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Year of tech and innovation: Even for Ethiopia!

Year of tech and innovation: Even for Ethiopia!

Today, technology has reached levels of advancement only science fiction had only imagined in the 1950s. Self-driving cars, gene editing, robotics, missions to outer space and innumerable innovations in software and hardware have advanced technology to unprecedented levels. It has also been a year of controversy regarding privacy, fast-tech, and increasing automation leading to job losses. Facebook faced major backlash from the public for leaks resulting in infringement of privacy laws and Apple faced court for producing products with short shelf life but neither companies profit margins were affected substantially.

Ethiopia’s tech scene is still burgeoning but some developments are still worth mentioning. Sophia, a robot created by diverse group of engineers including Ethiopia’s iCog Lab, made a splash at the ICT Expo this year, Gebeya’s phone game Kukulu has also reached an international market, taxi hailing service Ride is changing service industry, blockchain technology was lauded by the Ministry of Science and Technology and adopted to track coffee export. Coders, developers and startups are continuing to create innovating, socially relevant technology including Christian Tesfaye’sGebeyanet that connects consumers with fresh, local farm produce and BetelehemDejene’sZafree, a machine that produces paper without use of trees.

Blue Moon has also launched Blue Lab, a 3D publication that will allow innovators to 3D print virtually anything. Blue Moon’s business incubation program led to the development of Zafree and it continues to focus on agro-tech, supporting the second largest source of GDP for the country though innovative technology. Incubators like iceAddis and xHub, along with Gebeya IT Academy, Reach for Change and Gobeze attempt to increace digital literacy and support young innovators. The street running from Edna Mall to Friendship Mall is now dubbed as ‘Addis’s Silicon Valley’. It may not be accurate, but the attempt put Ethiopia on the tech map.

Arma Investment Group has invested in the development of ecommerce site Zembil as well as a study guide app for high school students Fetena.

Several banks have opened doors to non-cash payment with CBE Birr and Amole.

While the west’s love affair with digital currency plateaued, few local groups promoting bitcoin and ethereum have attempted it. The future is open to that one.

“The coming of Prime Minister AbiyAhmed (PhD) has created the perfect tech environment.” KirubelGirma of Arma and DagmawiBedilu of the Game Lab responsible for ChewataAwaki and Enter Africa attribute the largest event of 2018 that has changed the tech atmosphere came from the government. Ethio Telecom’s nearly 200% discount on internet access has allowed developers to work more efficiently.

These developments, however, are just outliers. In a country with low digital literacy and internet penetration, few have succeeded to plod through the mud. Power outages are frequent and system shuts down often. The lack of foreign currency has hampered a lot of ventures.

It is clear Ethiopia will not reach the stage of global competitiveness any time soon in this sector. Digital literacy is still less than 5% nationwide. Knowledge of technology imported from abroad usually focuses on Addis Ababa and other cities, rarely moving beyond urban areas. The tech divide between these two areas is very large and the possibility of bridging that soon is rather daunting.

iCog Labs has been attempting to change that. With funding from the United States Embassy and various international organizations, iCog has launched several community service projects including Solve IT, a nationwide tech competition. They tour the country, often collaborating with state universities and high schools, giving coding workshops and trainings on artificial intelligence. Since the establishment of iCog Labs in 2013, they have trained 20,000 students in Ethiopia.

As iCog Labs founder and CEO GetnetAseffa says that tech infrastructure is very low and government support is virtually non-existent. Educational institutions that focus on STEM fields do not have proper resources to successfully train large number of students. Addis Ababa Science and Technology University (AASTU) hopes to be the primary tech institute in the country but computer labs are closed to students often.

Solve IT has introduced hundreds of students to the potentials of technology but many do not have access to computers or smart phones. “Government must open large spaces for innovation. We need internet labs, computers, electronic materials that can be found at very low cost and some mentoring experts for the students. The value generated by these students is a trillion times more than the cost of running such a center,”Getnet argues.

A major issue startups and tech entrepreneurs face is the lack of funding. Banks do not provide loansto business ideas of this sort and there are few venture capitalists willing to invest in the youth. The reservation is understandable. Investing in youth with ideas that are brand new is risky. New technology is scary to those unwilling to look into the future. Many had failed to see the potential of Apple or Snapchat but were eager to join the bandwagon when they took off.

A recent medium article by NahomTamerat had received a lot of attention. In it Nahom lays his entrepreneurial dreams to rest as he decides to liquidate his business of 13 years.“I contend that every Ethiopian has the feeling that governmental organizations are sort of the "enemy" that you have to do battle with every now and then,” he says.

Licensing procedures, tax laws, competency and capital requirements that stall innovative people with low capital or no office space, poor customs policies, bureaucracy and lack of understanding among government officials hampers the work of entrepreneurs. iCog Labs faces issues in customs and taxing as there are no policies in place that determine the value of exporting software.

It is hoped the privatization of the only telecommunication provider will allow more competition and improve service. However, fewer restrictions can lead to exploitation of the system and many are aware of the possibility.

“It looks to me like we are headed right into a ravine of a crumbling infrastructure. As anyone would have noticed, mobile network has been continually deteriorating, 3G barely works, broadband is disrupted often, mostly due to power outages. The most recent price deductions by EthioTelecom has brought a deluge of new subscribers which, if not properly managed – unlikely it will be – will result in the already bad service going to really horrible,” says Nahom.

While some government institutions and large companies have attempted to get with the times, their attempts have been quite feeble and ineffective.

Addis Ababa University had launched an online registration system for new students but the effort failed to integrate with the paper-based filing system. According to Getnet, the university had planned on launching a graduate school program in artificial intelligence for 5 years but the school has yet to take off.

Many complain CBE Birr is not well integrated with the existing bank system, making transactions unnecessarily complex. The introduction of online payment systems like Kenya’s m-Pesa could help with this issue. E-commerce, a venture that has been attempted by many over the years until they gave up in frustration, could revolutionize transaction within the country.

Programs like Semaydocs, which digitalizes paper documents by using optical character recognition, a difficult software to build for a visually complex and interchangeable script like Amharic/Geez attempt to ease the burden of these institutions as they transition to more modern methods of operation. But the move has been uphill and many continue to complain. “The government is doing nothing,” says Getnet.

So why won’t these institutions use the talent in the private sector? Many comment that the divide between public and private is growing as the private sector looks to catch up to the rest of the world and the public is stalled by red tape and lack of knowledge. The world predicts augmented reality and casual vacations to Mars by 2030 but Ethiopia has far to go. But the possibilities are still there. In his follow up article, Nahom recommends incentives for startups, slashing prices for internet even more and introducing electronic means of payment.

Even while the article was raging on Twitter, government officials (who I was surprised to find active on Twitter) were saying that new policy and other changes were to follow and to be patient. So, yeah, I see some hope here,” Says Nahom.

The future of the world is in technology and Ethiopia should join the race. The potential is obvious to those in private and public sector and partnerships will only lead to improved infrastructure.

The government response to the taxi hailing service Ride was especially subverted by public response. The social media hashtag #iStandWithRide prevented the unfair shutdown of a service that was using tech to solve a major city problem. Public awareness of the issue is clearly important. Concerned citizens and private companies should lobby governing institutions, ensuring the passage of policies that serve the public by utilizing digital technology. 

Nahom writes, “I don’t believe the tech sector requires special attention or help. If the government could only get out of the way and let people do what they do, it would suffice.” That’s also a possibility.