Internet in Ethiopia
by Samuel Kinde
Internet's Presence Felt
In a small Internet Café right around the corner near the National Theatre in Mid-town Addis Ababa, visitors are greeted by that familiar dialing sound of modems heard in millions of homes and businesses around the world. This particular Internet Café has been open only for a few days, but all the 6 or so terminals were occupied and visitors may have had to wait as much as half an hour before getting a chance to surf the Web or use Internet telephony to call up friends overseas as a group of Somalian youth were doing over in the corner.
Rates for Internet usage, among the half-dozen Internet Cafes that have sprung in the city over the past few months, vary from 75 cents to 4 Ethiopian Birr per minute. This translates to as high as 120 Birr/hour ($15/hour). But most do not seem to worry about the steep price and seem to have fun in discovering the wide world of the Net. Unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world, however, the only things these cyber cafes seem to be missing are espresso, macchiato and tea; this itself being a paradox given that Addis Cafes serve some of the finest espresso anywhere in the world and that Addis residents like hanging out at cafes. But still, this was a site to behold as the promise of the Net was finally available for the tens of thousands of Addis residents who are still in the long waiting-list for a personal account.
In a matter of few days, though, all this was to change, as the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC), the government body which has monopoly over the telecom industry in the country, started clamping on these entrepreneurs by closing the facilities citing obscure and archaic regulations. It seemed ETC felt it was the sole legitimate body in the country to be an ISP (Internet Service Provider) and also Internet Café operator.
Meanwhile in the same week, two public seminars on IT and the Internet were being conducted in the city; one organized by Unity College, the city's newest private college and the other on E-commerce organized by the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce at the Sheraton Hotel. It was in the E-commerce seminar that Dr. Dawit Bekele, one of Addis Ababa's most visible and outspoken IT and Internet evangelist reminded the attendants that Ethiopia is already losing a market-share in hides and skin, for long its second largest foreign-exchange earner, because competing countries are enabling their sellers do a real-time e-commerce trading through the web with current and new buyers. Ethiopian farmers, businessmen and industrialists face a further isolation from the new digital global economy as access to the Internet remains almost negligible, attendants were told. The case of how Ugandan coffee growers and traders use the Internet to follow the world coffee market minute-by-minute on a daily basis hence gaining a competitive advantage over our farmers and traders was also mentioned here in informal side talks.
The Unity College's Fesseha Eshetu and Kibur Gena of the Addis Ababa Chamber of Commerce, two men who have slowly built a reputation of persistence and patience, pointed out that it is the archaic and out-dated telecom regulations at ETC (some as old as 50-80 years) and its monopoly that are a major stumbling blocks towards getting a meaningful and affordable Internet presence in Ethiopia. Most speakers at both seminars openly expressed disappointment with the ETC officials who were no-shows at both events despite invitations. However, Kibur Gena summed up the sentiment among the attendees that the stakes in IT are so high that the private sector should take it as its responsibility in increasing awareness and waging a continued struggle to get ETC and senior policy makers interested and pro-active in IT issues.
ETC's Expansion Plan
Meanwhile we talked with network engineers at EIC (Ethiopia Internet Center), the ISP arm of ETC who were symphatetic to the frustration of customers but were optimistic that the upgrades which are in the works should alleviate the problem of access in the country. EIC plans to increase its modem pool from the current 500 by almost 5 fold to 2500, we were told by the engineers. This represents an increase of subscribers to about 12500, a large improvement from the current subscriber base of a meager 2500 or so, but miniscule when compared to the demand which is estimated to be as high as 100,000 - 125, 000 in this city of 3 million residents alone. EIC, we were told, further plans to launch at least eight of its own cyber cafes in Addis Ababa and other cities like Bahr Dar and Gondar. The time frame for implementation, we were assured by the engineers, could be as early as few weeks, perhaps few months.
Table: Rates for Internet Connection in Ethiopia as charged by Ethiopian Internet Center.
The University Gets wired by Fiber Optics
More encouraging news came out, albeit unofficially, from the country's premier institute of higher education, the Addis Ababa University (AAU). Dr. Abebe Dinku, Associate Dean of the Technology Faculty of AAU was very much pleased to indicate that the Sidist Kilo and Arat Kilo campuses were now completely wired with state-of-the-art fiber-optics network. Work on the Amst Kilo campus that houses the Technology Faculty was progressing well into completion and we were shown some of the construction and laying of cables. A microwave link to the South Campus of the faculty at Lideta which houses the Architecture and Building School will be completed also very soon, we were told. If all things go according to plan, we were told by Dr. Abebe Dinku, all faculty members at the university will have access to the Internet right from their desktops by as early as April 2001. This should come as a major good news to the students and faculty alike who have been waiting patiently for many years for this link to the rest of the world. Dr. Ermias Dagne, a full professor of Chemistry at AAU who heads a world-class Natural Products Research Group and Center confided his hope that at last, with the help of the Net, his center's extensive database on natural products that has been built over the years will be available to researchers around the African continent and the rest of the world.
We talked to Dr. Gebre Ammanuel, an Associate Professor at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, who is the chief architect of the fiber-optics based WAN (Wide area network) that will ultimately and shortly bring Internet Nirvana to students and faculty at this institute. The network architecture consists of redundant systems linking the various offices and computer centers in all the departments in the university to three hubs, one each at the Sidist Kilo, Amst Kilo and Arat Kilo campuses, explained Dr. Gebre. The three hubs which form the backbone of the WAN will then be controlled by a central server which is ultimately connected to the national backbone at EIC through a dedicated leased line. The redundancy is limited to the hubs in the three campuses only mainly due to cost; but Dr. Gebre is confident that the architecture has enough redundancy to assure an almost 24/7 service. The story of this project and the men and women involved in turning it to a reality itself is fascinating. Dr. Gebre, a very enthusiastic man in his early 40's, has been working on the project with a group of techies and administrators who understood the importance of Internet connection at the university. We found the Dean of Technology, Dr. Abebe and his colleagues at the different departments very much dedicated to the project. Since September 2000, Dr. Gebre was working on the project on his own free time which could easily translate to tens of thousands of dollars.
Even given the state of things in the country where the last mile may face the most stumbling blocks, one senses that the critical mass for Internet access at the University has already been built and it is very likely that this state-of-the-art project will soon see the light of day. We left the university with an upbeat feeling and hope for networking in the country.
It needs to be mentioned that the spirit of "yichalal!" (It can be Done!) that the Chamber of Commerce is popularizing in the country (and backed by the Athletic legend himself-Haile Gebre Sellasie who has lent his name to the compaign) seems to be pervasive and holding roots among the private citizenry of the City.
What do Professionals and Students Say?
It is when you talk to businessmen and women, engineers, architects, contractors, medical doctors and college students, to name a few, that the thirst for the Net becomes more evident. Perhaps only few other places in the world could boast of a more Net-thirsty community than ours.
Over some of Addis' finest macchiato, we talked to Ehprem Tamene, a senior mechanical engineer who has worked for such big engineering names as the Akaki Spare Parts Factory and Midroc's Kombolcha Steel Products Industry about this thirst for access. Ephrem was very much straight forward. "I would like to be able to get on the Web, search for products (be it valves, pumps or generators) and get the latest and most accurate information on their specs and prices," said Ephrem. The way things are now, most professionals have no access to such information and if their work-place has one, they may have to go through a layer of bureaucracy before being allowed to send even a single e-mail. "You can't be competitive this way," adds Ehprem hoping that things will improve soon.
A medical doctor we had talked to earlier also had the following to say: "True, most of the clients of my private practice come from the rural areas and the Internet will not be useful as a marketing tool for my business. However, access to global suppliers of medical equipment such as X-Ray machines and ECG is what interests me. If an X-Ray machine breaks, my business is pretty much at the mercy of the one or two dealers (middlemen) in town who can quote me any price they want. And this has happened many times. I would like to see if the Net can give us access to a wider segment of sellers around the world and help us save money."
Samuel Ayalew, an Electrical Engineer at Yadot Engineering and Trading, on the other hand, seemed to have a practical problem just like most Internet users around the world; a hacker had broken in into their account and used it for hundreds of hours leaving the company with a huge Internet access bill. "It took me a whole day to undo the damage and get our e-mail access back on; but it reminded me how much indispensable the Internet has become to our company even though our use is limited to e-mail, and a few hours of web-surfing in a month," was what Samuel told us.
Meanwhile, students seem to be very much interested in harnessing the resources and power of the web to look for undergraduate and graduate education opportunities abroad. "We are pretty much limited to the few old catalogues we find here at the university or elsewhere. It is almost impossible to check the status of our applications, correspond with researchers and professors," seems to be the theme of what most students say in Addis. Almost none of the city's high-schools have basic computer programming let alone Internet access; thereby further eroding the student's competitiveness in the job market and higher education. The many computer schools that have sprung over the city are in a way a response to this need; however as Gizachew Woldeyes, the Head of Department at Ethiopia's Science and Technology Commission mentioned in a conversation we had, the quality of training and curriculum begs for radical improvement.
How about Internet Entrepreneurs and Techies?
The question that begged an answer and that came up time and again was; if there is a huge demand for access to the Internet and if that is to be met to some extent at one point, then who is going to supply the value added services, such as web-publishing, web-hosting, network designs (LAN and WAN) both for individuals and businesses? Does the country have a growing base of techies and Internet gurus to help the Net penetrate business, governance and education?
To find the answer to this question and more, we met with two of the founders of EthioLink, the city's most visible web-hosting, networking, and e-commerce company, Dr. Dawit Bekele, Menberu and a banker friend of theirs for lunch. Dawit and Menberu talked at length about the kinds of Internet business they plan to do and have managed to do so far despite a limited bandwidth and lack of infrastructure that supports e-commerce.
The talk about the Telecommunications Agency's clamp down on Cyber Cafes came up but both were not surprised that it had happened. Dr. Dawit added: "It is the out-dated and unclear telecom regulations that is used as an excuse by ETC; but we sense it is about letting the control go. We had gone to the ETA - Ethiopian Telecom Authority - which devises policy and sort of oversees ETC - the telecom corporation - to ask them for a permit to operate an e-mail account business. While ETA said it had no problem with our request, it, nevertheless, instructed us to work with ETC and get their blessing, effectively. ETC, as you may know, holds the monopoly and has its own ideas and interests".
We also talked about that week's IT conferences and all the three were optimistic that with a continued public awareness and media coverage, IT and Internet policies will change eventually, albeit slowly. Perhaps what Menberu said sums up their absolute resolve: "Look, we have two choices; either to get totally discouraged and throw in the towels by the obstacles placed on our way or else do our best to face the problems and hopefully get some positive results." And these guys are only in their early 30's! It looked to us, beyond any doubt, that there is a new generation of Ethiopian men and women willing to face the reality with more optimism and vigor than ever.
For a moment, one would be tempted to draw a parallel with these young men and women with other notable Internet evangelists in other parts of the world like Narayanan Murthy (InfoSys), Vivek Paul and Azim Premji (Wipro Tech) of India who had consistently and un-tiredly faced up with the country's archaic and stubborn telecom regulators to change. Once again, "yichalal!" (It can be Done!) is the theme that one senses seems to be the source of inspiration here.
Dawit took us over to EthioLink's office at Haile Gebre Selassie Avenue to show us what an IT/Internet business was like in Ethiopia. The company is housed in a 2 story new concrete building right off the main road. There were about 8-10 people working in the different divisions, accounts, networking, and web-publishing. The place could be Hydrabad or Bangalore in India or a start-up in Silicon Valley (perhaps, minus the freebies like a soda machine). The high-tech start-up look and feel in this office by the Haile G/Selassie Avenue was unmistakably present. These are the people who design, maintain and host most of the sites of the prominent businesses in the city, like the Commercial Bank. We asked Dawit what the working hours are like at EthioLink. Yes, they are pretty much like any Internet start-ups around the world. Some of the techies come as late us 10:00 AM in the morning and leave sometime around 10 or 11:00 PM in the evening. Addis by 11:00 PM is a quiet city with almost no public transportation and it requires a lot of love of work to pull in long hours. We had visited Ethiolink right around the holiday times and one could detect the sense of urgency as they were taking e-commerce orders that had come through their servers. While e-commerce makes up less than 10% of their revenue, we were told by Dr. Dawit, EthioLink is most recognized for its delivery of goods like sheep, cakes and flowers for the local relatives of Ethiopian residing abroad. The company has come a long way from its early days to become a fledging and respectable company now. "Is there enough interest from the business community to fund such Internet/IT companies?" was one more question we posed to the EthioLink folks. "Yes, funds are not the problem" is the answer we got.
In all fairness, it is also important to mention that there are other IT companies in the city such as OMNITECH and also an e-commerce company that has been generating revenue - Ethio Leather Products. The indications, therefore, are that more such companies may be in the pipeline.
And the Future is?
As one ponders the magnitude of changes that a wider and meaningful access to IT tools, particularly the Internet can bring to the country and its people, it is difficult to avoid a sense of excitement and pioneering. Ethiopia is a huge country with a population of almost 64 million. Even under a worst case scenario, if a very small percentage of its population gets access to IT tools, this itself is big enough to generate a very sizable market for IT products and services. All the important economic sectors such as manufacturing, trading, services, construction, transportation, energy, health services, etc need a modern IT based management. The country's economic destiny, as much as any other developing country's, is intertwined with the increasingly sophisticated and integrated global economy. Ethiopia can't maintain even its current level of participation in the global economy unless it enables its coffee traders, hide and skin traders, policy makers and businessmen of all kind to have access to business tools every one else is having around the world.
Already an increasingly self-reliant and confident segment of our business, technology and education community is trying hard and fast to introduce these information and knowledge economy. Yellow pages, house, business and land ownership and leases records for our cities have to be digitized. Building and business permits can't and shouldn't take for ever where IT promises a neater solution. Farmers, traders and manufacturers need an efficient access to information not only on the domestic market of 65 million people but also of the Horn region and beyond. The growing number of private banks and insurance companies who are building all the new high-rises in the city need information and database on the market and their customers.
It is easy to overestimate the market potentials. But judging from the need and thirst of the society for growth and technology, it is almost impossible to ignore them. Business opportunities at home are as riskier as anywhere in the world; but judging from what others have accomplished, the rewards may be impossible to ignore.
For comments and feedback, you may reach the writer at E-Mail.