@eliseleclerc Addis Abeba, Ethiopia

While African Union presidential candidates were testing out their first primary-style election debates in Addis Abeba in December, I was trawling the streets of the Ethiopian capital in search of a good picture of any technology-related sign. In a country with one of the lowest mobile penetration (48.3%) and internet penetration (4.2%) in the world this wasn’t an easy task, so I settled for the only mobile telecom sign I could find after hours of walking around.

Ethiopia is one of the last countries where the state still controls all telecommunications and many in the social tech sector say that it is stifling innovation. Indeed, all Ethiopian mobile numbers are owned by the government, who regularly send SMS messages to its 50million subscribers. With the recent state of emergency they were also able to switch off all social networks and mobile internet connections at once.

In that context my field research on Ethiopia’s social tech ecosystems proved challenging but fascinating nonetheless: as one young social tech entrepreneur put it ‘there are so many barriers to social tech in Ethiopia that those who venture into it have to be extremely motivated and passionate about innovation, a crucial element to their future success’.

And luckily for those entrepreneurs there are some support mechanisms in the three or four innovation/social entrepreneurship hubs such as Reach for Change Ethiopia, IceAddis or Xhub, funded by external agencies, venture capitalists and angel investors, who provide seed funding and support.

But as their strong motivation gets them through the hub’s door, resilience turns out to be the next key factor to their sustainability: once their product is built it can take them a year on average to register as a company, with no specific legal structures or tax incentives to encourage a small social enterprise.

I met with Jeccdo Director Mulugeta Gebru, who explained how they are working with partners in the UK to create an innovation hub as a social enterprise for research andin Bahir Dar. I also met with Save the Children Chief of party Olaf Erz, who is working on skilling up young people towards employment, including through tech hubs and ICT training.

They invariably said that the business model for a social tech innovation is crucial to its success, often relying on a combination of customer paying and advertisement income rather than grants beyond seed funding; this can be very challenging in a country with extremely low wages and very low internet penetration.

I spoke with Ahadootec Directors Eskinder and Amanuel and one of the issues they are facing besides the sustainability of their social tech innovations is finding a trained workforce. Many social tech innovations are driven by Ethiopians from the Diaspora and they are finding it difficult to recruit home-grown graduates for their ventures. As a result they have taken it upon themselves to re-design the whole ICT-related academic system to make students more employable and market-ready when they graduate in ICT-related subjects. They are working with the British Council for this, andhowever ambitious this seems, only in a country where University is as centralized as in Ethiopia can this be possible, and this is where centralization can also bring opportunities that would be undreamed of in more liberal states.

And as Eskinder will readily admit, the government’s investment in internet and mobile connections over the last few years has made an incredible difference in helping innovation through a much improved internet bandwidth and telecom infrastructure.

One of the arguments of the government for not privatizing telecoms just yet (despite growing pressure from both its population and international partners to do so) is fairness by ensuring telecom penetration in rural areas where private companies are not interested in investing, as can be the case in countries where telecoms are privatised. I’m told it’s also a way for the government to put money into its coffers, but with telecommunications kept at an extremely low price, Ethiopians of all levels of society seem to be able to use their phones quite liberally, preferring phone calls to SMS messaging for instance.

Indeed the ease with which people constantly make phone calls struck me as I started making my way to various meetings in Addis Ababa: no taxi driver ever knew where I was going (no one uses street names but landmarks instead), and the only way for them to take me to my destination was for them to call the people I was meeting and get directions from them.

This turned out to be quite problematic in many instances when the taxi driver had to call several times after getting lost.

That’s why when Markos from Iceaddis told me about Karta, a scalable digital mapping solution to address the lack of street names, I got very excited.

As stated on their website, ‘Karta uses the local administrative structures (subcity, district and house number) instead of street names to pin point locations. Karta helps emergency, security, medical, delivery services get to location easier and faster’. They use the Google maps crowd-sourcing approach for individuals to literally put themselves on the map, and with a population of almost 100 million Ethiopians, Karta has the potential to scale very rapidly.

This might sound very simple and maybe not that innovative to many, but as I realised several times a day when my taxi driver was looking for my next meeting destination, it has the potential to make a huge difference to people in Ethiopia.

That’s why when we ask social tech stakeholders to nominate peers for our study on ‘Social tech ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa[EL1] ’ we are careful to insist that we don’t mean high tech innovations but any application of technology that leads to a defined and measurable positive social outcome.

In Ethiopia a crowd-sourced individual version of Google maps might be just the thing, and with a dynamic emerging social tech sector in the capital, the second largest population in Africa and a government intent on reaching 103 million mobile and 56 million internet subscribers by 2020 this could change dramatically with less bureaucracy and more market-ready graduates.