Interview

One woman’s mission to empower Ethiopia’s youth through tech

One woman’s mission to empower Ethiopia’s youth through tech

Words: Nicky Trevett

Photos: Maheder Haileselassie

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Anyone can code, says Betelhem Dessie. And she’s going to prove it. Meet the self-taught programmer who’s determined to unleash the potential of the country’s young people.

Ethiopia is transforming. This is a country where most people still make a living from farming, and poverty and violence continue to blight lives. But in the capital Addis Ababa, you’ll find a buzzing tech and startup scene that looks set to rival those of Kenya, South Africa and beyond.

And the transformation is just getting started. For a country looking to grasp the opportunities of a digital future, Ethiopia has a big advantage: its young people. Half of the country’s population were born since the millennium. A huge and restless cohort of digital natives are here, ready to create change.

One of them is Betelhem Dessie. This 21-year-old self-taught programmer has been coding since she was nine. Her exceptional talent was spotted at a young age, and the government supported her education, enabling her to move to Addis Ababa and develop software for use in education and agriculture while she was still at school.

Dessie has focused her efforts on helping as many young people as possible get a quality education in tech.

By the time she began a degree in software engineering, she was already well known. But she decided university wasn’t for her, and dropped out. Instead of learning, she wanted to teach. Her aim, she says, is to “democratise technology”.

Ethiopia’s youth have no lack of ideas, energy or ambition, Dessie believes – but they can’t fulfil their potential alone. “What we see in Ethiopia is a lack of co-creation centres where like-minded people can come together and create and innovate,” she says. “We don’t have a lot of those spaces, so a lot of students don’t know where to start.”

“It’s about equipping kids to cope in the 21st century”

Betelhem Dessie

Now she’s creating those spaces. As well as serving as an advisor to artificial intelligence and robotics business iCog Labs, she’s also the driving force behind two related initiatives that have transformed the lives and prospects of tens of thousands of young people over the past five years. The first is Anyone Can Code (iCog-ACC), a subsidiary of iCog that educates 8-18-year-olds in coding and computer skills – and only asks them to pay if they can afford to. Education got her where she is, and she’s determined to help others reach their potential too.

Participants learn how to develop apps and games as well as the ability to programme and control robots, lights and other devices. “More than that, it’s about equipping kids to cope in the 21st century,” says Dessie. “It’s about problem solving, analytical thinking and self-learning, as well as digital literacy. It means understanding how the internet works, how to get information from it, how to identify wrong and false information, how to keep your privacy and make sure your data is not being used. We think these are really important lessons, especially in this day and age.”

Students learn at centres, summer camps, weekend workshops and after-school sessions – whatever suits them best. “We try to subsidise based on the revenue we generate,” says Dessie. “We use the money that we get from people paying for training and fund some of it back to our programmes that target public school students.”

The programme has also received funding from international organisations that work on digital literacy, including the Mastercard Foundation, and universities have provided regional support on the ground. In fact, iCog-ACC has been so successful that the model has attracted attention overseas. In 2019 Dessie travelled to Sweden to give coding lessons there, and iCog-ACC is now working with children’s charity Plan International to do more activities in Sweden.

Skills for life

While the training is usually given to girls and boys together, girls-only programmes have also been introduced into high schools. “We integrate topics like sexual reproductive health, gender-based violence, and the kinds of issues that are usually not talked about, especially in a school setting,” says Dessie. “The girls get the coding education but also other skills and the necessary knowledge to keep themselves away from problems – or at least be aware enough to report them.”

Betelhem Dessie welcomes participants to Solve IT in 2019. Photo courtesy of Betelhem Dessie

Sometimes students use their new tech skills to address these problems directly. One group developed a game about a girl on her way to school who bumps into animals that represent different problems — including things like the pressure to stay home to look after siblings and the risk of sexual assault. “So the girl shoots them with an arrow, and the arrow has solutions, like learn self-defence, choose a different path to school or go with your friends. She shoots these arrows at the animals and kills them, and at the end she goes to school. They were able to develop a game which addressed the issues in society but at the same time finding solutions to them, which we thought was really exciting.”

The real world

It doesn’t stop at 18. Dessie also devised Solve IT, a nationwide innovation competition for 18-28-year-olds (whether employed, unemployed or studying), which is all about putting skills into action. Solve IT runs over six weekends, complete with free mentoring and training in design thinking and entrepreneurship. It has been supported by the US Embassy and Japan’s International Cooperation Agency, as well as local sponsors. Winners receive funding to get their startup off the ground.

“iCog-ACC focuses on providing skill sets for young kids, but Solve IT focuses on finding solutions for local problems and scaling those up into businesses,” says Dessie.

“It doesn’t matter if you went to a great university – what matters is if you have a computer, access to the internet and the drive to achieve”

Betelhem Dessie

Awareness of the importance of a good tech education is growing, Dessie believes

The results are impressive. One group that took part in Solve IT demonstrated the potential of aeroponics – growing plants in air or mist, without soil, meaning no pests or soil-related diseases. Others have addressed challenges such as selling farm products online, sorting waste plastic and monitoring patients in hospitals.

One participant developed what Dessie calls “Uber for Milk”, after finding that city cafes couldn’t serve him a glass of milk, even though there was plenty being produced in villages nearby. He used his Solve IT training to build a simple app to collect information about the quantity of milk being produced in his own village, then calculating the shortest distance he would need to travel to collect and deliver it (then, adds Dessie, built his own tuk-tuk to make the deliveries).

Ethiopia’s politicians are waking up to the importance of nurturing tech talent. In the past, education policy has tended to be about “access rather than quality”, says Dessie, but that’s changing. “I think now they understand the value of the quality of the education that’s provided, and the enabling environment for entrepreneurs in Ethiopia. It’s a struggle every day, but we have seen a lot of progress.”

Over the past year, Covid-19 has caused an unavoidable hiatus in the running of iCog-ACC, which had to go all-online, and Solve IT, which had to be temporarily suspended. But Dessie has used the break to look to the future.

One of her favourite schemes is nearing completion: a mobile computer centre, or ‘digi-truck’, equipped with laptops, 3D printers and robots, which will tour the country and hopefully open young people’s eyes to what’s possible.

In the end, Dessie adds, “it doesn’t matter if you went to a great university or anything else – what matters is if you have a computer, access to the internet, a work ethic and the drive to achieve”.

DISCOVER MORE

  • iCog-ACC – Teaching kids to code
  • Solve IT – Helping young people create new solutions and start businesses
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