Ethiopia’s tech innovators and digitally enabled service providers are confronted by a daunting reality. While they hold control over the acceptance and quality of their products, they feel that their ability to impact millions of Ethiopians is partially beyond their grasp.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure in Ethiopia is at the heart of this matter.
Similar to how roads are crucial for mobility, ICT infrastructure is indispensable for the effective deployment of technology-related services. Serving as the bedrock of digitally enabled services and acting as both an enabler and a potential deal breaker, ICT infrastructure encompasses software, hardware, firmware, networks, and portals.
The responsibility for improving ICT infrastructure in Ethiopia and how the lack of infrastructure impedes the comprehensive implementation of edtech solutions in Ethiopia were discussed on the last episode of Edtech Mondays radio show produced by Mastercard Foundation and Shega Media & technology.
Hosted by Rediet Meshesha and featuring Yoftahe Yohannes, Senior Project Manager and PMI Future SO honoree, and Yonatan Yeneneh, Head of Projects at Ethiopia i Engineering Group, the show covered several aspects ranging from ICT sector policy and deployment to connectivity and power.
A Look into the State of ICT Infrastructure in Ethiopia
The Connectivity Gap
Telecom infrastructure is crucial for a digital economy, as seamless and equitable access to the Internet is essential for the operation of various digital products and services.
“While there has been significant improvement in connectivity access in Ethiopia, it is evident that internet accessibility has not reached the potential achieved by other countries with a similar economic status,” stated Yoftahe on the radio show that was aired on Fana FM and ten other affiliated stations.
Investment in network expansion and the acceleration of mobile penetration have led to an increase in Internet coverage from 1.1% in 2011 to 25% in 2022. However, despite this impressive growth rate, coverage still remains low.
Yonathan highlights the history of telecom monopoly in Ethiopia as one of the major causes of this low penetration. Until last year, Ethio Telecom had been the sole provider of infrastructure and bore the responsibility of driving the country’s tech growth.
“Ethio Telecom has been carrying more than its weight in the telecom sector and has been the backbone for the ICT sector by providing access to the internet for a long period of time. Being the sole provider in a country like Ethiopia, with a population of more than 100 million, the major objective that Ethio Telecom had was expanding access to the internet and not focusing on the quality,” said Yonathan.
Ethio Telecom, the oldest telecom operator in Africa, has around 7,000 network towers, which is not sufficient to cover a large country like Ethiopia, according to the panelists.
As with other sectors, this reality has had a negative impact on education, slowing down the substantial growth of technology-integrated learning.
“There are multiple edtech platforms designed to facilitate and enhance the learning process. However, these platforms are dependent on connectivity, directly affecting their impact,” said Yonathan.
“Sometimes I see students standing at the gate of my house so that they can crack the Wi-Fi code and use the internet. This shows how little access they have from their homes or the fact that they may not afford to access it, and that is something that needs to be worked on as well,” added Yoftahe.
However, the panelists are optimistic about a more promising future due to the liberalization of the sector. Safaricom Ethiopia’s entry into the Ethiopian market has marked the end of Ethio Telecom’s monopoly. With an anticipated investment of $10 billion in the country, Safaricom is set to enhance connectivity infrastructure and improve its quality. Additionally, the tender process to grant another telecom license is currently underway, providing much-needed support.
Power Supply as a Critical Factor in ICT Implementation
In exploring the vital role of the internet in enriching education through Information and Communication Technology (ICT), it is imperative to acknowledge the critical factor of electricity accessibility.
According to the recently launched National Electrification Program (NEP) 2.0, 44% of the country has access to electricity (33% on-grid, 11% off-grid).
“In Ethiopia, where more than 80 percent of elementary schools are located in rural areas, ensuring a reliable power supply becomes a critical factor in implementing effective ICT initiatives. While efforts have been made by Ethio Telecom and the government to improve infrastructure accessibility, the electric system and related services must be addressed in tandem to achieve meaningful progress,” stated Rediet, the host of the Edtech Mondays Radio show.
The Device Affordability Barrier
The lack of devices is another significant challenge in Ethiopia’s journey. The issue continues to persist as one of the most significant obstacles, particularly among students, impeding their ability to expand their digital knowledge and fully leverage the existing digital learning infrastructure.
The Role of the Private Sector in Improving ICT Infrastructure
When it comes to the role of the private sector, Yoftahe states that there are no notable examples in Ethiopia in this regard.
Yoftahe, who possesses vast experience in the deployment of ICT infrastructure, also notes that the sector is riddled with challenges and does not attract private sector players.
“ICT infrastructure is not prioritized by the government. Similar to other sectors, ICT equipment importers have to go through the process of obtaining a letter of credit, which takes a significant amount of time. Sometimes, by the time you acquire the letter of credit and install the imported items, they are already outdated,” Yoftahe explained.
While this remains to be addressed by the government, the Senior Project Manager argues that one way Ethiopia can foster a more positive culture in the private sector is by imposing corporate social responsibility on private firms.
“When big corporations like Safaricom Ethiopia enter the country, as a nation, we should be able to inquire about their contributions to the younger generation. It should be seen as a requirement,” added Yoftahe.
Government Initiatives and Investment in ICT Infrastructure
Yonathan believes that the attention given to ICT infrastructure has been sufficient and has received significant budget allocations.
For instance, residing on 200 hectares of land, the government has developed infrastructure for ICT Park to attract ICT service companies. The park currently hosts more than 20 companies, including prominent data centers such as Raxio, Wingu Africa, and Red Fox. The government also has plans to manufacture and export IT equipment from this park.
Furthermore, intending to create an ecosystem conducive to innovation and technology development, the federal government has labeled five ICT-related investment areas as eligible for income tax and duty incentives.
“It’s not the attention that’s the problem; it’s the implementation. How are the plans being executed? Is the allocated budget being properly utilized to achieve the set goals? These are the important aspects the government should focus on,” remarked Yonathan.
Yonathan also made an interesting observation on the show to support his argument. He highlighted that many public universities in Ethiopia allocate a significant portion of their annual budget to ICT infrastructure, and in recent years, there has been a trend of constructing data centers in university campuses. Yonathan argues that universities should not be preoccupied with activities that could easily be outsourced. Additionally, he emphasizes that just because one university adopts a specific mechanism or solution, it does not necessarily mean that every other institution should follow suit.
“For instance, Addis Ababa University boasts numerous research projects with the potential to positively impact the community. Their concern should lie in effectively disseminating this information to the public in a simple and accessible manner using ICT. On the other hand, Haramaya University has long focused on agricultural research, and thus requires ICT infrastructure specifically tailored to support its endeavors in this field. It becomes evident that the essential infrastructural requirements of Haramaya University differ significantly from those of Addis Ababa University,” stated Yonathan.
In mentioning other intervention areas, the guests also noted the state can adopt Zero-rating policy for Edtech Platforms.
Zero-rating refers to the practice of internet service providers and mobile service providers not charging users for data used by specific applications or services on their network. Ethio Telecom has also recently implemented a zero-rating policy for its popular mobile money platform, Telebirr.
“In other countries, certain internet services can be used without incurring any costs. To implement this in Ethiopia, the government can make edtech platforms that support students in their national exam preparation available free of charge,” suggested Yoftahe.
Featured Photo Credit- International Finance