Illustration by John Kazior

Invested Development | Hacking Ethiopia’s Future

Britt H. Young

A hotel app, but for quarantine! A grocery delivery app, but for people in lockdown! The frenzy of projects proposed by the Ethiopia Covid-19 Response Team (ECRT) to bolster the country’s pandemic response felt appropriate for a group of mostly techies who had never worked in humanitarian or developmental organizations. “We must help the Ministry of Health, give them everything — our best abilities, hearts, and creativity,” one volunteer commanded in a weekly “All-Hands” meeting on Zoom. Together, they built an automated hotline and an app for self-reporting Covid-like symptoms, both of which would serve the same two purposes: circulating information about the disease’s symptoms and helping the Ethiopian government monitor its spread across the country. 

The ECRT was an activist diaspora group organized spontaneously over Twitter by a D.C.-based software engineer named Mike Endale in March 2020. Through its Slack channel, the group brought together Ethiopians around the world, though most hailed from the U.S., to design and create data management platforms and smartphone applications as well as a centralized pandemic surveillance dashboard (what the group called a digital “war room”) that the Ethiopian Ministry of Health could use to speed up its sluggish early response to the country’s Covid outbreak. Throughout April and May, the group’s Slack channel and Github were aflutter with activity. Over 1,500 volunteers organized themselves into remote workstreams focused on specific tasks: the Surveillance and Response Team, the Isolation Team, the Information Sharing Team. 

The ECRT mantra was “speed trumps perfection.” The urgency of the pandemic appealed to the high-energy universe of startups — the world of hackathons, elevator pitches, and venture capital that materializes and disappears in an instant. The techies of the Ethiopian diaspora were looking to make an impact back home in large part because they thought they were the best people to do it. 

“I thought, ‘If we build it, they will come,’” one San Francisco-based volunteer told me. From her perspective, the volunteers were providing an invaluable service, yet the Ethiopian government was slow to adopt the applications they had built in a blazing two weeks. “Inefficiencies keep me up at night,” she said. But she was wary of becoming an out-of-touch diasporan who claims to know best. “I don’t want to do that,” she said. “I care about the end user.” 

In this case, the “end users” were the real people back home — “everyday people making livable wages, people who take public transit and have a smartphone,” as my contact put it. Never mind that only around 40 percent of Ethiopians have cell phones, let alone smartphones. Some of the ECRT-crafted platforms and applications were intended for use by healthcare professionals, but Ethiopia is more than three-quarters rural, and doctors’ access to the internet is inconsistent at best. 

In the midst of the ECRT’s coding blitzes, Endale tweeted out a new idea: a contact-tracing prototype that tracked people using cell phone Bluetooth signals, instead of relying on self-reported data. The only roadblock, he admitted, was that Ethiotelecom, the country’s sole network provider, would need to install the tracking application without consent from cell phone users. When someone called the suggestion “dangerous” in the replies, Endale doubled down. Covid was a war, he said, and “War time requires thinking outside of the box.” This was the kind of “act first, ask questions later” attitude that defined the ECRT’s approach; at one point, participants finished building a data dashboard only to realize that the data they intended to organize simply didn’t exist. The Ministry of Health lacked the capacity for widespread Covid testing and contact-tracing, and the self-reporting app the ECRT had created didn’t have enough users to provide accurate numbers. In another short-lived burst of energy, volunteers got excited about the idea of bringing a German for-profit dialysis company to Ethiopia, never pausing to ask what impact a private medical center would have on a country with already severe healthcare inequities. They were moving fast and disrupting things, Zuckerberg-style. 

Thirteen weeks after the ECRT’s spontaneous founding, things looked dire. The number of Covid cases in Ethiopia had just surpassed 4,000, and group members worried that Ethiopia might become “like Italy,” where the pandemic had utterly overwhelmed the medical system. By July, something strange had happened: the ECRT team was no longer doing anything especially high-tech. Gone were the partnerships with local food delivery apps. Instead, volunteers focused on more direct problems of governance and resources. Some team members sought a partnership with the United Nations Development Programme’s Accelerator Labs to jumpstart ventilator manufacturing in Ethiopia. Others poured their remaining energy into managing PPE distribution, organizing clothing drives for quarantine centers, holding picnics for first responders, and securing access to ventilators. It looked, for a moment, like the diasporan volunteers were going to make a tangible difference. 

Then, in September 2020, the ECRT vanished as suddenly as it had materialized. The group’s Github went dark, and its repositories of code have now been untouched for over a year. All of its associated websites and Medium posts have been pulled, and it is unclear what became of most of its projects. I have been unable to find any volunteer for the ECRT willing to speak on the record about what came of the group’s efforts, and Endale did not respond to my inquiries. Yet, despite its brief lifespan, the ECRT is a useful case study in the ways in which the language and methodology of Silicon Valley is being exported — around the world, and across sectors, from corporate startups to humanitarian aid and activism. Why did the well-intentioned members of the ECRT believe tech was the best way to support Ethiopians during the Covid-19 outbreak? What compelled this group to come together to hackathon the pandemic? 

 

In 2012, I attended an “Innovation Summit” for the participants of President Obama’s third annual Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). As an underutilized intern for the State Department’s African Affairs Bureau, I was instructed to mingle with Africa’s next great entrepreneurs and bureaucrats and occasionally tell them where the bathroom was. 

The hope was that this gathering of impressive young African leaders would reassure risk-averse corporations like McKinsey and Verizon and inspire investment in the region. After Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson concluded a pat speech about the need for U.S.-Africa business collaboration, a conference organizer took the podium. Awkwardly concluding the two-day training before participants were dispatched to short internships across the United States, she asked whether anyone wanted to share anything about their time in D.C. One participant from southern Africa, hyped up from the day, reached for the microphone and rattled off some brief words of thanks before her voice took on an admonishing tone: “But one day,” she declared, “you all are gonna come to Africa to learn from us.” The organizer scrambled to regain control of the mic, and there was a brief, awkward scuffle before the presentation concluded. 

Since the YALI Innovation Summit in 2012, the program has expanded to include regional workshops in Nairobi, Pretoria, Accra, and Dakar, as part of a wider explosion of entrepreneurship and startup incubation across the continent. By the end of 2019, Africa was host to hundreds of technology “hubs” — incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces, and mentorship programs. For centuries, the global North has mined Africa for capitalism’s literal and figurative raw materials. Although the role reversal the YALI participant predicted hasn’t come to pass, Africa today is no stranger to Silicon Valley entrepreneurship.

A conventional explanation for the emergence of startups in Africa would be that tech capital in the U.S. is seeking new markets, sources of labor, and land. Yet, few U.S.-based companies beyond Uber are opening branches on the continent, and the wave of foreign investment that the U.S. State Department sought under Obama never quite arrived. Instead, it is successful, late-career professionals of the diaspora who have helped catalyze interest and investment in tech startups in Africa. Global remittances to sub-Saharan Africa reached $46 billion in 2018, a sum larger than the GDP of Sierra Leone. Groups like the African Diaspora Network (ADN), based in Silicon Valley, are working to change how that money is sent back home with their annual African Diaspora Investment Symposium, which encourages those in the diaspora to redirect some of the billions they currently send to extended family towards tech companies instead. “How do we scale remittances so that it can also be invested in other people than our family?” asked the founder of ADN, Almaz Negash, in an interview with Voice of America. She offered her own answer: “Supporting startups.”

The darlings of this tech-focused “Africa rising” narrative are South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria, but active tech outposts are also thriving in cities like Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, as well as Accra, Ghana and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Ethiopia’s tech sector is unique for the outsized influence of its diaspora. Startupism is poised to set the tone for the formerly Marxist state’s new brand of capitalism, and the Ethiopian diaspora has been instrumental in transforming the financial and legal landscape in Addis Ababa to render the city ripe for Silicon Valley-style “disruption.” In recent years, Ethiopian expats have sent back more than $5 billion annually, a sum that includes investments in local businesses. The Ethiopian parliament has sought to encourage this practice, loosening regulations and incentivizing the proliferation of diaspora-owned lending businesses. The locals and diasporans leading the transformation of Ethiopia’s private sector are members of what scholars Jenna Burrell and Marion Fourcade call the “coding elite,” techies who extract labor from a marginalized and precarious workforce. Deploying data and algorithms in nearly all sectors of public life, from education to finance, the global coding elite have helped establish a new, digital means of production — a phenomenon already firmly entrenched in the U.S. and beginning to take shape across Africa as well.

From the start, the tech boom of the 2010s seemed bound for global domination. Buttressing the ecosystem of new startups was an increasingly deregulated American economy and a precarious workforce that had to hustle to make a living. By framing employment crises as simple math problems, the tech sector in the U.S. has been able to obscure the reality of its own financial insolvency: gig-based tech companies grow quickly by extracting labor from a struggling workforce and rely on investments to stay afloat during the long wait for monopoly and then profitability. In the meantime, aspiring CEOs have begun to export the Silicon Valley model to the rest of the world. New apps can be banged out faster than there is VC to fund them — and, well, coders gotta code. 

But when diasporic techies dream of opportunity back home, venture capital does not tend to follow unless they have American co-founders at their sides. “Silicon Valley has deep pockets for African startups — if you’re not African,” read the headline of an investigative report in The Guardian on white privilege and racism in international startup finance. Only around ten percent of VC funding in east Africa went to local founders, according to a 2017 Village Capital study. Of all African VC deals in the last five years, 42 percent were headquartered in North America. 

Because competition for VC funding is stiff, many diasporic entrepreneurs have set their sights on funding from international foundations and NGOs, in the hopes that their business plans will seem like worthy development projects. Reframing business ventures as humanitarian interventions may sound disingenuous, but startupism has become a widespread logic within the international development machine. This ideology is also what diaspora capitalists and diaspora activist groups like the ECRT have in common: understanding tech as unequivocally good, objective, and apolitical. According to anthropologist Lilly Irani, the NGO world’s adoption of “design thinking” from the tech sector starting in the 2010s was driven in large part by what she calls entrepreneurial citizenship. “In entrepreneurial forms of design, the moment of creativity becomes the moment of political hopefulness, urgently channeled into innovation potential,” she argues. “In this urgency, entrepreneurial citizenship renders social movements, deliberation, and even extensive research and planning as potential barriers to development.” The entrepreneurial citizen doesn’t waste time with on-the-ground political organizing, which interferes with producing deliverables quickly. Instead, she organizes a 48-hour hackathon that takes advantage of pre-existing infrastructures and social networks. Such entrepreneurial action happens in spurts of enthusiasm, the results rarely outliving the bookings for the co-working spaces where they were hastily coded. 

I’ve spoken to many diasporan tech founders, all of whom seem to believe that their ventures in Ethiopia hold promise for development and are a legitimate means of “giving back.” One D.C.-based founder told me, “Sometimes if you are diaspora, you get the ear of the Ethiopian government more than the local poor guy, so you leverage that to get good policies that will help everyone.” Diasporan founders might be able to get an audience with someone in government, but the idea that attention translates to policies that improve conditions for everyone is the kind of naive optimism characteristic of tech culture. As J. Khadijah Abdurahman, a diasporan researcher and activist, told me, “Tech’s way of dealing with geopolicy is through the nation state, and the nation state is going to privilege certain groups.” Ethiopia is a former imperial state with an ethnic-federalist government, which divides the country’s ninety different ethnic groups into only nine ethnically-based regional states. A tiny percentage of wealthy elites across multiple ethnic groups, both locally and in the diaspora, are leading the charge for the national adoption of biometric digital IDs, the creation of a state-run social media platform, and the gig-ification of work in Ethiopia. Those on the margins of power, however, will be the ones to experience the authoritarian uses of tech: restrictions of movement, exploitation, and surveillance.

 

Whether the many tentacles of tech will lift all boats in Ethiopia remains to be seen. But if the past is any indication, there’s reason to be skeptical. Over 1,500 diasporans have joined Ethiopians in Tech to support the expansion of the country’s tech sector. (Many also became members of the ECRT.) Since 2017, Ethiopians in Tech has been trying to carry out the task the US State Department long reserved for itself: courting tech companies including Microsoft, Cisco, and Oracle into outsourcing to Ethiopia. In 2019, one member of the collective, Bernard Laurendeau, led a visit of Ethiopian bureaucrats to the Bay Area to learn about the tech economy. Together with Al Abreha, the East Coast-based founder of the Ethiopian gig-work app Gooday — an app similar to TaskRabbit that allows users to hire nannies, drivers, and handymen at a moment’s notice — Laurendeau is working with the Ethiopian Jobs Creation Commission to create millions of what they call FROG (freelancing, outsourcing, and gig) jobs. 

Young, educated tech workers in Addis welcome lobbying by members of the diaspora. Many would-be founders complain that it is difficult to establish new businesses; Ethiopia sits near the bottom of the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking. And with 50 percent of men in cities aged 15 to 30 unemployed, the country has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. “What does the Ethiopian Jobs Creation Commission Do?” the government agency tweeted this past spring with a lengthy infographic. “Does not create jobs” one user replied. 

This year, the Ethiopian parliament is preparing to pass a new Startup Act, designed in part by Laurendeau, to incentivize the creation of more apps like Gooday. New businesses that meet the qualifications for startup status will receive tax breaks, scholarships, grants to register intellectual property rights, access to foreign exchange accounts, and exemptions from health insurance requirements. The act is heavily influenced by a mix of Silicon Valley-style lingo and environmentalist logic: equity-based loans, Laurendeau told me, are “de-risking mechanisms” that keep “the ecosystem” in balance. This is the logic of the survival of the fittest — Ethiopian startups are the primordial tadpoles that techies hope will evolve some legs. 

But promoting FROG jobs in a country where casual, temporary, and non-salaried positions in the informal sector already make up the majority of employment opportunities seems acutely out of touch with reality. As is true across sub-Saharan Africa, practically all labor in Ethiopia is already structured like gig work: some estimate that the informal sector accounts for up to 81 percent of employment in the country. Extensive social networks have allowed many young Ethiopians to eschew the low-paying but steady jobs at some of the new clothing factories where the risk of injury is high. It’s considered preferable to rely on family than to work a humiliating job, especially among youth with higher levels of education. The flood of diaspora investment and the middle- and upper-class cultural shift toward finding day laborers through apps might succeed in making participation de facto compulsory for many “low skill” workers, but it’s hard to see that as a solution to a labor crisis. In Ethiopia, where majority salary employment has never been a reality, apps like Gooday are not creating new kinds of employment or new opportunities. They are simply funneling the growing number of chronically unemployed people through exploitative platforms, where they can be tracked, surveilled, and forced to compete in digital marketplaces that privilege the few who are able to secure five-star ratings. 

Through these apps, members of Ethiopia’s already precarious workforce are being remade in the mold of American gig workers. When Gooday first launched, Abreha received a flood of complaints from users about the unprofessional behavior of the laborers. Now, Gooday requires those workers to visit offices in person and undergo basic training on how to answer phones and provide customer service in a way that is familiar to foreigners and upper-class Ethiopians. “We are expanding access to opportunity for unemployed youth who don’t have credibility or trust,” said Ezana Raswork, the Ethiopian-Canadian CEO of the tech company Africa 118 — which operates another Ethiopian gig app, Taskmoby. Apps like these are in the business of selling trust, but at least in Gooday’s case, Abreha admits, the real profits will come from data mining. In preparing to start Gooday, Abreha realized that the market research data American entrepreneurs have come to expect is non-existent in Ethiopia. Since the data didn’t exist, he decided, “we have to start somewhere and somehow generate some of this data ourselves.” The gig app is just a “means to an end,” he told me — the end being to sell targeted advertisements. 

Much of the urgency around injecting tech into Africa is drawn from what technologist and writer Xiaowei Wang labels “metronormativity” — the notion that rural people and cultures are backward, while urban spaces are breeding grounds for modern culture. “Metronormativity fuels the notion that the internet, technology, and media literacy will somehow ‘save’ or ‘educate’ rural people, either by allowing them to experience the broader world, offering new livelihoods, or reducing misinformation,” Wang explains. Those at the center of Ethiopia’s technological transformation were socialized in the capital. There exist two Addis Ababas: one for the computer science undergraduate who can stroll onto the university campus without a second look, and another for the typical young migrant from a rural community who is hassled by guards if he gets anywhere near the technically unrestricted university gates. “Techno-utopianism overlaps with urban centers,” Abdurahman explained to me. And “there’s less of a power analysis from those at the center of power compared to those at the margins.” The upper-class African diasporans believe tech will fix things — but fix things for whom?

From a distance, techies see Addis as a strange and chaotic place that is begging for order, and for the problem-solving capability of apps. “People will sit for lunch for two-and-a-half hours, having a macchiato, and they don’t even look at their phone or their watch,” the D.C.-based founder of a trucking logistics startup in Addis told me. “I love that as a way of living, but the country has to move forward.” Although many diaspora founders grew up in Ethiopia, they can sometimes echo the sentiments of early twentieth century colonial administrators, filtered through a “rise and grind” mentality. “We are from two different worlds,” the same founder said. “We are grinding, grinding, but if you help them a little bit you can unlock that mentality, that mindset that you can grow and change.” If the diasporans can introduce that “customer-and-employee-centric” perspective through the creation of startups, he told me, then they can help Ethiopia’s “restless” workers find a sense of purpose. 

Startup logic has grown so expansive and hegemonic that at times it feels like all the world has been reprogrammed to think with it. “Honestly, I don’t know if it is my dream or if it is someone else’s dream to run a startup in Ethiopia,” the trucking logistics startup founder admitted to me, unprompted. “It’s all drip, drip, drip, and before you know it, you have this way of thinking.” Business ownership is taken for granted not only for those looking for greater professional autonomy, but for the citizen entrepreneur who wishes to solve social problems. “I didn’t know I was starting a business… I thought I just had an idea,” one Ethiopian entrepreneur in Addis told me about a company she started. Changing the world has gone from the picket line to the co-working space.

But in all my time speaking with the diaspora techies in Ethiopia, I never got the sense that the need for the startup way of life was about fighting poverty. Instead, it was about valorizing the hustle and validating the importance of the entrepreneur. It was about seeing Silicon Valley’s move and raising Ethiopia’s bet. It was about destroying the narrative of Africa as underdeveloped by leaving behind those that don’t fit in.

 

While the ECRT volunteers were conducting what they saw as a humanitarian intervention, a different humanitarian crisis was underway. In 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed dissolved the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) — the four-party ethnic coalition helmed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that had led Ethiopia since the fall of the Marxist Derg regime in 1991 — to create the Prosperity Party in an attempt to move the country away from ethnic federalism. After Abiy postponed the scheduled national elections, ostensibly due to the rapid spread of Covid, the region of Tigray held its own election in September 2020 in an act of defiance. By November, the Ethiopian National Defense Force formally launched military action against the TPLF, which marked the beginning of a civil war. Abiy’s critics saw the cancellation of elections as a blatant power-grab by a dictator who had waited for an opportunity to take unilateral control. For many, it felt as though the country was descending into authoritarian rule. For others, that seemed like nothing new. 

Some of the members of the Ethiopian diaspora who have been most influential in its emergent tech sector have devoutly supported the Ethiopian government and Prime Minister Abiy. At times, they have ignored the war’s atrocities or denied their existence. As the rest of the world read headlines about mass rape and starvation in Tigray, much of the fledgling tech sector of Addis Ababa carried out business as usual. In the midst of a human rights catastrophe, 40 percent of the country’s state-owned telecommunications company is currently being put up for auction; the state granted the first private telecommunications license in May 2021; and the parliament is set to sign into law the new Startup Act. While the pandemic and the war together fomented chaos and distraction in which the federal government could advance its liberalization and privatization reforms, they also created space for groups like the ECRT to advance their own market- and tech-based solutions.

It was a time of massive disruptions to everyday life in Ethiopia, but the volunteers came armed with an ideology of disruption. Perhaps it is fitting that they borrowed their ideas from Silicon Valley — as the members of the ECRT tried to reshape Ethiopia, they seemed unable to imagine a future other than the dysfunctional healthcare system and winner-take-all economy of the United States.

In 2012, “You will learn from us” could still have pointed the way toward a defiant and radical future. Tech could have been employed to bring about more equitable futures and new political possibilities. But what tech entrepreneurialism in Ethiopia has meant in practice is reproducing more of the same. What the ECRT illustrated was how techno-activism can be presented as apolitical while optimistically greasing the wheels of the state to advance garden-variety capitalist expansion and even state surveillance. And it remains to be seen whether new ventures in Ethiopia will provide stable, dignified work rather than more precarious, exploitative jobs. The website for Enkopa, the Ethiopian Jobs Creation Commission’s latest marketing scheme to encourage young people to launch startups, describes the program as a “a movement with pan African ambition, to increase collaboration between African countries and collectively own the narrative on Entrepreneurship, to essentially rebrand our continent.” But what does it mean to rebrand Africa? Whose image of the continent needs a makeover? 

Today, up to two million people in Tigray face famine while humanitarian organizations are blocked from delivering food aid. Despite the ceasefire declared in June, the Ethiopian federal government is calling on citizens to join a possible renewed military offensive. Meanwhile, the whole of Ethiopia processes only 7,000 Covid tests per day, with the majority of treatment and vaccination occuring in the capital. The extremely limited supplies of vaccines have been primarily administered in urban areas, leaving rural communities with virtually no access to Covid care. 

Shortly after my last interview for this piece, I crawled into bed and plugged in my phone. A few hours later, during the morning business hours of Addis, the screen flashed on with a new email with the subject line “Digital Payment, Anteneh invites you to be a shareholder!” The National Bank of Ethiopia has a new directive, it said, that allows non-bank entities to enter the e-payment business. “It is with immense pleasure that we invite you to be part of this business by investing in YaYa Wallet.”

Britt H. Young is a writer and PhD candidate in geography at UC Berkeley. She is working on a book of essays on techno-optimism, disability, and prosthetics.

Copyright © The Drift 2021