Four Ethiopian women among 100 most influential Africans in 2021

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Mimi Alemayehou

Spearheading Twitter’s thrust in AfricaEntrepreneurs After cutting her teeth in the US administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Mimi Alemayehou, an Ethiopia-born, Kenya-raised American development finance expert, is now making waves in the global private sector.In June, Alemayehou – who served as Executive Vice-President of the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) from 2010-2014 – was named as an Independent Director at Twitter. The social media giant cited her “extensive experience overseeing growth in emerging markets in both the public and private sectors” – including tripling OPIC’s Africa portfolio to nearly $4bn – and said that her expertise would come in handy “as we expand Twitter’s presence to Ghana and invest in improving our service across Africa and other regions.”While unsaid, that experience could also prove useful as the social media company continues its attempts to negotiate with Nigeria over its controversial ban in the country. The Twitter role is just the latest private sector recognition of the skills of Alemayehou, who also serves as Senior Vice-President for public-private partnerships at Mastercard, where she leads link-ups with private foundations, international development organisations and non-governmental organisations.And in a role which mixes business and pleasure, Alemayehou was this year named on the judging panel of the Financial Times’ Business Book of the Year Award.

Timnit Gebru

Taking on Google over ethicsChangemakers Gebru, an expert on algorithmic bias and data mining, made the news when she left Google’s Ethical AI Team. Google said she had resigned but Timnit disagreed.The issue was an unpublished paper, “On the Dangers of Stochastic Parrots: Can Language Models Be Too Big?”, co-authored by Gebru, on the risks of very large language models, environmental and financial impacts, the possibility of biases, the inability of the models to understand the concepts behind what they learn and the potential for using them to deceive people. Gebru said she had been asked to withdraw the paper and her enquiries into the identities and reasoning of the reviewers were ignored. She said none of her conditions had been met and her employment had been terminated. This raised general public concern about the safety and efficacy of AI.Thousands of employees, academics and other supporters signed a letter condemning her treatment. Google made an apology without admitting wrongdoing.At Google, she co-led a team working on how AI could be used to do social good. However, while investigating the accuracy of facial recognition software, she found that Black women were 35% less likely to be recognised than White women – with all the attendant implications of that.Mid this year, she said she was raising money to launch an independent research institute based on her work at Google’s Ethical Team and taking in what she had achieved as the founder of Black in AI, a community of black AI researchers.

Letesenbet Gidey

Smashing records with easeSportspeople From Abebe Belika to Kenenisa Bekele, from Berhane Adere to Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia has a great record of producing some truly outstanding distance runners; and although the legendary Bekele and Dibaba have reached the twilight of their careers, Letesenbet Gidey, the 23-year-old from the troubled Tigray region, has firmly established herself as the heir apparent.If Gidey shook up the world in October 2020 by breaking Dibaba’s 12-year-old 5,000m record, in July 2021 she proved this was no flash in the pan by breaking the world 10,000m record at the Ethiopian Olympic trials.A few weeks later, she won a bronze medal in the same event at the Olympic Games themselves in Tokyo.But perhaps her most extraordinary feat to date came when in Valencia in October, she smashed the World Half Marathon record by 70 seconds, with a blistering time of 1:02:52. As stunned athletics commentators noted, she left several elite male competitors in her wake.It’s clear that in the years to come, Gidey’s seemingly effortless stride will carry her to many more records, making her one of the world’s biggest athletics stars, and the next great Ethiopian sporting ambassador at a time when the country badly needs symbols of unity.

Sifan Hassan

Conquering all before herSportspeople Keep on Running, the hit song from a generation or two ago, seems to have been made for Sifan Hassan this year. Whenever you looked at the track during the Olympic Games she was there, dominating women’s middle/long-distance running like few if any have done before. Her range of distances, variety of tactics, and ability to overcome setbacks characterised her performance. Hassan won the 10,000m, in which she had rarely competed previously, and the 5,000m, in spite of being tripped over in a preliminary round, and competed to the final straight in the 1500m before being edged into bronze position by arch-rival Faith Kipyegon.Tagging into the leading group in the 10,000m, surviving the electric and seemingly triumphant burst of speed by 20-year-old Letesenbet Gidey, she passed the Ethiopian at the bell and won going away. In the 5,000m, Hassan outlasted the experienced Hellen Obiri in a clash of will and power.Born at Adama in Ethiopia in 1993, arriving in the Netherlands as a refugee when she was 15 years old, and taking Dutch citizenship in 2013, Sifan has defied her circumstances, her lean appearance and somewhat pained expression to wear down the most formidable opposition.Usually starting slowly and working her way through the field, Hassan does not appear to threaten the leaders until it is too late. Her form in 2019 was outstanding – winning the 10,000m and 1500m in the World Championships at Doha and setting a world record in the mile at Monaco. Then, after a pause for the pandemic, came Tokyo 2020 (postponed to 2021) and no doubt she will keep running, and winning, for a few years yet.