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Ethiopia’s bid to become an African startup hub hinges on connectivity – TechCrunch

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Ethiopia is flexing its ambitions to become Africa’s next startup hub.

The country of 105 million with the continent’s seventh largest economy is revamping government policies, firing up angel networks, and rallying digital entrepreneurs.

Ethiopia currently lags the continent’s tech standouts—like Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa—that have become focal points for startup formation, VC, and exits.

To join those ranks, the East African nation will need to improve its internet environment, largely controlled by one government owned telecom. Last week Ethiopia’s government shut down the internet for the entire nation.

Startups, hubs, accelerators

Ethiopia has the workings of a budding tech scene. Much of it was on display recently at the county’s first Startup Ethiopia event held in Addis Ababa.

On the startup front, ride-hail ventures Ride and ZayRide have begun to gain traction (Uber has not yet entered Ethiopia). Their cars are visible buzzing throughout the capital and ZayRide will expand in Liberia in August, CEO Habtamu Tadesse confirmed to TechCrunch.

While in Addis, I downloaded and used Ride—founded by female entrepreneur Samrawit Fikru—which quickly flashed connections to nearby drivers on my phone and allowed for cash payment.

This month’s Startup Ethiopia also showcased high-potential early-stage ventures, such as payment company YenaPay and online food startup Deamat. YenaPay has worked to build a digital payments imprint in Ethiopia’s largely cash based economy. The startup has onboarded over 500 merchants, including ZayRide, according to co-founder Nur Mensur.

Deamat blends e-commerce and agtech. “We connect small-holder farmers with consumers. People can use their phone, pay with their phone, get any kind of agricultural products they want and we deliver,” co-founder Kisanet Haile told me after pitching to judges that included Nigerian angel investor Tomi Davies and Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge.

Ethiopia has several organizing points for startup, VC, and developer activity. Tech talent and startup marketplace Gebeya is located in Addis Ababa (with offices globally) and offers programs and services for ventures and tech professionals to gain developer skills and scale their digital businesses.

BlueMoon is an Ethiopian agtech incubator and seed fund. Its founder Eleni Gabre-Madhin has extensive experience working abroad and played a central convening role in the debut Startup Ethiopia event.

In terms of developer and co-working type spaces, Ethiopia has iCog Labs—an AI and robotics research company—and IceAddis, one of the country’s first tech hubs. Founded in 2011, IceAddis’s mission is to develop Ethiopia’s IT ecosystem, co-founder and CEO Markos Lemma told me during a tour. The hub runs programs such as Ice180, a six-month startup accelerator bootcamp that has graduated 40 ventures. IceAddis also offers a 24 hour co-working space for techies and startups who want to burn the midnight oil with internet access.

Angels and mentors

Startup Ethiopia featured two angel and support networks for Ethiopia’s startups. Tomi Davies and Ethiopian diaspora returnee Shem Asefaw announced the first Addis Ababa Angel Network, supported by African Business Angels Network, which is expected to accept startups this year.

Startup Ethiopia also showcased Ethiopians in Tech, an entrepreneur support group with Silicon Valley roots. SV based Bernard Laurendeau, a director at data analytics firm Zenysis and EiT founding member, made the trek from San Francisco to meet with local startups. So did Stackshare founder Yonas Beshawred.

Talk of leveraging Ethiopia’s diaspora, which is particularly strong and successful in the United States, for tech was mentioned several times at Startup Ethiopia, including on my panel.

Connectivity

The biggest hurdle for Ethiopia’s startup community (that I could identify) is the situation with local internet.

Mobile and IP connectivity in the country is managed by state-owned Ethio Telecom, though the government — led by newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Sahle-Work Zewde — has committed to privatize it.

At Startup Ethiopia, I moderated and sat on panels with Ethiopian government representatives to discuss the country’s net situation. This was to the backdrop of the tech event’s WiFi not functioning properly over two days—something that was readily pointed out during Q&A by Ethiopian techies and Liquid Telecom CTO Ben Roberts, who flew in from Nairobi.

Several officials, such as State Minister of Innovation and Technology Jemal Beker, named specific commitments to improve the country’s internet quality, access and choice within the next year, with  Ethiopia’s Ministry of Innovation and Technology — Getahun Mekuria — seated in the front row.

Shortly after officials made these public pledges, the government shut down the country’s internet to coincide with national exams.

The government didn’t issue an official reason for the shutdown — and an official in charge of ICT policy did not respond to a TechCrunch inquiry — but press reports and a source speaking on background said the stoppage was done to prevent students from cheating.

Valid reason or not, I received several messages from local techies and startup heads (when the internet was intermittently switched back on) complaining about how the shutdown had totally crippled their businesses.

It appears the situation with internet in Ethiopia may be a bit of steps back before steps forward. After shutting things down, the government announced policy steps last week to break up the national telecom and IP monopoly and issue individual telco licences by the end of 2019.

Prospects

On the upside of Ethiopia’s bid to become a tech and startup hub, the country has a strong demographic and economic thesis—in its large population and economy—to support the scale up of problem-solving, digital businesses. Ethiopia’s large and entrepreneurial diaspora populations, with strong ties to Silicon Valley, could also become a bridge to capital and capacity for its early-stage ventures.

And another edge Ethiopia could have over other African tech hubs is its advances in developing a manufacturing industry (and higher-paid workforce) that’s now pulling some assembly from China. That includes a mobile assembly plant in Addis Ababa for Tenssion’s Tecno, Africa’s leading mobile phone brand.

Ethiopia’s startup scene will be stuck in the mud, however, without changes to the internet landscape. As we discussed on the Startup Ethiopia stage, the tech and startups of tomorrow—in Africa and globally—won’t just be driven by IoT, or the Internet of Things.

Tech ventures and their end-users are shifting toward an IoEA future: the internet-of-everything-all-the-time. And it’s impossible for Ethiopia’s startups to move in that direction in a market with one state controlled mobile provider and IP that has the power to arbitrarily nix connectivity.

So on the policy side, the single most effective thing the government of Ethiopia can do to provide an enabling environment for startups is open up its internet market to improve penetration, choice, cost, and reliability.

Do that and it’s likely the other tech pieces assembling in and around the country—ventures, angels, hubs, and entrepreneurs—will sort the rest out.

 

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Libra cryptocurrency renamed Diem to add distance from Facebook

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The Facebook-backed Libra cryptocurrency hasn’t even launched yet, but it’s already rebranding, with its stablecoin product now set to debut as Diem. The move – which comes as the organization hires a number of high-profile execs – is being seen as an attempt to draw further distinction between the crypto project and the ever-controversial Facebook.

Indeed, the new Diem Association will make its independence a key pillar. The new name “signals the project’s growing maturity and independence,” Stuart Levey, CEO, said today.

It’s not been an easy path to launch for Libra, now Diem. Announced in mid-2019, it was pitched as another bitcoin alternative that would be “a global, digitally native, reserve-backed cryptocurrency built on the foundation of blockchain technology.” Although the currency itself would be independent, it could be stored in a Facebook-subsidiary digital wallet, called Calibra.

Since then, though, things haven’t been smooth sailing. Libra faced early criticism for its plan to base value on the US dollar, Euro, Japanese Yen, Singapore dollar, and British pound. Original partners like Visa and Stripe have exited the project.

Facebook’s wallet, meanwhile, will no longer launch as Calibra, and has been rebranded to Novi. Arguably most important, the cryptocurrency’s value won’t be for one, single global stablecoin any more. Instead, there will be multiple versions, with each based on an individual currency such as the US dollar.

The goal now, it appears, is making financial transactions more straightforward and traceable. “The Diem project will provide a simple platform for fintech innovation to thrive and enable consumers and businesses to conduct instantaneous, low-cost, highly secure transactions,” Levey said. “We are committed to doing so in a way that promotes financial inclusion – expanding access to those who need it most, and simultaneously protecting the integrity of the financial system by deterring and detecting illicit conduct.”

Dahlia Malkhi is joining as the Diem Association’s Chief Technology Officer, Christy Clark as Chief of Staff, Steve Bunnell as Chief Legal Officer, and Kiran Raj as Executive Vice President for Growth and Innovation and Deputy General Counsel. Diem Networks – which will be the regulated payment system operator for Diem – has also named its key exec team.

Still to come, however, is any sort of confirmation on timing for the actual launch of Diem. That’s conspicuous by its absence, though earlier rumors suggested that it could be scheduled for early in the new year, and potentially as soon as January.

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Snapdragon 888 revealed – Qualcomm’s 5G flagship for Android in 2021

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Qualcomm has announced its latest flagship chipset, with the Snapdragon 888 set to power the next generation of high-end Android devices in 2021. As you’d expect, there’s a big focus on 5G, with the Snapdragon 888 featuring the company’s latest 3rd generation Snapdragon X60 modem.

Full details of the chipset won’t be revealed until tomorrow, Qualcomm says, with only the headline features of the new SoC being shared at the moment. Still, there’s enough to get us more than a little curious.

The Snapdragon X60 5G Modem-RF System, for example, will combine mmWave and Sub-6 connectivity “across all major bands worldwide,” Qualcomm promises. There’ll be support for 5G carrier aggregation along with global multi-SIM, as we’ve seen on previous 5G modems, together with standalone, non-standalone, and Dynamic Spectrum Sharing.

Another big area of fascination for Qualcomm recently has been Artificial Intelligence. The 6th generation Qualcomm AI Engine will feature on the Snapdragon 888, with a “completely re-engineered” Hexagon processor. That should be capable of up to 26 TOPS (tera operations per second), and will be linked with the 2nd generation Qualcomm Sensing Hub. That controls always-on sensors in a low-power mode.

Snapdragon Elite Gaming, meanwhile, will continue to offer things like updatable GPU drivers – separate from OS updates, allowing for more frequent incremental improvements in graphics performance, in some cases on a per-game basis – and Desktop Forward Rendering. Qualcomm says the Snapdragon 888 should be able to handle up to 144 fps games with its new Adreno GPUs.

On the flip side of the phone, cameras are another big selling point for the new chipset. There, the updated Qualcomm Spectra ISP will handle photos and videos at up to 2.7 gigapixels per second, or roughly 120 photos at 12-megapixels. That’s up to a 35-percent speed improvement compared to the last Snapdragon flagship, Qualcomm suggests.

Of course, Qualcomm has some rising ARM competition at the moment. All eyes are on Apple, which has spread its own, homegrown chipsets from iPhone and iPad to the desktop, with Apple Silicon launching in the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro 13, and Mac mini. They use the M1 SoC, borrowing heavily from the A-series chipsets in recent iOS and iPadOS devices, but we’re expecting to see more potent Apple chips in 2021.

That’s when we can also likely expect to see Android phones based on the Snapdragon 888, though as always it will be down to smartphone-makers to actually decide when their devices launch. Qualcomm says that ASUS, Black Shark, Lenovo, LG, Meizu, Motorola, Nubia, realm, OnePlus, OPPO, Sharp, vivo, Xiaomi, and ZTE are all planning to launch Snapdragon 888-based devices, though we’d expect to see Samsung and others join that list in the new year.

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Apple MagSafe Duo Charger tipped to launch this month

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In October, Apple unveiled its new iPhone 12 line and announced new MagSafe and MagSafe Duo chargers. The standard MagSafe charger is currently available for purchase, but the MagSafe Duo availability is a mystery. A reseller from Switzerland called Digitec Galaxus, apparently a known and popular reseller, has published a listing for the MagSafe Duo charger suggesting that the charger will start shipping this month.

The reseller’s web store claims that MagSafe Duo chargers will ship between December 21 and December 29. It’s worth noting that Apple has yet to offer an official launch date for the charger. It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that a major reseller would have inside information about a potential launch date.

Apple certainly won’t be happy that the company is tipping launch dates if there’s any truth to the listing. Another factoid lending weight to the December 21 launch date is that Apple has sent some MagSafe Duo review units out already. It’s unlikely that Apple would’ve sent review units to members in the media if the device wasn’t ready to launch soon.

For those unfamiliar with the MagSafe Duo charger, it’s designed to charge an iPhone 12 series smartphone and an Apple Watch simultaneously. MagSafe chargers are of the sort that the Apple Watch uses and was a new feature to the iPhone 12 series launched in October.

Apple previously said that the MagSafe Duo charger would sell for $129. As is done with recent iterations of its phones and Watch, no USB-C power adapter is included. Apple will gladly sell you one for an additional charge. Most smartphone users likely have USB-C chargers lying around, but you need one with enough power output to get the ideal charge speed.

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