Disrupter Yilkal Abate

Posted by Jolie Peters
(@Jolie Peters)

Here at Plan3000, it is our goal to shed light on the advances and challenges that the world faces, both in the U.S. and beyond. In our attempt to disrupt data silos, we report from the frontline of conferences around the world to offer our readers important insight into industries they might not have otherwise understood. We recently traveled to Ethiopia, a country that happens to be on the verge of a digital boom. There, we sat down with the Vice President of ICTET (the company that helped organize the Digital Ethiopia Expo), Yilkal Abate. Abate is an MIT graduate who’s at the forefront of the countries digital transformation. We chatted with him about the conference, and gained some insight about the benefits of digitalizing Ethiopia and Africa at large.

Q. What inspired you to create Digital Ethiopia Conference?

A. To create a more conducive platform for different companies and organizations to showcase their products and services in the Ethiopian market and for the Ethiopian market. We wanted to augment the existing annual exhibition with business to business meeting sessions, panel discussions on different areas of interest to explore solutions, master class sessions, a hackathon, and robot competition in a location that has enhanced facilities. This format will provide better opportunity to attract both local and international participants and decision makers who may benefit from what is being showcased at the expo.

Q. Out of the sub-themes, which do you think is the most important when addressing the future of digitalization in Ethiopia?

A. All are important in their own different ways. The finance panels will help unlock challenges with payment systems and gateways for both startup and larger sized companies. The health panels will help draw out the lessons from the efforts so far and provide opportunities for points of intervention by private sector technology companies and startups, as well as the public sector organizations. The agriculture panels will hopefully bring to the forefront how Ethiopia’s largely small-holder-farmer-based agriculture industry can be supported by technology solutions. The education panels will help share experience with content digitalization, localization, and new methods which involve virtual classrooms, artificial intelligence, and decentralized form of skills and learning experience development.


Q. What speakers are you most looking forward to?

A. I am looking forward to hearing and interacting with panelists in the finance and agriculture sessions, like Jose Cordeiro.

Q. Are there any other African countries you believe are setting the stage for the future of digitalization in Africa.

A. We hope other African countries also explore the use of technology in ways that suits their conditions best. Some counties have useful experience in this respect in specific sectors like mobile based payments (e.g. Kenya), eGovernment services and one stop shops (e.g. Rwanda), integrating research outcome to industry in a more structured manner (e.g. South Africa), manufacturing and related exports and so on. Each country should in the end approach the topic with context, and based on the needs and goals that it has.

Q. What role should the government play in this digital age? Does Ethiopia depend on them for technological success, or is it a job that the population at large must tackle?

A. The government can provide incentives and make investments in supporting infrastructure such as electric power generation, roads and rail network construction, supporting research and development, making policies that support entrepreneurship and innovation in the sector. Some of the bottlenecks that need to be solved for the vibrancy of the sector require the policy support and intervention of the government. Others individuals, companies or associations of individuals or companies will have to tackle for themselves. These should be combined in ways that are effective without necessarily being too married to the specific ideologies.

Q. Do you think there’s room for more remote Ethiopian communities to embrace technological change on the same scale that the cities are?

A. To a larger extent, I think so. So much of what is supported by technology in the day to day life now is turning to mobile based devices. As long as there is reliable telecom network for mobile devices in the rural regions as well as the towns and cities, then at least, the potential for adoption and enhancement of lives by related technologies is a realistic anticipation.

Q. Anything you’d like to add?  

A. There is much that is not well understood about Ethiopia; and to a wider extent Africa in general. So, more attention and engagement with, by companies and organizations that are based in North America, or Europe or elsewhere in the world will help unlock opportunities for all involved. Ethiopia is beyond the defining image that it used to have in many places outside, of famine, stagnation, and helplessness. This is not to say there are not plenty of challenges we have to deal with. We are looking to partner with others in more ways than one.