8 May 2017

Ethiopia's Ancient Civilisation Gears Up for Modern Manufacturing

Photo: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons
Downtown Gondar and the Ethiopia Hotel.
Blog

I travelled to Gondar, Ethiopia, last week at the invitation of the University of Gondar.

This ancient historical city in the north of Ethiopia, which was once the country's capital, was built by Emperor Fasilides (Fasil) in 1635.

Prior to the 17th century civilisation, the area was occupied by Solomonic Emperors of Ethiopia, nomad rulers who migrated frequently and lived mostly in tents.

Gondar is in the Amhara National Regional State of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, which is largely inhabited by agriculturalists.

The city of Gondar has a little over 600,000 inhabitants and is dotted by several historical imperial structures.

The most imposing is Emperor Fasil's castle, which innovatively borrowed from Indian, Portuguese and African architectural styles.

Nearby is the world-famous cathedral Debre Berhan Selassie, with its exquisite interiors. Some of the most beautiful architectural structures built by Africans can be found here.

The question that lingers in my mind is, how did we lose that level of finesse, quality and taste? Modern African architects conspicuously fail to match the aesthetics that our great grandparents were able to deliver.

I was visiting Gondar to give one of the keynote speeches on emerging and disruptive technologies, with an emphasis on 3D printing. The theme of the conference was "The 3D Printing Revolution and Ethiopia's 'Unfinished agenda' on Manufacturing".

AFRICA'S CONTRADICTIONS

The chief guest at the conference was Getahun Mekuria, state minister of the federal ministry of science and technology.

The conference was also attended by Dr Cosmas Ochieng, executive director of the Nairobi-based African Centre for Technology Studies, several senior government officials and the mayor of the city of Gondar, Tekeba Tebabal.

Gondar aspired to become the first capital of modern Ethiopia during the reign of Emperor Tewodros. Despite all the modern developments in the city, it still retains its ancient character, with many people still using horse and donkey-drawn carriages for transportation.

It is one of Africa's contradictions that we were discussing cutting-edge technologies while some of our folks outside rode on medieval modes of transportation. Much of the old city is dotted with faculties of the University of Gondar.

The university started in 1954 as the College of Medical Sciences in collaboration with the United States government and to date the university collaborates with many US agencies on various projects in Africa.

Students here are eager to learn, innovate and come up with new products.

They are distinctively different from students from other parts of Africa in that they prefer the local language, Amharic, which is widely used to ensure that local people too are up to date with new technologies. The minister gave his speech entirely in Amharic.

As we drove to lunch, our driver turned up the car radio and the broadcast was in Amharic. I requested an interpretation and I was told that the station was reporting on what their reporters had covered at the morning events.

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES

In many African countries, new technological concepts have no vernacular equivalent and when reported, the translation is nebulous. For example, a concept like Internet of Things might be reported as teknolojia ya kisasa (loosely translated as modern technology).

The problem is that the same translation applies to, for example, cloud computing, yet the two concepts mean completely different meanings. Although we joked about this, the minister was very much alert to the problem and hoped something could be done to make African languages more dynamic - and soon.

But later in the evening at the launch of a new book, Harnessing Nanotechnology for Sustainable Development in Africa, co-edited by my friends Hailemichel Teshome Demissie, Cosmas Milton Obote Ochieng, Guillermo Foladori and Desalegn Mengesha, the minister, in his speech, demanded new products from the scientists, which could then be written up as case studies to inspire further innovation.

He was right. Our ordinary folks will only understand these emerging technologies if they see products and use cases, otherwise they remain abstract concepts.

The Ethiopian government has developed an elaborate institutional framework under the ministry of science and technology through which they will channel research funds and several agencies within the ministry are involved in research activity.

These include the Science and Technology Information Centre, Biotechnology Institute, Intellectual Property Office, Standards Agency and several others.

DIASPORA FOR DEVELOPMENT

Ethiopia's manufacturing sector contributed about 22 per cent of GDP in 2014 and grew at over 15 per cent during the same period. By comparison, Kenya's manufacturing sector contributed 14 per cent of GDP in 2015, down from 21 per cent in 1980. Kenya's manufacturing sector grew by 3.5 per cent in 2016.

This means that considering manufacturing only, Ethiopia is rising while Kenya is not. Ethiopia has leveraged her diaspora for development by giving incentives for all kinds of initiatives.

They have also invested heavily in infrastructure development, including the 6,450 MW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa.

Ethiopia needs the energy to further boost its manufacturing capacity and sustain the number one position as the fastest-growing economy in the world. It is fast becoming a state-led, well-diversified economy.

Faculties at the University of Gondar have close links with the Ethiopian diaspora to ensure technologies like 3D Printing are utilised for rapid prototyping in the growing manufacturing sector. Soon they want to venture into high-value 3D Printed manufacturing.

TOO MUCH FREEDOM

Their service industry too is being re-jigged through massive expansion of Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport, creating one of the biggest hubs in Africa.

With the growing horticultural production in Ethiopia, it will certainly become one of the top global logistics centres. This will have a ripple effect on the agricultural sector given that the airport will require lots of food to feed transit passengers.

The country is very much aware of global population dynamics. But more significantly, Ethiopia realises the advantages she has in the event of grim prospects over in China.

As a command economy, Ethiopia also has an advantage over her capitalist neighbours, where unions have become too strong and where too much freedom guaranteed by Constitutions has implications for economic progress.

Within a short period, the country has built large industrial parks and entered into unique partnerships with China to instil the unique Chinese work ethic.

Albert Einstein said, "To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science."

Africa must work toward advancing science by seeing her problems through different angles.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi's School of Business. @Twitter

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