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2: Information technology in Ethiopia

Teferi Kebede

1. Introduction
2. Historical perspective
3. Government policy and the role of key institutions
4. Telecommunication infrastructure
5. It applications in the service sector
6. Education and training in IT
Appendix: Computer courses

1. Introduction

This report presents some highlights of the application of information technology (IT) in Ethiopia and attempts to show the overall situation. However, it may be worth noting that, on the basis of the present activities and the 10-year perspective plan, it is very likely that the situation will change dramatically in the next two to five years.


Ethiopia has a total land area of 1,251,282 km2, comprising a central highland mass surrounded by low land. It is the seventh-largest country in Africa. The country extends from latitude 3°N to 18°N and longitude 33°E to 48°E, with approximately equal east-west and north-south dimensions.

With a population of 46 million, Ethiopia is one of the most populous of the least developed countries in Africa. The age distribution shows that the country's population is predominantly young, with 46.6 per cent of the population under 15 years of age and 69 per cent under 30 years of age.

Early Ethiopian civilization indicates a number of achievements in the application of science and technology. The remnants of impressive architectural works of pre-Christian and Christian times are evidence of the progress made in civil engineering and architectural works.

A detailed historical overview of science and technology in Ethiopia has been given in the document entitled "Assessment of the current situation and problems of S&T in Ethiopia" presented to the conference on the National Science and Technology Policy of Ethiopia.1

Mention should also be made that Ethiopia has its own script, "Amharic," which is an official language of communication in government organizations and schools. Innovative development of IT in the country takes this fact into consideration.

Report Outline

In section 2 the historical development of IT is reviewed and data on suppliers presented. Section 3 deals with the role of key institutions in the promotion of IT in Ethiopia. Section 4 concentrates on the telecommunications infrastructure. The application of IT in some of the major organizations in the service sector is discussed in section 5. Finally, the current situation with regard to education training in IT is presented in section 6.

2. Historical perspective

The application of computers, and thereby the development and awareness of mechanization, is closely related to the introduction of computers into Ethiopia by foreign suppliers. In this report an attempt is therefore made to show how computer usage started in Ethiopia in relation to the major suppliers, namely IBM, NCR, SERIC Ethiopia, and Burroughs.

IBM in Ethiopia

The introduction of IBM products dates back to 1962. The first IBM numerical accounting machine introduced in that year was model 1421/814. A very slow printer was attached to it. Programming was done using wiring panel, which needed a qualified engineer.

In 1963 IBM introduced a semi-mechanical accounting machine, model 407, at the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). Progress was made by introducing an IBM computer, model 1440, which was an auto code. One of the institutions that installed this computer was the Ethiopian Electric Light and Power Authority.

Although the exact date is not known, it was between 1965 and 1970 that an electronic data-processing system, an IBM model 360/20, a punched card system, was installed in Ethiopia. It had a memory capacity of 8-16 KB.

A transition from card to tape-disk system was made in the 1970s with the introduction of system 3/10. This system involved a monolithic capacity ranging from 32 KB to 64 KB, the magnetic tape reading speed was equivalent to 1,000 cards per minute as compared with 250 cards per minute of system 360/20. The major software language was Report Program Generator. It was the longest-used computer in Ethiopia and was in operation in some organizations until 1986.

As a result of competition between suppliers in Ethiopia, changes in the technology were brought to the attention of users. Demand for more efficient systems began to be felt. To this end, IBM introduced system 34,36 model 4361 between 1981 and 1986, a transition from a card system to a fully magnetic system.

NCR in Ethiopia

As with IBM, the history of NCR began with the introduction of cash registers and, later, mechanical accounting machines (NCR models 2000 and 3000), with major applications such as payroll and building. NCR introduced electronic systems, like the 399 and 499, for the same purpose. The first NCR Model 8200 minicomputer was installed in 1976. It had 64 KB of main memory and 9.6 MB of hard disk. NCR also installed its 850 minicomputer between 1977 and 1984. Since then a number of installations have been made.

SERIC in Ethiopia

Société d'études réalisation, information et de conseil (SERIC) is a representative of Hewlett-Packard Computers in Ethiopia.

The introduction of HP computers in Ethiopia is a recent phenomenon, starting from 1980. However, SERIC has shown a rapid growth in the number of computer installations in a short period as compared with the other suppliers. HP systems are now widespread, and include those in international and regional organizations located in Addis Ababa. The HP 3000 series used to be very common but now personal computers (PCs) have been installed in many organizations.

Burroughs in Ethiopia

Burroughs introduced its products with desktop calculators and Model 1500 accounting machines in 1968. Its first computer was installed in Ethiopian Airlines. Late in the 1970s it introduced the Model B80 minicomputer in a few government organizations. Although Burroughs closed its office in 1981, a number of its installations have been made in government organizations by BURCO Systems.

Electronic Usage in Ethiopia

As an industrial activity, electronics has yet to start in Ethiopia, though some efforts have been initiated towards assembling radio receiver sets.

Sophisticated systems are in operation in the fields of mass media, radio communication, telecommunication, and communication and navigational aids for civil aviation. The data-processing sector, which was practically nonexistent about 30 years ago, is now within reach of many operational areas.

The earliest use of electronics in Ethiopia was in the mass communication subsector, followed by telecommunication and radio communication. Table 2.1 shows imports of electronic products other than computers in 1980. Total value amounts to US$13.54 million. As from 1980 imports began to increase. It was reported in 1983 that 63 per cent of such imports were of telecommunication and broadcasting equipment. In 1988, some 280 computers were imported, mostly PCs, and in 1989 the figure rose to 345.

Table 2.1. Imports of electronics products, 1980

Product and other details Quantity No. Value Birr
Calculating machine    
  BTN :84.52 3,508 542,377
  SITC :751.210    
  Duty: 30%    
Cash register    
  BTN: 84.52 6 17,110
  SITC: 751.230    
  Duty: 30%    
Accounting machine    
  BTN: 84.52 657 110,516
  SITC: 751.220    
  Duty: 30%    
Automatic data processing    
  BTN :84.53 219 468,119
  SITC: 752.00    
  Duty: Free    
TV broadcast receiver    
  BTN : 85.15 2,422 927,028
  SITC: 761.110    
  Duty: 50%    
Radio receiver    
  BTN :85.15 77,256 2,090,588
  SITC: 762.110    
  Duty: 25%    
Other radio receiver including radiograms and cassette recorders    
  BTN: 85.15 5,668 686,641
  SITC: 762.111    
  Duty: 50%    
  BTN: 92.11 222 52,009
  SITC: 763.110    
  Duty: 50%    
Record player, tape or wire recorder and deck    
  BTN: 92.11 1,096 469,227
  SITC: 763.180    
  Duty: 50%    
Other sound recorders and reproducers    
  BTN :92.11 5,114 59,716
  SITC: 763.800    
  Duty: 50%    
Electronic line telephone and telegraphic apparatus    
  BTN: 85.13 1,045 1,874,176
  SITC: 764.110    
  Duty: Free    
Microphones and loudspeakers    
  BTN: 85.14 4,705 340,154
  SITC :764.210    
  Duty: 25%    
Other radio broadcasting apparatus    
  BTN : 85.25 641 277,616
  SITC :764.310    
  Duty: Free/15%    
Other television transmission apparatus    
  BTN: 85.15 1,524 70,166
  SITC :764.311    
  Duty: Free    
Other television video cameras    
  BTN: 85.15 12 6,475
  SITC: 764.820    
  Duty: 50%    
Radio navigational aid apparatus    
  BTN: 85.15 10,021 206,576
  SITC: 764.331    
  Duty: Free    
Other radio navigational apparatus, radar, etc.    
  BTN :85.15 2 9,120
  SITC :764.832    
  Duty: Free (when imported by government)    
Parts n.e.s. of the apparatus falling within heading 764.110    
  BTN :85.13 360,821 6,959,640
  SITC: 764.910    
  Duty: Free    
Parts n.e.s. of the apparatus falling within heading 764.210    
  BTN :85.14 3,156 148,036
  SITC: 764.920    
  Duty: 25%    
Radio spare parts    
  BTN :85.10 43,172 3,319,127
  SITC: 764.931    
  Duty: 25%    
Parts n.e.s. of the apparatus and equipment falling within 763    
  BTN: 92.11 3,593 204,384
  SITC: 764.900    
  Duty: 50%    
Radio valves, tubes and transistors    
  BTN :85.21 1,492 52,582
  SITC: 776.000    
  Duty: 35%    

Source: Ref. 2.

3. Government policy and the role of key institutions

This section deals with the main means by which IT innovation has been encouraged since 1975; the degree to which the government has been involved in the promotion of IT innovation; and the role of institutions in implementing the IT innovation.

The Context of IT Development

In general the major commitment of the government to provide the requisite political will and authority for the coordination and promotion of science and technology, its application to development, and overall evaluation of results achieved in the field has been manifested by the establishment of a national commission, the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission (ESTC), in 1975 by proclamation No. 62/1975.

The commission is the apex decision-making and coordinating body for science and technology (S&T) in the nation. Its aim is to create conditions conducive to the development of the organic growth of a viable scientific and technological system.

One of the policy statements relevant to the theme of this report is the following: "Establishment of a system for the evaluation and monitoring of imported technologies and identification of areas where indigenous technologies can be developed." Among the actions taken by the commission to make such systems viable is the creation of institutions for S&T services to support the development of key sectors in the economy.

The programmes designed by the commission for the promotion of IT innovative development are included in the Emerging Technology area, which has been given due attention.

The National Computer Committee

The National Computer Committee was established under the Central Statistics Authority, and was then transferred to ESTC in 1987. The members of the committee were drawn from seven organizations that represented key sectors in the national development plan.

The terms of reference of the committee are:

(1) to evaluate projects that are related to computers;

(2) to approve the importation of IT products on the basis of the reasonableness of the cost and saving of foreign currency, availability of local maintenance services, software availability and compatibility, upgradability and expansion potential and training of personnel;

(3) to keep records of imported IT products;

(4) to prepare a policy draft on computerization.

From the above one might think that the committee was set up as a mechanism to control the type and number of computers. However, it is rather to encourage individuals and organizations to develop interest, mostly in the application of PCs, and thereby promote IT innovation in Ethiopia.

The National Computer Centre

Having studied the overall situation with regard to the use of computers in Ethiopia, it was decided to establish a coordinating body for the overall development of computing in the country. As a result, a National Computer Centre (NCC) was established in 1987 under the Ethiopian Science and Technology Commission.

The computer centre was established with the following major objectives:

(1) to conduct R&D activities in computer S&T and to disseminate the results;

(2) to promote the development of computer knowledge and services in Ethiopia;

(3) to provide consultancy and maintenance services;

(4) to provide training courses.


In order to meet its objectives the centre focuses on the following major activities:

(1) Find permanent solutions that will help to utilize computer technology economically and effectively for the country's socio-economic development, recognizing the fact that the computers imported into Ethiopia are from different vendors and are of different makes and hence have different maintenance needs.

(2) Search for a reliable means fully to exploit usage of computer capability in the national language and thereby enhance its wider application in all sectors of the economy.

(3) Design and provide appropriate training courses to alleviate manpower problems in the area. In addition, act as a national focal point for consultancy in curricula development in infotechnology and research activities in the field.

(4) Assist government organizations in designing projects, preparing terms of reference for consultants when required, and monitoring project implementation.

(5) Conduct R&D activities in infotechnology and ensure that its applications are in line with the country's development objectives. (Hardware & software research and development.)

(6) Provide a full-fledged maintenance service.

Since its establishment, the NCC has been involved in a number of IT innovation development efforts. These had enabled the centre to develop application software packages in Amharic and usage of PCs in the local language for word processing, databases, desktop publishing, statistical analysis, spreadsheets, etc.

Achievements of the NCC


The NCC has developed a range of Amharic software for distribution. At present these run on IBM PC, XT and AT, PS/2 and compatibles and range from Amharic operating system "AGAFARI" to Amharic Publishing "MAHTEME."


To make the IBM PCs and compatibles operational in the Amharic language, an add-on device has been developed at the NCC. In addition, such items as printer chips for Amharic are also available. It should be noted that some of these services and outcomes are the result of its R&D activities during just one and a half years, i.e. up to July 1988.

4. Telecommunication infrastructure

The Ethiopian Telecommunication Authority (ETA) came into being in January 1953 with the responsibility of catering for national as well as international telecommunication services, excluding military telecommunication.

The ETA is managed by a General Manager who is the chief executive under the direction of a board of directors whose ex officio chairman is the Minister of Transport and Communication. ETA, a state-owned agency, has administrative and financial autonomy.

The telecommunication services offered by ETA include telephony, telegraphy, and telex. Broadcasting was also handled by ETA until it was transferred to the Ministry of Information and Guidance in 1977.

Existing Facilities

Existing facilities for domestic communication include long lines, microwave, UHF, and RRC transmission systems. For international telecommunication traffic, the ETA depends mainly on its INTELSAT standard A earth station SOT-1A. Some international traffic is also handled by the PANTEL microwave system.

An important feature of the development programme of ETA is the commencement of digitalization in 1989, which has led to the development of an integrated services digital network. Along with the digitalization of networks, telex, facsimile, data transmission, international subscriber dialling, and a national data-processing service have been introduced. ETA is also implementing a computerized management information system.

Future Plans

To consolidate the sixth Development Programme (1984-1988) and to extend telecommunication services to remote areas, the next plan premised on the National Development Programme is under preparation. This plan, which is scheduled for 1989-1994, envisages digitalization of the older microwave routes and opening up of some 320 remote stations using terrestrial radio systems and small satellite earth stations. As for switching, 20 more digital exchanges with a capacity of about 60,000 will be connected to the network, bringing the total capacity to 268,000 lines. The ETA development programmes and targets are shown in table 2.2.

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