A Finnish growth startup organized an open office event. It allowed young people to visit the company while the current employees talked about how it is to work in a startup. Later I met a sales manager of this company who complained that these community engagement types of activities were not essential.
This manager argued that the company should focus only on the for-profit activities – the core business. This Finnish company has raised more than $ 60 million. The manager was right that the company must generate profit and create value for its investors.
But does it mean community engagement activities are not necessary? I don’t think so. This sales manager did not see many benefits the open office event could bring, such as brand awareness and talent attraction. Also, I think this manager failed to see that growth-stage startups play an important role in building a sustainable startup ecosystem in the long term.
iCog Labs is the first private African R&D of AI company since 2013. To survive, it requires their startup to focus on getting AI software development and outsourcing contracts from international clients. But they did much more than that.
While I was researching about iCog Labs, I was surprised to learn that their team has launched different initiatives to boost the local startup ecosystem. This includes students' robot competition, students' startup incubation, and girls coding training.
The startup ecosystem in Ethiopia is growing but it also faces many challenges. However, these challenges seem only to make startups such as iCog Lab even more ambitious. Their team and many other local startups shared the same notion that they must take the lead to build and contribute to the Ethiopian tech scene. They take the responsibilities to build up the ecosystem “infrastructures” so that the next generation entrepreneurs can have a chance to thrive.
Below you can read the interview which I had with Hruy Tsegaye from iCog Labs.
His name has two meanings from the local languages in Ethiopia. One means the chosen one. The other means the one who lives forever. The chosen one who lives forever? I laughed and told Hruy that his name was overly ambitious.
Hruy started his career as a journalist – a career that his father disapproved of. His parents wanted him to become an engineer. Now he works in the tech industry and his father was content. But his mother believes that he might be doing “devil’s work” when he and his team discussed the future of advanced humans.
Well, I guess it is not possible to please everybody, including your loved ones, when you are pursuing a dream of achieving something that nobody has done it before.
You received your degree in Journalism and Literature in Arba Minch University in Ethiopia. But you went to work in the Afar region north of Ethiopia for 2 years as a programme officer for a governmental agency - HIV AIDS Prevention and Control Office (HAPCO). Tell us a bit more about these 2 years of experience in Afar. What did you do and learn there?
Afar is one of the most remote areas in Ethiopia. It is known for the discovery of Lucy, a female of the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis. It is also known for the active volcano Erta Ale. It is the lowest place on the planet. For a young man, these are enough reasons to go for an adventure and experience life in the desert.
So I decided to apply for the job in the government. There was no competition because most people with a degree would not want to work in that area. I was the only person in his early 20s working for this organization and I worked at Bitu.
As a programme officer, first of all, I was responsible for planning the annual activities of this region with a population of 62,000 people. We used to run the committee conversation. We organized groups of people and discussed different topics such as HIV. Some of them believed that they have sinned and God was angry. But we didn’t tell them directly that they were wrong.
Our job was to listen to the community and lead the conversation. The goal was to educate local people and avoid any misunderstandings without forcing them to believe in anything. Secondly, we were also responsible for running Voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) campaigns and fundraising campaigns for orphans who lost their parents because of HIV AIDS.
Poverty has many faces. But I learned that lacking technology makes life extremely hard. The more you lack technology, the poorer you are, and the more expensive and inaccessible things are. The place had no electricity, no water, no telecommunication.
There were only stars, the sun, the native people, and me. The main grid, which provided hydropower electricity, was located in Awash city, 350 kilometers away from Bitu. You could not get access to information. I had to travel for 120 kilometers to the capital city Semera to watch the news on the TV.
Secondly, I learned that you must involve the local community. There was a shortage of clean water in the place I worked. Therefore, the government hired contractors to dig out water. The contractors did not consult anyone before starting digging. After they completed the project, the villagers refused to drink the water. They started to ask the local people.
What’s the problem? The elders told them that the land was a graveyard which was used to bury their ancestor. They believed that they could not drink the bones of their ancestors. This changed my attitude in life. I learned to listen to the local communities.
Thirdly, even though it was a rewarding experience to work in Afar. I learned that I should not make decisions only based on emotions. These are some of the key learnings that influenced the rest of my life.
In 2013, Getnet Aseffa and Ben Goertzel, CEO of SingularityNET partnered up and started iCog Labs. You joined the team as its fourth member. Can you share with us a bit more about the founding story?
Our founding story is very interesting. Back then, Getnet Aseffa was a computer science graduate of a military college. Around the age of 25 or 26, he stumbled upon a book called The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. They were talking about artificial intelligence and editing our genetic makeup.
Yet in Africa, we were still talking about improving farming systems which have been on this planet for the past 10, 000 since the dawn of civilization. He was deeply disturbed by the book.
He started to sent emails to Ray Kurzweil. Ray is an American inventor and futurist. He shared his business emails with the rest of the world. You can imagine how many emails he would get and the chances of ever getting a response. But Getnet was not a quitter. He sent more than 420 emails within 6 months. Not spams but sincere emails.
Ray Kurzweil finally replied. He said that I have been getting your emails and what do you want from me. Getnet said he wanted to organize high-level workshops in Ethiopia for government officials and business people. This would open their eyes to the world that is changing rapidly and continuously. Ray Kurzweil liked the idea but he was too busy at the time. Then he connected Getnet with Ben Goertzel.
Ben Goertzel is a charismatic person with interesting experiences. He spent his life working on artificial general intelligence. More importantly, he had experiences running businesses in developing countries such as Brazil. Ben started to have conversations with Getnet about the state of emerging technologies in Africa.
Together, they managed to organize the first AI conference in East Africa and invited presidents of universities and many other high ranking officials. It was probably the first in Africa because no one was talking about AI in Africa. Nobody considered it to be a serious business. While Ben returned to HongKong where he was located, Getnet started to assemble a team to build the first AI company in Ethiopia.
A friend of mine told me about Getnet’s plan and asked me if I would be interested in joining. When I first met Getnet, I was not sure exactly what he was talking about. Set up an AI company in Africa? I admired his ambition. The meeting with Ben went quite well that we ended up discussing different Western philosophy. They decided to include me in the founding team. We called the company Addis AI Lab. Six months later, our team supported my idea of changing the name to iCog Labs.
In the first six months, we are located inside Getnet’s parents' place. It was a small shop which used to be a barber house. Ben and his team in HongKong would have daily video calls with us. They trained us in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
After six months, we got our first client, a subsidiary of Sony Music, which needed a music recommendation system. Ben pitched the idea to the company. They were surprised to hear about our team in Ethiopia and decided to give us a try. Our accuracy reached 92% and they were satisfied with our work. We were grateful for this contract because it opened us a door to this industry.
What were some of the challenges your team had in those early days?
The first challenge is to find and hire qualified programmers who are creative problem solvers. Our team was featured in newspapers and TV. We would receive more than 400 applications for one position. But it was difficult to find qualified ones.
There was a gap in the Ethiopian education system. The schools in Ethiopia train students to follow certain instructions than coming up with a solution on their own. However, the clients came to us with a problem. There were no instructions on exactly how to solve it. It required our engineers to be innovative.
Second, funding is hard. We worked in a barbershop. Nobody took us seriously especially in the domestic market when they visited us. Many people think we were con artists. We were using AI as a cover because nobody understood what AI was. But fortunately, we had an American angel investor who supported us financially. In addition to that, people accepted low wages to keep the team going forward.
Third, the infrastructure is missing. The cost of the internet was high and the quality of the internet was low. Also, the government would shut off the internet when there was some political issue in the country.
For example, we had a small contract with the University of Gondar. It is located more than 600 KM away from Addis Ababa. We were expected to deliver the software on the 30th day. But the government shut down the internet on the 28th day. Therefore, we had to upload the software on a flash disk and sent it by normal post.
We gradually started to get better and landed more clients. The earlier clients include Open Code Foundation from Hong Kong and an accounting firm from Australia. More than a year after we founded the company, we moved to the office in the center of Addis Ababa.
Many people may not know, but iCog Labs is part of the team that contributed to the development of Sophia. How did iCog Labs get involved and what was your team’s role in the development? And what are some other interesting projects that your team worked on?
Both David Hanson, the CEO of Hanson Robotics, and Ben Goertzel live in HongKong. I think David may have been aware of Ben’s business adventure in Ethiopia. Our team has built a reputation for delivering software on time, having high accuracy, and even coming up with our algorithm. Besides, our price was affordable.
So Hanson Robotics decided to offer us a six months contract initially. Sophia had many different contractors from all over the world. But our team was the first one from Africa. At first, our team was responsible for image processing, helping Sophia to identify humans from animals. It was a successful contribution and they offered us another contract.
We then contributed to the natural language processing to help Sophia identify different noises. Also, we worked on emotional reactions to help Sophia have different facial expressions, such as a friendly face and a sarcastic look.
For me, the other most interesting commercial project was to identify the longevity genes. It was a contract with a Canadian company. There are many factors to make a person live longer. The goal of this specific project was to map out the genetic arrangements in the people who had lived for more than 90 or 100 years.
Part of the singularity movement is creating advanced humans. This project allowed us to have conversations with different domain experts. What if rich people have the power to become immortal? What are some of the bright and dark side of this technology? Soon our office became the hub for different arguments and discussions for anybody interested in this topic.
Corporate social responsibility has always played an important role in iCog Lab’s activities. For example, your team launched an initiative called iCog Makers in 2015 to create a platform for African makers. How did that project come about and what is the current status?
In the management team, we started to have a conversation about working more projects in the domestic market. But there was little demand in the domestic market when we first started. People believed that anything related to AI must be expensive; and the maintenance cost was high. The domestic market may not be mature, but what about other projects related to education, startup, and entrepreneurship in Ethiopia?
We identified three gaps. First, we have to work with universities and policymakers to improve the education system so that we can produce competitive students in the global market.
Second, we should create awareness. We have local investors who are investing lots of money in the traditional industry. We need to help the investors be aware of the investment opportunities in emerging technologies. To achieve that, we must have a competitive tech ecosystem that showcases innovative ideas.
Third, we need to work on capacity building. It means connecting innovators from one university to another, and connecting investors with innovators.
We launched the iCog Makers initiative. It was challenging to get universities on board. So we decided to do something unconventional - iCog Makers Robosoccer cup. We added cameras, microcontrollers, and navigation sensors in the small robots. We gave students a laptop so they could communicate with their teams in the robot soccer game.
This idea immediately got the attention of universities because this did not only inspire their students but also might attract international media attention. Once Addis Ababa University signed an agreement with us, it became much easier to convince other universities. All universities wanted to be perceived as progressive.
Right now, we have 36 partners universities from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria. Under the Robosoccer Cup, the students compete with each other, and they also conduct research papers. They also came up with some applications in precision farming. We tried to connect them with the Chinese investors and helped them find the market.
Today this initiative is still fully funded by our company. We have seen many top engineers all over the country and in other Africa Universities. We have also seen some projects with high potential. We have successfully managed to have this iCog Maker Robosoccer cup for the past three years, and I hope it will become a continental competition in the future.
In addition to iCog Maker initiative, my colleagues are also running an 11 months incubation programme combined with innovation competitions in 15 different cities in Ethiopia. We select the best three students’ startup ideas from each city. Then we offer these students team free training from web development to marketing for 6 months. At the end of the training, the team will pitch their projects in a 3-day pitching event.
Day 1 is the public demo day. We invite tech and business leaders in Addis Ababa as the jury and anybody can participate to watch the demo day. Most of our participants are young people from 18 to 22. They are inspired and encouraged when the public shows interest in their innovation. It is also a good time for them to collect feedback from the public.
Day 2 is the media day. We invite different media outlets to interview the innovators.
Day 3 is the investor day. We have more than 120 investors who are interested in investing in tech projects in Ethiopia. We organize this session so that the startups can network from investors. In the past 2 years, we awarded the best projects with a seed grant without taking equity.
We also have a 4 months acceleration programme which we will invest in the startups and take around 6% of equity.
Why not focus only on the company’s AI businesses? Why is it important for your team to engage in these community-building activities?
We have been asking ourselves the same questions. We have invested a lot of resources into this.
The first reason is we wanted to create awareness of the Ethiopian tech ecosystem. It is easier for international media to write stories about these social responsibilities initiatives than writing about iCog’s commercial projects.
Secondly, the tech ecosystem in Ethiopia is still nascent. It is our responsibility to do the hard work and to contribute to the ecosystem. There is no mature venture capital industry. There is no stock market where you can go public and exit your company.
In the past, the government has a misconception about technologies. I say this in every opportunity that I find – technology is not a byproduct of development, but technology is a tool for development.
When you are living in a prison, you have to be the one who breaks out. So iCog Labs invested its revenue back to the community so that we can help create the local tech ecosystem.
How difficult it is for you to get funding from the government for all these different initiatives?
There are many levels of challenges when it comes to public-private partnerships in Ethiopia. One is that in the past 30 years, Ethiopia has been facing a demon called corruption.
Government officials used to come up with fraudulent project ideas with their friends. When they get large amounts of funding, they share the fund under the table with their friends.
To stop this from happening, the government stopped providing any funding for non-government organizations. Instead, the government set up a bureaucratic bidding process which made it equally challenging for private companies to secure funding for non-profit initiatives. Therefore, it is easier to get funding from the US embassy or the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
The second problem is attitude. There is a saying that the prophet has no honor in his own country. Some people in the government seem to be more in favor of projects that are set up by foreigners than by local Ethiopians.
You are also working with the country's Federal Minister of Science and Technology in different projects. What are some of the exciting projects you're working on right now?
We came up with this idea called Designed in Ethiopia two years ago. Under this initiative, we are creating a partnership agreement with the Shenzhen government in China. We will have access to loans from hardware manufacturing companies in China. We will also get access to Chinese investors who are interested in the electronics and hardware market in Ethiopia and East Africa.
Within this project, we recruited designers from Ethiopia. We brought in experts and offered them training. For example, last year, we brought five experts from China, France, Belgium, and Australia. They worked with designers for ten days and helped them refind the design in terms of aesthetics and functionality.
Then we selected the best five prototypes and presented them to international investors. I had the chance to meet some creative designers. I also learned that Chinese investors are serious, and they are willing to work with a low-profit margin in some circumstances. In addition to that, we help the Federal Minister of Science and Technology in policymaking.
What kind of collaboration does your team have with China? What advice would you offer to Chinese investors who are looking to invest in tech startups in Ethiopia?
We can not disclose any names of the Chinese companies that we are working with. But we are working on multiple projects. For example, we are helping a game company to develop AI software that will allow the game to adjust to players’ hand movement.
As for the domestic market, we are working to produce the first African toy robots. African children grow up with Western toys. But in African culture, we have many myths and heroes. Why not come up with an African designed robot toy with African features? For now, our experiment is only with the Amharic language. So this is one of our most ambitious domestic projects.
We are collaborating with theShenzhen Open Innovation Lab. They support us with materials and technical guidance. I am grateful that they also help us with hardware. If we will come up with a suitable design, some of our partners have promised us they will invest and connect us with the right manufacturers for mass productions.
My advice is for the Chinese investors is that do not take the negative reports about Ethiopia seriously. Some people are talking about the impending Civil War and unstable economic environments. The outsiders are narrating our stories. The outsiders compare us with the global mainstream, get frustrated easily, and assume the worst for our country.
I suggest the Chinese investors not only rely on foreigners’ reports but come to Ethiopia and see it for themselves. Come to enjoy the best coffee and the fascinating natural wonders. The tech market in Ethiopia is getting mature, and consumers are willing to pay for better tech products. There are a growing tech community and many globally competitive engineers and developers.
You talk about different examples of tech innovation in different parts of Africa, such as Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya in your book. Can you share a few innovative startups in Ethiopia that people may not be aware, but should know about?
Farming is an important industry in many African countries. I think Debo Engineering is an interesting company. They are the MEST African country winner. They develop software that helps farmers evaluate different types of plant diseases. They also design and develop digital solutions for agriculture, education, and many other sectors.
Another one is QeneTech, a software development firm based in Addis Ababa, but has international clients. They develop and publish video games. Their games are based on African stories and African legends. They also provide game development outsourcing services. I share the same vision as their team when it comes to narrating Africa.
These two companies are good examples that Ethiopian companies can solve global challenges and scale globally.
Broadly speaking, what do you think are some of the most common misconceptions towards Ethiopian people or the country itself?
First, if you do not speak fluent English, people assume that you are not intelligent. Ethiopia is not colonized and we speak our own languages. In Kenya, anybody can speak English.
But in Ethiopia, the professors may not have the best English skills. It does not mean the professors are not experts in their fields. People should not judge only based on other people’s language levels.
Second, people assume that high technology is too good for Africans. Just because people are poor, it does not mean the technology is too good or out of reach for them. If AI is good for China or the US, it is also good for Ethiopia.
For example, when you present activities related to artificial intelligence, robotics, and IoT to international organizations to ask for support, they will suggest implicitly that I am a dreamer and ask me to come up with other activities to address poverty, etc.
Third, they think we are not informed. Some people do not believe that you can keep up with the rest of the world because you are poor. They still have this idea of Africa that there are only lions, giraffes, and hippos, but you will find megacities in African countries. Even worse, some people assume Africa is a country. Africa is a continent of 54 countries with diverse cultures and natural wonders.
What are some of the short and long term goals for iCog Labs?
COVID has put many of our projects on hold but we are still in business.
Our short term objectives are that we wanted to relaunch the Design in Ethiopia project this year. We wanted to attract at least three or four more manufacturing companies that believe in the concepts. Another project is the toy robot which I mentioned earlier.
We aim to finalize the design in the coming 9 months and find potential investors. As for our incubator and accelerator programme, we hope to have the first successful million dollar business within the next three years.
When it comes to our long term goal, we want to expand our business and establish a multinational AI company in Africa. We also hope to re-launch the YaNetu teaching tablet project which is currently dormant. It will be a virtual classroom in a tablet that will be distributed across schools in Ethiopia. We are also planning to work on projects on self-driving cars for public transportation and agriculture sectors.
Books you recommend for those who are interested in learning more about Ethiopia?
First, Notes from the Hyena's Belly by Nega Mezlekia. It is an autobiography which has two pictures of Ethiopia, the good and the bad ;
Second, The Wife's Tale: A Personal History by Aida Edemariam. This also has some good depiction of Ethiopia.
Third, Wax and Gold by Donald Levine. This one is about the ancient poetry tradition in Ethiopia but it also gives some good info about the country's past.
Fourth, The Ethiopians: A History Book by Richard Pankhurst, I didn't read this one but I trust Richard and probably it is the most well researched and unbiased history book about Ethiopia.