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Incubating innovators

Incubating innovators

Markos Lemma is the founder of iceaddis, Ethiopia’s first innovation hub that works with young people to support them realize their entrepreneur dream. According to him, iceaddis is designed to foster innovation, the connection of great minds and help create collaboration. Here he reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on his innovative enterprise, its challenges and highlights and reflects on his experience traveling the world and discovering why the world is becoming one big village. Excerpts:

The Reporter: iceaddis is known as Ethiopia’s first innovation hub started in 2011. What exactly does it do?

Markos Lemma: We support individuals to realize their great ideas to a viable business. Our mission is to build technology-based entrepreneurial ecosystem in Ethiopia. iceaddis incubates startups to become great companies. Through our incubation program called ice180, we support 10 high-potential startups annually.

The program is designed in a way that it fosters innovation, connecting great minds, and creating a collaborative environment. We give young people a place to co-work, provide mentorship and coaching, run expert design contextual workshops and boot camps, and networking opportunity.

How was it started?

Being the first innovation hub and incubator in the country, we started by asking simple questions like “where do Ethiopian young and creative individuals go if they want to realize their great ideas to a viable business?”, “As a young person, where do you go to start your entrepreneurial journey”. The questions seem simple but the answers are complex. 

We started in the umbrella of GIZ and EiABC in 2011 and registered as a private entity in 2014. Back then, the internet coverage was only 0.4 percent of the total population, there was limited information how to start a business in Ethiopia. No angel investors. So we wanted to create a one-stop shop for the young entrepreneurs to come and get all the support, learn about market research, develop their business plan, get legal and financial advice, register and grow their business.

What has been some of the highlights so far?

We support 32 startups to date. We engaged the public to create awareness the potential of small and medium enterprises and their potential to transform our economy and lives. We setup the first developer’s meet-ups. We initiate and run various innovation workshops, hackathons and barcamps in Ethiopia. Our startups made it big as well. We have incubated startups that represented Ethiopia for the first time in DEMO Africa. We have incubated startup that won competitions. We sent over 16 Ethiopians startups to Helsinki, Kigali, Geneva and many other places together with our partners. One of our startups made it to Silicon Valley in the US.

How has Ethiopia changed in terms of accommodating Ethiopia’s tech industry?

Ethiopian economy is growing fast paced. The World Bank estimates that in 2018, the Ethiopian economy will be the fastest in Sub-Saharan Africa. Our economic growth obviously helps startups to get easier access to market and better infrastructure. But the problems are more visible. Internet is very expensive and the penetration is one of the lowest in the world. There is a bit of improvement in opening a new business, but closing a business is still a big challenge.

Technological advancement and innovation isn’t well supported by both the government and the private sector. Startups suffer to raise capital for their high-potential business plan. Technology is still not a priority sector which we believe it should be. It will transform our agriculture and manufacturing sectors. Increase performance, connection between people, increase transparency and help to monitor real progress.

Five years ago, you reflected how the “next big CEO, idea in technology or app development is destined to emerge from this space”. Did that happen?

You know there are so many hopes in Ethiopian youth. We are betting on it. Araya Lakew’s mekina.net listed as the second best internet business in Ethiopia by The Economist in 2014. Black Lion Surgical service runs by 50Lomi solutions, one of the most growing tech businesses in Ethiopia. I wouldn’t say Ethiopia is producing big tech CEOs yet, but its happening. And please ask me this question again in a few years.

There are now similar hubs that have opened up in Ethiopia. What makes iceaddis different and unique from the others?

We love collaboration and actually give time and work on it. xHubAddis has been a great partner. They provide great support for technology startups. Incubators like Reach4Change Ethiopia provide great support for social entrepreneurs. Recently opened is blueMoon which is transforming agri-business startups. We need more hubs. We are currently setting up a biomedical engineering incubator together with St. Paul Hospital. 

Disrupt Africa newspaper based in Kenya once wrote Ethiopian hubs collaborate more than other African countries. We are advocating collaboration and knocking any possible doors to achieve that. We are targeting high-potential tech oriented startups. ice180 incubation program is designed with six years of experience in Ethiopia. Our hub model is already an example somewhere else.

icecairo and icealex opened through our experience here in Ethiopia. We are supporting the opening of new hubs in South Sudan, Somaliland and Djibouti. We have unique culture of working together. Aiming high and achieving it.  We believe in multi-partnership approach. We work with great local and international organizations, NGOs and embassies. I believe our main strength is collaboration and expertise in our community. 

Why are innovation hubs important to a country like Ethiopia, which is known more for the exportation of raw materials to the world market rather than the ambitions of its tech industry?

For so many years we overlooked the potential of such innovation hubs. In the past, we talked under Warka tree to discuss community challenges. Innovation hubs are the modern Warka trees where we discuss our community challenges and trying to solve them.  Innovation hubs are nothing but collection of smart people in one place. We have great talents in Ethiopia which will drive the economy forward.

Innovate the next solutions. As emerging market, Ethiopia needs such spaces. But more than the spaces, we need the startups to flourish. When we think about innovation, we shouldn’t always think about hi-tech. We should think about solutions which transform citizens.  iceaddis – being a place to test new ideas and experimentation – is extremely important to bring in new products and services. Innovation hubs are betting in the potential of talents which is obviously the biggest resources one country can have.

You often travel the world, most recently you were at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in India meeting with hundreds of entrepreneurs. What impressed you most and what were some of the highlights and what is the thing you took from there Ethiopia can best emulate within the Ethiopian society?

Our world is becoming a village. We need to learn and re-learn from other countries smart policies, ecosystems and the way the world economy is structured. Most people agree that we go through difficult times globally, politically speaking. It is refreshing to see and meet several young entrepreneurs who are too ambitious to solve problems. We are in the world and we need to have open door policies. I am a big advocate for No Visa to all Africans to travel to Ethiopia. We want to learn from our friends. Whenever I travel I meet many smart investors who look for long-term returns, not short-term benefits. I think that’s a big lesson. Most people believe that Ethiopia is closed for business. Sometimes it is good to listen why people say that because the more we are open for new ideas and partnership, we will benefit. We can’t stay disconnected in the 21st century.

Looking at the future iceaddis, perhaps the next decade, where do you envision it to be?

Our vision is to build great companies which transform our lives. We envision building a sustainable entrepreneurial and business ecosystem in Ethiopia. We work towards sustainable and responsible economical growth with startups, later to be mega businesses. I want to encourage business leaders to involve supporting young entrepreneurs.