Digital start-up in Ethiopia: “When given the opportunity, people can develop amazing things”
Eskinder Mamo and Amanuel Abrha were still working in Berlin when they started their own start-up for web and mobile app development, called AhadooTec, in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. That was four years ago. Since then, the company has grown rapidly – it currently has 20 staff.
Mamo and Abrha started their first app project to have a positive impact on Ethiopia with Fidel, a learning app for Ethiopian pupils. In the interview, Mamo talks critically about his own learning processes and how it is possible to start a company with a good idea.
Mr Mamo, you’re in Germany for a few days before flying back to Ethiopia. How are things going with your company there?
Eskinder Mamo: Quite well. We currently have orders from the Ethiopian Government, NGOs, and the private sector. We just started developing 45 apps for Ethiopian authorities which, for example, allow citizens to schedule appointments or fill out forms online.
We are also working on our own job platform which is intended to bring together employers and employees as well as educational institutions. The focus here is on workers with lesser or medium skills. In Ethiopia, 17 industrial parks are currently being built, and three of these parks are already using our platform. Hundreds of thousands of people will be employed at these parks. Our platform is intended to provide greater efficiency and cost savings.
It sounds like your company is quite successful. But everything started with a social project, the “Fidel” learning app, correct?
Eskinder Mamo: Yes, that was in 2012. My partner Amanuel Abrha and I were active members of an association for migrants and asked ourselves: Where can we get involved in Ethiopia? We looked at different sectors: agriculture, education, and health. The “education” sector seemed to be the most interesting to us since we knew that access to education in Ethiopia had improved immensely but that the quality still presented a huge issue. We wanted to improve the quality with the help of mobile technology while also letting the pupils have fun.
The “Fidel” learning app
How did the first months go once you had the idea and made the decision to go through with the project?
Eskinder Mamo: We first had to decide on the form of our business. Due to the heavy restrictions in the NGO sector in Ethiopia, we decided to go with a social enterprise. We then put together a local team, applied for a license, and rented an office. All of this took a few months. At the same time, we worked on the design and the technical requirements. We were then ready to go in February 2014.
Did you receive any support?
Eskinder Mamo: Our first supporter was the Social Impact Lab, based in Berlin. They provided advice, mentoring, and networking and we were allowed to work at their co-working space. The Centre for International Migration and Development (CIM) also supported the project financially, and there were numerous organisations and private persons who supported us informally in Ethiopia.
You lived in Germany for 16 years before returning to Ethiopia. Did you have to get to know the country all over again?
Eskinder Mamo: I had to get used to a lot of things again, especially the sense of time, which can be interpreted very flexibly in Ethiopia when you arrange to meet up, for example. However, it was also nice to be back since I was still familiar with so many things. I also found it fascinating to experience the economic development in Ethiopia. The country is very dynamic. In Germany, many things are regulated while in Ethiopia lots of things are still developing or undergoing change.
The founders of AhadooTec
Eskinder Mamo and Amanuel Abrha studied in Germany. Mamo received his Master’s degree in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Abrha received his Master’s degree in Computer Sciences. Mamo already came to Germany at the early age of 12. When he returned to Ethiopia at age 28, he had lived in Germany longer than in his country of birth.
In 2014 and 2015, you were named one of the 100 most influential Ethiopians in Germany by the African Heritage Magazine. Were you more successful than you expected?
Eskinder Mamo: Being recognized by various media is nice, but we do not feel like we are where we can and want to be as a company. We are grateful, however, that we are able to implement our vision and are in a position to try out and learn a lot of things.
You say that you have learned a lot. Do you have an example?
Eskinder Mamo: In a number of international projects that we implemented, at first our customers could not conceive that there are skilled software developers in Ethiopia. Some even asked whether the people there have cell phones or PCs at all.
Our team consists of young people who were trained in Ethiopia. But they are still able to develop software that is competitive internationally since they educate themselves online and familiarise themselves with the latest technological developments. In a project for a Swedish customer, for example, two of our employees did better than most of their Swedish counterparts on an international test. They did not achieve this because we trained them so well. In fact, this was a result of their own initiative. It’s great to see that when people are given the opportunity, no matter where in the world, they can develop amazing things. The talent is there.
In Germany, talking about money is impolite, but it still would be interesting to know: Is it possible to make enough money in Ethiopia with a software company?
Eskinder Mamo: I think that’s the same as everywhere else when it comes to start-ups. In the beginning, it of course is very hard to make money since you don’t have any references and very little experience in all areas. That’s definitely a challenge. People always trust well-known brands. In the beginning, you obviously make a lot of mistakes since you are still in the learning phase. But when you do what you do well, there certainly is money to be made. In fact, the opportunities in Ethiopia are actually much better than in Germany since many things are still being developed and there is less competition.
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