This constant struggle with the local infrastructure is also being waged in Accra’s Internet cafs, whose numbers have expanded rapidly thanks to the scrappy ingenuity of their owners and employees. Two years ago, Accra lacked a single Internet caf. Now the city boasts more than 600 of them, a consequence of plummeting prices for PCs and new ways of circumventing the phone system to reach Web servers. An hour online costs anywhere from 75 cents to $1.25, still pricey in a country where many people earn that much in a day. But a few years ago, Web access was far more expensive, when users had to phone places like London or Paris in order to get connected. The rise of Web cafs, combined with free e-mail services such as Hotmail and Yahoo!, means that many Accra residents can receive personal electronic messages for the first time in their lives. This makes “the IT deficit” smaller than people think, says Ravi Amar, a Ghanaian who runs two Web cafs and assembles his own PCs from imported parts. “There’s much more computer use here than people realize” (see “Closing the Gap,” below).
Keeping all those computers up, running and online presents some special challenges, though, as Richard Amaning well knows. A thin and wispy 29-year-old sporting a goatee and eyeglasses, Amaning is the manager of one of Accra’s most technically advanced Web cafs, Cyberia. The operation has a dozen PCs powered by 1.4-gigahertz Intel processors and loaded with memory. Rather than reach its Internet service provider through the city’s balky phone lines, Cyberia transfers data through a sophisticated wireless modem, which also increases network speed.
But one afternoon, as Amaning helps a customer print a document, all of Cyberia’s whiz-bang technology vanishes-when the electricity goes out. He tells the customers to be patient, and to stay at their computers. Then he runs down a long flight of stairs to the basement, kicks on a backup generator, dashes back upstairs and reboots all the PCs, one after another. That’s not the end of it, though. Since the generator is too costly to run any longer than necessary, Amaning must constantly check on neighboring shops to see when their lights return. When power is restored, he tells his customers to halt their work again and shut down, while he goes back to the basement, turns off the generator and switches the caf back to public electricity.
Amaning wants Cyberia to automate the process of switching to and from the generator, but the caf can’t afford the required equipment. Today, at least, he is fortunate: there are no repeat interruptions. Amaning returns to helping the customer with printing. But the episode is a stark reminder that one must know much more than the ins and outs of computers to manage a network in Accra.
Amaning’s computing experiences also illustrate in microcosm the haphazard but promising ways in which Africans, relying largely on their own resources, are coming to terms with the digital revolution and attempting to make it their own. For all the expertise required by his job, Amaning has only completed high school. Eight years ago, an uncle offered him an apprenticeship at his computer repair shop. He liked fixing PCs and, while working, attended a computer training school. For 18 months, he learned the basics of PC hardware and networking, then joined a Web advertising agency-one of a handful in Accra-repairing PCs.
Wanting more skills, Amaning took a course on computer networking which helped him to understand the hardware requirements for computer networks, as well as the often idiosyncratic ways that Africans, saddled with poor national telephone and electricity systems, plug into the Web. After the course, he felt ready to manage a Web network. But finding a job took months.
Amaning’s break came when a friend, hired by Cyberia to fix a faulty modem, failed at the task and summoned Amaning for help. He got the modem working, and Cyberia’s owner hired him. His job is grueling: he works six days a week, from nine in the morning to 11 at night. He earns the equivalent of $125 a month-or roughly four times the average wage in Ghana. To earn even more than that, Amaning will have to improve his skills still further. “My next step,” he says, “is to get myself into programming.”
Closing the Gap
Technology Indicators for Ghana 1995 1998 Computers per 100 people 0.12 0.30 Telephone lines 63,067 179,594 Mobile-phone subscribers 6,200 42,343 Public telephone booths 30 1,814 Satellite dish subscribers 0 15,000 Internet host sites 6 253 Radios per 100 people 23.1 68.2 TVs per 100 people 4.04 35.2