Ethiopia is a late bloomer in the area of technology and specifically information technology. The rest of the world looks to be in a rush to embrace the latest developments in the IT sector while dedicating a huge level of financial and infrastructural investment to this sector. Undoubtedly, Ethiopia is nowhere in the IT infrastructure, in spite of recent investment in telecom and connectivity. Defying the odds, a pocket of young entrepreneurs housed in an IT incubation center— Iceaddis—are making real strides in cutting-edge app development, explores Tibebeselassie Tigabu.
Ushahidi, a Swahili term for “testimony”, is one of the most innovative software applications developed in East Africa based on the modern concept of crowdsourcing (the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, especially an online community) and social activism. This open-source application played a big role during the 2007 Kenyan presidential election and the violence that ensued after the election, and during the Haiti earthquake and civil strife in the Middle East.
This application (app in short) was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya in the post-election violence by building a platform that collected eyewitness reports of violence by email and text messages and placing them on Google maps.
Since its launch in 2009, Uber app, an online transportation network, is another innovative mobile application, which drastically changed how people view transportation. Uber allows passengers with smartphones to link up with what is called Uber drivers, people who offer transportation services on their personal vehicles and not taxis.
With more than hundreds of thousands of apps available today, the app industry has taken the world by storm. Though there are a range of paid apps specifically designed for smartphones and tablets working on iPhone and Android operating systems, there are also a wide variety of free apps on education, messaging, navigating, exercising, entertainment, lifestyle, game and religion; basically on anything that is important to smartphone and Tablet users. It is less than two decades since the first app store was launched on the Internet and now, the number and types of available apps staggers the imagination.
The most popular ones with billions of users are Facebook, You-tube and Google apps. The leading, when it comes to revenue, are mobile apps such as Tinder and popular online games, which exceeds giant multi-national companies such as Facebook. According to a website called slashgear, Tinder, a popular dating app, is among the top earners in 2015.
This app was created by a bunch of teenagers to make speed-dating possible through mobile devices. An overwhelming feature in the mobile app world is probably the diversity and the customization of the apps to country-specific situations.
Ethiopian app developers seem to understand the contextual demand of the country and the necessity of the apps and their applicability. One interesting apps in this regard is Addis Karta. Developed by Tewodros Wondimu, this app made it possible to pinpoint the exact location of neighborhoods in Addis Ababa using local mapping system.
Addis Karta helps one to find a location by choosing the sub-city, then the district and finally the house number. One can get the direction to a location, a house and share the information with others that don’t have the Addis Karta app installed. This app somehow tried to customize the complicated global mapping system to the context of Addis Ababa.
Addis Karta app is not the only one; if one heads to Kazanchis area, Chad Street, 7th floor of Hashim building, one will find a safe haven for scores of app developers in Addis Ababa. Iceaddis is safe space for the app developers of Addis Ababa to re-imagine, be creative, cultivate their dreams and move forward with their idea.
Decorated with comfy red couches, Iceaddis is crowded by tech personalities with big headphones. Taking their corner, most of them are glued to their laptops without conversation rather in contemplation of their app creation. They seem to have a sentimental relationship with their laptops; the only time they leave their chair is to get coffee or tea. Temesgen Fisseha, 26, is one of the app developers who were present at Iceaddis when The Reporter visited the app dungeon. Graduating from Addis Ababa University with computer engineering, the job opportunities in the market turned out to be monotonous and uncreative. After working for sometimes he met a senior developer who shared his dream of creating innovative apps and transform many sectors such as hospitality, health and logistic to match with the advanced technology that is available. After doing an extensive research they developed an app called “50 Lomi” which was launched a couple of months ago. According to Temesgen, this app has a feature of analytics and forecast of advanced statistical data of the past, current and the future. The app also employs interlinked systems that run on branch and side businesses and which enables control of all the sales and inventory on hand. Temesgen believes this is a cutting edge app for various sectors in Ethiopia to transform their work digitally.
For hospitals, this app digitalizes patient’s information, the workload of the doctors, information on organizational structure, availability of the medical equipment and the tests, history of the patient, system that notifies the laboratory and also connects up to the cashers.
Temesgen says that, in hotels, the app allows customer history and specific taste to be stored. The app also has a feature of an installed TV screen that allows the customers to order anything they want to see, of course chargeable to their hotel bills. “This will enable the owners to avoid wastage, control what they have and also do inventories and plan ahead,” says Temesgen.
The app took seven months to develop, including the trial period. Though they were able to take it to the market it was priced at 100 to 300 birr per app. Thus far, they were able to sell the app for only five companies. Temesgen says it was a challenging road on account of shortage of seed money where they were forced to cover the expenses of the development that consumed up to 100,000 birr. The price would have escalated had it not been for Iceaddis hub and its business incubated facilities. For Temesgen, what they are looking for is a way to penetrate the market further. On the other hand, Melaketsehay Mesele, 33, is working on his app “besew”; a delivery service app that aimed at strengthening human involvement and technology in delivery.
This idea came to him after hearing many stories about the difficulties of sending equipment to various parts of the city. According to Melaketsehay, most delivery service providers including DHL are expensive. “We depend on people to send equipment. So, my question was how one could transform this into the digital age,” says Melaketsehay.
While contemplating this idea, he heard about a competition of venture capitalists that came through Iceaddis. He did not win at the competition since most of the capitalists wanted to support an app that has passed a certain phase in development. After a while, when another venture capitalist firm named 1776 came, he won and was chosen to pitch his idea in Nairobi. It was a two-minutes pitch for an audience of 200. “I actually froze; the slide presentation didn’t work and I could not say anything. Though I know the issue, I froze and the minutes passed,” laughs Melaketsehay.
Though the pitch did not materialize, he was able to get validation and acknowledgement for his work that was good for people around him.
Now in the development stages, the app will have a database as a delivery that connects customers with the delivery personalities. Graduating a decade ago from African Virtual University, Melaketsehay is a self-taught app developer. “One has to know the basics, since the technology changes fast. One should not settle but rather equip and updated with the knowledge,” says Melaketsehay.
It was not decades ago since Addis Ababa university also incorporated courses such as artificial intelligence and app development into the mainstream course. The students are also involved in many projects even before graduation. One of them is Ashenafi Goitom, 24, a fourth year student of software engineering at AAU, who is working on an app at Iceaddis.
With his team, they are working on new entertainment website called Stavimer, which is a platform on talent management, recruiting talent and connecting talents. This app plans to include a pool of entertainment professionals and aspiring people in the field of arts. According to Ashenafi, this will enable users to be able to discover art and talents with their own specific chosen interest. Its first phase will be a website and will come into IOS and android versions. “Compared to a talented musician, a laughing cat will get more views on YouTube; this is the downside of social media. So Stavimer decreases that noise and will connect talents,” says Ashenafi.
Incepted by Amanuel Lemma, this app will eliminate bureaucratic barriers, facilitate direct connections and gives a platform for young aspiring talented people. To be launched on July 25, they are working on the creative field of fashion, music, dance, and literature.
Markos Lemma, the co-founder of Iceaddis, says on his part that the inception came about in seeing the absence of a technology hub for graduating students, who wants to innovate, create and develop various technological inputs.
When they start this space five years ago, related to the penetration of Internet, which according to Markos was 0.4 %, the endeavor was a challenging one. Most of their projects were lagging behind because of the Internet interruption.
According to Markos, they supported various tech personalities by giving them free access to internet, free space, trainings if needed, project management and idea pitching support and also by creating networks with other companies, investors and projects.
So far, they incubated 21 companies, including Mekian.net, which launched their products and registered varying degree of success. According to the Economist, Mekina.net is second biggest Internet based company in Ethiopia in 2014 with 500,000 dollars market valuation. Mekina.net is a distance second to Dire Tube, the leading video sharing website in Ethiopia, which is valued at two million dollars. According to this list, Google is number one globally with 410 billion dollar market valuation and followed by Amazon at 186.9 billion dollar.
Depending on funds from various partnerships, Iceaddis works with Google, micro-soft, GIZ, Plan international and also other international organizations. According to Markos, since many people had a Smartphone with android operating system, most of the applications are made for android at beginning.
The first apps that were designed for android were limited to three things: Ethiopian calendar, guide for tourists and Amharic dictionary. With the growth of Internet penetration and Smartphone users, the app developers started to diversify.
According to Markos’s estimation, currently, there are around 250 android and IOS developers around Iceaddis circle. Browsing the Internet one can see the various apps that are available in Addis.
Some of the apps include Yeneta app (Amharic learning app), Hawi (oromigna learning app); brana (a storytelling app); Mula (an easy tool to send, check balance of the mobile credit). There are a lot of games such as Gursha that is developed by x-hubs. There are innovative apps that calculate pregnancy cycles, a location of sales, recipe of Ethiopian food, ticketing, management and also a famous one among high school students, which aggregates all past national, school-leaving examinations.
In addition to that, government enterprises also fund the development of various apps. These projects involve a generation of technologically savvy young minds. One of them is Paulos Yabelo, 17, who works on security breaches. According to Markos, Paulos had identified security breaches of even multi-international companies. He was acknowledged and awarded by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Twitter and Sound cloud who compensated him for his effort. Though the app developing world seems to be flourishing, it is not without a challenge. Markos identifies some of the problems including low Internet penetration that is a marketplace for these developers. Though he says the internet penetration is growing with the coming of 3G and other services reaching 6 percent, it is still not enough. On the other hand, Melaketsehay proposes a solution in which Ethio-telecom to give incentives for free access of internet for app developers who are working on app developments. According to Melaketsehay, Ethio-telecom gives free internet package for the staff member and he raises a question “so why not young innovative people working on technology who cannot afford their internet services. I think as a monopoly internet service provider there must be a responsibility,” he argues.
The second challenge he raises is access to finance or seed money to do an extensive research. App development requires a huge chunk of investment.
According to Markos’s research, to do an app one needs 50-100 thousand dollars of investment in Ethiopia. Though many complain about access to seed money Melaketsehay says that it is not a problem specific to Ethiopia but many countries.
“Even in Silicon Valley, there is a challenge of funding but if one provides space and internet connection, there will be a production of cutting edge technologies,” says Melaketsehay.
The other challenge Markos and also Melaketsehay raise is related to financial regulation of the banks and lack of online payment system that creates a big hurdle for many app developers. According to Markos, for international companies such as Kaymu it became easier to penetrate the local markets with their services such as international hotel booking and shopping agents due to access to online payment.
On the other hand, after launching the developers are expected to register and have a physical presence that is a challenge for many app developers. “Only what you need is a laptop. So, there should be flexibility in letting them register without space. It needs a better regulation,” says Markos.
With all these challenges, still few of the apps in Ethiopia are generating incomes; most of them are struggling.
Markos says that most of the apps are advanced and have standards that are internationally comparable in terms of design aspect, user experience, accessibility and also speed or functionality. There is no application standard in Ethiopia but Markos says most Ethiopian apps adhere to the international app guidelines.