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Optimism amid challenges for IT innovators in Ethiopia
Rediet Berhanu and his colleagues explaining how their oxygen therapy device works

Optimism amid challenges for IT innovators in Ethiopia

They are in their early twenties and passionate about technology. They say they would love to invent from day in, day out; a dream they crave to live. Rediet Berhanu, Yonas Woldegebriel, and Nebiyu Ahmed were competing in ‘Solve It!’ IT competition challenge organized by the US Embassy in Addis Ababa in partnership with iCog Labs and Humanity Plus.

Self-driving Agro Robot on display
Self-driving Agro Robot on display

 

The trio were here to compete with other 31 winners of a seven-month nationwide innovation competitors who came to Addis Ababa to improve their products with inputs from mentors and showcase them for the final competition. Luckily, the trio were the winners of the competition which won them a 75,000-birr award as seed money for them to further improve their invention.

“We invented an oxygen therapy device which aims at managing oxygen supply for prematurely born infants admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU),” explains Rediet. “The cylinder which is used to provide oxygen for the needy only has a pressure control but does not measure the amount of oxygen required by the infants and take action accordingly. Our invention helps bridge this gap,” he said.

The oxygen therapy device which they invented was built by them from the scratch which measures the amount of oxygen in blood, controls pressure of oxygen inflow and closes and opens the cylinder taking orders from a small board of integrated circuits on which they installed their written program.

“If the child only needs 90 percent oxygen in his/her blood, the cylinders are not capable of keeping that proportion. The extra 10 percent oxygen is being wasted and it also creates respiratory health problems on the infants,” Rediet explains. Hence, their invention is the one that can do this.

Costing them 10,000 birr to build, this product is priced at 20,000 birr when it reaches the market. They plan to invent two of these machines a day making it 12 a week beginning 2019. They plan to take one day to rest.

In addition to getting seed money to expand their invention, the platform that the competition gave them has offered them the opportunity to meet potential investors and partners for their future business.

Rediet and his colleagues, all fresh graduates of Biomedical Engineering from Jimma University, did not stop here; they know the ups and downs of standards for which they started preparing manuals and they are striving to be fit for international markets by conforming to the requirements of such markets. They really dream big!

The surprise this competition shows is not over yet. Girmay Araya, Natan Gebrehiwot and Bisrat Seyoum came with an Agro Robot, a computer-controlled tractor that can saw seeds controlled by a single computer in a room. They say they were motivated to build this robot as they thought the lack of simplified technological support for agriculture is repelling the youth. Hence, they wanted to attract the youth to agriculture by making it simpler.

Another invention by Miftah Seid and Lukas Dola, the duo call their ‘company’ ctHealth, developed a software, both mobile and web application, which provides health information, whatever requested ranging from prevention mechanisms to details of physician prescribed drugs and time of physician prescribed drug consumption to locating nearby health institutions and an Artificial Intelligence Doctor (AI Doctor) which diagnoses symptoms by a Q&A session and directs to a nearby health facility for further diagnosis. They have integrated ambulance and taxi hailing solutions to the system.

“It really has a wide range of functions,” Miftah said.

Their market is to be based on the number of institutions, doctor users and patients who use the service. Ten dollars will be charged for a doctor, USD 20 for health institutions and individuals will pay on percentage calculations from visiting prices.

A visitor of the exhibition at Mosaic Hotel would be astonished by the creativeness of the youth who went to the extent of developing e-voting and e-tourism programs. The inventors stayed at Mosaic honing their inventions helped by mentors and pitching their ideas to potential investors, which for one is the main aim of bringing these kids together.

“The aim of this project is to decentralize technology, and have technology that will be able to be reached by everyone in the society. Often times, technology is found in the cities and is usually not attainable or affordable for the middle and lower classes. Hence, this competition is aimed at allowing all social classes throughout the country to have an opportunity to connect with technology in a way that it makes their lives easier and solves their daily struggles. Furthermore, it was aiming to allow the youth to have a greater reach with technology and be able to explore new areas as well as have a chance to innovate and push themselves,” explains a press release from iCog Labs.

For further motivation, the youth were made to get insights from Eleni Gebremedhin (PhD), the founder and CEO of blue Moon, Dawit Alemayehu, CEO of Qene Technologies and conduct visits to blue Moon, Xhub, Ethiopian Airlines, Information Network Security Agency (INSA) and iCog Labs itself.

But, not all such innovation incubations bear fruit all the time, especially in Ethiopia. This is what the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) admits to be a challenge to the country. In her address at the closing ceremony of this competition, MoST State Minister Efra Ali indicates how difficult the task of incubation has become.

“It is clear that the technology transfer and innovation activities for a country like ours is complicated and requires multiple approaches and players. It also demands the right combination of human resource, infrastructure, finance, institutional set up, proper regulatory environment, and legal framework among others,” she indicated. “There are obvious challenges such as limitations to reach all parts of the country, areas of innovation and all age groups etc.”

This is also shared among innovators and experts in the area. Dawit Alemayehu, the CEO of Qene, who just celebrated second anniversary of his game developing start up, and one of the judges at Solve It! says that the country’s innovators can compete with those at the Silicon Valley in terms of ideas and business ideas. But, they are challenged with one major issue – finance.

“I have personally experienced the challenge of innovating in Ethiopia. Investors mainly prefer to build an asset than invest on innovations,” he says. “This is the 21st century and we have to focus on technological innovations to compete with the rest of the world.”

According to him, the government does not have any incentive for technological inventions like his, which includes lack of infrastructure for software online selling. Some deals requiring works with Ethio Telecom like bulk SMS services give 40 percent of the gains to the telecom monopoly.

“These new inventors cannot have lawyers, accountants and the like to run their infant businesses. The government should have a system to provide them with such supports as the outside world does if it is to compete with the rest of the world. They should not also be taxed like any other industries; at least two years of tax relief are given in other countries,” he stresses.

But, he appreciates the government’s effort of establishing an IT park which provides affordable offices, power supply and internet access for inventors.

The networking event that Solve It! organized for the competitors is also very important in their future business, he believes.

“But, these inventors do not only require investors but partners too who will continue working with them in their future endeavours,” he stands.

Making an example out of his start up, Dawit says that there are opportunities for foreign investors when local investors are not available. But, he says that the country’s investment law has a minimum bar for foreign investors to come and invest in the country. He says ICT related inventions need to have exceptions in this regard.

“If this were possible, we could have resorted to investors who believe in our inventions,” he asserts.

But, iCogs is also preparing for the inventors from Solve It! to get investors.

“Although Solve IT’s aim is to create a sustainable local market, going after small yet hungry investors, we still deal with the challenge vis-a-vis the lack of commitment of these investors amongst others. Hence this goes to mean that the attitude of investors has to change in order to attain a sustainable and exponential growth in such projects. We have a list of 100 investors, in addition to those that we have acquired from our partnering universities, that we keep in the loop and updated about all that is related with Solve IT and the respective projects,” Heldana Michael, Digital Marketing Team Leader at iCog, explains.

Now Qene is being incubated by Gebeya which is an online marketplace that connects African IT experts with businesses to develop technology solutions. He gives a piece of his mind to Solve It! inventors to go work with incubators like blue Moon, Ice Addis, and the like.

“The also need to first look in to the market that they can easily exploit. It is advisable if they can conquer the Ethiopian market first” he advises.

While taking a year to develop their gaming app Kukulu with locally customizable contents, they targeted the local market with an international standard gaming app. Now Kukulu makes tens of thousands a month, he says. Now their prospect has grown by a partnership agreement with a gaming company in the US.

Innovation being at the centre and the ninth goal of the Sustainable Development Goals, the thought in this regard looks to be rigidly traditional in Ethiopia. United Nations Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) voluntary national review of Ethiopia’s SDGs performance in terms of Innovation (which is ‘build resilient infrastructure, inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation’) sticks to telecom services reach by Ethio Telecom, rail road access, electricity access and the like.

For the nation’s economic and other all rounded development endeavours, Efra calls up on private firms to follow in the footsteps of iCogs and contribute their part.

Another challenge that such inventions face is the issue of copyright. Being new to business and with little knowledge of how things go, their intellectual rights might be alienated. But, iCog looks to have little help for this.

“Depending on their interest, we take the contestants to have their software or hardware (as well as) hybrid products to be registered at the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office. Where they may acquire copyright as well as copyright ownership. Thus, the assurance or protection given for inventions that are publicly displayed are indeed copyrights,” Heldana indicates.

Appreciating the inventors and highlighting that they are the future of Ethiopia as well as the commitment of the United States to support them, Mike Raynor, US Ambassador to Ethiopia announced that second generation of Solve It! will continue.

Solve It!’s second season dubbed Solve It! 2.0 aiming at reaching Additional cities (expansion in the cities we will be visiting), bringing in full time mentors, bring in foreign mentors after regional competitions have ended and additional boot camp days. 

In addition to this partnership brought competition, the MoST is also organizing another competition for software developers.