Dessie, 19, is arguably Africa’s youngest AI enthusiast pioneering local tech solutions-driven approaches using AI. She is a rising star in Ethiopia’s tech scene, sometimes called the ‘Sheba Valley’
Dessie is coordinating a number of nationwide programs run by robotics lab iCog, the Addis Ababa based artificial intelligence (AI) lab that was involved in developing the world-famous Sophia the robot.
She has four software programs copyrighted solely to her name – including an app developed for the Ethiopian government to map rivers used for irrigation.
She shares how she started down this part in an interview. She recalls:
‘On my 9th birthday, I wanted to celebrate so I asked my father for money.’ When her father said he didn’t have any to give her that day, Dessie took matters into her own hands.
She put her industry to work, using the handy materials around her- her father sold electronics in her home city of Harar- she started with small tasks such as video editing and sending music to customer’s cell phones.
‘I got about 90 dollars – then I celebrated my birthday’ she laughs, sitting in one of the robotics and coding rooms at iCog, Ethiopia’s first AI lab.
The liberalization of the Ethiopian economy under new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has seen an awakening in the tech sector driven by private and public partnerships, thus creating huge changes following a government-sanctioned internet blackout that took place prior to Abiy taking office.
iCog launched in 2013 and Ethiopia’s tech industry is set to take off even faster this year as a result.
‘Girl coders produce Immediate and Grounded Solutions’
One program Dessie leads on at iCog is ‘Solve IT,’ which works with young people to find technological solutions to community-based problems.
Dessie travels the length and breadth of the country working with students (some up to five years her senior) to inspire the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.
Being younger, she says, means she and other teachers are ‘more in touch with what the students are experiencing.’ In the same way, women teaching women can be impactful, she adds, having had the same life experiences.
Girls are a minority among the students attending ‘Solve IT,’ but for Dessie, they have the most to contribute.
‘The boys imagine more, they want to do something that’s big and inspired, the girls they really want to help their community from the core,’ she explains.
Instead of space rockets and robots, the solutions put forward by the girls she teaches tend to be grounded and immediate – such as an SMS app that informs farmers about local weather conditions.
Dessie’s passion for technology was, for the most part, supported growing up in relatively liberal Harar, but her experience isn’t the norm in Ethiopia.
Commitment to Girl Coders
Dessie is also spurred on by a strong desire to teach AI to girls so as to encourage more female participation in the industry.
In 2013, women accounted for a quarter of students enrolled in science and technology studies at university; while only eight percent of science researchers are women. ‘Unless you really are in the industry, there is no one to look up to in technology,’ says Dessie, pointing to this lack of female role models.
‘Anyone Can Code,’ is another project of Dessie’s that teaches young Africans the basics of artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain and other emerging technologies.
She is currently looking for funding for a project called ‘The Sophia School Bus.’
‘The bus will go around Ethiopia equipped with laptops and other electronic materials such as 3D printers to create more awareness on these technologies – using Sophia as a brand to attract,’ she explains.
With the help of Sophia the robot, Dessie hopes to inspire the next generation of coders in Ethiopia and Africa more broadly – particularly girls.
Asked why this is so important to her, she smiles.
‘Who can solve the problem of a female if she cannot tell you the problem, and find her own solution?’