Ghana's great online leap
Its capital has a virtual Ring Road of Internet cafés And New York's traffic tickets are now processed here In Ghana, a small West African nation with a population of just over 20 million, there are 2,000 Internet cafés — 1,000 in the capital of Accra (population 1 million) and more than 50 on just one street, Ring Road, otherwise known as Silicon Alley. So enthusiastic are people about using computers — in a country that lacks the electricity infrastructure available in Canada — that they line up to get onto the Internet.
Developing nations are fast being transformed by the arrival of computer technology, which has enabled Ghana to play catch-up, giving schools without libraries access to the rich resources of the Internet, spawning an army of young urban professionals — just as in North America a decade ago.
In 1994, Alex Adjapong was a second-year computer science student at a university in Kumasi, and the first in his class to own a personal computer — a Compaq 486, the predecessor to the first generation of Pentium computers, which I gave him after my first seminar to a group of engineers in Accra.
Today, Alex runs a busy computer training school and a 12-workstation Internet café in Accra. From 7 a.m. to midnight, students, professionals and entrepreneurs come to cafés like his, using the facility to send e-mail or scan a document and send it as an e-mail attachment to business contacts primarily in Europe, North America and China. Before the arrival of computers, communicating with contacts outside Ghana would have been done by fax over unreliable international telephone lines, and 10 times more expensive.
Alex's school graduates 15 computer repair technicians and data entry clerks every three months. They quickly find jobs; some then set themselves up independently.
Fidel Botchway, 25, upon completing his training at the National Institute of Information Technology on Ring Road, went to work as a systems administrator for Altec Systems, a 24-hour Internet café and software consulting firm, also in the Ring Road IT hub. Earning $150 a month, in a country where graduating doctors and engineers start at $200 a month, he became the breadwinner in his family, and started helping his younger sister with school fees. After less than a year at Altec, Fidel was pursued by Olam International, a worldwide company specializing in the export and import of agricultural products. The company recruiter, impressed by Fidel's knowledge of networking and wireless Internet transmission, promised him a starting salary of $600 a month. After two years he left to go to university to study computer science, having saved enough to cover his tuition
At Ghana's first university, University of Ghana, there were no computers for students to use until two years ago. Prior to that, students had to go to private Internet cafés and do their research online; at one dollar an hour, it was expensive. But with libraries bare of books, and textbooks unaffordable or unavailable, they are finding the computers with broadband access a godsend.
Also with an address on Ring Road is Busy Internet, the 24-hour IT powerhouse in the country. It was founded in November 2001 by Mark Davies, a New York-based, Welsh-American who became a millionaire after selling his interest in Citysearch.com, one of the earliest content websites in New York City. On a backpacking trip through Ghana, Davies found it difficult to send e-mail, and so thought of the needs Busy Internet could serve. With local partners, Busy Internet was up and running in 10 months, and turning a profit after four months of operation.
During a business visit to Ghana in May 2002, I had gone to Busy Internet at midnight, thinking it would be a quiet time to send e-mail back home to Toronto. I was in a queue for 15 minutes before I was allocated one of the 100 workstations. At midnight! Such is the intense atmosphere of the place. It was the first Internet café to offer true broadband, using a VSAT link to circumvent the local telecom utility. BI's infrastructure is reliable enough to attract the attention of Data Management International, a Wilmington, Del., company, which rents space from BI, and employs 37 Ghanaians to process traffic tickets for the city of New York.
But everything's not rosy. Computer maintenance is a big problem in Ghana. Dust and high voltage fluctuations mean sensitive electronic equipment is always breaking down. Which is why Fidel and Alex and other young information technology graduates are always in demand.
The Canadian High Commssion is keeping an eye on Internet use in Ghana. It now requires Ghanaians to go to its website to fill out visa application forms. It is in a position to know how computers and the Internet are shaping development; CIDA funded the first Internet provider, Network Computer Systems Ltd. (NCS). Today, NCS, with its huge transmission towers, runs the Internet gateway in Ghana, and it played a seminal role in the birth of the Internet industry in Togo, Ghana's next door neighbour. Since I left Ghana in 1979, the country has been transformed. Democracy has been securely established for 15 years, making Ghana a beacon of hope in a continent beset with governance issues. And with a new elected government that is increasing access to technology, there is hope that Ghana will fully participate in the growth that's has long eluded developing nations.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Lankai Lamptey is an information technology consultant in Toronto. He has been working on projects in Ghana for 12 years. Reach him at [email protected]