Emperor Menelik II (r. 1889-1913) is considered to be father of modern Ethiopia, holding a reverence stronger than George Washington in the States. Menelik II reunited warring ethnic groups, fought off Italian invasion, and established an empire with borders similar to today’s Ethiopia. In addition to founding the current capital city of Addis Ababa (moving the capital when his wife wanted to build a house here for its beauty, climate, and hot springs), Melenik II was considered a great modernizer who brought technologies to the country including the telephone, railroad, and the automobile. He wasn’t perfect though.
According to legend, Melenik heard of the first uses of the electric chair in the US in 1890 and decided to include the technology in his modernization plan for the country. It was only upon ordering and unpacking three chairs that Menelik learned of one minor problem: Ethiopia did not have electricity yet. Impressed by the craftsmanship of the chair, Menelik chose adopt one of the chairs as his royal throne.
While some have questioned the veracity of this legend, I bring it up because its an ironically accurate depiction of modern-day Ethiopia. Let me explain.
One week ago, I stood at ICT Expo Ethiopia, the largest conference to bring together public and private sector actors to promote the most innovative technologies in the country today. Held as part of “Innovate Ethiopia,” what interested me most about the event was the first ever “Start-Up Ethiopia” pitch challenge. I’d gone to watch the 10 finalists (narrowed from a field of 120+ companies) give 3-minute pitches to real investor judges (including the likes of Village Capital and the Savannah Fund) for a chance to win 1M ETB (equivalent to ~$25k/$35k USD depending on the exchange rate used – more on that issue to come).
What I saw was a fascinating array of companies – from manufacturers of coffee processing equipment, hydroponic systems, and high-protein biscuits to platforms for electronic payment processing, telehealth, and farmer to consumer produce sales. All of the companies were founded by young, inspiring, and enthusiastic Ethiopian entrepreneurs who were leveraging advancements in the country’s technological infrastructure and economic development to build their business while improving lives of other Ethiopians. The startup showcase along with the ICT Expo are part of many other efforts put forth by the government to showcase Ethiopia’s potential and attract private foreign investment to the country.
Corresponding with the ICT event was news on Wednesdaythat the government had taken concrete steps to enable the privatization of the telecom industry by the end of this year. The government-run Ethiotelecom is currently the only operating telecom/internet company in the country. While the government had previously announced intentions to privatize telecomlast year, the news on Wednesday showed actual steps towards making that happen. To date, the speed and reliability of internet is relatively spotty and many view privatization and increased competition as a welcome step towards alleviating those challenges.
Amid all this progress, the showcasing of Ethiopia’s potential as an innovation and technology hub for the region was largely overshadowed by the events of this last week. On Tuesday, the government enacted an unannounced internet blackout throughout the entire country which lasted for four consecutive days. Thursday’s and Friday’s outages also included a complete block of SMS (text messaging. Despite connections returning in Addis late Friday, many areas of the country are still in a complete internet blackout and the connections have been spotty at best throughout the capital over the weekend with significant limitations to messaging services (WhatsApp, Facebook).
While the government has not officially stated the reason for the outages, it is widely rumored to be in connection with students taking their national examinations for grades 10 and 12, which determine ability to earn diploma and university placements. In past years, the government has shut down or limited internet access to limit student cheating after news that exams and answer sheets had been leaked.
The internet shut-down creates challenges throughout the country as private companies, NGOs, and government-run companies near-cease operations. Only the few organizations with approved satellite communication systems (World Bank, UN, African Union, and embassies) are able to function. With news of the shutdown, many in the capital scrambled to find access into some of the few compounds with access in order to continue operations. Those without connections to the right agencies were left in the dark. As a result, during the days of the shutdown, I overheard countless expats on phone calls with external parties explaining the situation and informing partners not to expect any communication from within the country.
Disrupting an entire country’s internet to prevent cheating sounds like an extreme measure, right? It is and it isn’t.
The government has shut down internet communications in the past couple of years for cases of political protest and violence to help restore stability. This case is no different. As I wrote about before, Ethiopia is in the midst of extreme political tensions as its many ethnic groups vie for power and influence ahead of an election in 2020. Exam leaks are closely tied to these conflicts as members from minority groups within the department of education attempt to get inside information on exams, both as blackmailing material against the government and as a means to benefit students within their ethnic regions.
According to estimates, shutting down the internet has a $4.5M impact on the country’s GDP for each day that it is off. While this may seem like an unnecessary expense to place on the country, it may be an economically rational decision in the short-term. For one, the government would have to spend significant resources to re-administer the exam if they were to find widespread student cheating. On top of that, it is highly likely that students who spend months preparing for examinations would create significant civil unrest at the potential of re-taking exams – and quieting the unrest would not be an insignificant financial cost to the government.
The more concerning impact of the shut-down are the longer-term consequences they have for the country. Ethiopia is already a country that is already extremely difficult to do business in and already struggles to attract private foreign investments as a result. The highly disruptive nature of internet shutdowns on business is only likely to further deter investment in the country. At a critical inflection point for the country’s economic growth, the government is sending the wrong signal to potential investors with its internet shutdown.
The current Ethiopian government is eager to parade technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship as signals of the country’s promising potential and opportunities for investment. But just as Melenik and his electric chair, modern Ethiopia’s economic potential can only be realized with the proper infrastructure to support it.