by Anastacia Waweru
Withdrawing from her software engineering course to become a “techprenuer”
wasn’t always a part of 20-year-old Betelhem Dessie’s plans. However, she stopped
midway to focus on spreading the tech gospel.
“This is exclusive content!” She exclaims in her jolly nature. Her interest in technology began to grow at a very young age. It first started with the search for money to celebrate her 9th birthday in the city of Harar, in the eastern part of Ethiopia, where she grew up.
She began working in her father’s electronics shop where she spent her time attending to his customers. She had one goal — to make enough money to spend on her upcoming birthday.
Betelhem stood out as one of the few people in the city giving services such as editing videos and copying music to phones. This is where her exciting journey in entrepreneurship began.
Casting her initial dreams of pursuing astronomy aside, she honed her skills in technology and later moved to the capital, Addis Ababa at the tender age of 10 years. Here, she soon discovered her life’s passion; coding, developing and innovating.
“Till this day I still want to be an astronomer but I changed my mind because the first time I actually made some money it gave me a sense of freedom. That is something I always wanted to have and that’s why I decided to be an entrepreneur.”
Upon arriving in Addis she joined a government agency known as the Information Network Security Agency. Here she worked with mentors and engaged in projects. Later in 2016, she partnered with iCog Labs, an Artificial Intelligence and robotics research and development company.
Two main programs have been launched as a result of this collaboration and run concurrently. ‘Solve It’ and ‘Anyone can code’ act as platforms for solving community problems using innovations from students and competitors.
iCog outsources its AI research and development services to clients from the United States, Canada and Hong Kong.
The initiative closest to Betelhem’s heart is ‘Anyone can Code’. As the project manager, she teaches young children between the age of eight and eighteen, coding and robotics. ACC is meant to educate and build human capital in the tech industry in Ethiopia as well as Africa.
“It’s about giving the opportunity that I had to other kids. And I believe that opportunity has helped me to be the person I am today.”
Another affiliate of iCog is a nationwide innovation competition dubbed ‘Solve It’ that takes part in fifteen cities all over the country. It advocates for local people to solve their own community problems. Betelhem acts as the Project Advisor of this particular program.
THE TECH SAVVY GENERATION
Western countries dominate artificial intelligence and development, with men often occupying leadership positions. Determined to change the narrative, Betelhem’s team is comprised only of women.
Their focus now revolves around curriculum development, targeting to provide access so that people learn more about various technologies. This includes giving them the necessary resources.
“Teach children to be innovators and not just computer scientists. Let them be problem solvers,” stresses Betelhem.
Betelhem’s projects have reached an estimated 20,000 students. She has been able to target them through conferences, public workshops, after school and summer programs, including ACC and Solve It.
“Ethiopia has a population of about 110 million people, so there are 110 million and even more problems. We believe that educating the youth and helping them come up with their own problems and helping those problems change to businesses is what we are trying to do, instead of solving the problems directly.”
The levels of problems that Betelhem and her team deals with are different and require support from various stakeholders, especially for a continent that is still catching up.
“The tech space in other countries is very developed and there is a lot of support. Not only from the government side but there are investors…there are a lot of incubators, there is a lot of accelerators, working spaces and such,” says Betelhem.
For her, creating a tech-savvy community requires more than coding and programming boot camps.
She views the availability of opportunities, exposure and access to education at an early age just like is done in other fields such as the arts, an integral part of building a vibrant community of tech entrepreneurs.