A visit to a third-floor office in the high-rise known as the Pyramid in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, provides a look at one advanced-technology project that seems to be overcoming the barrier of faulty infrastructure. Behind glass walls, hundreds of men and women type at computer keyboards, reading American health insurance claims on their computer screens. Each claims form has been digitized in the United States by Aetna, the large insurer, and sent over a computer network to Accra. Here a typist culls the name, address and other personal information from the form, entering it into a new electronic form, which is then sent back to the U.S.
The key technology in this process is invisible: a satellite link that bypasses Accra’s creaky phone system and enables data to be sent overseas instantaneously. To set up the system, the facility’s manager, Bossman Dowuona-Hammond, convinced Ghana’s government that the satellite would not steal business from the country’s national phone company-or be used to interfere with Ghana’s politics. “In the past, fear prevented us from getting the tools we needed,” says Dowuona-Hammond. “With the right tools, we can compete.” Indeed, in one swoop, the satellite link has made a facility in Accra a thoroughly modern business.
All the workers at the data entry facility, from the site manager to the computer networking technician to the typists, are natives of Ghana. American supervisors, located in Salt Lake City and Lexington, KY, visit only occasionally; from their U.S. bases they can view any form in Accra at any moment, peering electronically over the shoulder of any Ghanaian keypuncher, offering help and encouragement.
Local Ghanaian supervisors do much the same. Thomas Fabyan, smartly dressed in black suede shoes, khaki pants and a pressed white shirt buttoned to the neck, prods and cajoles his typists to push their limits. Fabyan sits in the corner of a large open room, with tall windows that overlook the city and give glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean. Along with a colleague, Fabyan is responsible for 275 employees who work over three shifts, round the clock. These typists are paid piece rate: the more records they complete, the greater their pay. The fastest workers can earn nearly three dollars a day, while the slowest take home little more than a dollar, still slightly higher than the pay of a local policeman.
Fabyan, who is 26 years old, represents the new wave of technologically savvy Ghanaians. He used his first PC at the age of 15 and later enrolled in Ghana’s top engineering school-then dropped out because he found the courses antiquated. He went to work for a local Internet service provider, where he installed the equipment required for Web access and later trained others to do the same. The job paid only $30 a month, though, and Fabyan knew he would need more technical expertise to earn a better salary. He decided to sign up for some online programming courses offered by British and U.S. training schools, convincing his father-a financial officer for a local company-to pony up the $800 in fees. Working from a computer in his parents’ home, Fabyan devoted more than a year to the courses.
Not long after completing his online studies, Fabyan responded to an advertisement and landed the supervisory job at the data entry facility. There, he can work with an advanced computer network and learn more techniques that he hopes someday to apply in a business of his own. While his chief responsibility is managing keypunchers, in his spare time he recently helped construct an internal Web site where the data entry staff can get answers to common questions. “I want to be serious in IT, and this is a place to start,” Fabyan says.
Critics see it differently, insisting that data entry mainly sops up low-skilled workers. “The technological content of this work is quite thin,” says Nii Quaynor, a technology advisor to the World Bank and one of only a few residents of Ghana who have doctorates in computer science. “Is there really a future in this for people other than secretaries?” He shakes his head.
Quaynor believes that multinational technology corporations ought to do more for African countries, including creating high-tech product development jobs for local workers. But Ghana is in dire need of jobs-and so the processing of American health-care forms by Ghanaians is potentially ground zero for the birth of a labor-intensive industry in one of the places seemingly left behind by the computer revolution.
After all, processing forms is a worldwide activity that employs millions of people. Most large corporations, from credit card companies to health-care insurers, have contracted out the chore, and contractors run facilities in the Caribbean, Central America and Mexico and throughout Europe, Asia and the United States. Millions of people around the world work in offshore data entry facilities. Yet until Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services-which processes Aetna’s forms along with those of companies such as Liberty Mutual and Health Net-opened this facility in Accra in late 2000, not a soul was employed in this activity in sub-Saharan Africa, says Dowuona-Hammond.
Now, Ghanaians talk of someday hosting 100,000 computer jobs, or more, with keypunching as a base. In March 2002, a second data entry company, Data Management Internationale, opened shop in Accra. The privately held firm, based in Wilmington, DE, is handling government forms for one large U.S. city at its Accra operation. While that project has only 35 workers and is viewed as a pilot effort, the long-term prospects look strong. “We’re optimistic about generating the advantages of low-cost labor here,” says William Swezey, who launched Data Management’s Accra business and is the company’s vice president for technical services. “I clearly anticipate other companies coming here, and probably large ones.”
The potential for job growth is so great that last fall Ghana’s president, John Kufuor, made a surprise visit to the Affiliated Computer Services data entry office. He was impressed by the hundreds of computers he saw (the most in any business in the country) and the spotless working conditions. But what most amazed him, he told his aides, was that work proceeded round the clock, in a country where previously no white-collar work had ever been performed in evenings or the middle of the night.
The growth of data entry in Accra suggests that new information technologies can knit the world closer together by defeating distance and creating jobs. Yet despite working around Ghana’s troublesome phone system, Affiliated Computer Services’ Accra operation is hampered by other basic infrastructure problems that mock its high-tech sophistication. Frequent power outages-sometimes three or four a day-disrupt work and add to the wear and tear on computers. And the Pyramid building has such poor air conditioning that electric fans are needed to reduce heat in work spaces, in a bid to extend computer life. Such problems mean that, despite the lure of inexpensive labor in Ghana, “the barriers to entry here are very high,” says Swezey. “Anyone coming in from the outside will have a hard time getting up and running.”