As a finance major and the retirement representative for my group, I have a more than passing interest in money. I am not talking about “money” for the sake of riches, but money as a reflection of society. Specifically, I always find it quite interesting to see what countries choose to put on their currency coins and notes. It shows what the government and its people view as interesting or important. So, I found the money quite intriguing in Ethiopia.
Ethiopians use Birr as their monetary unit, with ETB (Ethiopian Birr) as the official abbreviation. The exchange is relatively stable, with approximately ETB 20.5 to US$1. Historically, the country was referred to as Abyssinia by Europeans, but the Ethiopians despised this term. Ethiopia was adopted by the international community in 1931, at the request of Emperor Haile Selassie I. Thus, the Bank of Abyssinia became the Bank of Ethiopia from that point forward. Starting in 1945, notes were issued, with the National Bank of Ethiopia officially starting production in 1966. Obviously, each country goes through various changes in their currency choices with time, with the current banknote series issued in 2006, incorporating “modern” technology and anti-counterfeiting measures. There are 5 banknotes, denominated in 1, 5, 10, 50 and 100 birr, while there are 6 coins, issued as 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 santim coins, along with a 1 Birr coin.
All of the coins have an identical verso, an engraving of the head of a roaring lion with a gorgeous flowing mane. This is ubiquitously referred to as the “Black Lion” or “Black Lion of Ethiopia.” A bit of history first. About 3 years ago, the New Scientist journal published research confirming that Ethiopian lions are in fact genetically distinct from other African lions. They have an incredibly dark mane, which surrounds the head, neck, chest and extends onto the belly, thus giving them the name of “Black Lion.” This gave tremendous support to the various movements and companies that have used the Black Lion name.
The Black Lion of Ethiopia is strongly identified with Ethiopian independence and patriotism. Initially, the Black Lions were the resistance movement, sponsored by the Emperor, that fought against Italian occupation back in the 1930’s. Emperor Haile Selassie housed and “domesticated” lions at his palace before he was deposed in the 1970’s. The Black Lion is part of the Ethiopian Airlines emblem, used to be part of the flag, is a shoe company, a tea brand, an alcohol brand, the name of their bus system (Anbessa, Amharic for Lion), and is also the name of their soccer team! Obviously, of interest to me specifically, is the name of the hospital I was working in: The Addis Ababa University Black Lion Hospital, which is the nation’s largest hospital, a tertiary referral center for the country.
Back to the bucks—pun intended. There is a buck on the 10 sentim coin so that makes a nice balance. Oh, yeah, there is a balance on the 1 Birr coin too! Enough with the puns. However, all of the information appears only in Amharic for all coins after 1969, so it is a bit challenging to know what is being said and the amount.
I found the notes to be most reflective of the Ethiopian culture. The 1 birr banknote shows the Tisisat waterfalls, part of the Blue Nile and one of the natural wonders of the country. The 5 birr shows a coffee harvest on the obverse, while a kudu and lynx are depicted on the reverse. There is a basket weaver on the obverse and a tractor on the reverse of the 10 birr, showing “industrious work.” There is plowing on the 50 birr note, while the most spectacular archeological site of Gondar, the Enqulal Gemb Fortress is shown on the reverse. Saving the best for last, the reserve of the 100 birr note (the highest denomination) is a man looking through a microscope! What a treat for a pathologist to see our profession and science so prominently depicted on the highest denominated note!
A few noteworthy points. There is a 15% Value Added Tax (VAT) on all purchases, services and products, with the exception of certain food essentials and for health care. But, all vendors show the prices inclusive of the VAT, so it is not a surprise at the time of purchase. Further, there is a 10% service charge added to all “services” (such as tips for restaurants, taxis, etc), so you don’t really have to add anything! People are taxed on their houses, and while it is based on square foot, it is a higher percentage cost if the house is more than 1 story high (i.e., it is a greater Birr cost for a 100 square meter 2 story house than a 100 square meter 1 story house). There is also a progressive income tax, based on earnings, with approximately 25% as the high bracket (although I have heard several numbers).
For links to other installments in Dr. Thompson's Ethiopia series: