Ethiopia: From Solomon to Big Data

Today Addis Ababa is the seat of the African union, base for the Economic Commission for Africa and often referred to as "the political capital” of Africa. But looking ahead, Ethiopia is beginning to take a surprising leadership stance… in the arena of Big Data.

Ethiopia is Africa's oldest independent country, boasting a unique cultural heritage, and apart from a short five-year occupation by Mussolini's Italy… it has never been colonised. Looking back, the history is so entrenched, the last emperor, Haile Selassie claimed descent from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In the present, Addis Ababa is the seat of the African union, base for the Economic Commission for Africa and often referred to as "the political capital” of Africa. Whilst looking ahead, Ethiopia is beginning to take a surprising leadership stance… in the arena of Big Data.

Ethiopia is on course to build Africa’s most comprehensive disaster and risk management database. The aim is to gather enough information to help reduce future suffering caused by the slew of natural disasters that have plagued the region since time immemorial.  To date, they’ve carried out 100,000 household interviews and is set to have completed a detailed risk profile for all its 750 districts by 2015.

Tadesse Bekele, Deputy Director in Disaster Risk Management and Food Security Sector of the Ministry of Agriculture explained at 4th Africa Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction in February: "I would encourage all countries in Africa to follow Ethiopia's example in developing in-depth information systems based on nationwide risk profiling of disaster-affected communities. It is important to get out of the vicious circle of managing from crisis to crisis."  

Ethiopia may be poor and its recent history may have been characterised by war, famine and hardship. However, it is utilising the data it has at its disposal and building more, in order to help combat future problems. The LEAP food security early warning tool converts agro-meteorological data into food production estimates and quantifies the money needed to scale up productivity.

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As Mathewos Hunde, the Director of the Early Warning & Response Directorate under the Disaster Risk Management & Food Security Sector of the Ministry of Agriculture in Ethiopia, told the World Food Programme: “We can say that Ethiopia is two steps ahead compared to other countries, we have a leadership role considering our early response to risks and in understanding the root causes of them.”

Addis Ababa: Embassies, Spas & International Hub

The country is now firmly on the global hit list for investment and rejuvenation, especially from within the Middle East. The Africa Global Business Forum held in Dubai at the start of May attracted more than 3500 delegates, whilst a few weeks’ later, on May 13 the Dubai Chamber (which organised the event) opened its first African representative office in Ethiopia.

The government is also investing heavily in development. This creates jobs and builds the infrastructure necessary for progress. Within the capital especially, this is manifesting itself in the most unlikely ways. In 2007, Tia Goldberg described Addis Abba as ‘the spa capital of Africa’ due to a marked increase in massage parlours, beauticians and day spas springing up around the city. It also has the highest number of embassies in the world after New York, Washington and London, whilst a film from Trip Adviser released in March pulls together images of what the various construction projects will look like once complete.

 "Ethiopia is the fifth largest economy in Africa and poised to become the third largest in the next 10 years. The country's economy is mainly based on agriculture. This sector accounts for about 45% of GDP and 85% of total employment. Ethiopia offers a highly accessible market for UAE businesses seeking expansion into Africa," said H.E. Buamim, Director General of Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry, when he opened the office.

Asfaw Alemayehu, a businessman who moved to Ethiopia from the US four years’ ago told me over the phone from Addis that in the past multi-nationals “did not see Ethiopia as an attractive country.”  Now they are starting to differentiate it from its more developed neighbour Kenya and are finally beginning to look for “a long term strategy to target the country.”

The problem with Ethiopia for outsiders however, is that it is unique and cannot be fully compared to any other African country. It was independent for centuries, under communist rule for two decades, and then plummeted into war and an extremely publicised famine (even those who weren’t born remember Live Aid). Now it is emerging, but unlike neighbouring Kenya, “the private sector is in its infancy.” Alemayehu believes that this makes now a good time to invest in Ethiopia but is wary of European and US companies’ “unrealistic expectations.” He was keen to stress that Asian and Middle Eastern companies are far more prepared to work with the local business culture rather than trying to enforce their own value system.

External organisations are already beginning to move in. This February, professional services firm, Deloitte announced the opening of its first Ethiopia office. And IBM, which has had a long term focus on East Africa - although centred on Kenya - started working on mounting its market share in the country in November. This has caused some scepticism from detractors however, as many infrastructure projects for private and public institutions are already underway.  Hanli Wood of IBM’s CEWA Business Partner Organisation was undeterred and said: “I don’t think we are too late for infrastructure solutions. There are a lot of investments opportunities. With these investments, you need technology. Today, without technology, cell phones, the internet, one is a man on an island.”

Technology is crucial to the entire African development story. Dr Debretsion Gebremichael, Deputy Prime Minister of the Information and Communication Technology Ministry of Ethiopia provided a summary of the current situation during the opening ceremony of last December’s ICT Entrepreneurship Conference. In this he said the country has 18 million mobile subscribers, 3.4 million of which use their mobile phone subscription to access the internet. The wireless network connectivity across the country is pretty strong and currently stands at 73% although the ministry hopes to hit 45 million subscribers by the end of next year. Although, according to a recent report by Neilsen, Ethiopian consumers are still rated as ‘simple’ (compared to ‘savvy’ or ‘selective’) based on low media penetration across both digital and print.

Tradition vs. Modernity: Salt, Coffee & Fresh Flowers

Ethiopia has the second largest population on the African continent and Index Mundi records that 64% are 24 or under. Yet to Henok Assefa of the Invest Ethiopia blog, the “least understood and appreciated [factor for development] is its location in the middle of the economic world.” Assefa stresses that 30% of the World’s containerised cargo passes through the red sea.

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“Ethiopia is also roughly equidistant from all the major G7 & BRICS economies, making Addis Ababa an emerging major air transport hub for Africa and the Middle East. Easy to see these advantages materialised partly in the fast growing horticulture sector, which is earning more than $200 million a year in exports and likely to surpass a billion in a few years’ time.”

Bizarrely fresh cut flowers are now the country's third-largest export earner and this was never a traditional industry, but simply started by a group of Indian companies a few years back and taken off. As Henok Assefa writes: “The impending and transformative potential of Ethiopia lies in low cost labour-intensive light manufacturing industries, which may allow it to tap into the world’s massive and lucrative consumer products supply chains.”

There are still a high volume of traditional industries at large which meet this criteria, but sit at some odds with modern developments. In a recent article for Reuters, Siegfried Modola describes how traditional salt traders trek through the desert with camels and caravans to “pursue this centuries-old trade in ‘white gold’”.  Now however, many are wary of the new roads being built and worry that accessibility will mean big companies’ stealing their work.

As Abdullah Ali Noor, a chief and clan leader's son in Hamad-Ile, on the salt desert's edge explained, “Most of the people who live here are dependent on the salt caravans, so we are not happy with prospective salt companies that try to set up base here. Everything has to be initiated from the community. We prefer to stick with the old ways."

Then there is coffee. Ethiopia is Africa's biggest coffee producer and the drink has an ingrained cultural significance. The ritualised coffee drinking ceremony takes over an hour and involves roasting, preparing and drinking three presses of coffee in a communal setting. Yet in the latest modern development, this week the first privately owned African laboratory opened in Addis, certified by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA).

Mr. Marty Curtis, a Coffee Quality Institute Instructor explained why this is progress, “By having its laboratory certified, METAD is at the start of a huge project.”  And the inclusion of an externally certified laboratory will contribute to the development of the country’s coffee industry by building buyers’ trust on the quality of Ethiopian coffee.

All the evidence suggests that Ethiopia is leveraging technology to move beyond the images of famine and Live Aid… and back to its own proud historic past. This is lineage of King Solomon, driven by plenty of superlative coffee… with a bit of data and fresh flowers thrown into the mix for good measure.


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We’re interested in connecting with professionals on the ground in Ethiopia. Please drop Kathryn a note if you would like to chat.