During Global Entrepreneurship Week, a Partnership Opportunity Delegation traveled to Ethiopia to listen, share, and explore opportunities, as the country is currently going through historic economic and political reforms that are setting the stage for U.S. private investment. The genesis of this trip dates back to May 2019, when the Department of State’s Office of Global Partnerships (GP) convened over 400 private sector leaders and policy makers to explore opportunities in Ethiopia’s rapidly changing economic landscape. The energy surrounding this event launched an endeavor to bring the change-makers themselves to the country, thus bringing together a diverse set of business leaders, government officials, and entrepreneurs enthusiastic to discover Ethiopia’s potential.
On Monday morning, the delegation started to coalesce in the hotel lobby, drawn together only by vague recognition of the headshots we’d seen in our briefing packets. We were aware of the participant’s basic bios, but still had no idea what each would contribute to the overall dynamic of the group. As we boarded the van that would deftly navigate the frenetic streets of Addis for the next five days, there was a palpable anticipation emanating from the delegation. There was much excitement for the general unknown that awaited us and enthusiasm to get started.
The schedule kicked off at the U.S. Embassy to get a better understanding of the country and what the innovation ecosystem looks like for Ethiopian entrepreneurs. The founders of five startups painted an inspiring portrait of why they believe the country is positioned to be a tech hub on the continent but also gave us a glimpse of the cultural and policy challenges they face. Ambassador Raynor and his team then gave us an overview of why now is the moment to work with Ethiopia by contextualizing the moment and detailing the historic reforms the country is currently undergoing thanks to the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
We took a break from the download of information we’d received to tour the U.S. Embassy-supported Muya Factory. Our time at the textile and ceramic factory was a gorgeous reminder that entrepreneurship and innovation doesn’t have to mean high-tech. All of the crafts produced by Muya are made with the same techniques that have been utilized by Ethiopians for hundreds of years.
The day closed out with a much appreciated reality check courtesy of Precise Consulting and 251 Communications, two of the original management and communication firms in Addis Ababa, respectively. Without discrediting the excitement we’d generated that morning, they provided a deeper dive into the many significant policy hurdles faced by those in the country’s startup scene. The discussion was hugely beneficial to our group and prepared us for the meetings with the Ethiopian Government Ministries we’d have the rest of the week.
After an exhausting first day (a jam-packed day plus intense jet lag… a recipe for success!) the delegation loaded back onto the van with a much better understanding of both the country and how we might be able to contribute. The first stop was the blueMoon agribusiness incubator, where I led a conversation with the founder, Dr. Eleni Gabre-Madhin, about the future of youth-led startups in Ethiopia. Though it’s only two and a half years old, blueMoon is already an elder statesman in the country’s bourgeoning tech scene. Over 33 startups have graduated from the incubator’s program, which also provides investment opportunities for the entrepreneurs and students with which it works.
From there we traveled to the Ministry of Science and Higher Education (MoSHE), where we learned about the country’s plans to revamp its education system to better prepare Ethiopia’s students for the demands of the modern economy. While there, the delegation brokered its first official commitment, a memorandum of understandingsigned between MoSHE, Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and EDGET@SV (an Ethiopian diaspora group in Silicon Valley), establishing a partnership to promote social entrepreneurship in Ethiopia. The genesis of the partnership came from MoSHE’s delegations visit to Silicon Valley in September to attend ENACTUS World Cup. The visit was made possible through the generous support of ENACTUS and EDGET@SV.
The day wrapped up with a visit to the Ministry of Innovation and Technology (MInT), once the home of Prime Minister Abiy. The delegation was able to discuss MInT’s plans for increasing Internet access across the country to ensure equal opportunities for all of its citizens and learn a bit more about how the Government of Ethiopia sees tech contributing to its ever increasing need for jobs.
Wednesday morning’s meeting with the newly-formed Jobs Creation Commission proved to be the ultimate synthesis of the conversations we’d had with Ethiopia’s public and private sectors in the days prior. Ethiopia (or “Youthiopia,” as one of our delegates called it) has the second largest population in Africa and is experiencing a youth bulge, with a massive percentage of the population under 18. The country knows it needs employment opportunities and has ambitious plans to create them. Startups and IT will play a major role in accomplishing their goal of creating three million jobs over the next year.
The week before we arrived in Ethiopia, the Jobs Creation Commission sent their own delegation to Silicon Valley to begin designing a plan for a tech-focused fund-of-funds (a pooled investment fund that invests in other types of funds), so much of our discussion focused on further developing this idea. The commission’s combination of realism and ambition won over our delegation, and soon the delegates were brainstorming ways to commit their companies and personal expertise to assisting the Prime Minister’s Commission with their goals for Ethiopia.
That afternoon, we took a tour of the wildly impressive iCog Labs. This young research and development company has already had great success in the Artificial Intelligence space and is currently working with companies and institutions around the world, demonstrating through action the potential that Ethiopia has in the tech world. After meeting earlier this year in D.C., we were able to catch up with one of iCog’s breakout stars, the incredible Betelhem Dessie. Only 20 years old, Betty is a self-taught engineer who founded Anyone Can Code, which teaches young Ethiopians the skills they’ll need in the robotics and AI fields, and has trained girls through the Embassy’s “Girls Can Code” project. She stays busy in all kinds of ways, but that will take a whole separate post. Safe to say she’s an incredible ambassador for Ethiopian tech and was a warm host and good friend while we were in town.
Down the street at the offices of Kudu Ventures, seven Ethiopian startups were in the midst of a bootcamp before they’d present their business pitch and compete in our P!TCH ETHIOP!A event on Friday. We left iCog and brought our delegates to the bootcamp to spend one-on-one time mentoring and consulting with the budding entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs benefited from the expertise of the delegates, but the impact they had on our delegation was noticeable as well. In the face of so many hurdles, most of which are completely outside of their control, these young Ethiopians push forward with a relentless vigor to build companies that can change the future of their communities, their country, and the continent. It was impossible not to be inspired.
When we first met the organizers of the Africa Fintech Summit, we had no way of knowing how far we’d go together. After witnessing the energy and ardor from the U.S. and Ethiopian public and private sectors at our Ethiopia Partnerships Forum earlier this year, the summit team decided to finalize their plans to host their annual event in Addis Ababa. The summit drew incredible companies and individuals from all over the continent and beyond for discussions, and networking opportunities, and proved that developments in Fintech will be a game changer for the Ethiopian economy.
As we loaded onto the van for the grand finale of our schedule, it was hard to believe we’d already been in Ethiopia for nearly a week. P!TCH ETHIOP!A, an event organized by the Department of State and partners such as Microsoft and Google, gave the seven entrepreneurs an opportunity to compete for a spot in the semi-finals of the Startup World Cup, which will take place in Silicon Valley in 2020. In just the few days since we had mentored them at the boot camp, they’d grown immeasurably in their ability to tell their stories and deliver their business case. Their presentations wowed the judges and our audience in equal measure, and though the top prize was awarded to Axiom Financial Technologies, all of the startups gave our delegation faith in and excitement about the future of Ethiopia. P!TCH ETHIOP!A was the perfect jolt to send us back home, ready and excited to continue building U.S.-Ethiopia business connections and to continue working towards a more prosperous Ethiopia.
We’re not alone in noticing Ethiopia’s momentous potential. As we were organizing the delegation, the world learned that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. And he’s not the only Ethiopian making waves – just this week, CNN announced that entrepreneur Freweini Mebrahtu would be named their “Hero of the Year” for her work developing affordable, reliable, and environmentally friendly reusable sanitary pads, and more importantly, helping to change the cultural stigma around women’s periods. We hadn’t even made it home from Ethiopia before we started seeing pictures of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey touring the same locations and meeting with the same inspiring individuals we’d just said goodbye to. Jack certainly saw what we do – the future of Ethiopia is now.