Edtech startup Gebeya is playing a key role in the development of Ethiopia’s technology sector. Tom Collins talks to CEO Amadou Daffe and director of operations Bekure Tamirat about the company’s training model and its ambitious plans for expansion.
For two years, a quiet technological revolution has been underway in a busy second-floor office block in the heart of Ethiopia’s rapidly developing capital Addis Ababa.
This revolution has seen homegrown Ethiopian software developers outsourced to companies ranging from startups in New York to French multinationals in Senegal – not to mention flagship Ethiopian businesses just around the corner.
Gebeya – meaning “marketplace” in Amharic – believes it can supply Africa’s IT industry with the talent it needs to become a global digital leader.
CEO Amadou Daffe is steadfast in his commitment to Africa’s tech revolution and has implemented a business model to follow suit.
With 400 developers already on the books, his aims are clear: “Gebeya should resonate in the next five years as the best company to get tech talent from in Africa.”
Africa’s institutional ecosystem for producing software engineers is lacking.
While Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt have decent higher education facilities covering science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, the vast majority of African countries lack academic expertise.
As a result, many companies, whether foreign or local, hit a talent barrier when looking to grow their technological functions, resulting in the importation of disproportionately expensive expert knowledge.
Daffe describes Africa’s approach to building its tech industry as putting the cart before the horse.
“Without the talent you can have all the great ideas in the world, but you won’t be able to implement,” he says.
“I believe that the only way we can even have the proper tech industry – and one which can eventually globally compete – is for the talent to be proven first.”
Gebeya, for its part, has been training talent through an education facility in its Addis academy.
While Ethiopia has a good supply of science and technology graduates, many lack the specialisation needed to work to international software standards.
Gebeya finetunes these graduates through a training programme offered on a four- to six-month period to produce a professional software engineer.
Instead of top-down lectures, senior industry practitioners guide the aspiring developers through the entire process of building a product by the end of the course with a particular industry in mind.
The end result is market-ready software engineers.
“Right now we are building a brand; we want to control the quality; we want to control everything,” concludes director of operations Bekure Tamirat.
“When a bank comes to us, for example, our developers are ready.”
This model has attracted significant attention from stakeholders in Ethiopia’s technological development.
Gebeya received a $500,000 fund from the International Finance Corporation to bring 250 women up to international standard, which should pave the way for a gender balanced technological future.
Daffe believes the training will provide women with the tools necessary to become well-paid software engineers as well as digital entrepreneurs, thereby creating immeasurable benefit for the society and economy at large.
In a similar fashion, the Ethiopian government believes Gebeya is a key locomotive in the country’s technological development.
The two parties have signed a memorandum of understanding and plan to train 5,000 developers over the next five years.
Daffe explains how this collaboration is a necessary move towards developing and strengthening innovation in Ethiopia:
“The Ministry of Innovation and Technology recognises the impact that the private sector – especially startups such as Gebeya – can have in the overall education, technology and economic ecosystem.”
Through the partnership, the government is essentially seeking to secure its future supply of tech talent as it begins to put greater stock in technology as a means to development.
Gebeya is therefore preparing young tech professionals with a focus in artificial intelligence and blockchain training – two digital areas which will soon come to define a country’s tech competitiveness.
Daffe’s company in fact made its largest leap towards a steady stream of talent last summer when it acquired Coders4Africa (C4A).
Operating as a not-for-profit, C4A leverages development finance institution (DFI) money to train coders around Africa in pursuit of the continent’s technological advancement.
Daffe co-founded C4A before exiting in 2015 to focus on Gebeya.
With offices in Africa and North America, the acquisition gives Gebeya access to over 3,500 developers who can easily merge into the Gebeya model.
These coders require only a short onboarding course before being exposed to Gebeya’s marketplace and the possibility of entering into lucrative engineering contracts.
Hitting the market
The model has been taken to market and Gebeya’s developers are beginning to make a name for themselves in wider software circles.
In Ethiopia, the company has five contracts including Ethiopian Airlines.
“We have been working hard to ensure that the Gebeya brand is very powerful in Ethiopia,” comments Daffe.
“Ultimately, we want to be known as the company with engineers working to the highest international standards across Africa and globally.”
Outside Ethiopia, Gebeya has secured a contract with French telecom giant Orange in Senegal.
The company currently outsources nine software engineers to the country’s principal telecoms provider, Sonatel, which is majority owned by Orange.
Working alongside a multinational such as Orange will boost Gebeya’s brand visibility throughout Africa and ultimately elevate the company’s profile on the world stage.
Elsewhere, four Gebeya developers are helping turn the screws of New York based solar company d.Light and Daffe reveals he has received significant interest from companies in the Nigerian marketplace who are becoming frustrated with the local ecosystem.
Along with large companies approaching Gebeya, some of the alumni have similarly used their acquired knowledge to build their own firms.
Just across the corridor from the Gebeya academy are the offices of startup software company Qene Technologies.
Its 3D mobile runner game Kukulu – which boasts 20,000 downloads on Android Playstore and is billed as Africa’s most successful game – was created by Dawit Abraham, a former Gebeya hire.
Gebeya provided entrepreneurial support to Dawit and helped bring Kukulu to fruition.
In such a way, the firm is well positioned to act as an incubator and accelerator, taking outstanding alumni and breathing life into their ideas.
As it stands, however, the decision on whether to merge this revenue generating stream into core operations or to create a separate entity has not been made.
Gebeya’s model is also impacting positively on the local economy.
A key upshot is the ability to bring in much needed foreign currency through outsourcing.
This is especially important in the context of Ethiopia, which has suffered an acute foreign exchange crunch for a number of years.
Investors are wary of their money becoming “trapped” and the government is beginning to recognise the capacity of the tech sector to secure dollars from exports.
Another advantage is that Gebeya employees are paid far above the national average.
The company takes a 30% cut from its contracts, which leaves the developer well compensated.
This, argues Daffe, is important for combating the brain drain and ensuring tech talent is happy to stay in Africa and contribute to the local economy instead of looking for work in Europe or North America.
Plans for expansion
Daffe has laid out an ambitious vision for the next four years.
“With Gebeya’s market model, we believe and are confident that we will achieve a substantial market capitalisation within the next four years.”
Gebeya’s capacity – with a core managerial team of just three executives – is not however currently capable of supporting this kind of expansion.
Tamirat reveals how until now the company has been making sure it doesn’t repeat the same mistakes as other rapidly developing tech companies who “had big appetites but weak teeth”.
When the time is right, though, both Tamirat and Daffe suggest that Gebeya will raise money.
With this capital, they explain, they intend to expand their managerial team and fund their extension into other African countries such as Senegal, where they already have a base.
From Addis Ababa and Dakar, Daffe and his team hope to provide software engineers for the Francophone and Anglophone African markets, and ultimately act as the grease behind the wheels of Africa’s IT industry itself.