02.06.2002 Feature Article

Dot-com pioneers forge future in Africa

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Dot-com pioneers forge future in Africa
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By Nicholas Thompson for Orlando Sentinel

ACCRA, Ghana -- U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and U2's Bono saw plenty of suffering on their fact-finding trip on African aid. Camera crews zoomed in on barefoot children begging by an open sewer; pundits noted that the AIDS rate is soaring while per capita income stays about the same.

To many Americans, it's just Africa, the place where time has stopped and people die young.

The dismal statistics are all true. But a slightly closer look, at least in Ghana, will show an extraordinary technology boom.

In fact, for every child like Zakaria Turay, a 14-year-old war veteran in Sierra Leone recently profiled in Newsweek, there's a young man like Robin Kwakofi, a 24-year-old Ghanaian Web programmer with his own aspiring dot-com.

When Turay was abducted by guerrillas five years ago, Kwakofi was taking the bus to Accra's one Internet cafe and teaching himself to program. When Turay was running drugs and drinking blood, Kwakofi was redesigning the Web site for Ghana's Joy FM radio station. As Turay tries to reassemble a life, Kwakofi plans for what he calls an African technological revolution.

Young men and women such as Kwakofi fill Accra. And although the whiz kids of Ghana don't have nearly the technological or educational infrastructure of their San Francisco role models, they do have the same ambitions.

Kofi Dadzie, a 25-year-old programmer, runs a software company called Rancard in Accra. He has seven employees now, but he talks about having 10,000 in just a few years. Up the street, Ghanaians pack the downstairs of the Busy Internet cafe day and night, using the cafe's 100 flat-screen monitors and fast satellite connection. Across the street, students at the NIIT computer school gather and talk of their dreams of starting software companies.

The story that Americans hear from Ghana matters more than one might think. Africa has lagged in development for many reasons, ranging from poor geographic luck (lots of malaria; not many good shipping routes) to horrendous political leadership. But the continent also suffers because of the perception of Africa as a monolithic sinkhole, and thus a place unworthy of investment or attention.

To many Americans, Africa is just Africa -- even if Ghana no more resembles Sierra Leone than the United States resembles Mexico. Ghana has a truly democratically elected government, has been stable for 20 years with virtually no ethnic conflict.

Moreover, as Asian nations showed in the 1990s, nothing spurs development in one country more than development in a neighboring one. People learn new skills, access new markets and are competitive. Africa hasn't had a real success story yet. But if just a few of the Internet pioneers' dreams come true, Ghana could be it.

Asked what he hopes for, one of Turay's fellow fighters told Newsweek that he wanted pens and books. That's the classic desperate message from Africa. But Kwakofi may have a more important African message. Asked what he would say to O'Neill, Kwakofi says, "I would tell him to say to American technology companies that they can invest in Ghana. Conditions are right for a boom."

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