Ethiopia, located in the Horn of Africa, is the continent’s seventh-largest economy and is the second-most populous country with an estimated 110 million people.
Often referred to as Africa’s “sleeping giant” with regards to its emerging tech sector, over the next decade, Ethiopia is expected to rise to the likes of today’s tech frontrunners: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana.
With both the private and public sectors taking a comprehensive approach to growth, including talent development, access to financial capital, and government initiatives, success seems inevitable.
Some of the notable signs of progress include Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declaring his desire to raise the tech sector to 2% of GDP or $2bn. And earlier this year, Gebeya Inc., the startup based in Addis Ababa, raising $2 million in seed funding.
Founded in 2016 by Amadou Daffe, Gebeya aims to be the most trusted and reliable source of talent in Africa. As a managed service provider with highly skilled, certified, and multilingual African talent. Today they service clients, such as Ethiopian Airlines, Air Senegal, Heineken, and the telecommunications company Orange.
Also, looking to be the backbone for Africa’s growing tech ecosystem, Gebeya partners with bubbling startups like d.light and Paps. Giving them access to the best talent and helping them compete on a global scale.
How did your journey lead you to Gebeya?
Like many people on the team, it started with Amadou, our CEO, and co-founder, whose vision and passion for Gebeya is infectious.
I came to Ethiopia about a year before we met to make an impact on the country and connect with my roots, being that I’m half Ethiopian. I didn’t want to be here just as a visitor or an observer, but as someone who can make an impact.
I use that word very intentionally because there are a lot of opportunities to help in a place like Ethiopia. However, from what I’ve observed oftentimes is that efforts to help in the form of charity, donations, or a limited-time project are not sustainable. And for me, it was really important to contribute and make a real, lasting impact.
I came across Gebeya and Amadou through connections, and at the time, I was looking for that next opportunity. What attracted me to Gebeya was that we’re empowering individuals to seize opportunities and build themselves. While also helping businesses on the continent scale. Honestly, it's really exciting being in a position that isn’t giving anyone a handout or doing someone a favor but giving people an opportunity.
Can you speak to the narrative of providing help vs. an opportunity?
The narratives that we’re fed about the continent is this idea that the people here have nothing, and that just isn’t true.
What I’ve seen here in action is that challenges and stumbling blocks are seen as an opportunity to get creative. And from a U.S. perspective, what we might consider as insurmountable challenges or necessities are leveraged to create new solutions. And today, having a mindset of flexibility, resilience, ingenuity, and resourcefulness are so critical.
When we talk about the difference between a handout versus providing an opportunity, a handout is a one-sided relationship, which isn’t sustainable, productive, or beneficial to the person.
For example, if you just donate cash to me, when I spend it, it’s gone. But if you give me an opportunity to learn through either experience, training, or both, you can’t take that away. And I think that’s so invaluable but yet valuable.
In June, we started a partnership with Microsoft via their Microsoft4Afrika office in Nairobi to train 200 students and recent graduates and certify them in topics like DevOps, artificial intelligence, and data science. The barrier to entry for many students was cost, not lack of desire.
The drive to learn and get certifications is there, and how I know is we only had one hundred slots for the cohort, and in a couple of weeks we had almost a thousand applicants. That tells me that the interest to train and learn was already there. It’s just a matter of providing the opportunity to the students.
Another example is we hosted a webinar in late July with John Adams, a former Gebeya talent who’s now the co-founder and CTO of the Nairobi startup BuyMore. He hosted a webinar at the end of July called My Relationship with DevOps Engineering. He shared how he got from the student interested in coding and advanced into co-founding his own company, which is doing really well and is about to start fundraising. We promoted that event for maybe a couple of weeks, and we had 150 registrants.
Nonetheless, it’s important to meet people as equals. It’s not about giving a handout, rather empowering people with a new opportunity or building on what they already have.
What does Gebeya offer to Africa’s tech ecosystem?
We’ve had 700 students pass through our training programs. The original model when Gebeya was founded in 2016 was the people who went through our training program became Gebeya Talent, but as we began to understand the market demand better, we realized there was another gap that we hadn’t accounted for, the softer skills, like communication, critical thinking, etc.
So our model has evolved. If someone passes through our training, they are not automatically onboarded into our talent marketplace. And those in our talent marketplace don’t have to go through our training.
Right now, we’re focused on East and West Africa. We have customers in Senegal, Kenya, Ethiopia, and talent from various countries in those regions. Over the next three or four years, we aim to scale our platform to 5,000 talent across the continent. And as we grow we plan to be very intentional and focused both from a skillset and industry perspective.
Our online talent marketplace has talent that includes a range of skillsets, including front-end engineers, back-end developers, graphic designers, and digital marketing specialists. We started as an organization focused on technical talent, one of our earliest acquisitions was coders for Africa, which was strictly coder focused.
While that talent remains a part of our network, we’ve expanded to include a variety of skillsets to allow Gebeya to grow alongside our customer demand. And make sure that we can be a one-stop-shop for all of their talent needs, so they don’t have to search and scour the continent for the right talent.
That’s the value that we bring to the table; we’ve already done the legwork. We have a very rigorous screening and vetting process. It’s not just about meeting the requirements or having a certain level of experience. They have to prove that they can deliver.
What that looks like is a series of interviews with up to five people from our team, including subject matter experts. Prospective talent has to take a series of online tests in their area of specialization, as well as a soft skill test, critical thinking exam, and emotional intelligence exam. And if that’s not enough, they also have to complete and present a project relevant to their area of expertise.
All of that is a mix of subjective and objective measuring to see if they can actually deliver what they say they can do. So it’s a very involved process. This benefits our customers because they know that our talent is capable, can meet deadlines, and will deliver excellent quality.
It also benefits the talent because it sharpens them and lets them know what our expectations are so they bring their best. It’s not just about going on our platform and finding some project because when you’re a Gebeya talent, you’re an ambassador for us, and we want to make sure that you represent us properly.
Can you share what it means to build a Pan-African company?
If you look at our executive team, you’ll see that we represent seven African countries, and we’re a mix of males and females. It starts with us. The same is true for our consultants and the rest of our staff.
We’re very intentional about how we grow the full-time staff. We also have to go through the same rigorous vetting process as the talent. It’s not an easy road to join Gebeya as an employee. But I think it’s a great thing; there’s a certain trust and rapport that we have with each other. We know that we’re all after the same vision. So building a Pan-African organization starts with a diversity of thought and experience amongst our team, but also extends to our talent.
We’re also on the move a lot, less now with COVID, but for myself, I spent the month of August in Dakar and Nairobi, and now I’m here in Addis connecting with current and potential customers and talent. We’re always talking and engaging with people to keep our finger on the pulse of what’s happening.
I read publications, listen to podcasts, and use other mediums to stay plugged in. We can’t be everywhere all at once, so seeing what’s happening politically and economically, like what countries are passing things like startup acts is critical.
Because again, we’re not here to give handouts. We’re here to give opportunities, and to do that, you have to know your market. You can’t just glaze over the nuances in culture and the different tech adoption levels. You have to know the business’s fundraising, the key players, and higher education institutions.
Moreover, when we describe ourselves as Pan-African, I know that it’s true. From our team to our customers to where our talent is based. And it’s intentional, driven by research, and by being tapped into what’s happening on the ground.
How do you see Gebeya evolving over the next 3-5 years, and what impact do you hope to make?
We are aiming to grow our talent pool to 5,000. And it’s not just about having them on our marketplace but engaging them in projects, keeping them busy, and making sure that they have opportunities to go to that next level, whether through training or experience.
We also hope to start building communities around topics of interest, curating newsletters, and hosting workshops. On the talent side, it’s about building our community.
From the customer side, it’s about making Gebeya the one-stop-shop for emerging businesses to grow. We’re launching our platform in a few months that will incorporate A.I., and the goal of it is to speed up the process of matching talent with customers and provide a faster turnaround.
The consistent feedback we’ve received from our customers is that we’re fast, which is because we do the legwork upfront, but we’re always looking for ways to improve our service delivery.
We also want to expand to different industries. Right now, we focus on transportation, logistics, telecoms, and banking/fintech. As part of our growth, we’ll also be servicing different industries as well. But again, it’s not just a numbers game for us. We want to make sure that there’s a match between demand and our capacity.
Built In Africa. What does that mean to you?
Growing up in the US, there was a movement where apparel companies had labels that said, “proudly made in the USA,” and the subtext there were a couple of things. One to be a point of pride, and two to highlight that we’re providing jobs and employing our own labor.
When I think of Built In Africa, just to use a low-hanging fruit example, I think of the pyramids or the Great Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia.
The people on this continent are builders and have built things that lasted generations. There’s so much history here. We talk about Africa as a land of origin, I’m in the land of Lucy, and I think that building is so connected to that.
And when I hear the phrase Built in Africa, it makes me think of a very intentional act. When you make a meal, after you eat, it’s gone. But if you build a house, you can pass it down through the generations.
Nonetheless, when I hear Built In Africa, I think of power and pride, which deeply resonates with me.
What are your thoughts on tech in Ethiopia?
I’ve only had a chance to plug into it recently, but I’m really excited about the potential here. And I think there’s a really exciting opportunity for a lot more collaboration and unification to get to the next level faster.
For example, two weeks ago, Amadou, our CEO, was on a panel for a pitch competition, and four entrepreneurs were pitching different products. They included a tutoring platform, in-home cleaning services, teaching coding through gaming, and a remote mental health service.
It was cool seeing these different solutions. But what I learned from the pitch competition was there are so many people working on really pressing problems, but working in silos. And so there’s an opportunity to have a lot more unification, more dialog, and come together and pool resources.
For example, you asked me what changed since I came back. Well, when I left, there were maybe two ride-hailing apps here. And now, six months later, there are a dozen. Yes, from a capitalist perspective, I know that it’s good to have competition. But at the same time, I wonder what kind of strength might be found in more collaboration.
I think there’s a lot of value in working together, especially in a young, growing market where there are so many untapped opportunities. This shift requires focusing less on whether you’re the first to do this or the only to do this, and more on how we can raise things up together and build something that’s sustainable and meets the market needs.
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