Can Ethiopia, the second most populated, diverse, and one of the least connected countries in Africa, embrace the possibilities of the Metaverse? We argue that it is Metaverse ready.
The story of Addis Ababa, Africa’s political capital, grows more fascinating each year with the rise of skyscrapers, urban parks, purposefully-designed walkways, and the narrative of a city eager to claim its place amongst the continent’s rising cities. As a hub of Ethiopian Airlines that provide essential connectivity to the world’s vital commerce and political influence centres, the “New Flower”, as its name loosely translates from the official language Amharic, is a city on the move.
Beneath the skyscrapers and the sprawling greenery in its emerging Central Business District (CBD) is the story of malls, gaming centers, and parks where its future takes shape. Here is where its adolescents, parented by an eager, connected, and emerging middle class, are lost in the world of the Metaverse. Self thought and eager to embrace new technologies, they spent hours each day connecting, building, learning, playing, and constructing an alternative world for themselves.
In many ways, these are similar to stories of teenagers around the world lost in the latest gaming craze and dystopian technologies that come and go with the season. And for a country that boasts a mobile data subscriber rate of just over 50% and a social media account ownership rate of about 10%, their presence may appear the narrative of a few, disconnected wealthy in a country of close to 120million.
But the way these teenagers are utilising their gadgets and making sense of the Metaverse moves the conversation from luxury to essentialism. “I’m using it to help my grandmother,” says Daniel, 17. “It helps a bit with her Alzheimer’s. I put together photos of our childhood and some really old and cool photos she had into a showreel and used this App. Then I take my Virtual Reality (VR) headset when we visit. She starts to recall my younger sister when we put it on her after two or three weeks. It’s really cool.”
His friend Alem, who catches up often with Daniel in “our Island”, adds, “We had this long downtime two years ago because of COVID. I took a few courses when my Dad finally got good WIFI at home. I am working on an app to help kids with disabilities attend school in the Metaverse. I had my IT teacher look at it and we will be doing a proof [on concept] in class next [academic] year.”
Young population getting even younger
While the likes of Alem and Daniel are adapting to the Metaverse in faster ways than even adults comprehend, they represent the majority of the population that is increasingly utilizing connectivity to build a future only their parents can dream of. And it is only the beginning.
Based on projections made on Ethiopia’s 2007 census, about 46% of its population is projected to be under 17 years of age in 2022. About 11% of this number is in the 13-17 age group, which represents the first legal point of introduction to social media, Metaverse devices and gadgets, and some exposure to digital literacy. Crucially, this age group in urban and peri-urban parts of the country also represents the group with access to zero cost and relatively faster broadband connection through their home and school network.
Its state-run telecom operator Ethio Telecom recently increased its reach into this market segment by investing ETB 45.6million (USD 800k) to build digital centers in 66 high schools across the country.
At current market prices, the cost of many popular gadgets maybe seems prohibitive with prices starting at USD 300 for complimentary devices that would be used with PCs and smartphones. But the technology is also evolving rapidly to multi-user experiences which are expected to bring down barriers to access.
Reimagine a glorious history on the Metaverse
There is no shortage of a proud history that warms the heart of the average Ethiopian. These stories told in different narratives in countless books, films, and documentaries may also have presented alternative realities for the different nations and nationalities that inhabit the land of 120million and may have contributed to an unfinished state-building process contributing to an infraction in its present day.
While the Metaverse may not solve Ethiopia’s complex political dynamics, it does represent a new and novel way of bridging the understanding of historical events. Such is one of the visions of Guzo Technologies, an Internet of Thing (IoT) and Extended Reality (XR) products prototyping startup based in Addis, which has launched a VR storytelling and experiencing platform called Guzomap with a signature story of the Battle of Adwa, Ethiopia’s epic battle against Italian forces ending in victory in 1896.
Ethiopia is rapidly embracing social commerce with formal and informal social networks bringing the promise of one-look and easy delivery of goods to users. The growth of social commerce apps like telegram and social advertising through telegram, Facebook, and Instagram shows both the appetite of users for ease and convenience, but also the struggle of its tax authority to grapple with the increasing volume of transactions that are taking place unregulated.
While logistics and connectivity continue to be pain points in the growth of social commerce in the country, Metaverse could potentially bring a new experience to the market by increasing the utilising the trust from peer-to-peer connectivity to introduce look and feel for products before purchase. It’s a trend happening in different other parts of the continent.
Nigeria’s Thrill Digital, founded by Delz Erinle and artist Niyi Okeowo, uses AR and VR, crypto, and gaming, to create a fashion metaverse. The firm won a $40,000 grant from Epic Games, a US video game and software developer investing in metaverse development, to start Astra, a play-to-earn crypto game where players try to amass as many tokens as they can within an allotted time to win real-life luxury fashion items.
Unearthing tourist attractions
Ethiopia’s tourism industry was on a rapid growth trajectory- a record 812,000 tourists visited the country in 2019- before first the COVID pandemic and then the war in Tigray significantly halted progress.
As the industry continues its slow recovery in 2022, virtual experiences of its tourist sites to help alleviate visitor concerns about security and experience could help provide a boost and unlock experiences for newer types of visitors into the country.