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 pricesby 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. And by some stroke of luck it is the kind of economy I graduated into — a little over 4 months since I completed my Masters degree, I am still job searching and starting your own business seems harder than facing Goliath. 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 🙂

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Agents of Innovation: Talkers, Dreamers and Doers

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAIeAAAAJDljM2Y5NzNmLTIwNzItNDVlNS1iZDAxLTExNTFlNDdmOWQzNgOne of the talks that resonated with me most at TEDxAccra, was Fiifi Baidoo’s talk on “Agents of Innovation: Talkers, Dreamers and Doers”. We have too many talkers in this country, i think we talk too much. Talk is cheap and we have our airwaves buzzing with them each morning. From one distraction to the next, using all sorts of big grammar, this does not impress me anymore. I am not in anyway saying that Talk is bad, but then you got to walk your talk. You got to show me more than your words. Less talk more action.

I am a dreamer at heart. Ever since I could remember, I have always had grandiose plans of how things could be better. Most of this are just a thin line away from wishful thinking really. They tend to take me away from reality and sometimes blind me to the real challenges on the ground. But then sometimes, I gather enough courage to put some into deeds and the small joys they bring are the moments I live for. One weakness (or maybe strength) of the dreamer is that he is never satisfied. They joy easily fades away.

I need to do more, in fact I GOT to do more. I believe we need more doers in the country. But doing is hard, it sometimes leaves you hurt, vulnerable and you can fail. No one wants this, I dread them. It is believed however that it is only through doing that we grow, that we truly live and prosper as a nation. Although doing puts us head-on in the path of challenges, sometimes making us curse the decision to leave our comfort zones in the first place, the joy and lessons that come from having done it make the challenges we faced almost insignificant. This then drives us to want to do more, to take on bigger challenges. God give us strength to do more.

Check out the full script of his talk here.

This is an old article publish on LinkedIn in April. Publishing here to centralise all my articles 🙂

The Pan-African movement – is there still hope?

After so long, I have been able to put together a blog post again :-). I was invited to participate in the 8th Pan African Congress being held in Accra from the 4-7th of March. One thing the congress succeeded in, was filling my head with so many ideas that I had no choice other than to share. The date for the congress was chosen to coincide with Ghana’s 58th independence anniversary on the 6th of March. The Pan African Congress, having begun in 1900, had its peaks with the 5th and 6th Congress held in 1945 and 1958 respectively putting into motion plans for the total liberation of the African continent.  Hence, it should come as no surprise my excitement of being part of the 8th Pan African Congress. Especially, since it has not been organized for more than two decades.

I am writing this after day two and my impression so far? Disappointed! Why? The Pan African movement has provided the biggest network for change across the entire continent. The 5th Congress especially brought together luminaries like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Hastings Banda (Malawi), etc. who joined the decolonization struggles back in their home countries. However at this particular congress, one could easily sense the lack of agenda and common purpose among the participants and delegates. This aside, what I could not understand is why an event like “THE PAN AFRICAN CONGRESS” was given such low publicity. It was not covered by any of the big international media houses. Day two is over and all attempts to catch even a mention of the congress on the BBC is proving futile (for even the focus on Africa show!). In the Ghanaian media, the media mostly pounced on the fact that H.E. President John Mahama will be giving the key note address. This all goes to somehow prove the assertion that Pan-Africanism might be losing its relevance. Maybe, Ghana’s independence on the third day will throw more light on the congress.

The key issues addressed by the various leaders at the opening ceremony were:

  1. Redefining Pan-Africanism in the light of the 21st century
  2. Defining the African personality and commanding respect
  3. Setting a new agenda for panafricanism
  4. Fixing problems of the Pan-African movement to enhance collaboration and organization of congress.

To do this, discussions were divided into plenary sessions and break-out groups/commissions. The various commissions will be expected to submit their reports on various themes after which discussions are planned on the road map and process towards the 8th PAC delegates Congress in 2016.

In all fairness, the Local Organizing Committee has done an incredible job of putting the congress together after more than two decades of dormancy. However, I am yet to fully appreciate why the 8th Congress is in two parts and why the other part will be held in 2016 (more info will help, nothing online). Also, I was very surprised to learn that the movement had no constitution. But how can you be an organization having executives, branches, etc without a constitution. No wonder it came to be that the executives that were elected in 1994 have shrunk in size without there being any mandate to replace them in the interim.

But then at the roots, what does Pan-Africanism really mean to people. Pan Africanism as a concept and movement is popular among the elites and the diaspora. This lack of relation with the average African makes it difficult for it to pull continent-wide momentum. The African in the village is barely aware of slavery and racism, how then does she contribute her mantle to promoting African unity and the assertion of the African personality in the international system. Further, a lot needs to be done to figure out the implications of globalization for pan-Africanism. Globalization is here to stay, and as such should be properly harnessed to promote African unity.

In spite of all these, I left the venue with some level of hope. Hope that an African unity is still possible and the more we collaborate to solve our shared problems, the faster we’ll head towards development and dignity. An insight that came to me was that, to have the Africa that we want, we must build capacity. How do we expect to be respected, be economically developed when we go begging for funds to finance projects we want to undertake. One of the major reasons for the dormancy of the Pan African Congress has been lack of funds. So maybe, we should quieten down the talks for reparation, for fair treatment, for racial abuse and instead build capacity. Once we have built and develop the African we want, no one can deny us our place in the grand scheme of things. Of course this will not go without the neo-colonialists and imperialists trying to frustrate our attempts. But then the rewards for future generations will be greater.

Engaging the diaspora is one of the ways we can build capacity. They want to come and settle in Africa, we should make it easy for them. Being African should not be based on geography but on the common heritage that we all share. So once you share in the common heritage of being African, you should not be denied citizenship on the continent. The Israelis have provided a safe haven for the jewish people, and immigration has been key to their development…we can and should do similar. We need all the people we can get to build the continent. Let’s make this happen, African Union?

Maybe, because it’s been long since I wrote a blog post, my thoughts are everywhere. But then I believe that the Africa we seek will take more than a generation to build. We have started it well somehow (the whole continent has been totally liberated, almost liberated…Western Sahara!), but now we seem to be stalling and straying away from the course. We should be ready to let go of old ideas that are no more working, even where it means giving a new form to Pan-Africanism. My generation has no excuse but to put Africa on the right course. We have sought the political kingdom and seen how little we can do if the economy is not set right, now let’s seek the economic kingdom through entrepreneurship, innovation and good uncorrupted leadership. It is time we create the African world we want, it is something we can and should do.

Economics: Ghana’s ray of Hope?

Economics: Ghana's ray of hope?

Economics: Ghana’s ray of hope?

The importance of economics in Ghana has never been so much felt than the past couple of years. Politicians in their bid to harness and maintain political power are resulting more to economic indicators to measure their performance. The Government’s primary function is to protect the citizenry both internally and externally and also to take full control over the management of the economy. With the average Ghanaian becoming more informed and sophisticated, a lot of emphasis is being placed on facts and evidence-based performance and policies than vague reports and empty promises that past politicians used to feed us.

During the course of 2012, economic issues formed a more than significant portion of issues discussed on our media. Politicians struggled to explain to their Ghanaian populace what Ghana achieving lower middle income status really meant for them. It became common-place to hear people explaining decreasing rates of inflation to mean that prices have actually reduced. So confused were a lot of Ghanaians when we realized that although politicians were making big news of the fact that Ghana has achieved single digit inflation, prices of goods and services were still increasing. We were even more dumbfounded when during the period that those good economic indicators (middle income status, high economic growth rate, single digit inflation, increases in credit ratings, etc.) were being reported, the cedi was going through one of its worst depreciation phases against the US dollar and other major foreign currencies.

Unable to make the head and tail of it, people begun losing trust and confidence in economic indicators, seeing them as propaganda machinery deployed by the government to trick them into blindly following their policies. This led to an increase in demand for economists to play more significant roles in the management of the country. The New Patriotic Party appointed for the second consecutive time, Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia a renowned economist and former deputy Governor of the Bank of Ghana as its vice presidential candidate. Shortly after this he delivered a lecture he entitled “what is the real state of our economy” bringing to the fore how a deeper understanding of economics can help explain much of the economic phenomena in the country.  In a seemingly indirect response, the ruling party, the New Democratic Congress also appointed Mr. Kwesi Amissah Arthur, an economist and Governor of Bank of Ghana as its vice presidential candidate. This ensured that no matter what the case might be we will have an economist at the forefront of the affairs of the country. But then, will an economist serving as Vice President of the republic help to make economic indicators much better communicated and understood and bring about the so much desired transformational economic policies that we yearn  for? Or perhaps is all these yet another gimmick being used by politicians to get our votes?

Nonetheless, it is clear what needs to be done in the country. For there to be substantive and sustainable economic growth, economic principles and statistics must first be understood by at least those at the helm of affairs to enable them pursue informed and research-based country-tailored policies.

We are not in any way calling for the country to be ruled by economists only, but then just as you will seek the services of a mechanic before buying a car or that of a lawyer when faced with legal issues, matters of economic concern should also first pass through stringent economic consultations. In that vein, we clearly support the position of our Vice Chancellor, Ernest Aryeeteye that Ghana needs a research-based university where country-specific solutions and policies are churned out on a regular basis as done by most advanced countries. The era of trial and error is long dead and gone. It is time Ghana fashions policies that will really solve the numerous problems faced by its people.

P.S. I wrote this article originally as the editorial forward for “The Legon Economist” , the annual magazine of the University of Ghana Economics Students Society (UGESS) which will be released later this year. Please let me know what you think of it. As you know…when it goes to hard copy, it can’t be edited. Thanks for reading!

A last look at the “falling cedi” and inflation

the fallling cediDuring the course of the year, one economic phenomenon that made it to the households of most Ghanaians was inflation (general increases in the price level) and the “falling cedi” (depreciation). The Mills-led Government from the onset made clear their agenda of pushing Ghana to have single digit inflation. This they did through massive expenditure cuts which led to Mills’ first two years of office being described as years of “no-action”.

We did get single digit inflation, but one strange phenomenon that was experienced during that period was the falling of the cedi which reached very disturbing levels.

The cedi for a very long time has been counted among the weakest currency on the continent. Even the introduction of the “Ghana Cedi” and major interventions by the Government seem futile in curbing this very worrying trend. A fall in the cedi was normally associated with increases in the general price levels, so stranger still was the fact that this time around inflation was on the decline.

So then what really happened? Did the falling cedi affect the inflation rate or was it rather inflation affecting the falling cedi? Or perhaps there was no causality between the two.

Let’s start with the basics.

  • Price inflation is primarily caused by monetary inflation. In other words as the money supply increases things cost more.
  •  The government controls the money supply to a certain extent through tightening or loosening credit.
  •  The economy is extremely complex and many other factors come into play. Such as international exchange and the supply and demand for goods and services.

At first, it might appear that the falling cedi would cause deflation because the cedi is going down. But if the cedi is going down that means the purchasing power of the cedi is decreasing on a worldwide scale. In other words, a cedi would buy less if you traveled to another country. That is another way of saying that it takes more cedis to buy the same thing. That sounds pretty much like inflation, doesn’t it?

However, does that mean that things at our local supermarket will cost more? Probably not (at least not at first). If the foodstuffs are produced locally the value of the cedi on the world market will have little effect on the prices of products.

However, if foodstuffs like onions come from Niger they will be more expensive. Because the cedi is worth less in Niger. So you might choose to buy onions locally from Bawku since they will be relatively less expensive.

But in the long run as more foreign raw materials and imported items circulate through the economy the effect will begin to be felt in everything.

On the flip side however, a weaker cedi, means that foreigners find our products cheaper. China has artificially kept their currency low for years boosting their ability to export cheap goods to Ghana and other countries.

Major global players have been trying to get them to raise their exchange rate through diplomatic means to very little avail. However the lowering of the cedi has achieved much the same thing and has reduced the currency exchange advantage the US and other trading partners have had against us.

This means that Ghana should be able to increase its exports. In other words imports will become more expensive while exports become cheaper. This should encourage more people to buy “Made in Ghana goods” both domestically and over-seas. This will boost our economy by creating jobs.

But what effect will it have on our money supply? Remember the rule of inflation is that it is primarily a function of the supply of money compared to the supply of goods.

The value of the cedi on the world exchange market does not have an effect on the quantity of those cedis, so money supply will not be affected. What about supply of goods? Well the supply of goods will also stay the same although some substitution might occur as people buy Bawku onions instead of Niger onions.

The major change will be in the demand for goods as people make those substitutions. Bawku onions might rise in price a bit because of the increase in demand while Niger onions fall a bit until they reach a new equilibrium.

But since the majority of products purchased by Ghanaian consumers are produced overseas the net effect will still be that we are paying more cedis for the same goods. So although the money supply is unaffected prices are higher so it might appear as inflation but in a way it is pseudo-inflation.

But the effect is still the same… a year from now you will be paying higher prices. Thus the net effect of the depreciation of the cedi is that there will be an increase in inflation in the near future. To curb this, we need to increase the entrepreneurial spirit in Ghana and produce more “made in Ghana” products.

Also, we as consumers need a change of attitude to buy more made in Ghana products to reward the efforts of our entrepreneurs and also give them an incentive to invest more helping to create jobs and improving the economy on the whole. However, entrepreneurs should note that the modern Ghanaian consumer is very sophisticated and hence would not blindly follow the “buy made in Ghana” cliché unless they are getting real value for their money.

Never too late!!

Never-too-late_letteringWow…its seems like ages since i last wrote a blog. I remember how much filled with energy and expectation i was when i started it. and all i could manage was just 2 post…smh! 2 Post!! who does that? or is blogging not for me? But as they always say It’s never too late to start again! 🙂

After all the months of absence, i believe i am more than ready to start anew. I even went the extra mile to get good advice from a pro ( yeah she’s really good, check out her blog). So now am really buffed up, but before i pour out fresh juice, here is something i wrote way back in February that didn’t make it to my blog. Reading it now pretty much sums up  how exactly i feel now.

——->>>earlier on in the year on a shuttle headed for a lecture<<<——–

There a lot which i have begun which are left incomplete. I wonder whether it should be the case that i go back and complete them. That is really a thought i must consider, cos the feeling of leaving things incomplete always leaves ones heart with a feeling of the inability of finishing what one sets as his/her objective.

The question that comes to mind is whether one has to finish everything that is started . Perhaps, certain lines of actions are not meant to be an end in themselves but serve as a guiding light to the fulfilment of other greater things. Or is this line of thought meant to serve as a tool that the lazy individual uses as an excuse for his/her incompetence.

Whatever the case might be, my strong conviction is that, life is full of experiences that teaches us how to be strong to achieve our greater calling or the greater purpose which we are here. It is only when the individual gets to the realization that challenges, failures and obstacles are part of life and that it’s only when he/she masters how to confront, combat and defeat them that he goes further enough to achieve greatness.

——>>>back to present times<<<——-

So if this hullabaloo about the mayan apocalypse turns out to be false…you should expect more fresh contents from me. Remember its all about random thoughts on anything at all but with sweet bias towards Entrepreneurship and Technology. Will give reasons for the bias in a later post ;).

Africa’s 2012 growth prospects appear bright, but downside risks could dampen momentum

Sub-Saharan African countries bucked the slowdown in the global economy and grew at a robust pace in 2011 (see Africia’s Pulse, February 2012 Update).

The region’s output expanded by an estimated 4.9 percent, faster than in 2010 and just shy of the pre-crisis (average of 2003-08) level of 5 percent.  Excluding South Africa, the regional growth rate was 5.9 percent.  Particularly notable is the fact that this growth was widespread:  over a third of countries posted 6 percent or higher growth; another 40 percent grew at between 4-6 percent.  Equally important is the fact that several countries saw sustained growth rates of over 6 percent a year in both 2010 and 2011.

So what can Sub-Saharan Africa expect in 2012?  Barring a serious deterioration in the global economy, the outlook for the region seems bright, with a pickup in GDP growth to 5.3 percent in 2012 and 5.6 percent in 2013.  High commodity prices and strong domestic demand, especially buoyant private consumption, are expected to sustain the expansion.

But these factors also point to Africa’s vulnerability.  Most African countries are dependent on two or three primary commodities for their export revenues (see figure).  Those that export consumer goods, such as Mauritius, Seychelles and Cape Verde, sell 70-90 percent to the European Union.

Median share of the largest 3 commodities in total exports in SSA by country group
 
Sources: COMTRADE and staff calculation based on SITC3 classification 4-digit subgroups

A sharp contraction in Europe, therefore, would pull down global demand, significantly depressing commodity prices and trade and lowering growth rates in Africa. Moreover, with many African countries entering 2012 with less fiscal and monetary policy space than in 2008-09, it will be harder for these countries to respond to global shocks as they did in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis.  Finally, parts of Africa remain susceptible to food price shocks—the Horn of Africa last year, possibly the Sahelian countries of Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania this year.
You can see the full analysis on Africa’s economic outlook on the latest update of the World Bank’s Africa Pulse here.