Ethiopia’s Tech Startups Are Ready to Run the World, but the Internet Keeps Getting Blocked
Tuesday, June 18, 2019
By Abdi Latif Dahir
Getnet Assefa shuffled uneasily in his office seat and wondered aloud why he couldn’t connect to the internet on his laptop.
It was mid-morning on Tuesday (June 11), and even though he didn’t know it yet, it was the beginning of the latest days-long internet cutoff. Authorities in Ethiopia disrupted connectivity nationwide to prevent students from cheating in national exams. Social media platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram were restricted, SMS text messaging disabled, leaving banks, businesses and tech startups left in a quandary.
For Getnet, the founder and chief executive of Ethiopia’s first artificial intelligence lab iCog, an internet shutdown meant not just hours of wasted productivity. It was also about losing “trust” from clients—spread across Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States—with whom they are working on projects ranging from machine learning to computational linguistics and robotics. iCog is where Sophia, the humanoid robot that was granted Saudi citizenship in 2017, was partly developed.
As a heavily regulated market with low internet penetration, young techies in the Horn of Africa nation, he says, already suffer from the negative perception that they couldn’t be where Africa’s next high-tech workforce is nurtured. Instead of boosting tech spaces, the government shouldn’t worsen conditions by with these internet blackouts, Getnet complains.
Photo courtesy of Jürg Stuker.