Urban Genesis
Documentary feature 2022
96 min.
Ethiopian farmers and a team of international architects have joined forces to tackle the problem of rural exodus. Deep in the African hinterlands, the unequal participants are building a small model town that could point the way out of the globally worsening migration crisis.

Ethiopia is facing many issues that seem to be unmanageable. It is one of the countries with the highest population growth world-wide and is particularly affected by the rural exodus. Every year, millions of young people flow into cities due to a lack of prospects for their future in the rural regions. In a few decades more than two thirds of the Ethiopian population will live in urban areas. Addis Ababa, the capital city, is growing explosively. Today there is already a lack of space, of the necessary infrastructure and of course jobs.
FASIL GIORGHIS, architect and professor for urban planning at the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development (EiABC) of the University of Addis Ababa, tries to influence the enormous social pressure together with his colleagues, such as ZEGEYE CHERENET. Giorghis and Cherenet fear political destabilization, as over 80% of Ethiopia's population still live in the countryside from subsistence farming. In 2016, the strong migration movement was partly responsible for an uprising that the government of the time had bloodily suppressed.

TILAHUN AYELEW manages with his wife and their two children a tiny piece of farmland using quite archaic methods. The family can only barely live on it. And there are hardly any perspectives for the future. Tilahun's nineteen-year-old son wants to move to the city, because the small piece of land, half of which he will once inherit, can not secure him a livelihood. When some strangers from afar approached Tilahun and other inhabitants of the Bura village with an offer to take part in an unusual project of a small experimental model town called BuraNEST, the farmer grasped at the chance. Besides Ethiopian urban planners from Addis Ababa there is also a white man involved in the project, Franz Oswald from Switzerland.

FRANZ OSWALD is a former professor of architecture and urban planning at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. He came up with the idea of the New Ethiopian Sustainable Town, shortly BuraNEST. His approach is quite radical. BuraNEST is the only of 146 urban development projects in Africa to follow the bottom-up strategy. With BuraNEST, Oswald wants to transform these villages with no future into small self-financed and self-governing urban structures. The farmers are to play the leading role in this proccess. If it proves to be a success, the Ethiopian government plans to build a whole interconnected network of hundreds of such small rural towns with an integrated agriculture. This would open up completely new perspectives, not only for the millions of farmers in Ethiopia, but for many other developing countries as well.
Despite his initial concerns about the project Tilahun has sold his most prized possesion, a bull, to buy a share in a coop apartment building and is working harder than anyone else to build the model town.

A New Ethiopian Town – Information on the Model Town BuraNEST

The Ethiopian-Swiss project NESTown (New Ethiopian Sustainable Town) promotes an alternative model of urbanization by creating a network of small towns which offer livelihood opportunities outside agriculture.The aim is to concentrate infrastructure, know-how and workers locally to increase prosperity and create prospects for young generations. To this end, a prototype model town called BuraNEST has been under construction in the Amhara region of Ethiopia since 2010. The town will serve ten to twenty thousand farmers, who will be largely self-sufficient thanks to careful water management and the transition to more ecological and integrated agricultural practices, and will be well-networked with surrounding villages and towns. The model town concept rests on four pillars: the ‘4 Es’ of ecology, economy, education and exchange. Ownership by the Ethiopian farmers, organized into newly established cooperatives, is the foundation of the BuraNEST economic model. The farmers take personal responsibility not only for the construction of the houses, but also for the profitable communal cultivation of the fields and the development of local businesses.

  • Article in the ETH Alumni newspaper Connect about the project in Bura: https://bit.ly/3Jc5cuk
  • Article in Der Spiegel about the NESTown project: https://bit.ly/3jaQjOm (Comment by DokLab: the article’s claim that the government plans to build 8,000 towns is very optimistic. The article also misrepresents several details, including the water situation, the delay in opening the training centre and the housing situation in the new two-story houses).
  • NESTown official website: http://www.nestown.org/
  • In the book ‘To Build a City in Africa’ by the International New Town Institute INTI in Rotterdam, the model city of BuraNEST is examined as the only bottom-up urban planning initiative in the whole of Africa.
  • Article in the UN Chronicle on the need for responsive architectural planning using Ethiopia as an example. Co-authored by film protagonist Zegeye Cherenet: https://bit.ly/3lTAqwT
Political developments in Ethiopia

Declaration of interest: like the film URBAN GENESIS, the following is intended as a basis for discussion of various perspectives in Ethiopia. In the following sections, we seek to provide a brief overview of political developments in Ethiopia without taking a position. The facts and reports compiled on this website are merely intended as an introduction to to this complex political backdrop.

2018: Following years of protests, prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn announces his resignation. Abiy Ahmed becomes party leader of the OPDO (Oromo People’s Democratic Party) and subsequently, in a secret election, leader of the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front), the ruling party coalition at the time. Six days later, he becomes the first Oromo to win election as prime minister. This election marks the end of 28 years of power for the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). The EPRFD splits from the TPLF and Abiy names the new constellation the ‘Prosperity Party’, the BBC reports.

The party is more oriented toward free-market interests and calls for economic and political reforms. The TPLF opposes the formation of this new party. The period from 1991–2018 under the TPFL government is marked by repression under a police and intelligence state. The election of Abiy Ahmed is therefore initially celebrated by large sections of the population as a liberating blow, as Aljazeera reports.

Abiy Ahmed starts his term in office with a number of symbolic actions: stopping the war against neighboring Eritrea, allowing opposition to resume openly and fast-tracking prosecutions to combat the prevailing corruption.

At a large demonstration in Addis Ababa in support of the new government, a grenade explodes in the crowd. It was intended for the new head of government. Several people are killed, African News reports.


2019: For his contribution to the peace agreement with Eritrea and efforts to expand democracy and civil rights, Abiy Ahmed is awarded the Nobel Prize in 2019, see article in Die Zeit for more. Finding the state coffers empty, Abiy turns to Arab countries to ease liquidity issues. In return, he offers up an entire neighborhood in Addis Ababa for development.


2020: Internal political conflicts escalate. When Abiy Ahmed postpones the planned parliamentary elections due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the TPLF party accuses Abiy of unconstitutionally extending his government’s term in office. The TPLF sets up its own electoral commission and holds separate regional elections. In response, Abiy's government accuses the TPLF of illegally holding its own elections, further exacerbating tensions. There are repeated reports of massacres of civilian communities throughout the country. In June 2020, the situation escalates again when violent clashes erupt following the assassination of a popular singer from the Oromo ethnic group, resulting in the deaths of over 200 people, according to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

In early November 2020, the TPLF attacks a military base in Tigray, in the northeast of the country, according to the Ethiopian government, reportedly stealing military equipment and kidnapping soldiers. Abiy takes military action against the rebel TPLF. (Sources: ZDF and BBC).

This conflict causes tens of thousands of Tigray refugees to flee to Sudan. The Eritrean military also intervenes in the conflict, siding with Ethiopian troops. All sides accuse each other of war crimes. Massacres of entire village communities are reported to have been perpetrated by the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies. In late November 2020, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission also accuses the TPLF of committing massacres.

Related articles: Washington Post, Amnesty International, The Guardian


2021: By January 29, more than half a million people have already fled the spreading civil war, according to Welthungerhilfe. Some 2.3 million people in the Tigray region are in need of aid. According to Der Spiegel, few aid supplies are reaching the region due to a blockade by the Ethiopian army. Large-scale famine threatens. Abiy Ahmed is said to have given instructions to destroy farmers’ agricultural infrastructure in the Tigray region.

Fighting spreads to neighboring states and the TPFL captures towns in Amhara, the BBC reports. In November, the rebels capture a town 200km from Addis Ababa, and Abiy Ahmed travels to the front lines, background report in the weekly newspaper WOZ.


2022: The conflict continues. The Tigray region is still practically cut off from the outside world and many people are threatened by hunger. According to the Washington Post, up to 250,000 people have died in this conflict. (DokLab: see below for Zegeye Cherenet’s comments on this article).

For more timelines on developments in Ethiopia, see articles in DW, Deutschlandrundfunk, and The Guardian. An article critical of the government can be found on The Globe and Mail website. Amnesty International has also published reports on this topic.


Personal comment by protagonist ZEGEYE CHERENET on the Washington Post article (of March 23).

(...) the writer has a typical condescending tone towards the Ethiopian government (usual for Western writers when they write on Africa and African leaders who dare to question Western hegemony).  Imagine – a heartless call for more sanctions. The country is already crippled by the American and European sanctions. What is more irritating, is that both European and American powers would like to present the case as ethnic conflict, while it is almost commonsense knowledge in the region that the war has been ongoing since the Cold War period – primarily as a global power game to control the Red Sea belt – a region where 30% of global trade passes through and of age-long water politics and conflict. Check it out – Yemen is in a mess, Somalia has been kept as a no-man's-land, Eritrea is messed up, Sudan is in chaos....and Ethiopia was kept in relative peace (from 2000 to 2014) because it surrendered to the US and was used as a force to keep the region in check (fighting the regional wars in Somalia and South Sudan, paid by the US). When those who served the US were deposed from power, and the new government refused to continue, the mess started again. Ethnic powers were rearmed (by the US and Egypt) and the civil war restarted, and the world is fed with shamelessly simplistic news. But unfortunately, this is the world we are in....

-> to the Washington Post article

BuraNEST update, April 2022
  • The farmer Tilahun Ayelew, protagonist in the film, is doing very well; he is happy and grateful. He has extended his garden. In the field behind his house, he plants onions, tomatoes and sunflowers, harvests three times a year and is able to make a profit at the market. He has also acquired three sheep for breeding. He plans to plant a mango tree next season. His cistern continues to be filled, but unfortunately the pump has broken. Tilahun has asked the District for help to repair it, but has not received a response.
  • Fitalew, Tilahun's son, has since married and lives with his wife in the new family home. Unfortunately, he narrowly missed out on a scholarship to attend the public university, but he is now training as a vicar in the nearby church.
  • The civil war in Ethiopia is keeping the administrations in the regions and districts so busy that all development in BuraNEST has come to a standstill. The village community is holding the fort. Elderly people in need of support have been accommodated in the empty model houses that were built as workshops. The school has found temporary use as a new village gathering place. The model garden and nursery continue to be successfully maintained.
  • Zegeye Cherenet and Fasil Giorghis are forming a new Association for Building Communities (ABC). They plan to bring what they have learned from the BuraNEST experiment to the attention of policy makers and tour districts in Amhara and Oromia to generate community interest in the sustainable rural town model. They are intending to use the film URBAN GENESIS as a tool to initiate the discussion.

Director: Dodo Hunziker

Script: Dodo Hunziker, Yared Zeleke

Cinematographer: Frank Schwaiger, Pierre Reischer

Additional cinematography: Efrem Mekonnen

Editors: Anja Bombelli, Gisela Castronari-Jaensch

Composer: Ivo Ubezio

Sound Design: Peter von Siebenthal

Color Grading: Pierre Reischer

Production: Corinna Dästner, Urs Schnell


World Sales: Rushlake Media GmbH

Distribution Switzerland: Royal Film



A production of DOKLAB GMBH in coproduction mit SRF Swiss Radio and Television, SRG SSR, ZDF/ARTE

Funded by Film Funding Berne, Swiss Federal Office of Culture, Kulturförderung Canton of St. Gallen, Suissimage, MEDIA Desk Suisse, Ernst Göhner Foundation, Succès Passage Antenne, Burgergemeinde Berne, Fondation Suisa and supported by Documentary Campus, Sources 2, FOCAL.


Tilahun Ayelew

Fitalew Tilahun

Agegno Tilahun

Tigabnesh Bayley

Helen Zeray

Franz Oswald

Benjamin Stähli

Temesgen Atnafu

Bizuayehu Jembere

Fasil Giorghis

Zegeye Cherenet