Feedelix – speaking in your own language

Ted Kidane came to the United States from Ethiopia twenty four years ago as a student, with $50 in his pocket. He starts his talk with a story about misunderstanding – he was visiting a tax preparer (which he found weird as, in Ethiopia, the government never gives money back to you), and then man said “Get out of here.” Kidane didn’t know he was joking, and ran out of the office. He offers this as a lesson in the importance of understanding language and communication.

Sometime after fleeing at office (at high speeds – he’s from Addis, after all, and a runner), Kidane found himself working for HP. He was amazed that business conversations never included Africa. But his early exposure to technology allowed him to start transferring technology back to Ethiopia. Before the web, he used mailing list and bulletin board technology to connect Ethiopian universities. These systems used Fidonet and inexpensive modems to connect academics and students.

One system these users built was a system to post academic papers. One of these early papers was about Unicode, which Kidane hadn’t previously encountered. Unicode is a standard for expressing alphabets across computer platforms – Kidane helped put together a consortium of linguists and computer scientists who build the standard for Ethiopian unicode.

Ten years later, in the wake of the dot.com boom, Kidane returned to this Unicode work. Working with a friend, they figured out how to map 345 characters to 12 keys on a mobile phone keypad, allowing mobile text entry in Ethiopic. This is the key towards building text messaging in Ethiopic and other non-Western languages.

Developing for mobile phones is a key platform in Africa, because mobile market growth is the fastest in anywhere in the world. With 113 million mobile users in Africa today, the market is estimated to expand to 478 million by 2011. The growth in these markets is the function of the world flattening – it’s a process “driven by people who are non-white, non-American” who need to communicate between the diaspora and home.

The value in these markets is creating value added services, like text messaging and multimedia. The Feedelix service makes it possible for users anywhere in the world to download a client that lets people compose and send instant messages in Ethiopic. This became critically important when the government shut down text messaging for political reasons – because the Feedelix product uses the Web via mobile, it was unblocked. And the client program is a framework that works for any ideographic language – Feedelix now includes clients for Chinese and Hindi, and allows people with phones that aren’t localized for these languages to create text in those scripts.

Kidane believes that there’s strength in struggle, opportunity based on overcoming obstacles. He ends his talk by encouraging everyone to stand with him and recite his redefinition of “poverty”:

P stands for possibilities
O stands for opportunity
V stands for validation of our ideas
E stands for enthusiasm to do things
R stands for resillience
T stands for trust
Y stands for yes

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