Keeping the Internet busy in Ghana
Established in Ghana's capital of Accra in 2001, Busy Internet is the largest privately owned and operated ICT centre in Africa. With a unique mission to provide both commercial services as well as social development, Busy Internet has been featured as a promising hybrid model for Africa. Computing Communications Africa's Associate Editor, Kwami Ahiabenu, II recently spoke to Mark Davies, founder of Busy Internet www.busyinternet.com , about the implications of such a centre: How did you decide upon the opportunity for Internet cafés in Ghana? Actually, I was just sitting in the back of a bus one day in New York when the idea of creating a social cluster of technology enthusiasts came to me. Busy Internet became the fruit of this idea. However, I do not see Busy as simply an Internet café since only 20% of our business comes from the café side. I rather picture it as a space for conversation around technology and development. The idea is to extend the opportunities we experienced in New York at the beginning of the dot com era to less developed countries, by creating a work space conducive to the growth and development of technology. Why Ghana? We recognised that Ghana was hungry for technology and in 2000 there was a lot of positive debate about technology and its impact on development. Technology definitely has a big role to play. Furthermore the government had also liberalised the sector allowing ease in the use of VSAT for example, thus creating a large opportunity for growth in technology. These factors, including others, made Ghana an ideal location to host Busy Internet. How did you build your business effectively? The success of Busy Internet is linked to our people-centered approach. We believe technology cannot work in isolation, but it should evolve around people. By combining the latest technology with a community of people, we have created a winning business. The key aim is to get people together who would talk about how technology can be used to move Ghana forward. To measure any business effectiveness, we must agree on parameters for measurement. At Busy we focus on two key areas, profitability and social returns, the latter is difficult to measure whereas the former can be subjected to easy measurement. Busy Internet is relatively profitable; we employ up to ninety persons, re-invest some returns into the business and launch new products such as our ISP offering. More importantly we have grown the business using a very sustainable model. For the social returns on our business, it is harder to gauge, but it is important for us because it is the very reason why we set up Busy Internet in the first place. Using more anecdotal evidence, we are reaching out to users and Busy Internet is now part and parcel of Accra, a must see centre for all visitors. Ghana can be transform by technology if only the capacity of its people to respond to change is high. People do not change over night; change is a very slow process. You cannot push people, but only lead and encourage them in any change process. At Busy Internet we hope we are contributing to this change process by making a case for technology and development. What are the major challenges you face in running your business? The first challenge facing our business is technology. In more developed nations, if you order a piece of hardware it is delivered the next day. Operating in Ghana, it takes a long time to order technology and there are additional delays in getting the equipment to Ghana. There are also significant charges, shipping costs and custom duties. Sometimes you have to order two sets of equipment in order to have a replacement in case of failure.
Secondly, we have a lot of challenges with the skill sets needed to drive the technology we use in our business. Most people in Ghana's labour market lack experience. Many employers are not ready to invest in the skills development needed to support the growth and development of the industry.
There are also general problems with attracting and retaining the right skills. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a brain drain at Busy Internet due to the fact that by investing in staff training some of them tend to leave the company after a period of time.
Irrespective of all these challenges, the main reason for Busy Internet's success lies in the great team we have. A group of professionals who work 24/7 to keep giving value to the community.
What needs to be done to extend the reach of the Internet to more people in Ghana? Our greatest achievement in provision of access is standardization. Busy Internet is commonly regarded as the key standard that all cyber cafes want to aspire to. As the largest public Internet access point in Africa, we have impacted positively on other cyber cafes in the region. We have also provided a key forum for discussion of connectivity issues and how Internet access can be extended to the whole country. Standards are very important for any developmental process and we are excited that we are contributing. What about reaching out to the rest of Africa?
We have started the process of helping other companies' technology centres in Africa, based on the Busy Internet model. We provide services in the areas of helping our clients select the right technology and other requirements for a successful centre. Currently we are helping to set up a similar modal in Guinea. What is your opinion on the regulatory environment in Ghana?
Total disappointment. When we started working here five years ago, we were very enthusiastic, but over time the regulatory environment has been a big disappointment. Ghana was leading the way in the regulatory arena five years ago, but today it has totally halted. Ghana needs a bold vision to drive its technology development. Key players need protection from organisations like Ghana Telecom because monopolistic tendencies are stifling the growth of the industry. There is an urgent need to open up the ICT market in Ghana through creating an enabling environment, stimulating the growth of outsourcing and other new ICT business opportunities. Clear policy direction, deregulation where appropriate; and a solid legal framework are required to move Ghana into the digital age. Mauritius is a good example that comes to mind.
If the government of Ghana implements key policy, deregulates, and promotes growth in the ICT sector then Ghana would certainly be one of the silicon villages in Africa. On the other hand, industry needs to band together, skills must be developed and business practices need to be polished in order to keep pace with government deregulation. What potential do you see for the introduction of new technologies (e.g. mobile Internet) in the country?
We need to stop being seduced by new technologies and rather focus on practical technologies in order to avoid disappointment. We need to focus on basic connectivity and computing at cheaper prices. We must maintain a clear focus while building a solid foundation paving the way for the development of a wired Ghana. I do believe that GSM technologies are the future for Africa because it is going to be the means for the majority of people to communicate with both voice and data.
We must be practical when selecting new technologies and we must keep the following questions in mind:
- Would it work in our environment?
- What are the benefits of using such technologies?
- Are the technologies going to help save money?
- Do we have local support for these technologies?
- Do consumers want it?
What about content, do we have sufficient local content?
We do not have a lot of local content around and local content creation is expensive. But local services are even more important than local content. Internet connectivity is not useful if there are no local services addressing local online payment options, skills transfer, education and e-clinics etc. Busy Internet developed www.itafrica.org as a measure to help solve the information bottleneck. What is your take on the cost of connectivity in Ghana? Cost of access is quite high in Ghana. Whereas a 1Mb line costs $150 in New York, the same bandwidth costs over $5000 in Ghana. ISPs and cyber cafes are struggling under these high costs and their rate of survival is quite low. The Ghana Telecom (GT) monopoly on SAT 3 can also be stated as the cause of this high pricing. I believe the government also needs to stimulate growth in the market by taking any taxes off bandwidth so that they can be more affordable for the development of the industry. Any closing words? Businesses and the economy require ICT, namely computing power and cheap bandwidth. However, without strong leadership and discipline Ghana is going to miss the boat. Fantastic opportunities exist in Ghana and it is my sincere hope that the ICT vision for Ghana can be realised soon.