Many of Ghana’s politicians are beginning to think that would-be programmers like Amaning have the right idea. Sam Somuah, an advisor to President Kufuor, clicks through his PowerPoint presentation on the government’s proposed information technology policy before a crowded room in Accra. What is striking about this moment is not the specifics of Somuah’s plan, but rather that he has a plan at all. Until late last year, Ghana’s political leaders seemed blithely unaware of information technology. Now it is seen as potential national salvation. “There’s no way we can raise our standard of living rapidly without IT,” Somuah says.
Somuah is chiefly concerned with improving government efficiency through information technology, but he also talks of spawning a generation of technology entrepreneurs. As a first step, the government of Ghana recently reached an agreement with India, which is promising to open a programming training center in Accra. Somuah also wants the government to launch a venture capital fund for technology enterprises. “Who knows, one of you might be the next Bill Gates,” he tells the group of young people who surround him after his talk.
Indeed, creating a programming industry would be a coup for Ghana’s leaders. Software requires little capital to write and can be sold relatively cheaply all over the world; one hit product could make a huge economic difference in a small country like Ghana, Somuah says. “I believe Accra can become, in time, another India, a Silicon Valley in Africa,” adds John Hooper, a Ghanaian graphics designer who opened a three-person company in Accra a year ago.
While Ghanaians should dream of a better future, their reality is sobering. Accra is home to fewer than 50 code writers who can program without close supervision, says Roger Oppong-Koranteng, a Ghanaian information technology manager who trained the president and his cabinet in the use of e-mail. “The pool of experienced people is very thin,” Oppong-Koranteng says.
Oppong-Koranteng believes that Ghana will eventually produce information technology innovations but warns against expecting too much too soon. Rather than form a venture capital fund, he says, the Ghanaian government should support programs that “bring Ghana’s inexperienced IT people together. Let them talk. When people talk, ideas come up-and someone will pick up the ideas and run with them.”
While code writing is an inherently lonely task, in Ghana it is lonelier still, because of the small size of the fraternity and the potential for programmers to get left behind by new technology-a fate that Dan Odamtten is struggling to avoid. At 29, Odamtten has only a high-school diploma. His father wanted him to become a nurse, but he had another idea. “I thought computers were the future,” he explains.
To get started, Odamtten took a nine-month course at a computer institute, his mother paying the fees without telling her husband. He learned how to program in BASIC and, as an exercise, wrote a payroll program-but on graduation still found he couldn’t get a job. He begged Ananse Systems, a local software house that specializes in supplying programs to small banks, to train him without pay. The company agreed.
Odamtten began by installing shrink-wrapped software for the company’s banking clients. After six months, the company decided to put him on the payroll, but only at $30 a month. After another six months, he was asked to write a program in MS-DOS. He has since moved to writing Windows programs too. The company now counts him as one of its best code writers and in January increased his salary to $350 a month, a princely sum by Accra standards.
Rather than celebrate, Odamtten worries about learning new skills. “I can’t fall behind,” he says, while tapping on his Dell laptop. Sitting on the verandah of the company’s office, he is tailoring a database written in Microsoft Access to fit the needs of a rural customer. This is a far cry from writing original programs, but he doesn’t have the opportunity for such work. In a small company, he must do many things, from servicing customers to adapting mass-market programs for their specific needs to answering his boss’s phone calls. “Software means working long hours,” he says.
Odamtten’s workload is made heavier by bone-crunching automobile journeys. He typically travels three to five hours on Ghana’s poorly maintained and congested roads to visit clients. “Someday we will service customers electronically, over networks,” obviating the need for lengthy journeys, he says. But for now, he often rises before dawn to avoid the worst of the traffic.
Odamtten’s frustrations are Ghana’s writ large: the great potential of information technology-to liberate people from drudgery and saturate their lives with knowledge-is thwarted by tribulations that stem from an earlier, mechanical age.