Michigan Engineering News

Three men talking and drinking coffee and tea

Making a Middle Class

Can engineering education lift Ethiopia?

Written by Brad Whitehouse and Marcin Szczepanski. Photos and video by Marcin Szczepanski

Netsanet Hailu, a young woman in her 20s, shuts her laptop where she is working on differential equations. As a master’s student in biomedical engineering at one of Ethiopia’s oldest and best universities, Netsanet hopes to one day design and engineer medical devices that save human lives.“You have a brain that works. If you cannot use it to do better, to do something for the society, for yourself, then why do you have it?” she asks.

Ethiopians working on construction site
Ethiopians are living through a massive construction boom. New buildings, roads and other infrastructure fill the horizon wherever you look in the capital of Addis Ababa, and to some degree in other cities.

Netsanet says she thinks of her family as rather poor – which reflects the good fortune of her upbringing. Her father, Hailu Gurmu, sees it differently.

“I consider myself middle class,” he says.

Hailu did not grow up in this house, with its indoor plumbing and four-wheel drive Toyota pickup in the courtyard. He was born on the other side of this vast city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. And he was not so close to his family then. Like his wife, he was given up for adoption.At his home today, linoleum, a flat-screen TV, a stereo, table, and chairs are crammed with several couches in the small room. A family photo in a gold frame shows all four of his kids, including Netsanet’s older brother who is also an engineer. A servant pours home-roasted coffee into white porcelain cups, topping the dark fluid with a thick layer of milk foam. The home is part of a compound with housing for the family and several servants.

Netsanet Hailu Ethiopia engineer
The future of Ethiopia hangs on the new generation of engineers like Netsanet Hailu. If they are able to find success in the country and help build the middle class there, Ethiopia will continue its dramatic progress.
Addis Ababa construction
New construction is everywhere you look in Addis Ababa.

The family’s rise has mirrored the rise of the city and nation. The country is still transforming, and Netsanet the engineering student is a product of its economic and academic explosion.

Today, Ethiopia, located in East Africa and just above the equator, has an expanding middle class and the fastest growing millionaire class in Africa. According to a 2013 report by the consulting firm New World Wealth, the nation had the most rapidly surging GDP in Africa – with 93 percent growth from 2004 to 2009. And its projected expansion for the 2014-15 fiscal year is another 11.4 percent. That said, it’s still in the early stages of a turnaround. It ranks 174th out of 187 countries on the United Nation’s human development index.

Growing up without parents is not uncommon in a country that perhaps is still most familiar to the West as the starvation capital of the world. Drought, politics and civil war led to a massive famine in the 1980s. The 1984 hit single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by the charity musical group Band Aid brought international attention to the country’s plight, resulting in images of kids with swollen bellies being broadcast around the globe. It’s a reputation that Ethiopians, who now have one of the fastest growing economies in the world, are eager to shake.

Expanding the middle class could be key to the country’s future, especially when a common criticism is the sharp disparity between rich and poor. A healthy middle class is often viewed as essential to a robust economy, creating a dependable demand for goods and services, nurturing entrepreneurs and promoting a well-educated citizenry.

Cars on the road
Ethiopia has the fastest growing class of millionaires in all of Africa.

The government has stated its goal of becoming a middle-income country by 2025. And it’s betting on higher education, particularly in engineering, to both grow the economy and help the nation become a bigger player in the world market. The number of public universities in the country has grown from two to more than 30 over the last 20 years. And Ethiopia is looking to other, more established higher education systems to serve as models.

African men getting shoes polished
More than a third of all Africans are now classified as middle class, according to a 2011 report by the African Development Bank.
Man and woman in Ethiopian cafe.
Man and woman in Ethiopian cafe.

“Everything in Ethiopia changes so fast, at every level,” said Valeria Bertacco, a computer science and engineering professor at Michigan Engineering, during a trip to Addis Ababa in January. She has been involved in work there since 2009. This latest trip was for a University of Michigan symposium with local universities. “Every time I come, there are new buildings and new roads, new investments in different directions, new programs in engineering.”

We need to start thinking about our country. Nobody can come and change our lives. We need to do it for us.”

Ethiopia is a country of more than 90 million people. As its fortunes improve, the country is rushing to build new infrastructure – dams, rail systems, skyscrapers, and mobile networks. All these projects have created a demand for engineers.

Ethiopian universities could supply these engineers, bolstering the new economy and developing the middle class – but only if the country figures out how make its university system much bigger, and much stronger.

Aksum University sign
Aksum in Ethiopia was a capital of a powerful kingdom 2,000 years ago. Ethiopians today often evoke their glorious ancient past. They are eager to re-establish themselves economically and politically in the world.
Ethiopian family at home
Hawa Hafis (second left) is a student at Aksum University. Here she hangs out with her family in front of their house in Aksum.


Six hundred miles north of Addis Ababa in the city of Aksum, a row of obelisks stretches to the sky. The tallest rises more than 75 feet, ornately carved by the ancient Aksumites. Ethiopia has a rich history that forms the bedrock of the nation’s pride.Now a tourist town, Aksum was the center of a great nation 2,000 years ago. The Aksumite kingdom reached its height between the first century BCE and the fourth century AD. It ruled the area of Ethiopia and many surrounding countries, along with important trade routes that connected the ancient Greeks and Romans with Central Asia and Africa. The purported Queen of Sheba’s palace is a historic site here, as is the church said to house the Ark of the Covenant, the chest used to carry the Ten Commandments.

Man riding his bike around countryside
Man riding his bike around countryside.

Those days of greatness and wealth are now part of the past. In the countryside surrounding Aksum, most people survive through subsistence farming. According to a 2012 estimate, 39 percent of Ethiopians live below the national poverty line, and small-scale farmers are the biggest group in this category.

The way I see it, in this country, a lot of problems mean a lot of opportunities for engineers to work on.”

But education is beginning to foster change. Just a few hundreds yards from where herdsmen sell livestock near an ancient stone wall, a new public university has been rising up over the past eight or nine years. The air is filled with the ping of hammers as workers toil in the hot sun to add two huge new buildings to Aksum University’s sprawling campus, which includes the College of Engineering and Technology.

The Ethiopian government gives higher education a central position in its strategy for social and economic development. In addition to the head-spinning number of more than 30 new universities established in the last two decades, it has announced a plan to add another 11 in the next couple of years. It gives priority to programs in the sciences. A government decree in 2008 mandated that 70 percent of university students be admitted to programs in science and technology, and the rest to programs in the humanities and the arts.

The government is relying on the nation’s youth. Tewelde Cridey, a 25-year-old general practitioner and an administrator at the brand new College of Health Science at Aksum University, stands in the shade of a tree on campus and explains how his patients and students respond to him.

“When they see me, they do not think I am a doctor,” Tewelde says. “They think the doctor is fat.” He makes the motion of a big belly with his hands. “And wears …” He makes the motion for eyeglasses to finish his sentence. “But they are starting to accept it. When we wear our lab coats, it helps.”

Dr. Cridey shows his profile on a phone.
Physician Tewelde Cridey is among the leaders of the young generation of Ethiopians.
Aksum University professors and friends
These four young doctors teach at the College of Health Science at Aksum University and practice in a nearby hospital. At center is a professor and friend.

This is a nation that is often led by the young. The median age of Ethiopians is only 17 years old, and the life expectancy is 63. Speak to Ethiopians and many of them say that one or both of their parents are dead.

But change may be coming. Aksum is home to a new referral hospital, one of many ways that health care is improving. Access to education is improving, too. In the region around Aksum, young Ethiopians have not had many options. Now, the brightest ones with the highest test scores can leave their homes and travel to the new university in Aksum, to become doctors or engineers.

Addis Ababa classroom
Addis Ababa Institute of Technology
Professor teaching class at Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa Institute of Technology


One of the institutes making these engineers is Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, or AAIT.“We’ve been developing in such a rapid manner, with growth in two-digit figures. As a result, the number of engineers will also increase exponentially,” says Yalemzewd Negash Shiferaw, dean of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering there.He just came into the hall after a meeting with Valeria Bertacco and Todd Austin, computer science professors from Michigan Engineering. Yalemzewd explained that his department has been studying the structure of U-M’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department to help prepare its students for the needs of the country. He said about 20 million of Ethiopia’s 90 million inhabitants have cell phones, but the government is building a system that will accommodate upward of 50 million.It’s one of a host of engineering needs in Ethiopia – and helps explain why AAIT is bursting at the seams. When Yalemzewd graduated from AAIT in electrical engineering in 1996, there were 36 students in his class. Now the department has 500. The government wants to raise that number to 1,000, but the administration is pushing back for more funding and space first.

“Every year, 100,000 students leave high school and join public universities. And another 100,000 look for technical schools,” he said. “Most people want to go into science and technology, because they see engineers getting jobs easily, and things being built everywhere.”

With growth in two-digit figures, the number of engineers will also increase exponentially. This is one of the institutes producing those engineers.”

To continue to spur economic growth, the government has invested heavily in infrastructure and industry. In many cases, this investment is financed through loans from China and other international sources. As it moves toward reaching the coveted middle-income status, these improvements may help Ethiopia manage its own development and reduce poverty. For example, the country has increased its road density by 50 percent from 2000 to 2010. As a result, the average time it takes to reach an all-weather road has been reduced from 7 hours to 3.5 hours. And the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River, currently under construction, will purportedly stabilize the supply of water and electricity in the area.

Young engineers could help improve the infrastructure the country needs, along with boosting the middle class. But qualified teachers and resources are very limited, even here at AAIT – which is part of Addis Ababa University, the oldest and most established university in Ethiopia. Lab equipment is almost nonexistent. Textbooks are old. Hands-on experience is often impossible.

Near Yalemzewd’s office, students enter a small computer lab. The machines inside were provided by Bertacco and Austin from U-M.

“I always get very excited when I come here, because I feel like I make a difference.” Bertacco said. “And I see that the things we bring to them are actively used, and used to develop very quickly. I don’t feel like my effort goes to waste.”

Bertacco and Austin have been coming to Ethiopia for the past six years. They established the 25-station computer lab through corporate donations and their own funds to help expand the school’s overcrowded facilities. They also spent a sabbatical teaching at AAIT in 2012, and travel there frequently with their young children. Bertacco feels such a strong connection to the country that she even established permanent residency. Their efforts there have allowed them to recruit brilliant students to Michigan, and have provided Michigan students with valuable international experiences in Ethiopia.The government encourages such partnerships. At the University of Michigan, approximately 10 schools and colleges have collaborative projects underway with colleagues in Ethiopia. Bertacco and Austin made their most recent visit as part of EM-PACE, a symposium in Addis Ababa of more than 30 U-M professors who met with a range of Ethiopian professors and government officials to map the future of U-M’s role in the country.“The vision I have for the partnership between the University of Michigan and Ethiopia is that it’s built on mutual benefits,” said Senait Fisseha, a U-M professor and physician originally from Ethiopia. She organized EM-PACE and the other main collaborations between U-M and Ethiopia. “Right now we’re working on capacity building, training and education. I want this partnership to be long-lasting and to evolve to meet the needs of both communities.“We are a powerhouse in many, many specialties. My hope is to transfer that skill, that knowledge, that capacity, to Ethiopia.”

Discussions at EM-PACE symposium
EM-PACE Symposium in Addis Ababa, where University of Michigan and Ethiopian academics discuss mutually beneficial cooperation.
Notes on beneficial cooperation
EM-PACE Symposium in Addis Ababa, where University of Michigan and Ethiopian academics discuss mutually beneficial cooperation.

In exchange, U-M has a lot to gain, including talent, diversity and opportunities for international exchange. Around 10 professors and graduate students from Michigan Engineering took part in the recent symposium, in some cases to work on projects to conduct and share research, to exchange students, and to help build curriculum.

Large-scale improvement will take time. In the meantime, students pursue their educational goals. On class days several times a week, Netsanet boards a crowded minibus for an hour-long ride to AAIT. Ramshackle buildings line the streets. Goats and cows share the road. The driver jostles through construction sites and road expansion programs on the way to the city center.

It’s a long trip, but Netsanet is focused on her future. When she reaches her stop, she and other students pour off the bus and make their way onto the campus. In the hall of the engineering wing, students haul extra desks into a classroom packed with almost 100 students. On this day, the lecturer was late.

Although Netsanet is a member of one of the first graduating class in biomechanics and rehabilitation, there may not be another class after hers for some time due to the lack of teachers.

“Also, there are no labs at all,” Netsanet says. “The only place I was able to do a bit of hands-on work was in St. Paul’s Hospital. And next year there is an attachment (an internship), so maybe we will have some practical experience. But it’s hard to find rehabilitation centers.”

After class, Netsanet and her fellow students chat about their futures. They hope to develop technology that will assist and rehabilitate people with disabilities.

“We will take whatever jobs life gives us,” said Talaksew Misganaw, a young man with a goatee and green army jacket. “There is a lot of need. But there is not a lot of knowledge about biomedical engineering rehabilitation.”

Netsanet adds, “Today, a lot of people in Ethiopia have money to pay for treatment. But we still need people to install and fix all the medical equipment. There’s nobody to evaluate and calibrate treatment machines that enter our country. We need people who know how to do that.”

A question now is whether the country’s health care system is able and willing to invest in employing these engineers. Soon Netsanet, who her professors describe as one of their most talented students, will graduate. Will she find a good job?

Child getting care at St. Paul Hospital
St. Paul Hospital
Netsanet Hailu in her classroom
Netsanet Hailu in her classroom


Getachew Teshome is a young entrepreneur who wants to create jobs for young engineers like Netsanet. One of the products that his engineering startup builds is a mobile clinic that runs on solar power. Millions of Ethiopians in the far reaches of the country have to travel incredible distances for health care, and the clinic could bring that care much closer. After graduating from AAIT, Getachew earned a graduate degree in the Netherlands. “It was very comfortable there,” he said.He could have made a career and life in Europe. But he grew up in rural Ethiopia, where as a boy he read by kerosene lamps. He wanted a better life for future generations there. So he came back. Now he teaches at AAIT, and has launched a business of his own as part of the growing entrepreneurial class. A stable government that is supportive of new business makes the conditions favorable.

The vision I have for the partnership between the University of Michigan and Ethiopia is that it’s a partnership that is built on mutual benefits.”

“The way I see it, in this country, a lot of problems mean a lot of opportunities for engineers to work on,” he said. “A lot of my friends and a lot of graduates nowadays are taking the track of business and establishing startups in the engineering sector. Engineering graduates need to have this entrepreneurial thinking – that the engineering education they get from the university can actually be applied to solve problems. And to make money.”

There are challenges. Getachew walks to a workshop at the end of a cobblestone path near the AAIT campus. It is a small barn made of metal sheets and long eucalyptus poles. Inside, a handful of employees weld together frames for another of the company’s products: an inexpensive, foot-powered spinning wheel. Because people in Ethiopia still spin yarn by hand – which is less safe and efficient than using than a spinning wheel – the machines address a real issue in the country. But even this fairly basic operation is not always simple to operate.

“Doing a manufacturing business in Ethiopia is not easy,” Getachew says. “First of all, you do not have the required production skill. If you want a mechanic to come and do something for you, you have to do all the training by yourself because we are just starting this manufacturing sector.”

Daniel Dilbie, another AAIT engineering alumnus and lecturer, runs a successful business whose products include the country’s first cash registers based on Ethiopian currency. The government is funding the project to establish a standardized system throughout the country. Getachew hopes the government will become the main client for the mobile health clinic, too. The government plays a central role in the economy. In addition to tightly controlling the press and limiting freedom of expression, it relies on centralized planning, industrialization and heavy public investment in infrastructure.

And to realize its goal of transforming the economy, it is trying to create an environment that will entice people to stay and invest their talent at home. Metasebya Solomon, one of Netsanet’s instructors at AAIT, is another who was educated abroad, and came back. Her family moved to the U.S. and she earned a PhD in biomedical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis. But then she followed the advice of her grandmother and decided to give back to Ethiopia. She works there now as a Whitaker International Scholar, where she’s seen first-hand how the university system struggles from a lack of qualified teachers and training equipment.

“But we’re starting somewhere,” she said. “That’s what I like about it – we’re not waiting ten years until everything is ready. We’re starting en masse.”

Metasebya sees a new future for Ethiopia in students like Netsanet. Only time will tell if Ethiopia can produce enough engineers like her, and grow an economy where they can thrive. Back at her house, Netsanet sits on the couch.

“My country is my family. I have no wish to leave,” she says with a smile. “Right now, the most talented people leave. They go abroad. They come back here when they retire. But we need to start thinking about our country. We have to start believing in us and our society. Nobody can come and change our lives. We need to do it for us.”

Image of Menelik II
The symbolic Menelik II Square is located at the heart of Addis Ababa. The monument of Menelik II is now surrounded by construction cranes.


Michigan Engineering is one of 10 U-M schools and colleges pursuing projects in Ethiopia. Here is a sample of the growing number of engineering faculty and students getting involved.

Nancy Love, Professor
Terese Olson, Associate Professor

Civil and Environmental Engineering

Along with colleagues at Addis Ababa University (AAU), Love and Olson are involved in a U.S. NSF-funded project to explore how the byproducts of drinking water disinfection and treatment influence bacterial colonization in point-of-use water filters. Additionally, they have a peer-to-peer PhD program where Michigan and AAU students collaborate on their respective dissertation projects, including having each student spend time at the other’s university.

Kathleen Sienko
Miller Faculty Scholar Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering

Miller Faculty Scholar Associate Professor, Biomedical Engineering

In partnership with St. Paul’s Hospital and Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, Siekno focuses on designing and developing medical devices for use in low-resource settings. During a recent visit, Ibrahim Mohedas, a PhD student in her research group, met with a group of doctors and medical students at St. Paul’s Hospital Millennium Medical College. He gathered feedback from them on the latest prototype of a device developed at U-M that is designed to enable community healthcare workers to administer long-term contraceptives.

Valeria Bertacco, Professor
Todd Austin, Professor

Computer Science and Engineering

Collaborating with the faculty of the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, the two work on a range of initiatives. These include faculty and student exchange, curriculum development and funding opportunities. The professors have spent sabbaticals teaching at AAIT, in addition to establishing a computer lab at the school. Several of their graduate students at U-M are from Ethiopia.

Heath Hofmann, Associate Professor

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

The School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology is working with Professor Heath Hofmann to grow its program in Control and Power engineering. Hofmann and graduate student Abdi Zeynu, a native of Ethiopia, taught a course in Electric Machinery and Drives this past summer in a newly equipped lab that they installed with new electric drives and controllers. Hofmann is advising the school as it plans for a new PhD program in Control Systems and Power engineering.