01.11.2002 Feature Article

When Cyberspace Meets the Black Star

When Cyberspace Meets the Black Star
01.11.2002 LISTEN

On a Sunday night in July, a light rain is falling on Accra's pot-holed streets, and Eric Osiakwan is side-stepping rats on his way to the entrance of his preferred hangout, the Java Café, on Accra's central drag, Ring Road. The rats make their home in the open sewage drains that line the road. At night they forage above ground for food. Eric points out the rats to me and smiles. "What else can they do?" he asks. "They have to eat." Ignoring the rodents, he bounds up a flight of stairs, passes through a balcony and then pushes through a set of glass doors. The enclosed room looks like a computer graveyard. Old PCs everywhere. Discarded keyboards and hard-disks in a pile. Hunched near the junk 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 Café. He is 24 years old, one year older than Eric. Neither Michael nor Eric have 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." Which is what Michael is doing when Eric arrives. Conversation opens about the afternoon's soccer game, between Ghana's two premier teams, but then shifts to a discussion of how best to a fixed-wireless data network. By using wireless stations linked to a satellite connection, they hope that they can bypass the moribund government-owned Ghana Telecom (see the July-August issue of Technology Review for "Ghana Digital Dilemma," a report on how a lack of old technologies are the real culprits behind the digital divide in Africa). A few minutes later, the principal owner of the web café, 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 infusion. A couple of weeks ago, the government let out the news that it had solved both problems in a single move, persuading a Norwegian company to both manage and revive Ghana Telecom. Within a week, however, the team of Norwegians made an emergency visit to Ghana and released the stunning news that they had no plans to purchase or even manage Ghana Telecom. At most, the Norwegians said, they would advise the government on what to do. How could the government have so misunderstood the situation? In fairness, it is easy to lose contact with reality in Accra, which like most African capitals is richer and more sophisticated by many orders of magnitude from the rural villages where most people in Ghana still live. A few days before we met the rats, Eric and I attended a training seminar for Ghanaian journalists. 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. Since I have taught journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, Eric put me on the program and when my turn to speak came I asked the 40 journalists in attendance how many wrote their stories on a PC. Only about a third raised their hands - just a few more than those who said they used typewriters - and sometimes mailed their articles to editors (and they didn't mean email). The disclosures were a reminder that Ghana remains a country where "wiring a school" means installing electricity service, not the Internet. Police stations not only don't have computers, they don't have telephones. 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 also must 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. Warts and all, Accra is on something of a hot streak. The media out of Africa almost always highlights 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 without resorting to the usual stereotypes. When Bono arrived this spring with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, they visited Busyinternet, perhaps the finest Web café in sub-Saharan Africa and the offices of ACS, a U.S. company that has nearly one thousand Ghanaians entering American health care forms for Aetna and other providers (both Busyinternet and ACS were also profiled in my July TR article). Then this month The New York Times published a page one story about how data from New York City traffic tickets was being put into computerized form 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 centres. 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 favour of Pan-Africanism. Colonialists first took away slaves from the continent and then created artificial borders that divided tribes from one another. The answer was to tear down the walls between black people the world over. The message, coming as the U.S. civil rights movement was gaining steam, struck a chord with African Americans. In the early 1950s, novelist Richard Wright visited Accra, met Nkrumah and penned a prescient study of African prospects entitled, Black Power. Malcolm X visited in the 1960s. So did scores of other prominent African Americans, impressed with Nkrumah's vision. Nkrumah, while wise in global affairs, was an autocrat in Ghana and, fearing domestic enemies, imprisoned and killed his critics. He opposed the U.S. role in the Vietnam War and looked to the Soviet Union for technical and financial assistance. In 1965, he was deposed in a military coup in 1965, causing U.S. officials to cheer (official memos released by the U.S. government two years ago fully document the cheering and suggest that the CIA provoked the coup). Nkrumah's departure 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, an Air Force office, seized power for a second time, controlling the government until January 2001. While Rawlings has departed, 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 improved connectivity with Ghana 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 who want to out-source their call centres. For years, companies have moved many call centres - where customers phone for basic information or to place orders - to Ireland, Jamaica and other countries with lower-wages than the U.S. Why not Ghana? Bonsu's company, Rising Data, hasn't yet attracted call centres to Ghana, but he employs four programmers in Accra to write code that helps to out-source call-centre activity. While call centres, like data entry, offer routine work for most people, they are sophisticated operations that rely on a layer of skilled technicians and managers. This is the bonus that Bonsu covets. "Our biggest problem is to create challenging jobs for our bright kids," he says. "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." In a slightly different form, this article appeared last month on the website of Technology Review magazine.

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