Time to do wonders on the web, says a young software developer

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

By Wossen Mulatu
At just 21, Betelhem Dessie is busy juggling her time between three companies
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/Mulugeta Ayene
29 May 2020

At just 21, Betelhem Dessie is busy juggling her time between three companies. She is the CEO of ‘iCog- Anyone Can Code’, co-founder of ‘Solve IT Accelerator, and a partner in Kudu Ventures. As a young software developer, she has travelled to different parts of the world and earned much acclaim. In 2018, CNN called her a tech genius.

Currently, iCog teaches children between the ages of 8 and 18 in Ethiopia and abroad the basics of coding and robotics.

“There is a fee for children who come from private schools. However, we are closely working with the Ministry of Education and other stakeholders to identify and reach out to high-performing students from public schools to learn for free,” she says. “Due to COVID-19, we will be teaching online classes and registration has already started. We have received 40 tablets from Google to help us with the training. So far, we have trained 20,000 students through our multiple training programs since in 2016,” she says.

‘Solve IT’ focuses on young people aged between 18 and 28 years and inspires them to find local solutions to local problems. It has a decentralized approach and works in 15 cities in Ethiopia. The project receives project proposals and grant applications and invests in smart ideas with potential for scale-up.

Bethlehem also leads a partnership with Kudu Ventures, a US-based firm which has committed one million dollars to support start-ups founded or co-founded by women.

Her journey started when she was just nine years old and preparing to celebrate her 10th birthday. Her father, who owned a mobile shop in her hometown of Harar, refused to give her money to celebrate with her friends.

“I was so eager to celebrate my birthday that I came to the shop and helped the customers to upload applications to their phones for a fee. Surprisingly, I succeeded! I made 1,600 Ethiopian birr and celebrated my birthday using my own money. That’s when I realized I could turn my knowledge into business. In the months to come, I researched on how to develop a website and used the dial-up internet connection to market my father’s business to more customers.”

Being a mathematics and physics enthusiast from childhood and ranking first in her class until 6th grade, Betelhem’s potential in technology began to receive wider attention not only in Harar but in national media and among senior government officials.

“My family has been very supportive since I was a child. They understood the importance of extracurricular activities unlike many parents of their generation. My father used to travel with me from one city to another and from one office to another. His presence made my work more credible.”

After the family moved to Addis Ababa for better opportunities, Betelhem started freelancing by selling software packages to businesspeople and companies especially in the Merkato area. At 10, she was hired by the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency as a software developer where she was engaged in real life projects. She also worked with the US embassy on the “Girls Can Code” project and trained 40 students.

A self-taught coder, Betelhem has since developed five software packages which she has copyrighted. They include a digital library, a virtual laboratory, a document and inventory management system, and a DNB locator (named after her family initials, the locator is an application that maps irrigation systems and can be used by agricultural experts). Through a collaboration with other students, she developed “Askual”, a digital learning platform that brings students, parents and teachers together.

At just 21, Betelhem Dessie is busy juggling her time between three companies.
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/Mulugeta Ayene

Bethlehem says COVID-19 has given children and young people a lot of time to explore topics that interest them and create something useful. She believes they should not just use their time on the internet on entertainment but instead do something valuable.

“The internet is a huge resource for children and young people. As the saying goes, ‘where there is a will, there is a way!’ They can easily connect, conduct research, and learn a lot about topics of interest.

“We need to move from old routines and create new ones. For example, I have my own daily routine and a ‘to do list’ that guides me on how to get through the day. Currently, I am researching on how to create jobs for young people in developing countries.”

Bethlehem’s daily routine includes a 25-minute workout, cooking, checking e-mails, and attending online meetings with her colleagues and clients from all over the world. She also takes the time to research topics that are relevant to her work.

She says one of her ambitions has just come true. “My dream when I was 13 was to open an ICT bus that moves to different places in Ethiopia teaching locals how to use computers and at the same time grasp local knowledge. I thought it would be expensive to establish IT facilities everywhere and thought a mobile bus equipped with the required technology would be cheaper. Fortunately, last year I found an organization which is willing to support me to implement the project.”

She recalls an incident from a trip to Sweden that remains one of her proudest moments. While conducting training on the basics of coding and robotics to about 70 students, a student of African descent raised his hand and said in his lifetime he had never thought he would see a young person from Africa training on such a high-tech subject.

“Almost everyone cried during the graduation,” says Betelhem. “I believe that if children and young people are exposed to technologies and trained on the skills that are required to compete in the 21st century, they can live their dreams and change the world.”

In November last year, Bethlehem had another of her dreams fulfilled when she met her role model, Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey. Posting on his twitter feed, Dorsey said of Betelhem. “Likely the most incredible soul in all the world. Pure joy. Appreciate you!”

It would seem at such a young age, Bethlehem has achieved all her dreams but she says she has a lot more to accomplish and is always adding to her bucket list.

“I do not feel that I have achieved all my goals yet. I still have big dreams. The things I have done so far are only processes and roads that will take me there. For example, I want to open a large Centre of Excellence and a school. My vision for the future is always evolving. Whenever I am exposed to something bigger and better, it changes completely.”