There would be some justice in Accra’s ascent into the ranks of regional IT centers. In the 1950s, in the dying days of European colonialism in Africa, Accra was a storied city where black revolutionaries plotted an independent future. Ghanaian nationalist Kwame Nkrumah gave voice to the yearnings of people of African descent all over the world by arguing in favor Pan-Africanism. Nkrumah, while skillful in global affairs, was an autocrat in Ghana and, fearing domestic enemies, imprisoned and killed his critics. In 1965, he was deposed in a military coup, which ushered in 35 years of turmoil for Ghana, a period something like the long sleep of Stalinism in the former Soviet Union. To Ghanaians, the rest of the 1960s and 70s were a blur of military coups and economic mismanagement. In 1981, Jerry Rawlings, a Ghanaian Air Force officer, seized power for a second time, controlling the government until January 2001.The ghost of Nkrumah still hangs over Ghana. The independence leader never used a computer or divined the Internet, but his Pan-African philosophy suits a world where telecommunications and computing combine to destroy distance. The first beneficiaries of Ghana’s improved connectivity are the estimated two million Ghanaians who live outside of the country. Consider the journey of Kwame Bonsu who returned home to live in 1998 after 20 years in the U.S. Bonsu worked two decades for IBM, making him one of just a handful of people in Ghana with international computing experience. His last job was in Atlanta, where he helped public schools put PCs to good use. The experience made him want to do the same in Ghana. He did, computerizing several schools and a village. Recently, Bonsu shifted gears, forming a company with three people in the U.S. in order to provide software and services to large companies that want to out-sourcetheir call centers.
Bonsu’s company, Rising Data, hasn’t yet attracted call centers to Accra, but he employs four programmers to write code that helps to out-source call-center activity. “Our biggest problem is to create challenging jobs for our bright kids,” he says of his present and potential employees. “They reach a plateau and then what do they do next? We’re trying to broaden their options so that some of their aspirations can be fulfilled in Ghana.”
Back at the Java Caf, on another Sunday night in Accra, Eric Osiakosian is helping me rid my laptop of a computer virus foolishly acquired from a strange disk. The virus is so severe that we leave the computer with his friend Michael Akoto and retreat to a nearby bar, where we hoist a few Star Lagers. Osiakosian is celebrating because he’s just been hired to run a program aimed at helping the youth of Ghana learn how to conceive of and launch new technology businesses. The program is supported by professors and African students at MIT. Earlier this year they asked Osiakosian to run an entrepreneurs contest in Accra. Scores of students submitted business plans. Osiakosian plans to hold a second contest and run workshops on forming high-tech businesses. The goal, he says, is to make Accra a place worth living for the nerds of his twenty-something generation.
“Many of us have no choice but to make the best of tough situation,” Osiakosian says. “We can’t all leave for Britain and the U.S. These countries won’t take us all. Information technology makes us more aware of what we are missing, but also makes us more able to stand on our own feet. Having bridged the digital divide as best we can, the question now is how do we begin to change our world?’”