Thumbs Up Africa blog 9: Ethiopia's internet explorer


Neda Boin (22), Sierd van der Bij (23) and Christiaan Triebert (21) are the lucky Dutch trio who began on 1 October a three-month-long hitchhiking trip from Groningen in the Netherlands to Cape Town, South Africa. They are part of the Thumbs Up Africa project, which aims at raising global awareness about sustainability. 

From the first storey of a shopping centre along Nazret's main street, passers-by hear the beats of the latest American hip-hop hits. It’s close to midnight, and Elias Tetemke is coming back from a late-night nap. "Can't we do this interview tomorrow morning?" he asks.

But Elias indulges me. The 28 year old with a Bachelor’s degree in IT was just the third person to open an internet café in this Ethiopian city. Eight years later, Best Internet Café is, as its name might suggest, more popular than ever.

Running this place requires a lot of energy. During his nap, I noticed how clients were asking each other whom to pay. "Basically, I work 14 hours a day," Elias says. "The trick is to keep the customers satisfied. So sometimes I am a teacher instead of a plain owner of an internet café." Teaching means explaining where to find specific information and what to do when the browser is stuck. "If they use Internet Explorer, I simply tell them to try Mozilla Firefox. I've noticed that the needy people are always coming back to my café. It works."

On the other side of the shopping centre, merely 30 metres away, is another internet café, which opened a few months ago. “We understand each other well,” says Elias, “but you can understand that there is a lot of competition."

To win the competition, Elias constantly upgrades. Two years ago, Best Internet Café was the first to offer ADSL. That was the fourth time he changed his connection but, as he put it: "Internet speed is everything. People are happy to finally surf on a faster internet connection."

And lately, this is also the only internet café with Wi-Fi. This attracts a lot of students, who come with their laptops and do homework. Despite his loyal clientele, Elias has a hard time paying the bills. One reason is the 6,360 birr (about 270 euro) monthly fee for the ADSL line. Elias, who charges 25 cents a minute for computer use, is unhappy about that cost. "It is out of proportion. A price of around 2,000 birr [about 85 euro] would be much more fair. I also have to take care of the rent and the software rotation. This prevents me from opening a second business," he says.

In fact, one of his dreams is to open another internet café with his girlfriend, Annis. They haven't seen each other in person for the past four years, since she is studying IT in the Netherlands. "We Skype a lot,” Elias smiles. "You can tell that my whole life is dedicated to the internet."

In four months, Annis returns to Ethiopia. That will be a decisive moment. Elias, being orthodox Christian, and Annis, being Muslim, will have to find a way to fit into society. "Many people judge a relationship like ours but, honestly, I don't really care," says the entrepreneur with pride. "I am excited about the future. I would like to play a more important role in Nazret’s internet business. Perhaps I could help all the neighbouring companies to obtain an internet connection. If I'll manage? Only God knows."

It’s 12:30 by the time Elias can shut down the computers, switch off the lights and rest until another working day starts.