Interview with Solomon Kassa
By Eyob Workineh, December 01, 2019
T he past few years have seen a dramatic increase in the use as well as discussion of technology for the betterment of society, and at the center of it all has been Solomon Kassa. Founder and host of the EBS TV show, Tech Talk with Solomon, he has opened the tech window wide open for Ethiopians at all corners. With his easy-going but caring and inspirational approach, Solomon has made millions of Ethiopian fans across the world. LinkUp Addis’s Eyob sat with Solomon to ask him about his career, his projects and achievements. Enjoy! (Our interview, which took place at Hyatt Regency had been interrupted multiple times with excited fans wanting to tell him how inspirational he has been)
Tell us a bit about who you were before you became today and your early influences.
I was just another kid from Addis Ababa. I left for the USA 16 years ago. Growing up, I was a village kid who was famous for Push Toy Cars made of wire. I used to make these and sell them for the other kids in the village. As much as the technical skills, I was also artistic. I used to paint, I even hosted an art exhibition in my high-school. Given my technical inclinations, my choice to learn computer science came naturally. My biggest early influence was my father. He instilled in me the value of curiosity and the passion for learning new things.
How did your early years in the USA look like?
I did some college here at first at Microlink College and did my Associate Degree in Computer Science, but I had always wanted to pursue education overseas. I wanted to see how the outside world looked like, and with my gravitation towards technology, that also came naturally. I applied to several schools, and one of the schools happened to accept my application, so I left for the US on a student visa. I did my full BSc in Computer Science. Then I went on to do my Masters.
You have been one of the most influential TV show hosts in Ethiopia. How did all that start?
The first few years until I got my two degrees, I was too busy getting my life straight. It was a humble beginning. I had to do side jobs to cover my expenses. My first job was as a front desk agent in a hotel. It gave me flexibility with my time as it allowed me a choice to pick a shift that started at 3 pm and ended at 11 pm.
After my first degree, I looked for a job as a software developer, and my professional career kicked-off. As opposed to the traditional image out there about programmers and tech people being nerdy and introvert, I was outgoing and a people’s person. So I decided to pursue the business side of technology for my Master’s Degree in Information Technology Management, and following that, I joined the consulting and business side of the industry.
I had always looked for a way to give back to my community. My first thought was to develop a blog. In the middle of developing the website, though, I decided it wasn’t practical to proceed with it, and the idea was sidelined. Eventually, a friend of mine who knew the story suggested me to start a show on EBS, a TV station which was quite new back then. That’s how I ended up starting the TV show.
How do you manage your life and your time with all the responsibilities you have as a consultant, TV personality, and author?
It’s hard but also manageable. Having a professional, 8-hour-a-day, office job and doing all the other stuff alongside being a father is not easy. But it all comes to discipline- to how passionate you are about what you do. I am very passionate about the TV show. It has really been an impact tool, creating a positive impact on several people. The book, of course, was just a continuation of the TV Show. The intention was to reach more places that the TV show cannot reach.
The book was specifically inspired by a young man, I think from Jimma, who wrote me an email four years ago explaining how much sacrifice he pays to watch my shows every week. He takes a Gari (an Ethiopian traditional horse-drawn wagon) to a little café in the next town watches the show and goes back to his home town again, all the while spending hours on the road.
As a show that has run for years, what have the biggest achievements of the show been?
The biggest accomplishment has been inspiring the youth. Helping the young see in my show that anything is possible, and inspiring them to create and innovate has been the biggest achievement. Being able to show Ethiopian people that a guy who looks like them and who speaks like them can actually become a chief NASA scientist or an influencer in the global tech landscape has truly been my achievement. Apart from that, I have been able to influence policies and policymakers as well as decisions, in a way of discussions and consulting.
As a person who has been significantly involved in the tech industry in Ethiopia, what are the major milestones you have observed?
It is obvious that we are far behind the rest of the world when it comes to tech. However, the biggest change I see in the tech scene in Ethiopia is that there is a remarkably high level of interest within the government for tech.
It used to be significantly challenging for any tech initiative to operate in Ethiopia. There were no legal and infrastructural frameworks to enable that. You would only get attention when you launch a physical store or a factory, and people simply didn’t understand what and how tech could transform the economy and society. Now, it is understood. There are investors who show interest in tech ventures. Legal policy frameworks are being more inclusive to tech. The signs are promising.
Even in terms of infrastructure, we have come a long way with regard to connectivity.
What disappoints you about tech in Ethiopia?
The poor mindset about tech. From decision-makers all the way to consumers, the understanding of tech as an enabler is disappointing. The value we give to tech as a catalyst for everything is too low. Technology is sector-agnostic; it doesn’t matter where it is applied. It is transformative. That has not been understood yet. But, I am confident this is changing, and changing fast.
What do you regard as your biggest personal accomplishment?
My biggest personal achievement is having my small mark in the Ethiopian tech revolution. There is also a project I am running right now. If that succeeds, it will even stretch the accomplishment. I think it will create an even more significant impact on tech in Ethiopia.
Your first book has been in the market for months now. How has the feedback been?
It has been very inspiring. It almost made me decide to write a second book. It was released around a year and a half ago, and we have sold over 30,000 copies which is great in the Ethiopian market. There still is more demand.
One of the most humbling and valuable feedback has been when one of my readers sent me my own book via express mail. Telling me the book was great, he marked all the typos in the book asking me to correct them in the next edition. It was very humbling to see people giving this much attention and value to my work.
What do you think big opportunities do you for the tech industry in Ethiopia?
The private sector in Ethiopia has been very dormant when it comes to tech partly because the government is the biggest enabler as well as consumer of tech and partly because of the poor understanding of tech as a transformational element. Leaders in the private sector have not been willing to venture into tech because they were too comfortable in traditional ways.
Once we get the policies and the infrastructure straight, I think the private sector is the biggest opportunity for tech.
Finally, is there anyone you would like to thank?
I would like to thank my Mom and my daughter for being the inspiration that they are. Despite being just ten, the encouragement and recognition I see in my daughter and the hope I see within her is invaluable. I would like to thank those who have been helping and guiding me through this all.