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IT genius teenage introducing homegrown software

It was some four years ago that I heard the story of Information Technology (IT) genius Ethiopian kid. My music teacher at then Kotebe College of Teacher Education (now Kotebe University College), once told us that the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed from the age of five. What a rare talent! Anyone may wish to meet such a high caliber person. Bethelihem also well understood the codes that run our personal computers before hitting the age of ten. She owned at least seven patents at the age of seventeen now. Most amazingly, the software she has produced are not for simple game purposes. She carefully researched on gaps, institutional gaps ... and come up with cost efficient and local remedies. Her understanding of the gaps in itself is surprising and yet inspiring when compared to her young age. No doubt, this rare talent would be so important for prancing economies like ours. The Ethiopian Herald, therefore, approached her to bring the story of Bethelihem to its esteemed readers.

interview By Worku Belachew (Ethiopian Herald)

Tell us a bit about your childhood in Harar?

Harar is a very special place for me because the people are so kind, they also have amazing skills of communication. You are not misunderstood or judged simply by your dressing styles in Harar. There are also good education opportunities though not as abundant as they are in Addis Ababa. Let me mention two things I benefited from Harar; the first is I used to get good results in academics.

The second is an enabling commercial environment. Now let me relate the duo. My father engaged himself in business while he was in Harar. And he bought a computer. And that computer paved the road for me to take the first steps of my future journey. The coincidence is that I had to celebrate my ninth birthday. And I asked my father to give me money to buy birthday stuffs. My father who was really busy doing business had, however, rejected my request. That day, I had sat down and planned to do business using that computer. It was a simple business idea but it drew enough money for me. When people came to my father's shop to buy mobile phones, I put copy of a collection of music on their memory cards charging them little fee. I have now learned that doing such business is illegal. Anyway I made more than 1,000 Birr in one day. It was pretty enough to buy cake, clothes and the likes for my birthday party. And day by day I updated my knowledge and skills of about how to do with computer. It was, however, tough to get people who can well usher me along the journey. Fortunately, I got few teachers and they gave me reference books. I read the books and carry on moving along the track.

Could you also tell us about you family?

I live with my father and mother here in Addis Ababa. As Addis is good to learn and work, my parents and I have moved to Addis. I have one younger brother. He is eight grader and so interested in computer. My parents are a good pillar of strength for me. Where ever and when ever I plan to deal with people or organizations, I am accompanied by my father. He does care a lot about me. My mom is a very nice one. She always tells me to be confident, how to be a good girl and how to socialize myself. I can say that she has laid a steady foundation for the Betty today.

I have never missed a big hand from my family when I start to do something which looks like difficult for kids. They do not bother me saying "kids can't do this or that". They help me and proud of me. That is a great catalytic factor which accelerate me for a more and more innovation.

So what was the next step you engaged in?

Gradually, I started video-editing, computer maintenance and installing cellphone software. Then my carrier informally grew into a computer teacher. I used to teach computer in Harar though I was a kid by then.

What was the reaction of your peers, as you pranced to professional job when you had to play with them?

My peers had not been that excited with what I was doing. And I tried to arouse their curiosity by showing them how the internet is exciting and important. And more peers used to come and ask me to show them how to use computers. Actually their having less attention to computer was not their problem. The technological equipment available in every house by then was TV satellite dishes. I was among the few who uses computers. In the meantime, the community appreciated me and my works, many people said that "she a smart kid, a genius kid..." But, that is not the case. It is a matter of getting the real opportunities. And the reality is, I believe, I got the right opportunity.

Apart from getting right opportunity, what are the ingredients of your current achievement?

Yea...opportunity could be one as I already said it. But, it needs to be coupled with hard work. I am always ready to learn, and update my knowledge and skills. In addition, I concluded that coding and computer programming is my real interest. As you know everybody has its own interests. Yours might be journalism. So, it is like enjoyment for me.

One needs to pass through a rigorous education to be an IT expert. What is your experience in this regard?

I had some training on how to work in Microsoft Office, otherwise you can say that I am a self-taught programmer.

But it is not enough to be programmer? Is it?

Indeed, it is not. What I did was approaching people who have good expertise on the area and asking questions on matters which appears unclear to me. I have also got good help online, it is a good mechanism. I was also at Information Security Agency (INSA). And I had a trainer for two years. That is also another addition into my knowledge and skills.

Classrooms are inclusive here. Pupils with varieties of learning styles sit together in a classroom, so do you get the right care from teachers?

Yes I do. And I like the school environment. Classrooms are mosaic of different culture. You learn not only from classroom instructions but also from interacting with peers. We have ample time to share experiences. And I wasn't got bored. Frankly speaking, the school I was enrolled also considered my learning ability. And I also enjoyed double promotion from grade four to five. I have already taken grade 12 national examination this year. And I like the classroom environment.

Could you tell us how did come to public eye?

First I met Ato Adisu Legesse during the celebration of Nations and Nationalities Day in Harar. I also got the opportunity to meet the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. After that Ethiopian Television and Radio Agency (now Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation) approached me for an interview. So, this was a good breakthrough for me. And it was also important promotion, I can say. Previously, when I go to private and government offices, they gazed at me. They were suspicious about my works. The TV programme, nevertheless, have placed good information about me and my works in the long term memory of many people. Nowadays, people easily identify me when I go to their offices.

So...what are the things you have accomplished so far, also if there are projects in progress?

I am now focusing on five projects at current. The first one is Anyone can call project which I am working on it in collaboration with iCog Labs. We are planning to teach high school students every week about Robotics and coding. And the plan is to reach around 12 high schools in three months time.

The second one is FEDENA it is an open source school enterprise resource planning software. It is to enable students to check their results, it also helps to administer school environment - such as human resource and finance. You can manage everything you want using the software. And we customize this open source to the demands of our customers. I have implemented this for Yeha Science and Technology College, Gage College and Queens College.

The third one is a digital library. This is so different from Encarta and the likes. Because, it is localized. You can get instructional books from grade nine to twelve. And it is designed in line with the Ethiopian school curriculum. In addition it is offline digital library, therefore, students can use it without incurring cost.

The forth one is virtual lab. You know it is difficult to use chemicals at schools labs. One has to be cautious regarding safety issues in one hand and chemicals are also costly on the other. This virtual lab simulates the process you engage in real labs. You can drug chemicals and add into another chemicals to observe the chemical reactions they go through, this has been implemented in Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Centre in Bahir Dar.

The last one is the Document Management System. It let you manage your documents and I have implemented it for Auditor General Bureau In Amhara State.

Can we also discuss the patents you obtained?

I have obtained seven patents. Four of them are privately owned and the remaining three are in collaboration with other organizations. I was one of the ice-breakers to get patent on software in Ethiopia.

Herald: Women and girls are highly encouraged nowadays in many respects. But it is also a work in progress. Do you face challenges because you are female and/or a kid?

Honestly speaking I faced no challenges as a result of the former. But, I faced challenges on resulting from the latter. Some people get in doubt comparing my proposals on IT issues and my age. There are times which were hard for me to access people and/or organizations. But nowadays my family are doing that for me.

What do you advice for kids?

The first thing I need to advice is that they need to explore what is around them, there could be opportunities revolving, so it is good to seize these opportunities. I know that watching movies and busying oneself in such activities are good. But, our future foundation need to be set while we are kid. We need not to waste our priceless time, we need to figure out our future now. For instance, kids can involve in volunteer activities [as it is widely practiced nowadays in many places in Ethiopia, particularly during Kirmet season] even we can generate money engaging in various small business activates. So we kids need not much concentrate on soccer or watching movies.

We wish you success in your entire life!

Thanks a lot!

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