On my first visit to Ghana, I went to the house of a Ghanaian friend. Like many homes in his part of Accra, his had no indoor plumbing, no kitchen, no telephone-not even a street address. My friend had never received paper mail. But two months before my visit he had gotten an e-mail address, an account on Yahoo!, and for a few pennies could send his own message to relatives halfway around the world. In the last two years, I have watched my friend become more adept at using a PC, faster at surfing the Web. But while he remains excited about computing, his discontent grows. He knows much more about the rest of the world than before, but this very knowledge makes him more aware of his own poverty, isolation, and, indeed, the long odds against his succeeding in Ghana.
My friend embodies the riddle, I think, of information technology in Africa and other parts of the developing world. The more I learn about how new technologies are altering ways of working and playing in Africa, the more I become convinced that they both hurt and help. I recently talked with Welsh-born entrepreneur Mark Davies, the founder of Ghana’s largest Internet caf, BusyInternet. When I asked him what his customers did online, he said, “Four out of five are trying to find ways to get out of Ghana.”
The lessons of Ghana are thus complicated. Information technology is not the great leveler that enthusiasts champion, but it also is not as far out of reach as skeptics say. The advanced-technology gap between rich and poor nations cannot be explained purely as a function of poverty. And the most successful efforts at bridging the digital divide may be those that combine the efforts of locals with those of emissaries from the developed world.
On the second floor of BusyInternet, upstairs from the caf, a Dutch couple runs a Web design business. An English woman has joined with an East African to launch an e-retailer offering African-made arts and crafts. Data Management, the latest data entry company, has its office on the floor as well-next door to a Ghanaian Web designer. Ultimately, this juxtaposition of foreign energy and local initiative could be just what Ghana needs, says Oppong-Koranteng, who is managing director of BusyInternet when he’s not giving computer lessons to his country’s president. “The foreigners rub off on us, triggering ideas,” Oppong-Koranteng says. “We must make them our own.”