Uniting Africa through IT

Thursday May 27 2010

Sophia Bekele

Sophia Bekele 

By BERTHA KANG'ONG'OI

Sophia Bekele is the founder of CBS International, a California- based firm engaged in technology transfer to emerging economies, and SB-Communications Network, an Ethiopian IT company.

Today she is working on uniting the African continent through her dot Africa initiative.

What is your background?

I moved to the US when I was 16 for my high school, then joined the San Francisco State University for my degree in Business Analysis and Information systems.

I later did my MBA in information systems at the Golden Gate University. I worked in America in the banking industry as a Technology Auditor in data security and controls for about eight years.

I also served on many policy advisory committees and boards, including the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, from 2005 to 2007.This is where I started the dot Africa initiative.

However, after a lengthy professional career in the US, I decided to do something else with my life.

And what was that?

I founded CBS International, a US based company and SBCommunications Network in Ethiopia to pursue technology transfer to Africa.

I wanted to do projects that would help in nation building and have a high impact and yield to benefit society.

Was your work just based in Ethiopia?

At the beginning, I focused in technology transfer in Ethiopia, but soon we were making partnerships with companies in America and in Africa.

I later on set up other consulting practices with CBS International, involving Corporate Governance work and other management consulting services.

In Ethiopia, I got my first big break by winning an international tender for the African Union headquarters, to set up a sophisticated fibre-optic based information technology infrastructure.

That set the stage for my next big win for the national government to create an information network for the Ethiopian parliament.

It wasn't he work I did for the AU that opened my eyes to come up with a project vision to unite all of Africa.

And did you do that?

Yes. It took us about two years to introduce this concept to African governments which are represented by UNECA and the AU that are stakeholders and part of the endorsement process.

Luckily, we have all the minimum endorsement that we need in Africa now, which is the UNECA and the AU. But there still remains the registration process by the American-based ICANN organization.

By mid next year, hopefully, Africa shall be able to use the dot Africa domain name.

Why is this so important to you?

Well, most companies in Africa are paying money to companies outside the continent to use dot org and dot com domain names. With dot Africa, the money shall remain in the continent. But that’s not even the most important part of this.

This domain name will promote regional integration, it is a sort of branding for African governments, businesses, civil societies, NGOs and individuals with websites that want to have that dot Africa tag.

What has been your greatest challenge in promoting this idea of dot Africa? Uniting all policy makers across the continent and having them approve the proposal. But it has been a learning journey and the satisfaction is greater than any frustration suffered to finally see most of the continent on our side.

How are you able to travel throughout Africa promoting dot Africa and at the same time running two companies, one in the US and the other in Ethiopia?

We are living in an information and knowledge society. I am always very plugged in with my iPhone, mini computer netbook.

This is one of the reasons that I have chosen to have a base in Kenya because access to internet connectivity for 24 hours is easier here. But at the same time, I delegate duties to two others working for me in California.

Are you then able to manage family relationships?

My avatars are my family! The whole world is my family. I am an extreme extrovert and everywhere I go, I make new friends. I am happy with the state of affairs in my life.

Given the chance to go back, would you live your life differently?

I have no regrets at all! I would take the same path I have taken. I am also extremely fluid. I do not like to know what I will be doing in three months.

I like to live one day at a time. That’s one of the reasons why I left corporate America where it’s all about planning.

How do you unwind?

I love the gym. I also enjoy reading, anything on social media or current affairs. I also love my coffee and I am constantly online.

Some people think of the Ethiopian society as restrictive. How do you manage to fit in a very upscale society like the US and also in Ethiopia?

Ethiopia is evolving. In another 10 years, things will have changed a lot. We were not colonised and that also meant that we never had the chance to embrace and mingle with others outside Ethiopia.

But we are learning from our neighbours and the next generation will make a big difference.

Any relationship to Kenenisa Bekele?

None at all! But we go to the same gym when in Addis!