Biruk Hailu is the co-founder and CEO of 360Ground, creators of the newly launched Meda Chat. The app is a multi-purpose messaging, mobile banking& social gaming platform. Its intent is to help Ethiopians socialize and connect for the commercial exchange of goods and services in varies of local languages. According to him, the local startup also hosts instant messaging, social media, interactions with financial and government sectors under a single platform. Here, he reflects with The Reporters Samuel Getachew on why the app is important, the changing landscape of the use of technology in the country and how he envisions the role of Meda within Ethiopia.
Tell me a bit about yourself?
I am one that is involved in business strategy as well as in corporate leadership in areas of product design, in its development and execution. I have led in the areas of mobile apps creations with the intent of using technology to make life easy and services available widely to millions of people, in particular through Meda Chat, a unique messaging, socialand business app created locally.
As you may be aware, Meda is a mobile app payment system, as well as a social media and messaging as a mode of communication arena for many people. Users can use it to buy, send money using local currency and find vital everyday information about a slew of things, including on news, travel, health and entertainment issues, among others.
There is no denying Meda is gaining popularity and you have now partnered with a local bank to make it more relevant to consumers. Tell me about that
Meda Chat was designed locally and targets the fast-growing local population that has turned to technology for everyday use. We have been in development for about five years before the recent official launch. We have gone through much iteration and many challenges I might add since we started it as a side project.
One of the biggest challenges that are always true for a new startup is finding partners. We were no different. I am happy to say, Amole by Dashen Bank offered a revolutionary solution for our need. Our partnership with Amole / Dashen Bank goes even deeper and makes Meda not only a social platform but also a business tool. We are a company that was created locally, by Ethiopians and our sole purposeis to serve the local population. The country remains an important society of million people residing within it and the role of technology isvital in its transformation, like many nations in the world.
Our vision is created with one thing in mind which is on how best to serve the average person out there and not just within one region, but in all parts of the country. The regular Abebe who works hard, has little time to eat and is scoring many hours at work and uses public transportation to move around, diligently works throughout the day and after work goes for a dinner and drinks with his friends or maybe a romantic outing with his wife, and catches his favorite teams’ games and headshome for a good night rest. We are always looking at how we can make his life more enjoyable and less stressful.
Meda wants to be at every touch point of regular Abebe’s everyday life and the lives of millions of people like him.
Meda is gaining popularity among many people. How are you keeping up with that?
That is true and that was the intention from the start. People can now use it for the latest news via our Meda channels and it can be used for everyday chores such as paying fees at supermarkets, at restaurants by using the integrated Amole/Dashen wallet, chat with his friends and family.
Anyone can also fire up group chat to talk business with his boss and colleagues in the office, get his salary right through Meda and in turn pay for rent, buy phone airtime, settle utility bills or transfer money to various locations and in all parts of the country all via the Meda application. And to top it all off, Meda has a fun trivia game called Meda Shi –a real time gameplayerscan compete against each other to answer trivia questions to win prize money in thousands of birrs, every single night.
We’ve now passed the 100Million mark in population, making us the 2nd populous nation in Africa and the 12th in the entire world. Even though we stand as the 12th most populous nation, it’s embarrassing to think we almost completely rely on technologies that were built for westerners by westerners. There is no technology that has fundamentally changed how we live, work or do anything for that fact and built locally. But again, there is nothing wrong with using technologies imported from outside, but supporting, nurturing and engaging with those made locally should be our national interest.
That does not mean, supporting broken technology advances that are local, but of quality, that is practical and is geared towards serving Ethiopians with no quality and expectation being compromised.
How is it helping to engage users to its various technologies?
Notably, some have created a new form of writing, nicknamed ‘Amaglish’ by using English characters to write Amharic words through Meda. This is ultimately what we’re trying to change; we want to give Ethiopians an Ethiopian platform built by Ethiopians to explore new ideas. Meda chat is exactly that.
Right from the start, it has given users the option to choose their preferred language – Amharic, Oromifa, Tigrigna or English and use Ethiopian inspired stickers to express their emotions in ‘the Ethiopian way’. You can imagine the emotional difference between saying ‘I love you’ in English and ‘እወድሻለሁ’ in Amharic and this is what you can do on Meda. Even more, we have an open technology platform that allows third-party developers and partners easily take advantage of our platform to develop even more powerful and useful localized services that live right inside Meda.
How accessible is it for users?
It’s pretty simple and getting on board takes not more than 20-30seconds. First, you need to download ‘Meda’ from PlayStore and register by providing your basic information once done; the account would be created instantly via the Meda & Amole mobile wallet. This means our users will have a mobile bank account in less than a minute without all the hassle. You can then chat in with your Meda friends just like you do on any messaging app.
However, what makes Meda unique is you can also send money from the same screen you are chatting from. Users can deposit or withdraw money to and from their wallet by visiting their nearest Dashen Bank branches or Amole agents. We have made its use as accessible and as easy as humanly possible.
Tell me about 360Ground and the team behind it?
360Ground was founded eight years ago as a branding agency to provide creative services in the digital and print spaces. In later years, we pivoted to focus more on web-based technologies and eventually became a full technology company to address the ever-growing need in the sector. We design, develop, support and promote web and mobile technologies.
We, humans, have passed through different periods of civilization and each brings critical tool of survival, in the stone age you had to use stones to hunt or your chances of staying alive were dimmer than the winter skies and then during industrial revolution you either had to own a machine or should be working in a factory otherwise there was almost no means of making your livelihood and now in the information age, organizing and making sense of information is of paramount importance for business to succeed and stay ahead of the competition.
How have we, as a society, embraced technology in Ethiopia?
Today, it’s common to see Ethiopian business see technology as a luxury and failing to understand it’s the hunting tool for the information age and like survival of the fittest, companies will eventually die and at the minimum, decrease its impact. Today, technology has made a big leap from using sophisticated and expensive software like Enterprise Resource planning into simple & affordable mobile apps.
A simple adoption of a mobile app can bring about a dramatic impact on business by increasing efficiency, streamlining the entire business process, reducing waste and therefore increasing profit margin. Business can also capitalize collected data to further fine-tune their investments and explore new unchartered frontiers.