AFRICANGLOBE – When it comes to technology and innovation, Ethiopia appears a long way away from the rest of Africa’s rising “silicon savannahs.”
The most advanced form of banking in Africa’s second most populous country is an ATM – there are no credit cards and no international banking systems.
This makes app stores like Google Play and Apple’s Appstore inaccessible.
Mobile money, which has taken off in places like Kenya, has only just arrived, but with significant limitations.
Skype and other VoIP (voice over internet protocol) services are banned for business purposes.
With a lumbering government-owned telecoms monopoly, staggeringly low internet penetration (less than 1% of Ethiopia’s 85m citizens are connected), just 17% mobile penetration, and a very “security conscious” government approach to new technology and services, it’s not the most encouraging environment for small technology start-ups to grow.
But that doesn’t mean some aren’t trying.
“There are a lot of opportunities for techies in Ethiopia,” claims Markos Lemma, co-founder of iceaddis, Ethiopia’s leading technology hub, accelerator and co-working space.
“The middle class is increasing, the market is growing,” he says.
“Agricultural productivity is increasing, farmers are making more money, and even they are interested in new solutions.”
In recent years Ethiopia has become a model of rising Africa.
From a poster child for poverty and famine in the 1980s to an economy seeing an average 10% growth since 2004, the country is witnessing a remarkable turnaround.
Addis Ababa, the capital, is attracting investment and talent from around the world, and cranes and construction projects are now a hallmark of the city.
Yet much of this growth is from sweeping policy changes, government infrastructure projects, and big donor-driven or private investment programmes.
Iceaddis, which opened its doors in May 2011, is trying to change this.
It has become a home for start-ups, promoting local technology and focusing on young Ethiopian entrepreneurs and individuals interested in ICT, green technology, and the creative industries.
Originally designed as an art gallery by a Swiss architect, it is a striking mash-up of six interlocked shipping containers, located on the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building, Construction and City Development (EiABC) campus, in the heart of the capital.
“In the beginning, we didn’t know what exactly what we were working on,” admits Mr Lemma, one of the four co-founders. “We were just bringing the community together to interact.”
Similar to other tech hubs in the region, like Nairobi’s iHub, or Uganda’s Hive Colab, iceaddis grew organically, starting with small events, workshops, and barcamps (tech-related developer meet-ups).
The goal was to connect bloggers and developers, bringing a hidden tech community together for the first time.
Eventually, the community grew; iceaddis secured more funding, moved into its own space, and developed a tiered membership.
They now have over 1,000 members, people who may not use the space everyday, but are part of the network.
Several times a year, iceaddis selects a few dozen start-ups and puts them through 12 weeks of business plan training.
At the end of the programme, several are selected to receive “incubation” at the space, and given resources to grow their ideas.
Unlike many other tech hubs in Africa, iceaddis isn’t just about apps. Plugging in to the surrounding architecture school, the community also highlights innovation in design, construction, and products.
During one week in March, students were learning how to design and build DIY skateboard ramps. A few weeks later, they were hacking android apps.
Yet the barriers to innovation for young Ethiopian entrepreneurs, regardless of industry, remain high.
“There is much willingness and interest from the government for entrepreneurship,” says Mr Lemma. “But there is still so much regulation and permits.”