Tewodros Mebrahtu has accumulated invaluable expertise in the ICT sector abroad for close to two decade; particularly in the U.S. He was responsible for software production lines, solution lines and was in charge of addressing enterprise level performance and development issues. Later on he came back home to contribute to the ICT sector in Ethiopia. Founded by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MoCIT) to operate under the auspices of Addis Ababa University some six years ago, the ICT- Center of Excellence (CoE) was where Tewodros taught to leave his mark. Currently, he is the Director of the ICT-CoE where he is tasked with managing and helping the advance of the overall ICT sector in Ethiopia. More specifically, the center will perform research activities, consultancy work, advanced trainings and provide platforms for young innovators. For the past four years, ICT-CoE had organized innovative competitions awarding to talented software and application developers. The annual competition on average has been attracting some 500 young applicants over years; and last year among the contenders, Absalat Serawit, a medical doctor by training and her brother Melaeke Serawit, an electrical engineer, had brought to the competition their locally customized and developed hardware and software of Electrocardiograph (ECG or EKG) winning first place prizes for the year. The likes of these siblings have been featured at the annual ICT-CoE competitions. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter sat down with Tewodros to understand and see where the ICT sector is going and how the centre is harnessing the young innovators of the country. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Tell us briefly about the achievement of ICT Center of Excellence over the course of the past five years?
Tewodros: The key component of the ICT-CoE is creating partnerships with various actors in the field. We work with stakeholders for the advancement of the ICT sector in Ethiopia. With that in mind, we also have done many researches on various issues. One of the programs we have been implementing over the years is to nurture the advancement of software development. We believe it has a huge potential in generating hard currency and creating more jobs with relatively decent pays in the long run. We have good ideas towards that. In relation to software development, we have created competitions to be held on an annual basis. It serves as a platform for the developers to have more opportunities on a national scale. If we can have outstanding developers we will extend the opportunities to attract those at the international level. That way, we hope to build the base for software industry in Ethiopia. The developers’ community needs to go along with that. We want all sides to work together and create a mutual benefit. By doing so, we hope to develop and work together to handle big projects in the future.
The annual competitions ICT-CoE has staged over the years have brought to light some innovative ideas. Youngsters have showcased their potential. For instance, siblings with medicine and engineering backgrounds have developed EKG or ECG machine and for that they have been able to win first prizes last year. But, to what extent is the ICT sector attracting young developers and creating future opportunities?
If you look at the software development sector, usually it needs a lot of investment to make it more successful. We have really focused on one particular aspect of it. Initially, our focus was to try to create understanding over the potentials that exist in the sector. We tried to excite and encourage the youth community to get along with the business of software development. We want them to market their products and generate income out of the process. If you are asking how the software development activity is impacting the ICT industry, there are many factors to be considered; still there are a lot of facilities that need to be in place. To take the industry shift one step further, we need to incubate young innovators. We need to mentor them. The private sector should encourage the youth by putting some values on the solutions that they develop. They might probably bring the innovators on board and give them some market access. The private sector can even provide opportunities of transforming the ICT ideas into marketable solutions. This way, the youth will become more encouraged to join the ICT sector. These kinds of interventions also apply for the government.
What can you tell us about the existing potentials in the industry? What ICT solution can we really consider to beneficial to the society in Ethiopia?
We have had various types of software solutions. We have marketing solutions; we have educational solutions for kids and language tools. There are many software solutions on the pipeline and many at different processing stages at the moment. Earlier, we have talked about the latest development in the form of an EKG device. This medical equipment is currently on the process of becoming marketable; but it has to pass through various tests of functionality, reliability and the like before it hits the market. The device measures and transmits information about the functions and conditions of the heart and the data should be very accurate as it risks the very life of a person. Hence, it really matters to ensure the reliability of the device and for that we need to have various processes that should be passed. But, once proven to be fully functional, it will be a huge breakthrough for the medial sector since the EKG device would become much more affordable; even to smaller towns across the country.
We talk about the existence of great potential and skill in software development in the country. As the same time, many local companies buy software from outside. Banks procure core banking technologies from elsewhere, let’s say the US, India or the like. Is there hope for local developers to penetrate these kinds of market segments?
I think there needs to be a maturing process to be able to provide solutions at the enterprise level. It requires a lot of expertise. You have to test the developed solutions persistently until you get the right and sufficient results to meet the requirements of enterprises. Once you have deployed solutions like core banking, you have to ensure a high level of reliability. For the very young software developers, to expect that they can provide core banking or similarly sophisticated solutions is not sensible. There has to be a process. But, there is a potential for solutions to be developed here particularly in the open source area. I have developed and tested thousands of programing solutions. It might have taken years but people can pick that up and develop it. But, there are some smaller solutions that new developers could easily venture on to. It’s a process. One role developers can play is by establishing some sort of partnerships and share parts of bigger solutions to successfully undertake relatively big projects. Some western enterprises will outsource some smaller parts of solutions. That helps local developers to widen their horizons and scope. They will acquire the needed expertise. I think understanding what potential exists abundantly in the sector is also a process. We need to work on the policy aspect as well.
Apart from the young developers, what is your overall assessment regarding those companies that provide ICT solutions locally? There are some companies providing ICT solutions both for the government and private entities. We know about the involvement of some ICT firms in the school net program, Woreda net program or other similar systems. How do you seem them functioning? Can we rely on them?
I think the answer on the whole is yes. But, I think there are some companies that can provide quality solutions and services that are needed by the market. Sometimes, there are big companies from abroad filling the gaps. At times, we help local companies to bid on big projects and move on to the next stage; especially when technical capacity and resources required to secure such big procurement contracts are found to be beyond their capacities.
Recently the country has introduced a cyber law with the intention of curbing the potential risks of cybercrime. Is it important to have such a law in an environment where the ICT sector remains under-developed?
I am not an expert on the cyber law. But, generally, there is a place for the law to be in place. ICT opens up lots of opportunities and sadly one of the opportunities might enable some people to commit crimes. It could be defrauding people. Some might persuade internet users to pay for false applications. It is good to have a law in place to regulate such actions. I don’t have the details but I assume the law protects intellectual property rights as well. The law should protect those individuals who have committed years of dedication and innovations only to lose their idea to some copycats. We have seen that having bigger effects in the music industry, for example. Previously, artists who have invested much of their time and energy on creating music and songs would finally end up losing their creation before they reap the benefits. There had been unregulated activities of copying and stealing such creativities. That frustrates many in the industry. But, once you have a law that protects your properties and intellectual rights, the risks are for sure expected to minimize.
Do you think that we have potential hackers in this country that we should be watchful of?
I think there are. Actually, we have some hackers that work on the positive sides. I forgot its name but there is a group that has been credited for its role in identifying some drawbacks on Facebook and Google from Ethiopia. They have found out weak sides of these search engines or social media platforms which makes them an easy target to hackers. We might have “white hacker or black hackers” depending on their roles. They have the potentials to go both ways.
So you are saying we have those hacking youngsters in the society?
Yes, we have some.
One of the holdups for the ICT solutions developers probably is the lack of having an online payment or electronic payment system in the country. In your opinion, to what extent does this factor affecte developers in their day-to-day activities?
Online transactions bring transaction costs almost to zero. If you do payments in the conventional method, it gets much expensive to reach out potential customers. For software developer to have stocks in stores and selling it later means tying up a good chunk of their money which could have been channeled to the development process. It also limits your efficiencies and accessibilities. You might have a number of stores in the cities but it will be very difficult to reach out as many customers as you wanted to supply solutions. But, when you have access to online marketing and transactions, it reduces the transaction costs to almost zero. In addition to that, it allows you to reach out to customers unlimitedly. Hence, it is one of the key components that determine the successes of developers. We need to provide such enabling ecosystems to help developers cherish and expand better in the industry.
But, there are companies like Bell Cash that has developed a payment system namely: Hello Cash and others are also extending their payment platforms to software and application markets so that developers can easily sell solutions electronically. But, how reliable are these systems for online software marking?
Generally, what I see is that they go through an evaluation process before they put up software for the end users. Bell Cash and others have worked with the government to develop prototype solutions. One of the regions that have seen the workability of such outcomes is the Somali Regional State. Together with the Somali Microfinance institution, the founders of Bell Cash and the shareholding banks (Cooperative Bank of Oromia and Anbessa International Bank together with Somali Microfinance) have tested to see whether the system performs at the required level. Some banks have seen the stability of the system and have tried the system at their financial backbends. They have certain procedures and regulations to make their transactions more credible and reliable. They have worked on how to prevent potential harm inflicted by hackers. They have worked at length on many issues. By the way, Bell Cash and a few other firms in the online payment market employ a pool of developers from such communities in Ethiopia. You might also know that they have come up with some value added solutions. I am not authorized to speak on their behalf but the likes of Bell Cash have been able to develop some solutions such as, for instance, Hello Tebeqa or Hello Lawyer, Hello Doctor and the like. These have been tested and I think they are reliable.
Where would you see the CoE going in the coming three to five years? What are the two or three achievements we might see happening in the future for CoE?
Up to now, the center has been operating on a very limited scope. We need to make the center to function as a permanent institution. I think the center needs to recruit more experienced, committed staff since we are targeting expansion in our activities to a larger scale. We have been chartered with a huge task that requires huge resources. I will expect you to see more products and more deliverables in various areas in the future. I will expect you to see the innovation and competition becoming more widely visible. We will have a large number of registrations and participations. We will have incubation programs to nurture young innovators. We have a growing number of participants increasing annually. We have close to some 600 applicants taking part in the competitions. Last year we already had some 500 participants.