Ethel Cofie: Building Africa’s Ideo of Tech

 

Picture: Ethel Cofie

Ethel Cofie doesn’t like to be put in a box, no matter how great the box is. This successful young entrepreneur from Ghana may well be one of the top five women impacting IT in Africa but she is so much more than a “Woman in Tech”. That classification, while one that opens doors and puts her in the limelight especially in the African context, can also be very limiting.

“At events and conferences, I’ve always had to fight to just be the CEO of Edel Technology Consulting rather than an African woman in tech. Being the CEO of a growing firm is interesting enough, you know. I can actually have conversations outside of the role of women in technology. I can talk about building a software company. I can speak on entrepreneurship and innovation in emerging markets!” Ethels laughs, adding more seriously, “You’re a woman in technology  and all of sudden the conversation narrows.”

Ethel wasn’t always a techie. Her father, an engineer and businessman, had dreams of a Cofie and Daughter engineering firm that his eldest child happily fueled. She’d grown up attending boardroom meetings after school and looked to her father as a role model. The secondary school student was firmly ensconced on the path to an engineering career until taking a computer science class the summer before university. 

“I distinctly remember when I made the shift,” Ethel recalls. “The teacher said ‘The computer is dumb and you’re smart, and you can make it do whatever you want.’ It was so compelling to me that I could do creative things with this device and from that point, I was hooked.”

Ethel enrolled in computer science at Ghana Valley View University. Earning a scholarship, she headed to the UK’s University of Brighton where she got a Masters in distributed systems and did various consulting gigs for four years. On returning to Ghana, she decided to launch a business and registered Edel Consulting, an IT and software services provider, but surprisingly it was harder than she expected.

“I was very much a software engineer and didn’t have much of an entrepreneurial mindset. I thought because I was good at what I did, that was all I needed to run a company. But running a business in Africa is very different. Interestingly despite being surrounded by relatives who were entrepreneurs, no one offered me advice. I know now it was because they knew I wasn’t ready.” 

Undeterred, Ethel took off again and traversed the continent doing consulting work for a dizzying array of stakeholders in both the public and private sector, including the Ford and Grameen Foundations. She was recruited to telecom multinational Vodafone where she stayed for more than three years, the last two as Head of Commercial Solutions for Ghana, until winning a prestigious spot in the then US President Obama’s Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI). She headed to the US for the programme where she attended Yale School of Management and got versed in leadership and business. 

After YALI, she felt inspired to go out again on her own, and this time she was ready.

“YALI was a really good way to connect with people who were doing amazing things in Africa. It really challenged me to be and do more. I’d been dissatisfied throughout my career about how technology has been built, especially for the African market. Technology should be a strategic arm of the business, not merely an administrative tool. I wanted technology to sit at the board level to drive the direction of the firm. I didn’t find that in places where I worked, so I wanted to build a company where I could do that.”

Named IT Consulting Firm of the Year at the Ghana IT and Telecoms Awards, Edel Technology Consulting is more than just an IT and software services provider. Under Ethel’s leadership and a team of six permanent and numerous contracted staff, the business aims to help organisations leverage strategy and technology to gain a competitive advantage in the market. “Edel is mostly about digital product creation, which is basically a process of strategic thinking, ideation, prototyping that takes a company to next level,” the
founder explains. 

A self-described Type A individual, Ethel was not satisfied with just running her own organization, she had to build something bigger. While still at Vodafone, she reached out to her female colleagues at Google and Microsoft Ghana to launch Women in Tech Ghana. The goal was to create a safe space for women in tech to peer mentor, share opportunities, and learn from each other. The initiative still continues today and was the foundation for another Ethel Cofie brainchild: Women in Tech Africa, Africa’s largest network of its kind. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I see how big it’s gotten. It’s got a life force of its own,” she says happily.

And just in case you think this 30-something is sitting back and basking in her success, at the end of 2016, Ethel also launched the inaugural Women in Tech Week, a flagship event from Africa to the world with an ambitious goal of 400 events in 40 countries across the world. 

Running a tech company, in general, is tough but in Africa, Ethel says there is a lot of headwind, especially for women: “You really must want to do it.” The funding gap is a problem and for many tech entrepreneurs, the easiest road to success is to resell already created global solutions. But that’s not Ethel’s approach. “Building innovation on the continent is hard. The ecosystems – from the universities to the startups, the big corporates and innovation spaces – are not evolved enough yet. I try to hire people who think outside the box. I’m not hung up on a computer science degree, coding can be taught but things like creativity, ideation and being a deep thinker should be innate. Edel is not yet a trusted partner, even in the local environment. I find it very sad that we have to say we have consultants in Europe who can work on a project in order to win it. I want to grow innovation at home. 

“My vision is to build the IDEO of our space, meaning when you are a company that is powered by Edel Technology Consulting, you’re a business that has moved 10×, 20× or 100× because you were deliberate in working with us and putting technology at the forefront of
your vision.”

Likening the approach of a world-renowned pioneering firm in human-centred design to your own business model may seem like a grandiose dream, but for this founder, it’s just another goal to visualise and be motivated to achieve.

 

LEARN ALWAYS

Be like a sponge. 

I’ve been a self-learner
all my life, picking up rapid learnings from different fields and bringing them into
my business. 

2

MENTORS

My dad is a great role model.
I don’t need ask you for advice, I just watch what he does. I also sought out my business coach and mentor Cecilia Dei-anang who shares lessons that can never be found in a book.

3

TEACH

Share your learnings with others! Every Friday, my team and I spend 1−2 hours talking about things I’ve read or
heard on podcasts… just nuggets of wisdom that can benefit everyone.

4

BOOTSTRAPPING

Know the limit when investing too much back into the business. Because it’s often a passion, you can end up bootstrapping and
reinvesting to the detriment
of personal finances.