Many days at BlueMoon, an agriculture technology incubator in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, start the same way: the fellows gather together to watch Shark Tank. The popular American game show, where contestants pitch their business plans to a panel of celebrity investors, gives the young founders a sense of how entrepreneurs should behave: confident, perky, and restless. 

BlueMoon’s headquarters is located in a glass mid-rise building in Bole, a wealthy, developed neighborhood in Addis Ababa. During a visit in 2018, Biruk Yosef, the incubator’s coordinator, told me that the ability to stream Shark Tank from around the world is “one of the greatest things globalization brought.”

BlueMoon even runs its own competition show, inspired by Shark Tank, over Zoom called The Lion’s Den. During a recent episode, the founders of a banana flour startup called Anjonus flashed the logo for Whole Foods in their pitch, implying the product could one day be exported for sale at the premium grocery store on the other side of the planet.

It seems Shark Tank may have also helped inspire the Silicon Valley startup aesthetic perfectly rendered inside BlueMoon’s office space. One wall features decals that say “Disrupt” and “Stay hungry, Stay foolish.” In a coworking area, the “Cheetah Oath” is displayed on a poster board, commanding fellows to “Fail and fail again,” until they succeed. The incubator is designed to be a place for Ethiopia’s most promising startup founders and aims to accept less than 1% of people who apply for its flagship four-month program.

Over the last few years, a number of Silicon Valley–style incubators like blueMoon have cropped up across Africa. But unlike incubators such as San Francisco’s Y Combinator, venture capital can often represent the smallest share of the financing here. Instead, international development agencies and foundations have provided most of the money and support for many incubators and startups in the region. The United Nations, the World Bank, the U.S. State Department, and a number of private charities have all launched programs designed to fund and support new companies in places like Ethiopia, many of them in the agricultural sector. 

In 2019, the U.N. Development Programme launched Accelerator Labs, a program to identify, track, and help scale startups that address environmental problems and poverty. The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, opened its Office of Global Partnerships in 2008, which works with the private sector to advance diplomatic and development interests abroad. The United States Agency for International Development has also launched multiple private sector funding programs such as Catalyze, which also combines public and private sector resources to cultivate new businesses in the Global South. 

Many of these programs have adopted elements of American startup culture and are betting on the idea that Shark Tank–style entrepreneurism can help spur innovation and economic development. Startup competitions, hackathons, and pitch events do have the potential to spark innovative solutions, especially to engineering problems. But the startup-ification of places like Addis Ababa has also rerouted development funds and support toward middle- and upper-middle-class founders, often at the expense of rural communities that depend on agriculture. 

“The [startup] scene is highly dominated by people with educated families, exposure to international media, and access to the internet,” says Anteneh Tesfaye, founder of the digital media company Shega, which covers startup and innovation news in Addis Ababa. “You have a family that backs you up — upper-middle class.” 

Lilly Irani, a communication and science studies professor at University of California, San Diego, wrote about this dynamic in India for her 2019 book Chasing Innovation. She argues that many resources provided by governments and NGOs in the last decade have sought to “formalize entrepreneurs as agents of development.” That process, she writes, has prioritized the desires and visions of an emergent technocratic class over those of less privileged citizens.

The fervor over startups among development groups is especially influential in Ethiopia, where the federal government has only recently begun warming to the private sector since the appointment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018. His administration is now preparing to sign into law a Startup Act, which will establish an Innovation Fund and incentivize the creation of new startups, following in the footsteps of other African countries that have passed similar laws. 

“Development has always been a government issue,” says Wudasse Berhanu, a technical specialist at the UNDP Accelerator Labs in Addis Ababa. “It is expected to be solved by the government or donors. Now, I think everyone is looking toward tech companies and startups to have this ability to solve issues that we see in a much more flexible way.”

Tech is becoming the linchpin that helps an emerging entrepreneur class acquire more wealth, depress agricultural prices, and push smallholder farmers out of the market.

The Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) in Addis was surrounded by the concrete skeletons of future high-rises when I first visited in 2017. Its short side street was unusually busy with buzzing bees, which spilled out of a small wholesale honey distributor next door. By 2025, the ATA, a government agency founded with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, wants to transform “smallholder farmers into commercialized actors with greater incomes, inclusiveness, resilience, and sustainability, contributing to Ethiopia’s achievement of middle-income country status.” The program is supposed to help traditional farmers who live in places like the Bale Mountains, where beekeepers place cylindrical wooden hives called yegilo into trees.

Two miles away from the ATA headquarters in Bole, a BlueMoon startup called Anabi is hoping commercial honey producers will insert the sensors it develops into beehives in order to monitor temperature data via a smartphone app. Anabi was founded two years ago and received an initial $10,000 in seed funding from BlueMoon, provided by the Mastercard Foundation, whose stated mission is to reduce poverty by supporting young African entrepreneurs. 

Abiye Tadeos, Anabi’s founder, came from a relatively privileged background in Ethiopia. Growing up, he had access to the internet, where he learned about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who, he told Rest of World, are his entrepreneurial role models. Abiye attended Addis Ababa Science and Technology University and said he didn’t know that traditional beekeeping supported people in rural parts of Ethiopia until he bought a jar of honey one day after graduating.

Since Abiye became a fellow at bBlueMoon last year, his company has begun breaking into the commercial honey industry. Through contacts at the incubator, Anabi connected with an expert at ATA who provided it with data on the beekeeping industry to assist with market research. Initially, the company hoped to sell its sensors to new commercial beekeepers, but it’s since shifted toward establishing its own beekeeping operation, which will bring together many beekeepers and provide them with modern hives. 

The business has the potential to provide stable incomes for employees in a country where only 11.2% of employed workers are estimated to receive formal wages or salaries. Anabi may also have better access to international markets than individual farmers, helping it to fetch a higher price for honey. But if it’s successful, Anabi’s industrialized beekeeping operation could also help contribute to the reconfiguration of the honey economy in Ethiopia, forcing the nation’s poorer, traditional beekeepers out. (Abiye didn’t immediately respond to follow-up questions about how his business might impact local beekeepers.)

While the ATA’s stated mission is to support smallholder farmers, its resources are also being lent to middle-class entrepreneurs looking to generate profits from agriculture. If the Green Revolution of the early 20th century is any lesson, today’s investments in farming startups could also exacerbate inequality. Tech is becoming the linchpin that helps an emerging entrepreneur class acquire more wealth, depress agricultural prices, and push smallholder farmers out of the market. (The ATA did not immediately return a request for comment.)

Britt H. Young

Rediet Tadesse is another Ethiopian founder who has benefited from the development community’s investment in startups. After studying architecture at Addis Ababa University, she wanted to work on a project that would address climate change and help clean up the piles of plastic bags that line Addis’ streets. In 2019, she founded Plantable Bags, which produces paper bags containing vegetable seeds that can be sown after use. Rediet calls it a “novelty item” meant for high-end boutiques, and she also received a small grant from the Mastercard Foundation.

According to Rediet, if you want to start a business in Ethiopia, you can apply for a loan through the local kebele, or community association, but they require borrowers to provide expensive collateral, such as land, to secure funds. This restriction led Rediet to pitch her custom-branded paper bag company to investors at the UNDP-sponsored African Innovation Week, which eventually led her to BlueMoon.

But Rediet said she didn’t actually intend to found a company, at least not at first. It was the keynote speakers at African Innovation Week who convinced her that she had a viable business on her hands. “You know how startups start by identifying a problem and finding a solution and prototyping?” Rediet said. “I wanted to work on climate change. At that point, I didn’t know I was finding a problem and finding a solution for it. I didn’t know I was starting a business, to be honest.” 

In a development environment deeply focused on the cultivation of startups, any and all problems are articulated as business plans — even ones that could have had political or behavioral solutions. As Rediet explained simply: “The startup way is how the rest of the world is doing stuff.”

The Good Business, another Ethiopian startup accelerator — funded in part by the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) — has invested in and advised a number of luxury startups in the same vein as Plantable Bags. An employee at GIZ, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared professional repercussions, said the incubator supports the companies under the pretense that they will boost the livelihoods of people further down the income ladder. 

The worker said that many of The Good Business founders originally had ideas for nonprofit projects — for example, an organization that promoted skateboarding as an activity for teenagers — but the incubation process encouraged them to reformulate their efforts into for-profit businesses. The employee said that’s not always a bad thing. Many of the startups “are now able to make profit or create profit off of these activities, while not letting the social side down,” they explained. 

But the problem is that the development sector’s infatuation with startups isn’t prioritizing the needs of the most impoverished populations, unlike other fad policy interventions from the past. In the 1990s and early 2000s, microloans were considered the most effective and revolutionary form of economic intervention, and were largely aimed at helping the most disadvantaged communities. “The beneficiaries of those [types of programs], if not lost entirely, have become second, third, or fourth priorities,” said the GIZ employee. “And that is why I am cautious about promoting startups all the time, because it is not an answer to every question. Whenever a problem pops up, people say, ‘Can we do something with startups or with IT?’”

Focusing heavily on tech startups may overshadow solutions that have the potential to help marginalized people, like Agere, a young illiterate woman who had recently traveled to Addis from the Tigray Region when I met her in 2018. After escaping an arranged marriage, Agere said she linked up with a local hiring agency, which helped her find a job cleaning an Ethiopian-American’s house. Her dream, however, was to open a souq, a type of corner shop found throughout Ethiopia that sells mobile phone data, individual eggs, and goods like rice and flour, often measured on antique brass scales. 

Without collateral to be eligible for a loan and without family support, Agere’s business idea would need to be pitched as a startup to attract investors. But souqs aren’t “innovative,” they aren’t tech-driven, and they aren’t startups. In the race for flashy pitches, slick branding, and development investment, it’s the dreams of people like Agere who may get left behind.