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Letter from Ghana

A burgeoning hacker culture points to promise in Africa.

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.

Hunched near the detritus is Eric’s friend, Michael Akoto who, like Eric, is self-taught in the ways of geekhood. By day Michael runs the PC network for a radio station; by night he does the same for the Java Caf. He is 24 years old, one year younger than Eric. Neither has studied at a university; they can’t afford to and besides, technical education in Ghana, even at the country’s premier engineering school in Kumasi, a regional capital, is poor. “A whole course of study in computing might cost me $3,000,” Michael says. “Instead, mostly we sit behind the computer and study.”

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 DilemmaTR, 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).

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.

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?’”

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