IT is one of the main engines that drives an economy, and for a quickly developing economy like Ethiopia’s, it is a necessity. Techno Brain is an IT company based in Tanzania with branch offices in other countries including Ethiopia. Capital’s Eskedar Kifle sat down with Mekonnen Tesfaye, Country Director of Techno Brain Ethiopia, to discuss about Techno Brain and its role here as well as the challenges the company has faced as an IT company in Ethiopia.
Capital: What can you tell me about Techno Brain, what it does locally and internationally, and the challenges it faces?
Mekonnen Tesfaye: Techno Brian is basically an IT company; it started operation in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania 15 years ago as a small IT training center. The vision of the chairman of the company was to bring knowledge to Africa; it is one of the prerequisites for eradicating poverty, which is why every year we train thousands of people; therefore, the company was first established as a training center. Then we went into the business of selling small hardware like printers and finally moved into the business of providing IT solutions. Most people recognize Techno Brian as a training company because we have partnered with a company called New Horizons, a U.S based IT training center.
We try to provide the best technologies on the market; whatever is available in the U.S we are capable of supplying it here the next day, which means we can offer up-to-date technologies with the latest features. Solution is now one of our major areas of focus. Techno Brain has seven major divisions, and within those divisions there are different solutions. Infrastructure is one of them; building data centers, networks, configuring servers, selling Microsoft licenses, etc. We are Microsoft’s gold partner for Eastern and Southern Africa. Some of the major divisions we have are Enterprise Business Solutions (EBS), ERP financial management system and the student management system for universities. Each division deals with lots of different things. Techno Brain has a thousand plus employees internationally and the human resource and financial capacity to run and develop this business efficiently.
There is also something that we refer to as the Identity Management System that utilizes fingerprints for various identification documents such as driving licenses and passports. The company also has a consulting division; for example, we do consulting work for the Government of Uganda on an IT strategy framework. The good thing about Techno Brain is that we have skilled human resources and knowledge with vast experience on Africa, but we do bring in some experts from countries like India and the U.S when there is the need.
We have the access to bring the required knowledge to the country because we work with all the known brands. Our own products such as Secure Register, which is a system we use for fingerprint identification, are excellent; in fact, this is actually the system we are setting up for the Federal Transport Authority of Ethiopia.
Another system that the company provides is called the GIS (Geographical Information System). This system is highly sought after in Ethiopia. Then of course there are the training services we offer. One of the challenges we face is that the IT market in Ethiopia is not well developed; people don’t know what they want and what to buy so we have to educate them on how to identify what they want and how to use it properly. That is why we give trainings alongside other services. We are system integrators and don’t stick to only one product, but work with all the known brands. The company consults with clients who require a specific product and provide at reasonable prices. Most companies are not yet ready to spend a lot of money, so we conduct researches to find out what is right for them and offer them lower rates. In general, we are a customer-focused African IT company.
There is a huge challenge in change management. Companies find that they have to transit from paper documentation to automation and, understandably, there is a lot of resistance because it is expensive. Furthermore, big automation projects are time consuming and the results aren’t usually evident in the short term. It is not like any other hardware where you see the results right away, it needs time to be effective. When you look at Ethiopia, in terms of technology, we are way behind; but by observing other African countries that are ahead of us in the field, like Kenya and Tanzania, we can learn from their experiences when they started out and build on it. We know infrastructure is a problem here, like access to the internet, for example. Our company tries to provide other legal alternative solutions that do not depend on the Telecom infrastructure.
Presently, we have been fully operational in Ethiopia for the last two years and there is change coming, and we will contribute to that change.
Capital: So in the last two years, what kind of projects have you been working on in Ethiopia?
Mekonnen: Our first project was with the Ethiopian Airlines Credit Union. The Credit Union has over 5000 members, which I think is the largest, when compared to other Credit Unions. They wanted to automate their system and we provided that service, which allowed their members to apply online for a loan, if they so desire. This is one project we are almost finished with. Another project that I am very excited about is the driving license project we are working on, with the Federal Transport Authority.
The driving licenses that will be issued soon will use our Secure Register fingerprint system. The problem with driving licenses has been a big issue; there are individuals who have 3 or 4 different driving licenses from different regions, so when one license expires or is seized by the traffic police for violations, they use the other because there is no way of knowing if they have other licenses. The Federal Transport Authority will be using PVC plastic cards that have a high secure protection system including the fingerprint system. First, the Authority will issue 400,000 of these licenses and plans to eventually change the already existing licenses as well. It is like a Tin number; one person cannot have more than one Tin number, consequently, it is going to be the same with driving licenses.
Another project the company is involved in is a Call Center project we are working on with the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority (ERCA). This undertaking is a first for this country and will have 12 agents in the call center. Tax payers can call the center with different questions and will be given the necessary support. The center will identify callers by name and Tin number through its Customer Relations Management System (CRM) and the call agents will be able to access the tax payer’s history, making it easier to help the caller. This is done to give a personalized service. The call center will be launched soon.
One of our largest ventures is with the Ethiopian Postal Services Enterprise (EPSE); we are working on automating the domestic mailing system. Customers will be able to track the item they mailed through a website until it reaches its destination.
Our other project is with the private sector where we see great potential, especially in the manufacturing sector. We are working with National Cement and Adama Spinning Factory to put into operation a Financial Management System. The system will help the company follow up on all its operational activities, whether e it’s order processing, inventory management or sales, with a click of a button.
Capital: Why do you think many companies are resisting automation of their system?
Mekonnen: There are many reasons and I have mentioned some of them earlier; to reiterate, one is the question of money and IT does cost money, money which they simply are not ready to spend. That is why we are planning to provide a hosted model service where they can pay every month, and that way they can see it as just operational expenses instead of a big investment that costs a lot of money. The other reason is transparency. Many have a problem with that, and once you automate, you will not be able to hide anything and everything will be accessible or visible in the system and some have a problem with that. The other reason, I believe, is that some just resist change, they are used to a certain system and they want to continue with that no matter how much the new system would make things easier. That is why we hire more consultants to educate people.
Capital: You mentioned that your biggest venture was with EPSE. How big is it in terms of money? What and how big are your projects abroad?
Mekonnen: The biggest project we have here is with the Ethiopian Postal Service Enterprise. It is over 14 million birr, but we do have huge projects in other countries; for example, in Malawi we are involved in an Integrated Financial Managing System (IFMS) project worth 32 million USD.
Capital: Enlighten me on the trainings Techno Brain provides.
Mekonnen: We offer over 2000 different kinds of trainings. Some of the trainings that are greatly sought after are, for example, Project Management. There aren’t a lot of efficient project managers in this country and we would like to change that situation by providing excellent training opportunities. We also offer software development training, training on Ethical Hacking which is especially good for banks because banks are using core banking and everything is networked, so this training will help them learn on how to protect their system. Other than that we also provide Oracle, Sisco and Microsoft certification trainings.
Capital: What makes Techno Brain different than other IT companies who provide the same services?
Mekonnen: We are an international company with a focus on Africa. If you look at other international IT companies, their view of Africa is negative and we, as a company, have developed focused solutions for African customers that enabled us to cater to that part of the market. We are an African company and we have specific solutions and services suited for Africa. In Ethiopia, I do not believe we have viable competitors, but the real problem for us here is not with competition but with the ability and maturity of would-be clients on how fast they can make a decision and this requires a real understanding of what is needed and why. I personally prefer to have competitors, because then the awareness of the need of IT solutions will be known better and easier to spread as we wouldn’t be the only ones promoting it. I believe we have set a standard in Ethiopia; we are the first IT Company to become ISO certified. When people come to us, they already know we are capable of providing them with a solution that matches their requirements, but it doesn’t come cheap; quality services come with a price.
Capital: I believe you are a socially responsible company. How do you carry out your responsibilities to the community?
Mekonnen: We provide free trainings; we do this because we believe, to be confident, you have to be knowledgeable. A person with no confidence is always resistant to change. The company believes that problems will be solved through the provision of trainings in different areas. Primarily, this is done for selected government organizations. We have the infrastructure to give the necessary trainings, and as long as the infrastructure is there, why not give out free trainings? We also have discussion forums where our own people, clients and other interested parties can participate and discuss on different issues around IT.
Capital: What are some of your plans for 2013?
Mekonnen: I can’t make it official yet, but let’s say we would be working on a project that will be helpful to women and children through different NGOs.
We have many plans for 2013. As I have said, infrastructure is one area where we will continue to be heavily involved; if you look at the time and effort that many universities are putting into automation, you would be really amazed and it is very encouraging indeed. All of them want to improve their infrastructure and acquire new technologies, and since we have specific solutions for higher education institutions, we will be working with them. The company will also be working with banks who are interested in upgrading their financial management systems and customer relationship management systems, because they want to offer personalized services. A lot of private manufacturing companies are also beginning to automate their system, and we are also looking into that as well.
Capital: What does IT really mean for a country like Ethiopia?
Mekonnen: Quite a lot actually. Everybody has seen and is still seeing how IT is transforming the World. If you look at India today, one of their major exports is dependent on IT. They have grown and excelled so much in that area that it is actually very expensive to outsource from India now. That is why we believe Africa is the next center of gravity which will attract a lot of investors who we think will be coming in droves. We are currently setting up a huge business process outsourcing unit and research and development center in Nairobi, Kenya. When you come to Ethiopia, like I said before, there is still resistance and reluctance. When you look at the government’s Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), IT is the major enabler that can transform the way we work, therefore is a major player in growth and development. Technology, for a country like ours with a fast growing economy can without a doubt speed up the process. IT is everything for this country; it really is not a choice anymore, it is a must. If local companies are to be competitive internationally, automation is a must. The Ministry of Industry (MoI) is encouraging this, to the extent that it even finances manufacturing industries up to 80 percent. So the manufacturing industry needs to look into this.