The disclosures were a reminder that Ghana remains a country where “wiring a school” means installing electricity service, not the Internet. Some police stations don’t have telephones, let alone computers. The usual cost for a PC-about $1,000-is almost twice the yearly wages of a typical worker. The country lacks a single decent highway link between major cities. More than a third of the food grown in Ghana rots before it reaches markets; partly as a result the country spends a good portion of its cash on imported food, spending $100 million on rice alone.“We talk about moving into the 21st century, but the truth is that we never mastered the technologies of the 20th century: roads, electricity, the telephone, water and the like,” says Kwaku Boadu, who runs a computer networking company in Accra.
Boadu, who spoke before me at the training seminar, added that Ghana faced a double burden of having to create the infrastructure of the “old economy” and the “new economy” simultaneously. While the government struggles with bringing computers to the schools and fixing its broken phone company, it must also build roads, expand its water system and increase its sources of electricity. “If we don’t start getting things right now, not only won’t we live in the 21st century we won’t even live in the 20th century,” he warned.
The truth about Ghana is that its citizens will get a taste of both centuries at the same time. Dan Odamtten, an Accra-based programmer, wrecked his car recently on the road from Accra to the historic city of Cape Coasta road where the holes are so big that they consume not just tires but entire cars. Bruised and battered from the wreck, he walked away with a serious injuryand more convinced than ever that bad roads, not bad universities, are the real enemies of good software in Ghana. Odamtten hopes for a better future but realizes that Ghana may always be a place “with one foot in the last century and the other in this one.”
Still, half a loaf is better than none, a point that the media often misses when they highlight the world’s digital inequalities. Media depictions of Africa almost always highlight disease, disaster and mayhem, with AIDS, famine and civil wars hogging the print and television coverage in the U.S. and Europe. Yet Accra has made news lately that doesn’t fall into the usual stereotypes. When Bono arrived this spring with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, they visited BusyInternet and the offices of ACS, a U.S. company that employs nearly one thousand Ghanaians to enter data from American health care forms for Aetna and other providers. In July, the New York Times published a page one story about how data from New York City traffic tickets was being computerized by Ghanaians working from BusyInternet’s second-floor offices. The flurry of positive attention, coupled with the growing awareness of the tech-savvy youth scene, has intoxicated some of Accra’s elite. “We are destined for greatness as an information hub,” says Ken Ofori-Atta, executive chairman of Databank, a local investment bank and money manager.