[Q&A] Hub Co-Founder Markos Lemma on Iceaddis: Ethiopia’s Tech Advancement

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Written by Ava Williams

Iceaddis, a university-based technology hub in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia strives to allow emerging technology entrepreneurs to gather, create and implement innovation ideas. Part of the icehubs network of the Middle East and Africa, iceaddis offers support, guidance, and investor research help all while looking to expand in other regions of the continent.

Co-founder Markos Lemma believes the next big CEO. idea in technology or app development is destined to emerge from this space. AFKInsider caught up with Lemma to learn more about the hub, which is facing more tech challenges than others.

AFKInsider: What was your motivation for starting the company and the hub?

Lemma: We started iceaddis in May 2011. Before we started iceaddis, we asked ourselves very basic questions: where do the Ethiopian youth go if they have innovative ideas, where do the techies connect, and where do start-up companies get skilled human power? The questions were very broad and the only thing we discovered was that there was not a physical space in Addis Ababa for energetic Ethiopian techies with high potential. So, the idea of iceaddis started with answering the questions of the tech community.  We wanted to put techies together and help them bring their start-ups to the market.  We wanted to help them connect and create different opportunities for each other.

AFKInsider: What is your background in technology?

Lemma: I graduated with a computer science degree from RMIT University. Within the Ethiopian government’s priority sector, I worked with export-oriented companies. I was involved in a project called ePrivate Sector Development (ePSD).  We supported textile, leather, and shoe companies, which supplied products to the international market.  I was the coordinator of these tasks.  I provided the companies with fast and quick responses for their customers. We also provided store management and resource management solutions.  The founders of iceaddis have backgrounds in e-learning, archiving, and innovation management.

AFKInsider: What does iceaddis offer and who comes to the hub?

Lemma: The aim of the hub is to establish a collaborative national network and a home for Ethiopian-made innovations.  The network provides a space where technology can be developed and used for business or educational sectors in Ethiopia.  At iceaddis, we have an open collaborative space used for co-working and prototyping laboratories. Our prototyping facility is equipped with different machines for product design.

Unlike many other hubs, iceaddis also supports green tech solutions. We are helping start-ups to emerge from ICT & green tech fields. Next to providing spaces, we have different entrepreneurship programs and training. Since we are located in the university, we mainly target university students who want to open up a new venture instead of looking for jobs, which are scarce.

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AFKInsider: What makes iceaddis unique and what impressive apps/programs were born within the initiative?

Lemma: The iceaddis community (500 plus) is growing and vibrant. When we opened up the hub, we thought the start-up businesses would just show up and benefit from our services. But, the reality was rather different; we spent a lot of months developing the community and this is still our core activity.

More than seven different communities use the hub on a regular basis. Currently, we have nine start-ups that are about to launch. We have products coming out of the construction sector, agriculture, and other information providers.  Some cool apps  coming soon from iceaddis include: tourist information applications, language learning, and marketing (Mekina.net, Dibsr, kinehintsa.com, Mirt Animation)

AFKInsider: How is what’s being done at iceaddis connected to the advancement of ICT in Ethiopia? How has the hub helped to build and support technology entrepreneurs?

Lemma: The advancement of the ICT sector in Ethiopia is slow because of lack of telecommunication.  Less than 2 percent of the Ethiopian population is connected to the Internet. This significantly affects technology start-ups. iceaddis is the nexus point for the missing communication gap for techies to collaborate and work together.  Part of our service is also to provide a better Internet connection so that the start-ups focus on their job instead of struggling with connectivity problems. We promote tech solutions, organize different competitions, and provide resources to organizations.

iceaddis helps the entrepreneurs to connect with skilled workers, resources, and funding opportunities. VCs virtually don’t exist in the country and banks usually need a fixed property to give a loan for small ventures.  For small start-ups to get a loan it is very difficult, especially for tech start-ups. The money, which the micro-finances provide, isn’t sufficient enough.  At iceaddis, we try to connect potential investors with tech start-ups and find investors outside the country. Usually, our members are fresh graduates. They lack business and communication skills. We provide them with various training to help them develop their company.

AFKInsider: How does one become a member of the hub?  What are the different types of memberships?  

Lemma: It is very easy to become a member of iceaddis. To recruit members, we ask the following questions: is your idea innovative for Ethiopian context and is your idea sellable? We have three different levels of membership. They are the White, Green, and Red memberships. The white membership is a loose and virtual membership. White members have access to what is happening in the hub.  They are invited to workshops, bar camps, conferences, and other events. They also can apply for a Green membership.

The Green members are usually the new comers in business. They usually have good ideas to work on, but they lack real life business experiences. We carefully monitor them to understand what they want to achieve and what they need to establish their businesses. The Red membership is for established tech start-ups. We provide them with a space to work.  They may use iceaddis as their own office. We also try to find funds for their start-ups and promote their products in Ethiopia and internationally.

AFKInsider: What is the vision for the future of iceaddis?

Lemma: iceaddis is a growing community; many potential companies will come out of the hub. Developers will start to get jobs in the regional market. Some African start-ups have shown an interest in opening a branch in Ethiopia and working within the iceaddis community.  We are opening hubs in other cities of Ethiopia as well.

We are preparing to launch icejimma in western Ethiopia. The more the telecommunication sector is growing, the more we’ll enjoy innovative solutions, which will help farmers, business people & governments. We are aiming high to provide the global market with affordable and useful solutions.