“Entrepreneurship Isn’t About Easy Money”

LemmasA number of African pioneers and entrepreneurs have ventured towards establishing technology start-up companies and innovation hubs.  The eLearning Africa Report interviews Markos Lemma co-founder of iceaddis, an innovation hub based in Ethiopia

Please tell us about your personal journey: what was your most influential formative educational experience as you were growing up?

I never went to any particularly exceptional schools in my childhood. I attended public schools both at primary and secondary level. But the most influential formative educational experience I had was when I joined a university. I obtained a Bachelor’s degree from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University) through a programme of the African Virtual University (AVU), which I attended in Addis Ababa with a mixed-mode education system.

The programme incorporated standard lectures (from Addis Ababa university facilitators), VSAT live lectures from Melbourne, via the WebCT eLearning platform (undoubtedly, the first eLearning programme in the whole country) and different virtual platforms. I believe this method of mixed-mode learning and teaching is very effective: it gives students unlimited possibilities of getting their questions answered from different places.

What was it that inspired you to start iceaddis?

I am one of the co-founders of iceaddis. In the beginning, we were asking ourselves very basic questions. “Where can the Ethiopian creative youth go when they have great ideas?”, “How do people start a business with zero experience?”, “What can link universities with industries?” The answers weren’t as easy as the questions.

Previously, I was involved in private sector development projects at the German Association for International Co-operation (GIZ), back then GTZ. We already noticed many gaps, even with export-oriented companies, in the country. Undoubtedly, the biggest inspiration came when one of the co-founders visited iHub Nairobi. We felt the dots were connected, and the answer was of course as easy as the question. We needed open spaces, collaborative physical platforms, and we need some energised people who are able to drag hands and tap backs to create something great in a country where innovation and co-working are least endorsed.

Please tell us how you influenced iceaddis since it was started

Community management is in the foundation of the iceaddis structure. We believe establishing new vibrant communities and supporting the existing tech communities is a key precursor for start-ups to emerge. The encouragement of these communities creates its own competition and the desire to do and make big things. I have been involved in tech community management at iceaddis since the beginning.  Tech communities in Ethiopia are very vulnerable.  Communities need constant follow-up, workshops, events and communications. 

Can you give us an example of the challenges you have faced whilst working at iceaddis: how did you overcome them?

One of the biggest challenges we have is the lack of real co-operation from the private sector, government institutes or international organisations.  There is always verbal appreciation and willingness to participate but this isn’t always done visibly.

Furthermore, recruiting creative, innovative and fast-paced and self-motivated individuals into the communities is very hard. The mind-set is not there yet. There are more talkers than doers. Entrepreneurship isn’t about quick money. It is about changing the course of services and products. This needs dedication and consistency. We faced a lot of challenges finding such committed people. This is an on-going challenge.

Another challenge we face is the Internet infrastructure. We don’t want our entrepreneurs to waste one minute of their precious time, but the sole Internet service provider, Ethio-telecom, is still struggling to find its position in the Ethiopian tech scene. Only one per cent of the general population is connected to the Internet; this is very small market share for the entrepreneurs who are working solely in the ICT sector. Products are not consumed, so the profits are minimal.

As a hub we can’t even afford an Internet connection of more than 4MBps. This slows down our activities at every level.  In addition, other infrastructures related to the Internet are still in the infant stage. East Africa is well known for its mobile banking, however, this has not taken hold in Ethiopia yet. Developers don’t have infrastructure to sell their product to customers. They cannot upload their product to either Google Play or the Apple Store. There are no credit card systems and no international banking services.

However, we have been developing a local app store to tackle this problem. Once this platform is up, developers will be able to start to sell their products to customers in Ethiopia using SMS balance transfer. We take these challenges positively. The reason we are up here and working is to make sure that innovative ideas come out of the hub to tackle such issues. We are innovation hub, not an ICU unit!

How do you think technologies can best help build sustainable human development across Africa?

The answers for most of the questions we have in Africa are critical thinking and access to technology. Usually, people think about high-techs whenever they think of technology. The truth is we need to get access to technology at every level. Promoting and using technology should be widely practiced. As the famous saying goes: “it is easier to have old problems than new solutions”. We need to accept new solutions. There is no magic technology which solves all the problems we have. In reality, only few technologies work in specific situations out of thousands of technologies available. We need to try out, test and keep on promoting and using these solutions.

Africa is famous for mobile technology and social media. If the next big thing doesn’t come out of Africa, there will be no next big thing. Africa is big. My knowledge is very much limited to my surroundings, but I believe that in every village everyone should work to enable access to technology and encourage people to think critically.

What do you think is the most significant change that needs to happen in order to tackle the education and training challenges that Africa faces?

The first and basic change that should occur is that Africans need to believe that if we don’t solve our problems, no one will. But I think I am too late to state this. Most Africans are already aware of that. The basic change is done.  Education is the key and it all starts at the family level.  Families have the highest responsibility in raising the next generation. I believe the biggest change should happen to tackle education and the challenges we face in Africa is to have a tight relationship between communities and educational institutions.

The Internet infrastructure should be improved. Schools need to be more equipped and open. I have noticed in the schools in Ethiopia that schools are only for the students. This attitude should be changed.  Higher education should work closely with the private sector; students need to get their hands dirty. If education is all about theories, we only need to teach people to read. We need to learn but also practice what we learn. I know these are basic and elementary statements. But these are the essentials.

Education reforms and curriculum revision should be carried out at every level. We should stop teaching, we should start educating.

What do you consider to be the most transformative, innovative and exciting initiative currently taking place in technologies and education, skills development and lifelong learning and training in Africa?

I’m really excited to be part of the reading research project currently running in two Ethiopian villages. This project is aimed to tackle low literacy levels – a serious problem in Africa. The research is carried out in collaboration with OLPC, MIT and Tufts University. Basically, we give tablets to the kids and check if they can learn how to read just through using apps. The programme has been running for one year, and the children in the project are at the cusp of being able to read. This is a very innovative and transformative initiative going on in Africa right now.

M-Learning is very transformative. There is high penetration of mobile phones on the Continent. This is something growing at an interesting rate. There are more mobile phones in Uganda than light bulbs and 91 per cent of South Africans own at least one mobile phone. In Gabon, there are more mobile subscriptions than inhabitants.

Using mobile phones for education is not only innovative; it is also far cheaper than traditional models. Schools don’t need to provide mobiles as students already own them. This is a great advantage over organising a computer lab. The culture of mobile communication is also mature – people in Africa know very well how to operate a mobile phone. This is especially interesting considering the fact that mobile technology is one of the fastest growing technologies in the world. Ubuntu already introduced standard Operating Systems for mobiles. I believe the schools should seriously consider how to teach students to get the maximum use out of their mobile phones.

The vibrant spread of innovation and incubation centres is also a good example of great African initiatives. These hubs help the students learn entrepreneurship, life-skills and business skills and they have enough facilities to give on-the-job training.

What is the most significant lesson or piece of advice you would share with others seeking to follow in your footsteps?

A new mind-set is coming to Africa. This generation of Africans is tired of aid. We are sick of listening to the same old single-story over and over again. I began with understanding our surroundings. I have been giving enough attention to what is going on around me before I look to see what’s up thousands of kilometres away. Our streets are full of opportunities and it is important to participate at the community level. I believe we need to do things on the spot, communicating as far as it is possible and thinking of the long-term and comprehensive benefits.

My advice is that it is all about drawing a small circle around us. We need to give extra attention to where we are living. We need to influence the people around us and start small. Of course, the more we win over the heart of our community, the more our circle will expand.

Looking forward to the next five years – what do you see on the horizon in terms of influential changes, transitions, technologies and trends that will affect the integration of educational technologies in education, skills development and lifelong learning landscape in Africa?

In near future, the participation of private companies in the education sector will grow. Almost 50 per cent of Ethiopia’s population is under the age of 18. With scarce facilities, this is a big threat and traditional educational institutes cannot satisfy this need alone.  The Ethiopian Ministry of Education targets to have at least one school in each “kebele” (about 3 km radius). This means that the numbers of students who are ready to join university are extremely huge. It requires a lot of private sector involvement.

The Internet penetration will also increase in the coming years. This will give a suitable environment for eLearning and mLearning. I also expect that the number of diaspora Africans coming back to Africa will increase. This will make the universities better equipped in terms of human resources.

I also believe Open Educational Resources (OER) will be widely used. More and more schools are integrating mobile phones into their classrooms. More content will be generated by Africans. Investment in affordable tablets and laptops will circumvent the high cost of printing text books.

What will iceaddis contribute to Africa’s human development over the next five years?

iceaddis is a place for high potentials. Startups emerging out of iceaddis will create unique job opportunities. The whole philosophy of open and common knowledge is to influence the mind-set of young Ethiopians. Iceaddis will work on encouraging sharing culture, promoting Ethiopian innovation to the world. The icehubs network is a growing network: icecairo in Egypt and icebauhaus in Germany are already established entities and I believe the icehubs network will be expanding to other neighbouring countries. There are already initiatives to open hubs in South Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti. The iceaddis prototyping facilities will also enable our communities to design their products.

We are looking forward to forging new partnerships and connecting with more supportive organisations: we are open to any kind of cooperation! Our contribution is to be a home for future innovators. 

“Entrepreneurship Isn’t About Easy Money” is one of the twelve opinion pieces featured in the eLearning Africa 2013 Report. To read more about the annual publication, please visit: http://elearning-africa.com/media_library_publications_ela_report_2013.php.

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