Betelhem Dessie’s initiatives have taught 20,000 children how to code, launching Ethiopia’s next generation toward a successful future in tech, writes Thomas Lewton
Ethiopia, despite nearly 20 years of steady economic growth, still has one of the lowest GDPs per capita in the world. While the majority of the country contributes to its agriculture-based economy, growing sectors of tech-savvy youths are forging a new path.
In Ethiopia, it is customary to confuse technology as a by-product of development. Unfortunately, it is not only the average Joe or Jane who holds this erroneous belief, but most government officials and policymakers along with administrators in the public universities. Yet, technology is a tool for development.
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.
“I DON’T think Homo sapiens-type people will exist in 10 or 20 years’ time,” Getnet Assefa, 31, speculates as he gazes into the reconstructed eye sockets of Lucy, one of the oldest and most famous hominid skeletons known, at the National Museum of Ethiopia. “Slowly the biological species will disappear and then we will become a fully synthetic species,” Assefa says.
The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa is sponsoring a nationwide innovation competition, “Solve IT!” for Ethiopian youth. “Solve IT!” promotes STEM, entrepreneurship and encourages a new generation of young Ethiopians to solve problems in their communities using technology, software and hardware. The competition is implemented by the U.S. Embassy in collaboration with partners iCog Labs and Humanity+.
One can easily argue humanity’s primary mission on earth is to learn, discover what is hidden, and make life a little bit easier than it was before. Moreover, sharing of what
one has learned has been at the heart of this learning endeavor.
The advent of electronic computer and the Internet has helped in both the discovery and sharing efforts significantly. It has also changed the way people acquire, analyze and disseminate information. Starting from the use of search-engines to fully automated class rooms experiences and even artificial intelligence tutors; the teaching learning world has changed considerably.
At first, it was all about creating illusions. Asking questions endlessly was the golden trick back when a computer parody by the name of Eliza kick-started the era of computers conversing with human beings in the 1960s. With a restricted set of scripted rules, the bot had no clues to grasp the user input, let alone being a good friend of a human.
The long awaited grand event for the Makers Initiative was underway at the premises of Ministry of Science and Technology on March 3, 2017. While I was watching the little cute toys on the pitch, it occurred to me that they never get tired; lifeless expressions! Then I saw the competing students and ah and I saw the familiar signs, weary, worried, but determined. How did we get here?
From where shall I begin? My six hour jail time in Juja Police station, my dramatic door to door salesman experience with Kenyan Universities, or how the Ethiopian Government officially advises its travelling citizens to buy dollar from the black market instead of providing it through its commercial banks? Though it’s customary to follow the chronological order, I think I will start from the middle.
Nairobi, adorned with the dying sun’s reddish light, looked a little less scary this time. On my first visit in 2016, I was so startled at the site of the city’s monstrous traffic jam; the entire freeway from the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the city centre, with hundreds of cars stuffed, looked like a graveyard built for cars in the middle of a swamp.
I’ve been living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the past three months, during which time I’ve been able to spend a lot of time at iCog-Labs’ office and observe what type of work they are doing. Yesterday I visited iCog-Labs’ first Anyone-Can-Code (ACC) lesson, where iCog staff began to teach simple coding to selected High School girls.