Digital media and divide in Ethiopia
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Digital media and divide in Ethiopia


“There is no system!” This is the most bureaucratic and disconcerting response that most people often hear from Ethiopian government/civil service whenever they seek out services. 

Ethiopia has been at the forefront of ambitious attempts to network its civil service with Information Communication Technology (ICT) in order to offer one of the most efficient and advanced services. Two mega ICT projects even by African standards have been created: the WoredaNet to connect district level government administrations and Schoolnet to connect schools across the country.

In addition, several applications and ICT systems have been introduced to modernize and professionalize the public service sector. They were grand efforts and aspirations. However, they have never come up to expectations. The network issue, the habitual interruption of the Internet connection and power outages, and reoccurring technical faults have affected the functioning of the system, hence, civil servants often respond to clients saying “Today, there is no system! Come back again when the system functions.”

This problem with the ICT and digital system in Ethiopia has affected the country’s mass media and especially fledgling digital media entrepreneurs. Ethiopia and the Ethiopian media are in a gradual process of digitization (conversion from analogue to digital) and digitalization i.e. the adoption and use of converted technologies by people and organizations such as the mass media. Most state organs have achieved a remarkable level of digitization within the past few years. However, what are the positives of digitalization in Ethiopia especially in relation to the opportunities available or it could create?

One of the most appealing developments in Ethiopia for the mass media in general and especially for those interested in digitalization is the recent democratic openness that has engulfed the country since the coming to power of the new Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018. Since his assumption of power, Ethiopia has liberalized many sectors, freed detained journalists, allowed exiled opposition forces and the media to return to work. There are also several ongoing reforms geared towards opening up the democratic space in the country.

Most of the recent positive changes that have been taking place under Abiy’s administration have been hailed internationally and hence, for the first time in the history of the country, the 2019 World Press Freedom Day global celebration took place in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1-3 May 2019. Jointly organized by UNESCO, the Government of Ethiopia and the African Union Commission, the theme was “Media for Democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”. The Day examined concerns such as media’s role in elections, in peace and reconciliation, the safety of journalists and the growing climate of disinformation.

This is a promising time for media development and press freedom in Ethiopia as long as it becomes sustainable and the bureaucratic and controlling political culture of pre-Abiy Ahmed administration is changed at the grassroots. Before April 2018, the government owned the telecom sector, Ethio Telecom. This monopoly prevented the public from receiving quality connections and service, discouraged innovation and impacted the digitalization efforts of various organizations and the media. Now the new administration has decided to sell a stake in Ethio Telecom to the private sector and this will tremendously change the digital media sector as well as the national economy for the better bringing in international competitors and quality service providers.

According to the world statistical analysis website, Worldometers, the current population of Ethiopia in February 2019 is 109,168,343 making it the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria. Of this, 41% are youths under the age of 15. This population trend has its own pros and cons. If the country’s economy cannot create more jobs and opportunities for this upcoming generation, it is likely to be a burden on the country as well as increase the number of unemployed, which in turn results in negative social, economic and political crises in the country and beyond increasing the level of inward and outward migration.

On the other hand, the population number has its advantages too and especially for digitalization ventures in that it means a wider audience or consumer basis for new media outlets. Such a large population is a large market to profit from. During the past decades, many international companies engaged in non-political and mainly industrial sectors have invested in Ethiopia aiming to reap the population dividend. With the liberalizing media and political atmosphere, now is the time for international investors interested in the digital dimensions of media development to be involved. It also means a broad range of potential candidates with varied skills to employ with optional rates of payment.

Use of mobile phones
According to Ethio Telecom February 2019, around 40 million Ethiopians are active mobile phone users. This figure is one of the highest in Africa and one of the fastest growing subscription rates in the continent. Interestingly, travelling across the country it is easy to observe that the most common types of phones used by the people or on display in shops are smart phones. This indicates that mobile phone users also use the other digital offerings of the smart phone such as the internet and apps. This culture of mobile phone as a necessity and as a sign of modernity is beneficial to those interested in exploiting the tool for investment or work i.e. digital media.

There is a mature and “digitalized audience”, which has caught up with the developed and “modern” world in terms of knowledge and information of what is going on. The gap between a well-connected Ethiopian in Ethiopia and his or her counterpart in Europe or North America in terms of the information and knowledge equity is narrowing; the credit goes to the Internet and the Open Access trend.

Many of the long-established African and Ethiopian media outlets are adapting and transitioning to digital developments at least in terms of delivery. Newspapers are now equally running their online and mobile content provisions. It is possible to access up-to-date African reports on Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets both in text and in multimedia formats. They are competing with youth entrepreneurs, who are starting their own social media, website and YouTube based digital media start-ups.

The entrepreneurial spirit across the region and especially in East Africa, including Ethiopia is another opportunity. There are three major ICT hubs or co-working spaces (iceaddis, xHub and blueSpace) for youth entrepreneurs to discover and invent newer ICT and digital devices and services. However, most of the innovations have so far been in the area of the creative media sphere such as entertainment websites, video games and software development rather than the hard or serious journalism sector for mass media and news reporting development.

Language is also likely to be an advantage because most content on the Internet has the Translate option into the local language, the official working language of the country, Amharic. There are computer keyboards and mobile keypads with an Amharic/Geez alphabet. Now, Chinese and European digital, satellite and telecom companies are eyeing these African and Ethiopian markets partly for the reasons given above.

To understand the intricacies of the challenges within the new Ethiopian media especially the digitalization process, diagnosing the problem with a digital divide lens is helpful.

Initially, digital divide was defined as the inequalities in access to and use of ICTs, primarily the Internet. Then the definition that explained the divide in levels came: the first-level is for those who have access to Internet and those who do not, and the second-level digital divide, which is focused on the usage of Internet or the skills based divide. The third-level states that there is a digital divide, when the access to the Internet and the skills do not lead to beneficial outcomes.

However, language asymmetries, gaps in Internet use between the old and the young, gender differences, the exclusion of the disabled and gaps in access between urban and rural areas are also examples of Internet divide. Similarly, experts distinguish between the challenges to digital media development such as training, the dominant traditional media culture and finance.

The first-level divide: according to Internet World Stats, 15.3% of the Ethiopian population had access to Internet in 2018. This means that the majority of the population does not have access to the Internet. Most media outlets are based in urban areas except a few community media outlets, located in the semi-urban and peripheries of the country. Hence, one form of the divide in Ethiopia could be between those who are in the main urban areas of the country such as the capital in Addis Abeba and media outlets located in the peripheries such as pastoralist areas. The other form of the divide is quality related. Two media institutions in an advanced urban setting such as Addis Abeba could have access to an Internet but one could have an access to the most fastest, high speed Internet access while another media house would have a 3G, slow and continuously breaking up connection.

In fact, a few Ethiopian digital media start-ups have complained about Internet speed and connection. Besides, access can be a tricky notion in a developing country context because those who are not online can learn about everything that is taking place online by sharing Internet one-to-many with their colleagues and families. This is not similar to a WiFi access or sharing but a very traditional way of sharing that is similar to sharing or recycling a hot off the press purchased by one person among the family members and the neighbourhood. Nonetheless, we cannot equate such a form of access to usage.

Second-level divide is the other obstacle to the Ethiopian digitalization process and the digital media scene. Although there are a growing number of ICT and online journalism graduates coming out as technical experts and communicators, the depth of knowledge and availability of these personnel does not meet the market demand. Of all the media types, it is digital/satellite television that is mushrooming with more than a dozen YouTube-based and satellite transmitted TV channels launched within the past few years. Nevertheless, there are noticeable gaps in professional digital content as well as usage. My own research experience has shown that a very small number of Ethiopian digital journalists and online rights activists have received digital security training.

Probably, it is the third-level divide that we cannot definitively assess in the Ethiopian context by observation. Yet, the few digital media entrepreneurs and media outlets have reaped financial benefits from access to the Internet, where the media outlets amassed millions of Ethiopian Birr through mainly advertisement, website and YouTube clicks. The audience, of course, has become more informed and knowledgeable as it has access to several new media outlets but qualifying the positive and negative effects on the behaviour and decisions of the audience due to these new digital media can only come after thorough and robust research.

The impact of the second and the third levels of the digital divide can best be exemplified by the earlier “There is no system!” anecdote in Ethiopia. Although both the civil servant and the client have access, they cannot make use of it due to technical problems and skills gaps at the macro level to solve these issues. The access and the usage of the Internet have not led to beneficial outcomes because “The system does not work.”

Despite the financial benefits so far, getting better revenue remains a problem for most East African countries such as Ethiopia. It is impossible to make payments by bankcards (especially internationally) in most African countries; hence the transactions are still conducted through the traditional banking processes or Money Transfer methods such as Western Union and Money Gram rather than credit cards.

The cost of importing digital equipment, access to the Internet and digital infrastructure are all too expensive. Digital start-up media owners I spoke to found the import tax on the tools necessary to launch their digital media outlets more expensive than the price they paid to purchase the items from abroad.

To recap, the political and regulatory regime is an opportunity rather than a challenge in Ethiopia today, but we cannot tell for how long this will continue. However, at least the first two levels of the digital divide seem to be the most evident forms in the Ethiopian digital development trend as well as issues with undercapitalization, resources, bureaucracy, training and slower acculturation to digitalization.

It is worth mentioning that digitalization is also positively affecting the country and Africa in general giving employment to journalists and IT people, helping local economies grow, creating a global citizenship that is aware of international diversities, cultures and current affairs and entertainment.


Tedla Desta completed his PhD at Trinity College Dublin in 2015 researching the communications, conflict and peace nexus from a multidisciplinary perspective. He reported for various media outlets, lectured and was a researcher in Trinity College Dublin and Maynooth University, Ireland, Université de Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), Pretoria, South Africa. He currently works in Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada.

Photo above:  Books and newspapers market in Arat Kilo, Addis Abeba. Some customers rent and pay per hour to read their favourite newspapers and magazines. ​Right: Ethiopia’s booming high-tech village in Bole, Addis Abeba. By Tedla Desta

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