Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (CNN) — Garum Tesfaye is one of Addis Ababa’s “newspaper landlords,” a group of entrepreneurs in the Ethiopian capital who rent out papers to people too poor to buy them.
Surrounded by worn-out copies of old newspapers, stacks of gossip magazines and the crisp print of the latest news, Tesfaye sits attentively, checking his watch every now and then.
Near him, a pedestrian bridge provides shelter from the sun to dozens of avid readers who quickly, albeit meticulously, get their dose of the latest news.
For 20 to 30 minutes, these readers can get their hands on a newspaper for a fraction of the price of having to buy it. If they keep the paper longer than their allotted rental time, they have to pay extra.
A newspaper in Addis Ababa costs about six birr (35 U.S. cents) to buy. In contrast, it costs only 50 Ethiopian cents (less than one U.S. cent) to rent one.
“If 20 readers read this single paper at the rate of 50 cents, I will make 10 birr (about 60 U.S. cents),” says Tesfaye, whose business serves a regular customer base that visits his makeshift roadside shop each day.
“Most of the readers focus on vacancies rather than regular news,” Tesfaye says.
Among his customers are unemployed university graduates who tend to rent several publications a day as they desperately hunt for work.
To set up shop, all newspaper landlords need is a shady street-side location and start-up capital for a stash of newspapers and magazines.
Tesfaye says that 30 to 40 people will read a single paper. At the end of the day, the well-thumbed publications can be sold on.
“After a newspaper passes its deadline we will sell it to shops who can use it as packaging for items that they sell,” says Tesfaye, who says he uses the earnings from his business to support his three siblings.
But Ethiopia’s newspaper rental industry — although a vital lifeline for people such as Tesfaye — is also putting pressure on the profits of the country’s private newspaper owners.
With about 83 million people, Ethiopia has the second largest population in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the east African country boasts just 24 newspapers, among the fewest on the continent.
Dawit Kebede is the owner of Awramba Times, a weekly Amharic newspaper which is one of Ethiopia’s last remaining independent publications.
“For the reading habits it is good,” he says of the rental industry, but he quickly adds: “For the publisher it is nothing. If we calculate in terms of income, the publisher gets nothing from such rentals.”
For Kebede, every newspaper that’s rented instead of being sold is a further challenge for those few trying to survive in the tough Ethiopian media environment, which is dominated by state-owned publications.
But newspaper landlords such as Tesfaye have other issues to worry about. The biggest threat to their small enterprises is not political propaganda but petty thieves.
“There are some readers who ask for papers to read and vanish immediately so we have to turn our neck from the left to the right to check if things are alright,” says Tesfaye.