Seven British citizens were among the dead, Kenyan transport secretary James Macharia confirmed.
The aircraft was carrying passengers from over 30 countries, according to the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation, including China, India, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Italy, the US.
There were no immediate details on what caused the crash of the Boeing 737-8 MAX plane, which was new and had been delivered to the airline in November.
Air traffic monitor Flightradar said the plane showed unstable vertical speed after takeoff.
The airline’s CEO, Tewolde Gebremariam, said the pilot manning the flight had an “excellent flying record” but had reported difficulties and requested permission to turn the plane back immediately before the accident.
Mr Gebremariam said the plane had no known technical difficulties.
The plane departed from Bole International Airport at 8.38am but lost contact with the control tower just six minutes later, Ethiopian Airlines said.
The aircraft then suffered an “accident” near the town of Bishoftu, which is around 30 miles from Bole airport.
The plane is believed to be the same model of plane that crashed in Indonesia in October, killing 189.
It is the latest version of the 737 family, the world’s best selling modern passenger aircraft and one of the industry’s most reliable.
A spokesperson for Boeing said the company was “deeply saddened” by the crash.
“A Boeing technical team is prepared to provide technical assistance at the request and under the direction of the US National Transportation Safety Board,” the spokesperson added.
Grieving family members gathered at the airport after the disaster.
Family members waiting for passengers in Kenya have also gathered at Nairobi airport.
They said they had been given no information from airport authorities.
“We’re just waiting for my mum,” said Wendy Otieno, clutching her phone and weeping. “We’re just hoping she took a different flight or was delayed. She’s not picking up her phone.”
The Ethiopian prime minister’s office offered its “deepest condolences” to families affected by the incident in a statement.
State-owned Ethiopian Airlines is one of the biggest carriers on the continent by fleet size. It said previously that it expected to carry 10.6 million passengers last year.
“Ethiopian Airlines staff will be sent to the accident scene and will do everything possible to assist the emergency services,” a spokesperson for the airline said.
The crash comes as the country’s reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has vowed to open up the airline and other sectors to foreign investment in a major transformation of the state-centred economy.
“My prayers go to all the families and associates of those on board,” said Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta.
Additional reporting by agencies
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