Ethiopia: Why Invent When We Can Innovate

In 2016, I participated in the 9th ICT Exhibition, in Addis Abeba, where Quick Response Code (QR code) was showcased. When some of us were chosen for an interview at the closing ceremony, I was excited, only to be told I had to showcase a technology I had “invented”.

Confused I asked what they meant by inventing technology. From their response, I realized what they were trying to say was “innovated”. But rather than arguing the difference between invention and innovation, we just all ended up conducting the interview.

It was not after a year later that I realized it was Ethiopia’s obsession with “inventing” technology, rather than finding innovative ways to adapt technology to fit the country’s needs, that is the main reason behind Ethiopia lagging in the use of technology.

The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector in Ethiopia is focused on invention to show the public the potential of ICT in Ethiopia. Such an aim falls into academia.

Academia in ICT ought to be based in high schools and universities, with the aim of encouraging students to aspire to learn about ICT and at the same time educate the public at large about how ICT is used in everyday life.

In academia ICT, the rewards are praises to participants for their creativity and the building of interest in the public about ICT. On the other hand, innovation in line with the technology world focuses on the marketability of the service or product that is advertised. The aim is to make sure that whatever service provided has a value within the market. That is why while invention looks at creativity, innovation looks at adaptability.

Innovation aligns the product or service with the need of the consumer in such a manner that the consumer is not only interested but willing to pay for the product. It is the purchasing of that product that creates the incentive for ICT companies to become sustainable.

Recently, the 10th ICT Exhibition, this time an Expo, dubbed “Digital Ethiopia”, was held at the Millenium Hall in Addis Abeba. There were both local and international companies showcasing amazing technological products to a wide audience. Local and international media praised the event as a major success showcasing the potential of ICT in Ethiopia. Those interviewed praised the participants and organizers.

To be frank, organizing such an event has lots of challenges and the organizers should be congratulated for their efforts. However, as much as I wanted to jump on the bandwagon of success, I saw a major shortcoming.

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Did the event achieve the goals it set out to achieve?

The Expo was supposed to be focused on Business-to-Business (B2B) and Business-to-Consumer (B2C) technologies. The participants are business entities who were present to showcase their products and services with the aim of “selling” their product or services to business and consumers.

However, the ICT Expo focused on a learning experience with the target on how ICT students and professionals showcased their “creativity” in line with technology (invention) while the aim ought to have been “marketing” their products and services for consumers (innovation). This is where the exhibition got it wrong.

Very few participants had products that can interest visitors and those who did have products tailored towards visitors’ needs; it seems they were not able to market their products effectively. This is not their fault but that of the ICT environment in Ethiopia. That’s why those present were software designers and software engineers rather than marketers. The few exceptions to this were mobile application based transport services, such as RIDE, and some other foreign companies who had marketers on hand to showcase how their products serviced the visitors’ needs effectively.

All this confusion could have been addressed if the focus (in line with the Digital Ethiopia brand) was on innovation rather than invention. That is why the next ICT expo has to focus on making sure innovation takes a lead over invention.

The next ICT expo in Ethiopia has to focus on innovation in line with the rest of the world. We have to be better organized and far more efficient than we are now. ICT participants have to be taught how to create a product or service with the aim of selling the product to a niche market they have identified.

For instance, if the aim is to sell their services to local B2B, then they have to know the demands of the business community within Ethiopia. This is important because, up until now, the major client of locally produced ICT goods has been the Ethiopian government. This is problematic because the prices the government provides for these Ethiopian based ICT products does not go in line with either the domestic or international market.

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ICT companies have to know the real value of their products without being subsidized by government contracts. Moreover, short courses on “elevator pitch” (persuasive sell pitch within seconds) have to be taught to all participants so they can effectively sell their brand to visitors. Furthermore, as most ICT participants are value-added-tax (VAT) registered, they should be allowed to sell their product or services on the spot; as this is the only time they will have access to over 100,000 people in less than three days.

By selling their product on the spot, the government can get its taxes, the consumer can purchase his/her product and the participant can get much-needed revenue right there on the spot. After fixing these issues we ought to work on the layout of the expo.

The layout of the recent ICT Expo could have been better organized; with over 500 companies present, it seemed like they were just randomly placed throughout the hall. They should have been organized within sectors they represented.

In the upcoming one, the layout should be categorized by the services the participants provide such as E-payments, E-government (for government organs), E-industry (small and medium-sized economies, Metal & Engineering Corporation), E-hospitality (hotels, tourism services), E-education (distance learning), E-transport (taxi services) and so forth.

By organizing the platform effectively, visitors can plan which booth to visit as a priority (making it more likely they would purchase the product or service) and which booth to visit for interest. Such an effective system will also make it easier to identify mistakes. For example, at the ICT Expo entrance, I saw a poster that claimed to “scan” a code (via QR scanner mobile application) for more information about the Expo. Yet there was no code present, rather there was a picture stamp.

I understand mistakes can happen but in such an event it is not acceptable. Therefore, it is a must that before such events are held, organizers check that everything is in working order, for in the technology world, there is no such thing as a learning curve. You have to get it right the first time around.

Neftalem Fikre Hailemeskel Is a Certified Digital Marketer From Abdl-Dot Native (UK) and Owner of the Digital Marketing Firm in Ethiopia (Known As Nsdm Ethiopia).

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