12 Jun

Ethiopia’s tech startups are confident change is coming

Word that Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed is looking to loosen his country’s tight grip on strategic assets like its fast-growing airline and its long-term telecom monopoly has sparked interest from international investors and regional corporations.

It’s easy to see why: Ethiopia, with a population of 100 million, has had one of the world’s fastest-growing economies for the past decade. It’s also had a successful top-down implementation of various infrastructure initiatives in transportation and construction.

Still, Ethiopia’s also been called a “sleeping giant” because of its closed markets. Decades after last socialist government, it still has a heavily regulated business environment. Things were changing even before Abiy’s appointment and as the country’s tense politics led to a state of emergency after ethnic-led protests and fatal clashes with security forces.

At the Afrobytes tech conference in Paris, an Ethiopian delegation of 12 local startups attended to show off some the not-often-seen initiatives. Zekarias Amsalu, founder of investment advisory firm Ibex Frontier, who led the startup group, says he coined the moniker “Sheba Valley” to describe one of Addis Ababa main startup hubs.

Amsalu has long been a champion for Ethiopia’s potential, saying it’s not about “emotion, but logic.” The accountant, who splits his time between London, Washington DC and Addis, explains: “We just want our story to be told.

We have 250,000 university graduates every year, about 70% of them are in STEM subjects, there’s so much potential.” Sheba Valley is now recognized as a leading hub for AI technology on the continent led by Icog Labs, the Addis research team.

“You have to be smarter than the machines than you’re using,” says Betelhem Dessie, who at 18 is already a project manager for Icog, while still a student at the University of Addis Ababa.

There are several other hubs, including Ice Addis and Bluemoon and more established tech-led ventures including Gebeya, an online marketplace for talent.

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