Ethiopia’s bid to become an African startup hub hinges on connectivity

Ethiopia is flexing its ambitions to become Africa’s next startup hub.

The country of 105 million with the continent’s seventh largest economy is revamping government policies, firing up angel networks and rallying digital entrepreneurs.

Ethiopia currently lags the continent’s tech standouts — like Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa — that have become focal points for startup formation, VC and exits.

To join those ranks, the East African nation will need to improve its internet environment, largely controlled by one government-owned telecom. Last week Ethiopia’s government shut down the internet for the entire nation.

Startups, hubs, accelerators

Ethiopia has the workings of a budding tech scene. Much of it was on display recently at the county’s first Startup Ethiopia event held in Addis Ababa.

On the startup front, ride-hail ventures Ride and ZayRide have begun to gain traction (Uber has not yet entered Ethiopia). Their cars are visible buzzing throughout the capital and ZayRide will expand into Liberia in August, CEO Habtamu Tadesse confirmed to TechCrunch.

While in Addis, I downloaded and used Ride — founded by female entrepreneur Samrawit Fikru — which quickly flashed connections to nearby drivers on my phone and allowed for cash payment.

This month’s Startup Ethiopia also showcased high-potential early-stage ventures, such as payment company YenaPay and online food startup Deamat. YenaPay has worked to build a digital payments imprint in Ethiopia’s largely cash-based economy. The startup has onboarded more than 500 merchants, including ZayRide, according to co-founder Nur Mensur.

Deamat blends e-commerce and agtech. “We connect small-holder farmers with consumers. People can use their phone, pay with their phone, get any kind of agricultural products they want and we deliver,” co-founder Kisanet Haile told me after pitching to judges that included Nigerian angel investor Tomi Davies and Cellulant CEO Ken Njoroge.

Ethiopia has several organizing points for startup, VC and developer activity. Tech talent and startup marketplace Gebeya is located in Addis Ababa (with offices globally), and offers programs and services for ventures and tech professionals to gain developer skills and scale their digital businesses.

BlueMoon is an Ethiopian agtech incubator and seed fund. Its founder Eleni Gabre-Madhin has extensive experience working abroad, and played a central convening role in the debut Startup Ethiopia event.

In terms of developer and co-working type spaces, Ethiopia has iCog Labs — an AI and robotics research company — and IceAddis, one of the country’s first tech hubs. Founded in 2011, IceAddis’s mission is to develop Ethiopia’s IT ecosystem, co-founder and CEO Markos Lemma told me during a tour. The hub runs programs such as Ice180, a six-month startup accelerator bootcamp that has graduated 40 ventures. IceAddis also offers a 24-hour co-working space with internet access for techies and startups that want to burn the midnight oil.

Angels and mentors

Startup Ethiopia featured two angel and support networks for Ethiopia’s startups. Tomi Davies and Ethiopian diaspora returnee Shem Asefaw announced the first Addis Ababa Angel Network, supported by African Business Angels Network, which is expected to accept startups this year.

Startup Ethiopia also showcased Ethiopians in Tech, an entrepreneur support group with Silicon Valley roots. SV-based Bernard Laurendeau, a director at data analytics firm Zenysis and EiT founding member, made the trek from San Francisco to meet with local startups. So did Stackshare founder Yonas Beshawred.

Talk of leveraging Ethiopia’s diaspora, which is particularly strong and successful in the United States, for tech was mentioned several times at Startup Ethiopia, including on my panel.


The biggest hurdle for Ethiopia’s startup community (that I could identify) is the situation with local internet.

Mobile and IP connectivity in the country is managed by state-owned Ethio Telecom, though the government — led by newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and President Sahle-Work Zewde — has committed to privatize it.

At Startup Ethiopia, I moderated and sat on panels with Ethiopian government representatives to discuss the country’s ‘net situation. This was to the backdrop of the tech event’s Wi-Fi not functioning properly over two days — something that was readily pointed out during Q&A by Ethiopian techies and Liquid Telecom CTO Ben Roberts, who flew in from Nairobi.

Several officials, such as State Minister of Innovation and Technology Jemal Beker, named specific commitments to improve the country’s internet quality, access and choice within the next year, with  Ethiopia’s Ministry of Innovation and Technology — Getahun Mekuria — seated in the front row.

Shortly after officials made these public pledges, the government shut down the country’s internet to coincide with national exams.

The government didn’t issue an official reason for the shutdown — and an official in charge of ICT policy did not respond to a TechCrunch inquiry — but press reports and a source speaking on background said the stoppage was done to prevent students from cheating.

Valid reason or not, I received several messages from local techies and startup heads (when the internet was intermittently switched back on) complaining about how the shutdown had totally crippled their businesses.

It appears the situation with internet in Ethiopia may be a bit of a step back before steps forward. After shutting things down, the government announced policy steps last week to break up the national telecom and IP monopoly and issue individual telco licences by the end of 2019.


On the upside of Ethiopia’s bid to become a tech and startup hub, the country has a strong demographic and economic thesis — in its large population and economy — to support the scale-up of problem-solving digital businesses. Ethiopia’s large and entrepreneurial diaspora populations, with strong ties to Silicon Valley, could also become a bridge to capital and capacity for its early-stage ventures.

And another edge Ethiopia could have over other African tech hubs is its advances in developing a manufacturing industry (and higher-paid workforce) that’s now pulling some assembly from China. That includes a mobile assembly plant in Addis Ababa for Tenssion’s Tecno, Africa’s leading mobile phone brand.

Ethiopia’s startup scene will be stuck in the mud, however, without changes to the internet landscape. As we discussed on the Startup Ethiopia stage, the tech and startups of tomorrow — in Africa and globally — won’t just be driven by IoT, or the Internet of Things.

Tech ventures and their end-users are shifting toward an IoEA future: the internet-of-everything-all-the-time. And it’s impossible for Ethiopia’s startups to move in that direction in a market with one state-controlled mobile provider and IP that has the power to arbitrarily nix connectivity.

So on the policy side, the single most effective thing the government of Ethiopia can do to provide an enabling environment for startups is open up its internet market to improve penetration, choice, cost and reliability.

Do that and it’s likely the other tech pieces assembling around the country — ventures, angels, hubs and entrepreneurs — will sort out the rest.

Meet your new chief of staff: An AI chatbot

Years ago, a mobile app for email launched to immediate fanfare. Simply called Mailbox, its life was woefully cut short — we’ll get to that. Today, its founders are back with their second act: An AI-enabled assistant called Navigator meant to help teams work and communicate more efficiently.

With the support of $12 million in Series A funding from CRV, #Angels, Designer Fund, SV Angel, Dropbox’s Drew Houston and other angel investors, Aspen, the San Francisco and Seattle-based startup behind Navigator, has quietly been beta testing its tool within 50 organizations across the U.S.

“We’ve had teams and research institutes and churches and academic institutions, places that aren’t businesses at all in addition to smaller startups and large four-figure-person organizations using it,” Mailbox and Navigator co-founder and chief executive officer Gentry Underwood tells TechCrunch. “Pretty much anywhere you have meetings, there is value for Navigator.”

The life and death of Mailbox

Mailbox, a mobile email management system, was responsible for many of the features both Apple Mail and Gmail use today, including swipe to archive or delete.

It launched in 2013, as mentioned, to quick success. At the time, Apple’s App Store was much newer and there were few available options for mobile email, especially ones that prioritized design and efficiency, as Mailbox did.

As a result, Mailbox, created by a venture-capital backed Palo Alto startup by the name of Orchestra, exploded. Mere weeks after its launch, it attracted 1.25 million people to its waitlist. Shortly after that, it hit another milestone: It was acquired.

Dropbox paid $100 million to bring Mailbox and its 13 employees on board, including Underwood and his co-founder Scott Cannon. Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, still years away from leading his company through a successful IPO, told The Wall Street Journal his plan was to “help Mailbox reach a much different audience much faster.”

“That was a very special time,” Underwood said. “There were still a lot of opportunities for improvements for how email was being used on these tiny little devices.”

Two years later, in 2015, the worst happened. Dropbox made the unpopular decision to shut down Mailbox, despite its cult following, in order to focus more on its own core product and the development of other new productivity tools.

“That was a hard time for us and Mailbox users,” Underwood said. “It was a tough decision for Dropbox as well … Ultimately, Mailbox didn’t meet the focus criteria for Dropbox and I understood the decision. It was in every sense their right to do with it what they thought was best.”

Act two

About a year later, in 2016, the Mailbox team had licked their wounds and begun work on an entirely new venture.

Much like Slack disrupted the frequency and efficiency of workplace communication, Navigator hopes to reimagine meetings, an essential element of business that’s often dreaded the most.

“What we saw with Mailbox was that really great processes were an effective way to help teams be creative; yet, lots of teams don’t make use of great processes,” Underwood explained. “After Mailbox, we really wanted to find a way to help teams be more effective and Navigator is a teamwork assistant whose job is really to help teams basically make the most of working together.”

According to Doodle’s 2019 state of the meeting report, 71% of working professionals lose time every week because of unnecessary meetings, most often because those meetings are ineffective or poorly organized. This is a cause of frustration and a loss of time and money; in fact, Doodle estimates nearly $400 billion is lost annually as a consequence of botched meetings.

Still, meetings aren’t going away. Workers in corporate America spend roughly five hours per week in meetings and another four hours per week preparing for meetings. Managers spend double that. There’s a big opportunity here to leverage technology to improve, even eliminate, this pain point.

The video conferencing business Zoom, for example, is hyperfocused on refining the video meeting, specifically for the remote worker. Its recent initial public offering and subsequent performance on the public markets has proven its value and the demand for technology that makes doing business easier. Slack’s direct listing today, which saw the business tripling in value at its debut, is further proof of the market opportunity for productivity tech.

Similar to Slack, which began as an artful online game, Aspen has prioritized design in building Navigator, the first of many products it plans to launch.

“We approached the problem of helping teams work together as a design problem,” Underwood said. “We tried over 200 different prototypes of different ways to encode and distribute best practices within a team. The concept of a virtual teammate was the one that finally began to show signs of working.”

Underwood says nothing was directly imported from Mailbox, aside from a dedication to human-centered design.

“We are solving a different problem but the way we are going about solving it, in trying to build something that resonates with people, is certainly consistent,” he said. “As a team, we seem to gravitate toward these ubiquitous, uncomfortable, painful problems, like email and meetings, and try to build solutions that transform people’s experiences of them.”

Making meetings suck less

Navigator focuses on team meetings and one-on-ones, requesting information from meeting attendees before and after the meeting takes place.

First, it learns the topic of the meeting from participants and organizes them into a clear agenda complete with discussion topics. During the meeting, workers can use Navigator to quickly capture key takeaways that are later shared with every member of the meeting afterward. Later, the assistant checks in with attendees to learn whether they’ve completed their tasks.

It’s sort of like a chief of staff focused on helping meetings run effectively,” Underwood said. “It helps people show up. They feel invited and welcome and like their voice is valued, which changes how it feels for them to enter that room.”

Currently, Navigator works with Google’s G suite, Microsoft’s Office 365 and Slack. Soon, it will offer task integration with Asana, Jira, Trello and others. 

For now, it comes without a cost as the team continues to work out bugs with its first cohort of customers. Underwood says later this year they will begin to incorporate subscription-based feeds for the product.

“Navigator is another teammate, not another tool,” Underwood said. “It’s about turning meetings from painful, expensive wastes of time, to effective, meaningful moments of deep collaboration. They have that potential. When done well, they can be exceedingly powerful.”

A chat with Niantic CEO John Hanke on the launch of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite

Just shy of three years ago, Pokémon GO took over the world. Players filled the sidewalks, and crowds of trainers flooded parks and landmarks. Anywhere you looked, people were throwing Pokéballs and chasing Snorlax.

As the game grew, so did the company behind it. Niantic had started its life as an experimental “lab” within Google — an effort on Google’s part to keep the team’s founder, John Hanke, from parting ways to start his own thing. In the months surrounding GO’s launch, Niantic’s team shrank dramatically, spun out of Google, and then rapidly expanded… all while trying to keep GO’s servers from buckling under demand and to keep this massive influx of players happy. Want to know more about the company’s story so far? Check out the Niantic EC-1 on ExtraCrunch here.

Now Niantic is back with its next title, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Built in collaboration with WB Games, it’s a reimagining of Pokémon GO’s real-world, location-based gaming concept through the lens of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter universe.

I got a chance to catch up with John Hanke for a few minutes earlier this week — just ahead of the game’s US/UK launch this morning. We talked about how they prepared for this game’s launch, how it’s built upon a platform they’ve been developing across their other titles for years, and how Niantic’s partnership with WB Games works creatively and financially.

Greg Kumparak: Can you tell me a bit about how all this came to be?

John Hanke: Yeah, you know.. we did Ingress first, and we were thinking about other projects we could build. Pokémon was one that came up early, so we jumped on that — but the other one that was always there from the beginning, of the projects we wanted to do, was Harry Potter. I mean, it’s universally beloved. My kids love the books and movies, so it’s something I always wanted to do.

Like Pokémon, it was an IP we felt was a great fit for [augmented reality]. That line between the “muggle” world and the “magic” world was paper thin in the fiction, so imagining breaking through that fourth wall and experiencing that magic through AR seemed like a great way to use the technology to fulfill an awesome fan fantasy.