In the West African country of Ghana, one of the world’s poorest places, the busy signal is a reminder of the unfulfilled promise of the Information Age. Making a telephone call here requires persistence. Roughly half don’t go through because of system failures, but that’s only the start of Ghana’s telephone woes. The country has a mere 240,000 phone lines-for a population of 20 million spread across an area the size of Britain. Moreover, telephone bills are inaccurate, overcharges common, and the installation of a new line can cost a business more than $1,000, the rough equivalent of the annual office rent. Lines are frequently stolen, sometimes with the connivance of employees of Ghana Telecom, the national carrier. Phones go dead, and remain unrepaired, for months. Some businesses hire staff for the chief purpose of dialing numbers until calls go through.
The spread of mobile phones has only worsened telephone gridlock. There are more mobile phones in Ghana than wired ones-about 300,000, as of March-but the network is clogged because of a shortage of cell stations. Customers are bedeviled by what operators term “dropped calls.” Besides, calls are costly. The price of a one-minute wireless conversation, under the most common plan, is ten times higher than it would be in the United States. “The situation has come to a point of crisis,” says Kwesi Nduom, the country’s minister for economic planning.
Ghana’s telecom mess limits the utility of the Internet, raises the costs of information services-and suggests that the country is mired in the Stone Age, technologically. But the situation here, as in much of sub-Saharan Africa, defies such straightforward conclusions. There is another side to the country’s technological profile, a burgeoning homegrown technology culture that explodes assumptions about the inherent backwardness of Africa and the nature of the so-called digital divide.
That there is a gap in the use of information technology between Africans and most people in the United States, Europe and other wealthy regions is unsurprising. After all, development experts have long presumed that lags in technology, much like lags in medicine, stem from poverty-and only reducing poverty can close the technology gap. In the late 1990s, the pioneers of the personal computer, the mobile phone and the Internet saw their technologies as a fresh chance for Africa, an opportunity to leapfrog over what would normally be decades of conventional development. Luminaries such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, began campaigning to close the digital divide. Influential international organizations, such as the G8 group of nations and the World Economic Forum, commissioned blueprints for raising the technological level of poor nations, in Africa especially.
So far, these plans have come to little or nothing. In the main, the rich have dropped boatloads of computers onto the poor with no awareness of the environment in which the machines will (or will not) be used. With results lacking, technophiles are starting to recognize what development experts have long known-that no magic wand solves poverty-and to accept that they need to know much more about how people in developing countries live, and what they need and want, in order to close the digital divide.
These are some of the questions that have brought me to Ghana several times in the last two years, first as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and later as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. In my visits, I’ve seen information technologies changing the landscape in unexpected ways. The people I’ve met are more adept at using these technologies, and are hungrier for them, than most experts believe. But their efforts to put advanced technologies to work in Ghana are often thwarted by the failings of much older infrastructure technologies-the phone system, the electric grid, even the roads.