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Ethiopia Currency Spotlight

In Business and Currency by Kyle RammlerLeave a Comment

Ethiopia has a proud history of independent governance that is reflected in the birr. Despite the birrs steady decline in value against the USD, the country is one of the fastest growing in Africa – though there remains much to be done.

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History and Culture | Travel Guide

  • Symbol: Br (Latin Alphabet), ብር (Ethiopic Script)
  • Currency Code: ETB
  • Subunit: santim
  • Coins: 11, 5, 10, 25, 50 santim, 1 Br
  • Banknotes: 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 Br
  • Ethiopian GDP (nominal): $65.435 billion
  • Central Bank: National Bank of Ethiopia
  • Inflation: 8% (2013)


Early in its history Ethiopia used salt blocks known as amole tchew as currency. Later amole techew circulated alongside MTT which was adopted under the rule of Emperor Iyasu II who led the country from 1730 to 1755.

The MTT (Maria Theresa thaler) is a silver bullion coin first minted in 1741, and named after Empress Maria Theresa who led Austria, Hungary and Bohemia until 1780. It quickly became the preferred coin of international trade, even after it ceased to be the official coin of Austria in 1858. In 1893 the MTT became the standard unit of currency in Ethiopia, where it was locally known as birr, which means silver. According to some estimates, of the 245 million MTT that were minted between 1741 and 1931, 20% were in Ethiopia.

In 1903, a quarter birr, and 1/16 birr known as a ghersh began to circulate in Ethiopia, and the official accounting currency became 1 birr = 16 ghersh = 32 bessa. In 1915 the Bank of Abyssinia released banknotes, but they were used primarily by merchants and foreigners.  

The name Ethiopia had been used within the country for over 1500 years, but it wasn’t until 1931 that Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, officially requested that the international community referred to the country as such, rather than as Abyssinia. He also bought out the Bank of Abyssinia and renamed it the Bank of Ethiopia. The birr, which had been referred to as the Abyssinian birr, became recognised internationally as the Ethiopian birr. The currency was also decimalised.

Following Italy’s invasion and occupation of Ethiopia, the Italian lira circulated and notes of up to 50 lira continued to circulate after the British liberation of the country in 1941. The British also brought with them MTT, and currency from India, Egypt and British East Africa. The British East African Shilling then became the official accounting currency until the war ended in 1945. The Ethiopian birr was resurrected following WWII, but was referred to as the Ethiopian dollar until 1976 when the currency was officially called birr in all languages.


The most recent coins are:

Value Year Minted
5 santim 1998
10 santim 1996
25 santim 1996
50 santim 1996
1 birr 2003

Early coins (those from before 1969) feature a lion with a crown holding a cross, while coins after 1969 have the head of a lion. The coins were struck in mints in Paris, Berlin, and Addis Ababa.


Value Obverse Reverse Colour
1 birr A young boy The Tisisat waterfalls on the Blue Nile grey
5 birr The coffee harvest Kudu and lynx blue
10 birr A basket weaver Tractor red
50 birr Plowing Enqulal Gemb fortress in Gondar orange
100 birr Plowing Man, microscope blue-green


Over the last five years the Ethiopian birr has steadily declined against the USD, with values of 0.58 in 2012, 0.54 in 2013, 0.52 in 2014, 0.49 in 2015, and 0.47 at the beginning of 2016.

USD US dollar Ethiopian birr ETB

ETB to 1 USD over the past 5 years (courtesy of Rate Watch)

CAD Canadian dollar Ethiopian birr ETB

ETB to 1 CAD over the past 5 years (courtesy of Rate Watch)


Agriculture makes up about 46.6% of the country’s GDP and 85% of employment, but Ethiopia’s economy is one of the world’s fastest growing at 7%. However more than 28% of the population remains below the poverty line, unemployment is nearly 25%, and almost 5 million people rely on food assistance every year. The country receives about $308 million in foreign aid every year, and about 80% of the population lives harvest to harvest. Although the country is beginning to privatise the economy, it still ranks 125th in the world for “Ease-of-doing-business”.

ethiopian birr coins ethiopia money lion

The Bottom Line

Ethiopia has a proud history of standing up to colonialism and fighting for its own unique place in the world. This history is reflected by the Ethiopian birr, once referred to in English as the Abyssinian dollar. Although the country is one of the fastest growing in Africa, many people remain in poverty.

Learn much more about Ethiopia with our Country Profile and Travel Guide!

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