The following is an update to a story that appeared in the July/August issue of Technology Review titled “Ghana’s Digital Dilemma.”
Accra, Ghana-On a Sunday night in July, a light rain is falling on the pot-holed streets of this West African capital city, and Eric Osiakosian is side-stepping rats on his way to the entrance of his preferred hangout, the Java Caf on Ring Road, the central drag. He passes up a flight of steps and through a set of glass doors into what looks like a computer graveyard; Old PCs are strewn everywhere, discarded keyboards and hard disks lie in a pile.
Conversation between the two opens with the afternoon’s soccer game between Ghana’s top two teams, but quickly shifts to a discussion of how best to create a fixed-wireless data network. By using wireless stations linked to a satellite connection, they hope to bypass the moribund government-owned Ghana Telecom. A few minutes later, the principal owner of the Web caf, who goes by the name of Prince, joins in the discussion. Ghana Telecom is a joke, he says. “The government would do better to abandon the mess,” he says.
Fat chance. The government, which was elected 18 months ago on a reform program, has vowed to improve Ghana Telecom by making it the Web backbone for the nation. But the company lacks essential expertise and needs an infusion of cash. The plight of Ghana Telecom-and the reality of lousy telephone service in West Africa-epitomizes the way the so-called digital divide plays out in many of the poorest places on the planet (See “Ghana’s Digital Dilemma” TR, July/August, 2002). Despite this difficult environment, a young generation of computer-savvy people is taking root in Accra, a burgeoning class of indigenous African hackers.
Listen to the analysis of the African situation by development experts, and these independent, ambitious young men should not even exist in Accra. Yet against great odds, many youths are finding ways to tap into the global computing culture-creating new jobs and identities in the process.
A few days before our conversation at the Java caf, Eric and I attended a training seminar for Ghanaian journalists in BusyInternet, a clean, airconditioned no-frills office building that doubles as the city’s leading Web caf and is a magnet for local computer fanatics. Eric’s crusade is to persuade local reporters and editors to make better use of computers-and report more on Ghana’s infant IT industry. When asked how many of the 40 journalists in attendance wrote their stories on a PC, only about a third raised their hands-just a few more than those who said they used typewriters. Many also mailed their articles to editors (and they didn’t mean e-mail).