Building an Innovative Culture Among Youth through American Spaces in Ethiopia

Currently, there are 6 American Corners/Spaces in Ethiopia: Bahir Dar, Jimma, Dire Dawa, Mekelle, and two spaces located in Addis Ababa. What is the mission of these spaces? They are venues to host public diplomacy programs, promote cultural exchange, and serve as platforms for engagement between the people of Ethiopia and the United States. These American Corners also have provisions like working spaces, computer labs and a quiet section for reading. The facilities run regular weekly programs ranging from STEM education to American culture and values.

We at Open Hearts Big Dreams (OHBD) designed model projects that are innovative, in-depth, and problem solving, focusing on kids in Ethiopia. We then scanned potential institutions for those who share our vision and mission to help us to implement model projects. We found the American Embassy in Ethiopia created the much-needed innovation ecosystem with their American Corners and launched two pilot innovation projects: 1) Intro to Computer Science (CS), in Jimma and, 2) CS train-the-trainer, at Bahir Dar American Corner in 2019.

Given the success stories among its model projects, OHBD was invited to apply for a grant to expand its offerings to all American Corners and to include business/entrepreneurship, leadership, and communication. OHBD was awarded the grant and has been hard at work planning to build on its previous efforts in collaboration with American Embassy in Addis and plans to launch rigorous computer science, entrepreneurial, leadership, and communication training programs early in 2021.

We strongly believe these projects will be successful with maximum impact because we are building our projects in four opportunities lining up at present:

  1. Ethiopia is an old country and at the same time a young nation. Our work is well-sourced, research-driven, and in-depth. About 41 and 28 percent of Ethiopian population is under the age of 15 and 29, respectively.  The unemployment rate of this segment of the population is estimated to be 27%. In the face of internal conflict, slowing economic growth, and high rate of population growth, the unemployment rate won’t show any improvement in the short term.
  2. The diplomatic and cultural connection between Ethiopia and the United States spans beyond a century.
  3. There is a strong contingent of tech workers with an Ethiopian-origin working at Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, as well as smaller companies. OHBD can serve as a coordinating platform to channel this skilled workforce in paying back to their communities in Ethiopia.
  4. Ethiopia is embracing the digital revolution, thus digital infrastructures and virtual training platforms are emerging. Education is a great equalizer. It is a means to bridge the gap between haves and have-nots, to promote democracy, and inclusive growth.

Ethiopia won’t be able to feed its fast-growing population without building a creative economic system where value is based on imaginative qualities rather than the traditional resources of land, labor, and capital. This transition requires long-term investment in improving educational infrastructures to train skilled workers. One option is to invest in brick-and-mortar educational establishments which are woefully inadequate at present. Future expansion of this traditional approach will have forbidden economic realities in Ethiopia. Shifting to the digital infrastructure development paradigm is the second option. This approach is promising and has shown enormous potential in emerging nations.

Scientific ideas and innovation by young people won’t get off from the ground unless they’re supported with effective communication skills. Youth should be provided the necessary tool kits and skill sets to allow them to be successful in setting goals and taking purposeful action to reach them. To get advanced training in software skills is one thing. Using that training to stand out above the crowd and win a job in a competitive world is another. Communication skills are a gateway for landing well-paying jobs and launching new businesses. Success in life is a function of effective negotiation which is communication in action. A set of competencies not supported with effective communication skills prevents young people from realizing their maximum potential through employment, product marketing, or selling their software products. For instance, Ethiopian runners are world class athletes and have broken several world records, however, they scarcely derive any benefit through promotion of products due to a language and thus communication barrier. A clear gap in communication skills exists between physical and social scientists. Ponder a televised debate between people drawn from the two streams. Although the physical scientist can have data-driven evidence in his arsenal, a social scientist who argues on a limited evidence can outshine in the debate simply due to differences in communication skills and styles. A brilliant scientist creates awareness and understanding that promotes adeptness as team members complete their tasks. When team members gain the same understanding about project goals and objectives, work proceeds smoothly and efficiently. Work projects are completed timely, which enhances business continuity.

Communication skills will arm young people at all levels. This means an effective communicator judges the audience and adapts his/her communication strategies accordingly. This helps to ensure common understanding among team members and plays a pivotal role in charting workflows to reach a goal. Leadership skill is another factor that fosters success. Society needs leadership at various levels to implement services, policy decisions, and effective governance. Success stories of iPhone products, Google, Amazon, and other Fortune 500 companies in the United States are a function of effective leadership qualities.

Ethiopia is becoming an emerging nation in East Africa and has a huge human and natural resource potential to pull itself out of poverty. It is a young nation with good prospects for growth, however this does not come by itself. Investments in training the workforce of tomorrow have to be started in earnest. Along this line, OHBD and the US Embassy in Ethiopia are initiating collaboration in the area of computer science, business/entrepreneurship, leadership, and communication training targeting young people in Ethiopia. OHBD has high tech volunteers to implement software training, and top-notch leadership and communication experts to instruct students in the 6 American Corners.