BETELHEM DESSIE IS 20-YEARS OLD AND SHE IS CODING AT ETHIOPIA’S FIRST ARTIFICIAL LAB
She has several apps copyrighted solely to her name, was contracted by the government at the age of 12 and has her own company.
Her name is Betelhem Dessie, and she is a web and mobile technologies developer. At 20, she currently coordinates a number of nationwide programs at iCog, the lab that was involved in the development of the famous humanoid, Sophia the robot.
Born in Harar, Ethiopia, in 1999, Betelhem showed a propensity for the craft at an early age. Consequently, her career in the industry began when she was just 9 years old.
Betelhem’s interest peaked at her father’s electronic shop where she stayed to familiarize herself with computers by using her father’s computer. When she was turning 9, she asked her father for money to buy a present. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much to spare that day. She decided to work for the money herself. She took on several tasks in the shop, such as editing videos and sending music to customers’ phones. She made 1600 birr. That was a turning point for her.
Betelhem gradually improved her skills in video-editing, computer maintenance and installing cellphone software. At 10 years old, she had started coding in HTML. She soon started teaching basic computer skills to her classmates in school.
Her fame grew as her skills did and local news agencies covered her story. When she was still 10, then Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi invited her and her family to live in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. And so Betelhem and her family moved from Harar to Addis. Pretty soon, Betelhem was under the government’s employ. From 2011 to 2012, she was a developer for the government at the Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency (INSA). She was just 12 years old at that time, and the government paid for her education as well.
In 2013, iCog Labs, Ethiopia’s first artificial intelligence lab, launched. In 2017, iCog Labs teamed up with Betelhem’s own company, Anybody Can Code (ACC), of which she is founder and CEO, to open up a new academy to popularize coding in Ethiopia. The new academy, situated at the International Leadership Institute, targets children between the ages of 6 to 13. She coordinates several nationwide programs at iCog-ACC and is currently a project manager at the labs.
Betelhem has a number of apps copyrighted solely to her name, including an app developed for the Ethiopian government to map rivers used for irrigative purposes and a digital library she created at grade 10.
Together with Girls Can Code, a US-based organisation that seeks to plug the gender-gap in coding by teaching girls to code, Betelhem taught young women to build websites and apps. The gender-gap in Ethiopia’s coding scene isn’t lost on Betelhem as at iCog-ACC she runs several programs to increase the participation of girls and young women in the field. One such project is the Sophia School Bus, a bus that goes around Ethiopia with laptops and other electronic materials to create awareness on such technologies. “Who can solve the problem of a female if she cannot tell you the problem, and find her own solution?” Betelhem posed.
The biggest thing we have in Africa is a young generation. So if we train the young generation in tech, we’ll be able to build something that is everlasting.— Betelhem Dessie
Betelhem was recently named one of the young African innovators to watch in 2019 by Quartz Africa and she has taught approximately 20,000 children how to code.