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Meet Ethiopia’s Youngest Female Tech Genius

by Vanessa Waithera
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Most Ethiopian kids don’t have the opportunity or resources to reach their full potential.

However 19-year-old Betelhem Dessie became Ethiopia’s youngest pioneer and in the tech scene. Dessie is currently working in one of the most unique artificial intelligence labs in the world. The same lab where Sophia the robot was developed and now Dessie has four software programs that are solely hers. At such a young age, the Ethiopian government already hired her to create an app used to map rivers and used for irrigation. Her interest in tech started at the tender age of 9 when there was no money for 9th birthday she decided that she would make money to celebrate her birthday.

Her first job was as a videographer.

She started editing videos and sending music to customer’s phones. For her birthday she managed to make 90 dollars then celebrated her birthday. iCog launched in 2013 and Ethiopia’s tech industry is set to take off even faster this year following the liberalization of the country’s economy under new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy who took office in April, has part privatized a number of state owned companies including telecoms provider Ethio Telecom. It’s a bid to hopefully pave the way for better internet access. The country is seeing huge changes following a government sanctioned internet blackout that took place prior to Abiy taking office.
Dessie travels the length and breadth of the country working with students (some up to five years her senior) to inspire the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.
Being younger, she says, means she and other teachers are “more in touch with what the students are experiencing.” In the same way women teaching women can be impactful, she adds, having had the same lived experiences.

Betelhem Dessie carries a prototype of Sophia the robot at iCog Labs. Image: Thomas Lewton.

Girls are a minority among the students attending “Solve IT”, but for Dessie they have the most to contribute. She said that boys tend to want to more since they don’t limit their visions as much girls do. However, girls tend to think of a more realistic approach when it comes to fixing problems. The solutions put forward by the girls she teaches tend to be grounded and immediate – such as an SMS app that informs farmers about local weather conditions.
Dessie’s passion for technology was, for the most part, supported growing up in relatively liberal Harar, but her experience isn’t the norm in Ethiopia.

Teaching the basics of AI

In 2013, women accounted for a quarter of students enrolled in science and technology studies at university; while only eight percent of science researchers are women. Dessie says that one of the challenges is the lack of female role models, not many women complete their science courses.

"Solve IT" students test their AI tractor at Mekele University in Ethiopia's far north. Image: Thomas Lewton.

Dessie has inspiring projects such as “Anyone Can Code where Dessie’s teaches young Africans the basics of artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain and other emerging technologies. She is currently looking for funding for a project called “The Sophia School Bus.” Her vision is to have a bus that will be equipped with laptops and other electronic materials such as 3D printers to create more awareness about technology. With the help of Sophia the robot, Dessie hopes to inspire the next generation of coders in Ethiopia and Africa more broadly – particularly girls.

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