What Is the ETB (Ethiopian Birr)?

The Ethiopian birr, the national currency of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is issued by the National Bank of Ethiopia, which manages its value through a dirty float. Each birr subdivides into 100 santims.

The currency code of the Ethiopian birr is ETB, and the symbol is Br.

Key Takeaways

  • The Ethiopian birr, the national currency of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is issued by the National Bank of Ethiopia, which manages its value through a dirty float.
  • In the foreign exchange market, the birr is an exotic currency.
  • The name birr began as a local-dialect synonym for the Maria Theresa thaler, minted in Vienna and named after the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire.

Understanding the ETB (Ethiopian Birr)

The Ethiopian birr takes its name from a local word for silver. Ethiopia, considered one of the earliest sites of Homo sapien occupation, lies on the Horn of Africa.

In the foreign exchange market, the birr is an exotic currency. Trading in exotic currencies tends to occur at low volumes. There is not a lot of demand for the birr outside of Ethiopia.

Since 1992, the National Bank of Ethiopia has managed the value of the birr against other currencies using a dirty float system. Under this policy, the central bank periodically intervenes in foreign exchange markets to change the birr's valuation if it deems it to be over- or undervalued.

In 2017, a trade deficit that generated limited availability of foreign exchange in the country drove the central bank to devalue the birr by 15%, while also adjusting the primary interest rate to balance potential inflationary pressure from the devaluation. The move came at the urging of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Between 2008 and 2011, the nation faced inflation of nearly 40%. Critics point to monetary policy as a major driver of the inflation. Today, the Republic has a fast-growing, non-oil dependent economy. Exports consist of agricultural products and gold.

According to World Bank data, Ethiopian gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 10.4%, 9.4%, 9.5%, and 6.8% in 2015 through 2018, respectively. Over the same period, inflation was 10.8%, 10.4%, 6.7%, and 12.5%.

History of the Ethiopian Birr

The name birr began as a local-dialect synonym for the Maria Theresa thaler, minted in Vienna and named after the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Ethiopia officially adopted thaler coins as its national currency in 1855, though foreign trade continued to take place using the Indian rupee (INR).

The first Ethiopian birrs were minted in Paris in 1894 for former Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II. This birr was established at par with the Maria Theresa thaler and subdivided into 20 ghersh.

In 1905, Menelik II and a European banking group established the Bank of Abyssinia, which introduced banknotes into circulation in 1915. In 1931, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie purchased and restructured the Bank of Abyssinia, creating the National Bank of Ethiopia. At this time, the bank also subdivided the birr into 100 metonnyas. In this year, the Emporer also requested that the country be called Ethiopia instead of Abyssinia.

Italy's occupation of Ethiopia led to the introduction of the Italian lira in 1936. The arrival of British forces in 1941 launched the East African shilling, which supplanted the lira and became the nation's legal tender between 1942 and 1945.

The current-day birr was re-established as the country's legal tender in 1945 at a rate of one birr to two shillings. Its subdivision into santim also dates from this time. Banknotes used the label of "Ethiopian dollar" as the official English translation of the currency until 1976. Then Ethiopia declared its national money the birr (and not the dollar) in all languages. Therefore, even when translating, the birr just means birr.

The region avoided European colonialism through a series of Muslim rulers and hereditary monarchs for centuries. In 1987, rebels overthrew the ruler, creating the Soviet-backed People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which was itself overturned in 1991. Since that time, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has existed. 

The nation has a rocky history of human rights abuses. Any wealth from years of positive economic growth has not been distributed evenly. These issues led to public protests in 2016, where the police killed a large number of people. The government declared a state of emergency that lasted nearly a year before ending briefly and being reinstated in Feb. 2018.

Example of How to Convert the Ethiopian Birr (ETB) To Other Currencies

Assume that the USD/ETB exchange rate is 29.65. This means it cost Br29.65 to buy US$1.

If the rate increases to 33, that means the birr has lost value to the U.S. dollar (USD) because it now costs more birr to buy a dollar. If the rate were to decline to 27, where it traded in late 2017, the birr would be strengthening against the USD, since it would cost fewer birrs to buy a USD.

Between 2014 and 2019, the USD/ETB has continually increased, indicating USD strength against the birr and/or birr weakness relative to the USD.

To determine how many U.S. dollars it takes to buy one birr, divide one by the USD/ETB rate. In this case, divide one by 29.65. The result is 0.0337. This is the ETB/USD rate, meaning it costs a little more than US$0.03 to buy one birr.