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MIT Ethiopia: An Opportunity for Google

I doubt anyone working for Google has ever taken the time to glance over Lamp Post Reports, nevertheless, this post presents what could be an enormous opportunity for the enterprising company.

Mekelle Institute of Technology, located in the city of Mekelle in northern Ethiopia is a small, private, strapped-for-cash university educating the top information technology and engineering students in Ethiopia. MIT’s vision statement reads,

“Mekelle Institute of Technology will be a center of excellence in technological training and research, contributing to sustainable development and the fight against poverty.”

The four departments at MIT are Computer Science and Engineering, Information Technology, Electrical and Electronics Engineering and Electronics and Communication Engineering.

MIT’s objectives are stated as such:

– “To produce high-level professionals in the fields of Science and Technology, who can invent and innovate.”

– “To produce professionals who can contribute towards our transformation to a self-reliant and vibrant society.”

– “To produce professionals who can apply research to enhance development of the country.”

– “To improve access to education and provide opportunity for students who aspire to build their careers in the fields of engineering, state-of-the-art communications and information technology.”

– “To make the Institute a center of excellence.”

Begun in 2002, MIT was originally the vision of Ato Araya Zerihun, but in 2006 he passed away after suffering a heart attack. Since his passing, the school has continued to produce highly qualified students, with a perfect, 100% job placement rate for all graduates.

As with any start-up however, over the next 5-10 years the school will need a significant amount of funding to continue to support current enrollment levels (120 students per class) and to expand facilities (classrooms, labs, dorms). Each year, over 450 students from Ethiopia qualify for admittance to MIT, but only the top 120 are admitted because of limited capacity. In addition to accepting more Ethiopian students, MIT is also interested in accepting qualified international students, but cannot do so due to funding.

Walking through the campus with Dean Soori, I noticed the grass had not been cut in some time. Before I could question Dean Soori about this, he told me the grass was allowed to grow throughout the summer, then cut and sold in order to generate income. Other creative, but desperate income generating schemes include renting out the largest lecture hall for around $75 USD per day, when it is not needed by MIT.

It’s hard to imagine an institute that churns out such quality, in-demand graduates (by companies such as Information and Network Security Agency (INSA), Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation (ETC), Mesfin Industrial Engineering, Ethiopian Electrical Power Corporation and in IT graduate schools in India, Holland and France) but barely has enough funding to stay afloat.

Dorm rooms, classrooms and labs are all in short supply. Currently, eight students are crowded into each dorm room (4 bunked beds), and the staff break room was recently converted into a dorm room. A temporary building (tin and stick construction) is used for extra lab space. Ten classrooms, which could be used immediately, remain half-finished due to inadequate funding.

Sports fields, common at most any Western university, cannot be found at MIT though the school has title to enough land to easily grade a soccer field; funding is not available for such a low priority item.

Inflation continues to severely strain the budget, especially the amount allocated to food, as cereals in the region have roughly doubled in the past year.

Acquiring quality teachers on a limited budget is quite a strain. The school has managed to do so thus far, but challenges remain in securing enough funds to pay appropriate salaries for highly qualified faculty and recruiting more faculty as the school expands.

It seems that an investment of a few million USD over the next 5-10 years would have a dramatic impact on the intellectual capital pool in Ethiopia for years to come. MIT graduates are highly skilled, hard working and employable at much more locally competitive rates than outsiders. Any IT firm interested in a presence in this area, or in hiring top quality IT professionals, should take a serious look at MIT and MIT students.

As Dean Soori stated of the highly driven students at MIT, “It’s not about managing here, it’s about teaching. All students have keys to the labs and can use them 24/7.”

The ripple effect of an MIT partnership with a firm such as Google, could be immensely positive and far reaching. There is a lot of talk of the opportunities at the bottom of the pyramid, but unfortunately not a lot of action. Sure, investing in such an institute, when a return is hard to measure in the near term, is a risk. But to a company of Google’s stature, $30 million USD over ten years (a very rough estimate) is minute compared to the possible return realized by extending their internet and software services to the 85 million people in Ethiopia, not to mention the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, and establishing a recruiting arena for top talent in this region.

The fight against poverty in Ethiopia is real; nearly 85% of Ethiopia’s population remains employed in the agricultural sector, and the income level and standard of living in Ethiopia remain among the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.* The impact of an investment in intellectual capital would be invaluable to Ethiopia’s development. Unlike some developing regions, where top students strive to succeed in order to move away to a better life (a phenomenon known as ‘brain-drain’), the students I talked to at MIT were focused on developing their education in hopes of contributing to the overall development of Ethiopia.

Asmelash Teka, a 4th year student majoring in Information Technology, dreams of acquiring his masters in the US, then coming back to work in Ethiopia for a few years before returning to the US for a PhD. Long-term, he hopes to return to his native land and start a software company, based on Tigrinya and Amharic (two of the predominant languages in Ethiopia).

Asmelash, in perfect English, declared, “I dream big, short-term as well as long-term plans.”

I have no doubt Asmelash will succeed. He’s focused, driven, and highly intelligent. Thankfully, MIT has enough funding to make it through this year (he will graduate in the spring). It would be a shame, however, for more of Ethiopia’s top students not to have the opportunity to follow their dreams, just as Asmelash is doing.

JTV
Mekelle, Ethiopia

MIT’s website: http://www.mekit.net

Some pictures from MIT have been posted on the ‘Lamp Post Photos” link on the right.

*”Current Experience on Existing Small Scale Irrigations,” Yalew Belete, MoARD, Best Practices and Technologies for Small Scale Agricultural Water Management in Ethiopia, 2006.

A Brave Man

Roughly two weeks ago I traveled to Dire Dawa, a beautiful little oasis of a town in easter Ethiopia (about an 8 hour drive from Addis), to visit Solomon. Solomon is one of the most inspirational and brave men I have ever met. Lyston Peebles originally met Solomon at Mother Teresa’s Clinic for the Sick and Dying.

Solomon, just a few years back was a healthy, strong and happy young man. Unfortunately, he was traveling from Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa when the train he was on derailed. Solomon eventually lost both legs and his right arm from this accident. Amazingly, he survived the numerous surgeries, thanks in large part to the superb care provided by the nuns at Mother Teresa’s. Retiring to a wheel chair for the rest of your life, however, must be quite a challenge both mentally and physically.

Talking with Solomon, you certainly do not get the feeling that it’s a burden, or that things were supposed to be any other way. While Amon Anderson, Ashley Barefoot, Dou Fall, Kassegne Habtamu and myself shared a coke with Solomon and listened to him retell his experiences, we were continually amazed and reminded what a privilege our health is. Solomon’s disposition, on the other hand, radiated hope, peace and a strong sense of self. Meanwhile, all I could think about were the numerous things I complain about (even if only to myself), on a daily basis, that pale in comparison to what Solomon has overcome.

On three different occasions we asked Solomon, through an interpreter so as to clearly articulate our question, what the greatest challenge is that he has faced through all of this. Three times he looked at us like, ‘What are you talking about? This is how things are supposed to be, this is what God intended for me.’ Initially, I thought maybe he didn’t understand the question, but by the third time I was sure that he simply has a stronger disposition on life than I could probably ever hope to attain.

I can’t imagine living without arms and legs. Solomon can’t imagine life any other way. Not because he doesn’t know how good life can be with a healthy body (he’s been there), but because he trusts completely that this is God’s plan for his life.

Today, thanks to a small loan from Lyston and some business planning advice from Amon, Solomon is supporting himself; living a happy, respected life as a small scale entrepreneur. Almost a year ago Solomon opened a DVD rental store. Business is good, mainly because he’s open 24/7 (it’s his home as well), customers trust him, and there’s a demand for DVD rental. This year, Solomon will begin repaying the loan in small increments and most fortunately for me, I’m blessed with the responsibility of keeping track of these repayments which means I’ll get to stay-in-touch with Solomon.

When I find myself getting hot under the collar, or starting to complain about something (I detest this, but admit I’m guilty of it now and again) I now try to remind myself of Solomon’s incredulous look when we asked him, ‘So, what’s been the biggest challenge for you personally through all of this?’

All I can see are his hopeful, reassuring eyes staring back at me as he says simply, ‘What are you talking about? Challenges? This is God’s plan for me. I wouldn’t have it any other way.’

JTV
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Pics

I’ve posted a few new pics on my Flickr account; there’s a link at the right, ‘JTV’s photos.’ These are from a trip to Harar (the oldest city in Ethiopia) and Dire Dawa. I hope to have two new posts up by the end of the week: one summarizing the trip, and another detailing the wonderful exchange opportunity provided the top Ethiopian students in the 11th grade through the Cherokee Education Program.