This Ethiopian Supergirl Worked Wonders In Robotics And AI In Her Teens

By  |  April 11, 2020

There is a new crop of prodigious talents that are expunging the old ways and blazing new trails in the African tech scene, and Ethiopia’s Betelhem Dessie might just sit atop the leaderboard of that talent-laden list.

The 20-year-old techie seems to be on the fast-track as she has blitzed her way through the ranks to become one of the youngest leaders in ‘Sheba Valley’ – the name given to Ethiopia’s buzzing tech ecosystem.

At a stage in her life when she’d probably be lauded by most for not flunking a particularly tricky course in college, the Ethiopian ‘Supergirl’ is strutting her way through projects that would usually be considered no place for a person her age.

As Project Manager, Dessie calls the shots on various robotics programs run by iCog Labs; an AI and robotics lab operating out of Addis-Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

Betelhem Dessie With A Prototype Of ‘Sophia’
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The company, which came into existence in 2013, takes pride in its flagship creation – ‘Sophia the Robot.’ And you won’t be wrong to think she also put in work on this one.

From as early as nine years of age, Dessie had her compass aligned for a steady course through a jolly voyage of coding. Now only 20, she already has a claim to four software programs copyrighted to her name exclusively.

And there’s more. Dessie has three other patents in collaboration with other organisations, while she is known to have as many as five other projects in the pipeline.

The only thing that adds more gloss to the shine of the achievements mentioned above is the fact that one of the programs she developed is currently being used by the Ethiopian government to map and monitor rivers that serve irrigation purposes in the country.

However, what now looks a lot like a meteoric rise did have something of the unlikeliest of starts. In a conversation with CNN, Dessie recounted the awakening that dealt her from a very early age.

She recalled having asked her father for money on her ninth birthday and getting turned down because there wasn’t any to give her on that day.


For a child her age, she would surely be pardoned for going into a tantrum fit, but little Dessie had other ideas. That singular disappointment, though understandable and seemingly inconsequential at the time, may have triggered something in the young girl which led her to carve out her path from such a young age.

Dessie’s father was a businessman who sold electronics out of a small store in Harar; a city in eastern Ethiopia. He earned a respectable income, but Dessie had decided to make her own money.

With the materials she could access, she found herself a side hustle in handling such tasks as video editing and pushing music files into the cell phones of customers. For her efforts, she made a few bucks, and before long, she had saved up quite a sum.

As rudimentary as that seems, that was kind of her first ‘valuable’ encounter with technology, and it was to mark the beginning of what has been an inspiring journey.

Exposed to new possibilities by the experience she garnered from her first small venture, she went ahead to improve and update her skills. Soon, she was handling computer maintenance and installing software. It was from here that she developed some of her computer skills and knowledge, while also working up a big appetite for tech and coding.

Although she is currently studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology (AAIT), she has been at the center of various initiatives aimed at imparting coding and robotics skills to Ethiopia’s younger generation and fostering the development of tech in the country.

Forming part of her undertakings are such projects as Anyone Can Code (ACC), The RemusGirls Can Code, and a host of others.

Also, her position at iCog Labs meant that she was right in the mix during the development of Sophia – the world’s first humanoid robot who has bagged citizenship in Saudi Arabia, can display up to 60 unique facial expressions, and also carry a conversation.

Sophia The Robot
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It’s almost criminal that not very many people are aware that the world’s first humanoid robot is the product of concerted efforts between a team of developers from one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, Ethiopia, and a Hong Kong-based robotics company known as Hanson Robotics. As a matter of fact, the famous Sophia the Robot was partly-assembled in Ethiopia.

With a client base that spans places the U.S., Canada, Hong Kong, and China, iCog Labs is more than holding on its own on the tech scene. The company is also known to collaborate with the Ethiopian government on some hardware and software projects.

Indeed, with tech spaces like iCog Labs doing a good job of creating fast-rising cyberspace in Sheba Valley, it is little wonder why youngsters like Betelhem Dessie are rising fast.

Dessie appears to have made getting more young people involved in tech her current focus. In spite of her academic commitments, she still finds time to travel to different parts of Ethiopia and meet young scholars. Her mission? To inspire her country’s next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.

Her current project, Solve-IT, has her working with young people to uncover innovative, technological solutions to some of the problems faced by their respective immediate communities, and 20-year-old Dessie is lead. Now, isn’t that some feat?

Featured Image Courtesy: Konbini

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