Blockchain Technology in Ethiopia

African Hut Vector Art (goodfreephotos.com)

The Ministry of Science and Technology of Ethiopia appears to be optimistic about Bitcoin and blockchain technology. This is exciting news!

The below text is from the official government website.

እንደ Bitcoin የመሳሰሉ ፈር ቀዳጅና የዓለምን ኢኮኖሚ በእጅጉ መለወጥ የሚችሉ ቴክኖሎጂዎችም መሠረት ያደረጉት ይህንኑ Blockchain ነው።
(“Blockchain, the technology underpinning crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, is one of the technologies that could revolutionize the world economy.”)

Yesterday I learned about Ethiopia’s (latest) venture into blockchain tech via Philip Wadler (of Haskell fame) who retweeted a post from IOHK.

As an Ethiopian ‘blockchain expert’ and entrepreneur, I thought I’d say a few words about the MOU signed by Charles Hoskinson of IOHK and His Excellency Dr.-Ing Getahun Mekuria, the Minister of Science and Technology of Ethiopia. (TheNextWeb has an article on this development.)

I wouldn’t have written this public post had it not been for this response for the above Tweet. (It was quite offensive and racist, of course. However the “virtue signaling” phrase was thought-provoking.)

Just for the record, IOHK is by no means the first to introduce blockchain technology to the country. A handful people, myself included, have pitched the Bitcoin/blockchain idea in Ethiopia several years prior (me and friends discussed Bitcoin and its implication to the country as early as 2011). In 2014, I appeared as a guest on AfroFM, a radio station based in Ethiopia’s capital, to talk about the technology.

Also, back in 2014, I taught a graduate course at Ethiopia’s AAU with Bitcoin agents as a case study. (Most students were employees of the country’s cybersecurity agency.) At about the same time, I was conceptualizing BitGadaa, a blockchain governance system inspired by Bitcoin and a UNESCO-listed indigenous democracy from the country. Blockchain-based land titles in Africa, which IOHK’s John O’Connor mentioned as a Cardano use case in March this year, were mentioned in a 2015 article describing the BitGadaa vision.

I think blockchain technology was popularized in the country c. 2017, with TV personalities beginning to cover the topic. (Curious Ethiopians began inquiring about Bitcoin. I received messages from folks who were considering investing in scams like Bitconnect. Let me save the topic of crypto scams targeting Africa for another post!)

So it is amid a growing excitement about “blockchain” in Ethiopia that IOHK signed an MOU with the government.

I have a generally positive view of IOHK, the company behind the Cardano blockchain platform. Their strategy of engaging academics across the world for blockchain research should be adopted by other companies in the blockchain space. An interesting contribution enabled by IOHK is the IELE blockchain virtual machine. They’ve published interesting papers as well.

IOHK/Cardano targeting Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, is quite understandable given the market’s huge potential. After all Ethiopia is Africa’s fastest growing economy according to the IMF. It is one of the most populous countries in the continent, second only to Nigeria (which is the focal market for another blockchain project: Stellar, a competitor to IOHK’s Cardano, along with many other cryptocurrencies.)

My excitement regarding the IOHK/Ethiopia MOU comes with a skepticism, however.

First and foremost, the country has to avoid any potential vendor lock-in whatsoever. This is especially true for a technology as immature as blockchain. The government needs to independently evaluate many blockchain models, including IOHK’s Cardano, as it seeks to adopt the technology to its development goals. Will the company lock Ethiopia in to its public blockchain (and “ADA” cryptocurrency)? Will it try to inject its enterprise products to the government IT infrastructure by leveraging the MOU?

Doing pilots should be okay (as is being attempted with the agritech use case.) For transparency’s sake, it will be great if the Ministry makes the details of the MOU public.

Second, it will be interesting to see how IOHK will train Ethiopian developers. Will the trainees be exposed to general bitcoin/blockchain topics? Or will the training focus exclusively on Cardano?

One reservation I have about Cardano is their choice of the Haskell language. As someone who is attuned to Ethiopia’s technology industry, I’m not sure if a typical software developer from there would be comfortable learning Haskell AND blockchain concepts at the same time. Mind you, even world-class developers find Haskell insanely difficult to program in. That’s why it’s often hardcore CS academics who ‘use’ the language.

Given IOHK’s choice of Haskell, I find the claim by John O’Connor (IOHK’s Director of Africa Operations) — that Ethiopian developers IOHK trains will start contributing to Cardano’s codebase by end of year, to be highly improbable. I’d love to be proven wrong though!

Something curious is that the first class will be “all-female”, according to Charles Hoskinson’s tweet. In addition to the famous Ada Lovelace (after whom Cardano’s ADA currency is named after), women have certainly pioneered the computer age. Knowing how underrepresented women are in blockchain space, I’d see why IOHK may go for an “all-female” class. Diversity/inclusion is a just cause. But I really don’t see why the company will limit its first-ever class in Ethiopia to women only. This comes off as virtue signaling done in excess.

Last but not least, we need to be cognizant of the now commonplace blockchain/crypto solutionism. There’s also economic opportunism and all kinds of savior complexes, particularly with respect to Africa. Blockchain won’t fix everything. Period. (Brett Scott discusses this trend in an insightful 2016 paper, published at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development. It’s worth a read!) Unfortunately, it takes a lot more than “blockchain technology” to save dying babies (I’m guessing that is the image of Africa in the mind of many?!) — pushing a specific technology as a fix for everything is a wrong approach.

Despite my reservations, I am really happy that Ethiopia’s government is venturing into blockchain technology. I hope the Ministry of Science and Technology will be diligent enough while exploring the technology (with partners such as IOHK).

Okay, this is it for today. Thank you for your time!