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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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Windows Your Phone Apps feature could be expanding to more phones

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After giving up on its own attempts at creating its own mobile platform, Microsoft switched to integrating Windows better with Android and iOS. Not all phones or mobile platforms are created equal, of course, and Microsoft has struck a sweet deal with Samsung for even deeper integration that’s exclusive to a select number of Galaxy phones. One of those features includes the ability to run an Android app from the phone in its own window, a feature that might soon be expanding to other phones or at least other Samsung phones.

In addition to a poor choice in naming, Windows’ Your Phone has a confusing number of features that depend on what phone you have. The most basic is Link to Windows, which lets you seamlessly transfer files between an Android phone and a Windows device. Phone Screen, on the other hand, mirrors the entire phone’s screen on the desktop, allowing you to interact with it while keeping your phone away.

And then there’s Apps, which lets you run those Android apps in their own windows. Like the other three features, however, these are mostly exclusive to Samsung’s phones. More recent premium flagships even get extra perks, like the ability to run multiple apps at once.

@ALumia_italia now reveals that the list of supported phones for Your Phone’s “Apps” feature could be expanding. A screenshot reveals a Galaxy A52 having access to a list of Apps, ready for launching any time. The Galaxy A52 supports Phone Screen, also shown in the screenshot, but not Apps.

Just like the Your Phone itself, there is still some confusion over what this means. Microsoft might simply be expanding the compatibility list to more Galaxy phones, or Microsoft could finally be bringing the feature to phones outside of Samsung’s line. The latter, however, requires that Microsoft open up Your Phone itself to other manufacturers’ devices, and one can only hope that will be the case soon.

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Chromebooks and tablets growth in Q2 2021 beat global chip shortage

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Just when things were starting to look up for consumer computing devices last year, 2021 brought its own big problem that’s shaking up more than just the tech industry. PCs, tablets, and Chromebooks enjoyed a surge in interest and sales in 2020 because of new work from home and remote schooling arrangements, but this year’s ongoing component shortage threatens to upset those gains. Despite that bleak scenario, tablet shipments managed to grow in Q2 this year, with Chromebooks showing the biggest wins.

According to IDC’s numbers, Chromebooks grew by 68.6% in the second quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year. The 12.3 million units that the market shipped may not be as large as the previous two quarters but still comes close to those. HP has the highest growth at 115.7% year-over-year and also has the lion’s share of that market.

The rapid growth of the Chromebook market has been attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, for better or worse, as Google’s Chrome OS continues to spread to new markets. The market analysis company shares that there is a noted uptick in Chromebook sales in Europe, while some countries in Asia are starting to look into the devices for use in schools.

Compared to Chromebooks, tablets had a more modest growth of 4.2%, with 40.5 million units sold. Considering how close tablets were to obsolescence, that’s still a significant improvement. Apple still leads the market with a 31.9% share, while Samsung is at a far second at 19.6%.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and there are already concerns that this positive status for Chromebooks and tablets could start deteriorating soon. Due to supply concerns, some manufacturers seem to be focusing on more profitable Windows laptops instead. Demand for tablets, on the other hand, is expected to slow down sooner in comparison.

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Old Android devices won’t be able to sign in to Google accounts soon

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Android’s fragmentation has long been cited as one of its biggest problems, but, to some extent, it is also a strength. While the majority of today’s Android devices run versions of the operating system from at least two to three years ago, there is still a number of those that are able to keep functioning with even older versions. Of course, these can’t keep on running forever, and it seems that Google is slowly pulling the plug on these, especially the most ancient versions of Android.

For the longest time, Android 2.3, a.k.a. “Gingerbread,” was the most-used version of Android in the market. After the disaster that was Honeycomb and even with the reparations of Ice Cream Sandwich, Gingerbread remained the go-to release for many devices. That was pretty much a decade ago, which is eons for the fast-moving smartphone industry, and it’s surprising to hear that there are still a few active devices out there that might be using it.

Those probably just number in the dozens, but Google is playing it safe by issuing a notice that these devices might be left in a broken state next month. Starting September 27, devices running on Android 2.3.7 or lower will no longer be able to sign in to Google accounts. Google explains that this is to ensure a Google account’s security, implying that these older Android versions most likely have unpatched vulnerabilities that could compromise said accounts.

This change applies not only when signing into apps like Gmail or YouTube but even when signing into a Google account on the phone itself. This means that if you reset your phone or get signed out of it (because you initiated a password change elsewhere), you won’t be able to sign in to your Google account anymore. You can, however, still sign into Gmail or other Google services from a mobile web browser.

It seems that Google is slowly cutting off older Android devices by shutting down access to its servers. Early last month, it announced that phones running Android 4.3 Jelly Bean or older would lose access to Google Play Services, which could effectively break some apps. It’s somewhat amazing that there are still some devices running on these nearly ancient Android versions, but for their own security and convenience, they should probably upgrade to newer ones if they still haven’t.

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