It was during the height of the HIV epidemic in the early 2000s, a Sunday morning. I was having coffee and a pastry at a cafe that its owners had recently converted from a bakery. It was unique within the neighbourhood at the time, which was dominated by bars.

Sitting with me were two friends who were nursing a hangover. As we were talking, an older man, who must have been in his seventies approached us. His dark green jacket, neat khaki shorts, a protruding belly, and soft-speaking voice had an aura of imposition.

He began to engross us about the virtues of the tech gear he was carrying with him. He was a salesperson, and the offer was a blood pressure gauge. It was tied around the arm, but instead of being manual and using a dial to show the reading, this was digital. A screen illuminated a person’s blood pressure rate. It was my first time witnessing something so small and yet digital.

Both of my friends did have to do something about their blood pressure readings, at least according to the gizmo we had just been introduced to. The older man left shortly after making it clear that a change was coming. He inaugurated for us the digital age and made us powerfully aware of what in the future will determine the haves and have-nots.

This experience re-migrated into my mind some months back, while I was at a computer repair shop. Next to me was a high school teen. Both of us had concerns about our laptops. My eight-year-old computer was having problems connecting to the internet, while his was stalling from overheating caused by long hours of playing games. His computer, the teen explained, was only a month fresh out of its box.

But I am one of the better ones, for my age. A friend of mine never even bought himself a laptop. I barely convinced him to buy a hand-me-down desktop computer. He still has a collection of Betamax video cassettes of his favourite movies, and the video-recorder to play them on. It is not just that he prefers the old technology. He is suspicious of the new ones as well.

It reminds me of 19th century President Martin Van Buren who, as governor of New York, wrote a letter in 1829 to the then-President that the "new" railroad carriages were being pulled at an enormous speed of 15 miles an hour by engines that, in addition to endangering the safety of passengers, roars through the countryside. He was worried that this scared the livestock and frightened women and children.

The internet also seems daunting. A huge worldwide series of interconnected computer networks seem to make many things possible. At a click, there is an excess of information for anyone looking for it. It is exciting, no doubt, as all new technology has always been. I remember touching a desktop computer for the first time and the day I received my first mobile telephone. Although it is still fresh in my mind, I wonder how we lived and especially worked without them.

Today, these small gadgets — getting smaller by the year and yet even more powerful in capacity — have become critical to our daily lives and how we do our work. Even the government depends on them to an extent these days, including for the processing of passports.

But Ethiopia still has a long way to go before it reaches that stage. The world has become a place of digital haves and have-nots, and Ethiopia firmly finds itself in the latter group. Although it is growing rapidly, the internet penetration is still around 20pc — one of the lowest in the world.

The need to raise our digital fingerprint and presence cannot be more important. Most of what we have today are the millions that have joined social media sites, which has not translated into a productive resource. In fact, that seems to be doing more harm than good.

Still, the government’s initiative to "digitise" the economy is commendable. Ethio telecom prices have gone down over the past year, and banks have ramped up to incentivise digital services. But more needs to be done. Considering the urgent importance, there may be a need for a mass digital literacy campaign, much like the Derguedid for literacy decades ago.

PUBLISHED ON Feb 20,2021 [ VOL 21 , NO 1086]

Tadesse Tsegaye (, a polyglot with experience in multicultural-cum-institutional settings in resources management.

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