant conflict (1530s-1620s), militarily resolved court power struggle (1627-1730s), followed by the wars of the regional princes in the Z!m!n! Mesafint (1750s-1855) and the rise of a centralized power (Tewedros, Yohannes and Menelik), and foreign aggressions, all marked continues troop movement and conflict. As a result kings had no permanent town of residence and they moved always with their court. Unresolved conflicts and state of war situation (customarily called as Zemecha and Guzo) made the ruling class unstable and devoid them taste of comfort.

Lack of a luxurious life, peaceful time, and accumulation of wealth made it difficult to patronize development of technology. Military preoccupation gave no time for kings and aristocrats to give the necessary legal protection for property of merchants and promotion of trade. Custom office was leased to local officials in return for the payment of a sum of money. Merchant goods were thus taxed arbitrarily.

The system of taxation was another factor which inhibited accumulation of wealth and investment. Land tax was assessed collectively and in the community the burden of taxation was distributed according to the wealth possessed by each peasant household. Fear of a greater burden of taxation made peasants reluctant to invest in agriculture. Finally we can raise the tradition of contempt for manual labor which is not unique to Ethiopian society. I feel that I am rushing to conclude. Indeed the subject is interesting and more complex to be investigated at a project level. I have presented some points of considerations in a rather condensed form, and some simple explanations. To come back to my point of departure what is that information technology has to learn from the past?

Suggested General Readings on Empirical Facts:

1) Pankhurst, R. (1961), An Introduction to the Economic History of Ethiopia from Early times to 1800. London, England.

2) Idem. (1968), Economic History of Ethiopia 1800-1935. Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.