The Rising Tide Lifts All Boats — A Plea to the Tech Community in Ghana

Photo from G Ghana 2012 event on Anna Bishop Rehrig Google + profile

One fine Saturday in 2011, I was at a GTUG-Legon (now GDG-Legon) event led by Divine Puplampu. That was the first time I met Ato Ulzen-Appiah and my second time seeing him, we’ll go on to become good friends and do so much together. Before then I had heard so much about him — how he worked with Google and had degrees from MIT and Stanford University. There was something about him then that make him easy to relate and aspire to. He was a great connector and served as a point of initiation and approach for so many people in the tech space. He was easily recognized as a leader of the Ghana Tech community along with others like Jojo Imbeah, and Fifi Baidoo. Those days characterized a lot of vibrancy and excitement in the tech community in Ghana. However, for reasons I can’t place a hand on, the community has grown quieter and is fragmenting into small disjointed units. This article is about showing how a strong community is essential to building a vibrant tech ecosystem in Ghana and how encouraging such efforts will help us better weather the storm (tough economy) that we all currently face.

To begin with, let me clearly state what I mean by tech community. It does not refer to only developers but they are an integral part. Ato is not a developer, neither am I (though I have tried coding before), but then I believe that members of our tech community share one thing in common — a passion for technology. So it comprises developers, bloggers, entrepreneurs, startups, big tech companies, tech hubs, universities, government, investors, mentors, etc. I will leave the explanation of the roles the various components play for another article. To grow the tech space in Ghana, all these groups have a role to play and they can best achieve that as part of an easily identifiable community (and this is not formalized).

The more advanced and growing tech communities have one central belief — that a rising tide lifts all boats. That is to say, a strong and vibrant tech community will bring benefits to the individual members in the country especially for startups. The reason for this is that the startup model is such that investments often flows to communities and not to individual startups. Although, there are cases where a few startups have attracted some investments, that is often not the norm but rare exceptions. So far as the startup ecosystem in Africa continues to depend on foreign sources for investments, we will need to do more as a community to present ourselves as a strong investment destination. Little wonder then that countries (such as Kenya and Nigeria) with more vibrant communities than ours are attracting most of the investments on the continent. What the Ghanaian tech community need to realize is that, on the regional level, we are competing with other countries. So we might want to start acting like it and take our community more seriously, devoid of personal conflicts.

I make this appeal fully aware of the numerous challenges we face. First, we have the cultural one. A vibrant community requires a good level of openness and trust, which is missing in our community. This goes deeper into our societal make-up, and unless we make deliberate efforts to overcome them, we will not be able to truly unite. Exits often serve as huge inspirations to other tech entrepreneurs but who knows how much some of the acquisitions that made the news went for — Saya? Claimsync? This must change. Another cultural challenge is how we perceive and receive failure. In spite of the recent romance with failure rhetoric in a lot of gatherings, failure is still hugely stigmatized in our society so much so that anyone without some level of personal stamina can easily lose vim with regards to how the community receives failure. Other communities celebrate failure, knowing that it is a definite part of the community’s life and even throw funerals to honour the death of ideas and start-ups. Failure can happen to any of us, the earlier we recognize this and feel empathy for our colleagues and strategise to help them deal with it so they can bouce back, the better.

I wouldn’t be done talking about challenges without the most visible technical — dumsor (power outages) and the high cost of internet. I would not be surprised if years down the line, research reveals that the biggest factor for the slow down in community activities is dumsor. How one is expected to run a tech business with 12 hours of electricity and 24 hours of no electricity running through the week still baffles me. Also for the high cost of internet, I think the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) report did more justice to that. A more recent example is the increase in internet prices by Vodafone, as if they did not hear about all our appeals for reduction. Yes, the cost of doing business in Ghana is rising and they are probably justified in raising the prices but that is doing the community a lot of harm. A lot of start-ups are folding up because of these.

The challenges are plenty but let me spare one more paragraph to highlight two more — the influence of the economy and support from government. The economy of Ghana is so bad right now; I have been trying so hard to wrap my head against it. Borrowing Manasseh Azure’s words “Rising unemployment is now normal…The power crises have only been solved with promises. Many businesses have folded up as a result of the power crises. Companies have laid off workers. Government has frozen public sector employment and school leavers cannot start their own businesses because the atmosphere has been polluted. The only sector that is thriving very well under this administration is the corruption sector.” Although these are valid reasons to look on dejected, this question keeps battling my mind, could a truly united and purposed community not shield us from the vagaries of the wider economy? The issue of support by government is somehow linked to how inefficiently we manage our economy. Although there appears to be some level of recognition in recent times, it is “someway”. The government only seems to recognize its established agencies and not the already existing private sector — a sure set-up for failure. Like what I tell my friends who complain about this…let us keep working, unite and chop more successes…then you will see the government rushing to lay claims to some of the glory. Similar to what’s happening in Kenya now. Once the government tries to come in like that, we grab it and hit them with our own carefully laid out terms and conditions :-).

Photo from G Ghana 2012 event on Anna Bishop Rehrig Google + profile

Now back to the reason for writing this article — the need to strengthen our tech community. We all know that technology has a lot of potential and serves as an enabler in a lot of areas including economic development. Hence we need a strong community to push this. A necessary and sufficient condition to make this happen is that the community needs a leader or leaders. In the early days, it was clear, one could easily point to people like Ato. Sometimes in my interactions with him, I wish to tell him to be aware and take more seriously the building of the community but then he is preoccupied with doing other equally (or more) important stuff. So are the others, they seem to be now buried in their own personal projects. We need a new generation of leaders, and this is got to happen by itself. Unfortunately, the tech community disintegrates when it gets political…it should be selfless in its functions and so must the leader(s) be. He/she must try to make everyone part of the community, and not dwell in cliques. The leader(s) tries to promote inclusion and welcomes and makes everyone feel part of the community as much as possible. The leader(s) often gives people roles to play so they better connect with the community. A vibrant community is often not so well defined (this is good), it intersects, subsets and supersets other groups. So virtually any group or individual who uses technology or wants to be part of the community is given the chance. The next question might be how such leaders are selected. They are not selected. From interactions, activities, and events they become self-evident. They are often genuine and selfless individuals who are great connectors. Their ability to connect and genuinely know people put them as leaders, and we must welcome and accept such people to lead us without putting our selfish interests in the way.

So there goes a couple of random thoughts I have been gathering lately. Going back to the first meeting with Ato, as we walk down to help him catch a taxi after the event, we talked about Google and technology in Ghana and about the community on our campus. I will go on to connect with a lot of people in the community and some I even regard as family. Looking back, so profound has been the influence that I decided to do my Masters thesis on tech startups in Africa. The tech community in Ghana still attracts me greatly. However, the community has been quiet and unsupportive of its members lately. We need to change that. Hopefully this article starts the conversation that seriously looks at bringing that change.

What are your thoughts on the tech community in Ghana and how do you think we make it stronger? Leave your comments and suggestions below :-)