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Ghana is home to a burgeoning innovation scene, complete with research institutions, hubs and initiatives to support women. But poor infrastructure, access to capital, and bureaucracy remain hurdles for entrepreneurs.
— Ghana is seen as a stable environment for innovators and investors
— A vibrant tech scene underpins a new industry with access to international markets
— The Internet is opening up new employment opportunities
— The government offers some funding opportunities
— Poor infrastructure and bureaucracy place barriers on innovation
— Access to capital remains difficult for founders
Digital participation and innovation are interdependent – that’s the conclusion of Ashwin Ravichandran, CEO of the Accra-based Mest Incubator. "The more you innovate, the more access you produce. The more access someone produces, the more society uplifts," he said. The incubator in Ghana's capital is part of the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, which coaches young entrepreneurs and supports them with seed capital. Ravichandran is full of praise for the location. The West African country’s mix of political and economic stability, combined with the fact that it is English-speaking, make it an attractive proposition for outside investors. "Ghana is going to become the media hub for West Africa soon," Ravichandran said with confidence. It’s a view shared by international tech companies such as IBM and Google. The latter’s decision to open a research center for artificial intelligence in Accra in 2018 made headlines around the world.
In recent years, Ghana has developed a well-networked scene of more than 24 active TechHubs that have joined forces in Ghana Tech and Business Hubs Network (TBHNG). The goal is to create thriving innovation clusters across the country. Numerous conferences and hackathons provide additional opportunities for meet-ups. It’s where collaborators come together to work on their latest business ideas. Not even the sky is the limit, given that one recent event challenged participants to develop solutions for problems arising in outer space.
FinTech is one of the main fields for digital innovation
But the overwhelming focus of Ghana’s innovators is on Earth. Most digital start-ups have settled in the agricultural and FinTech sectors. Agrocenta, Asoriba, ExpressPay, Farmerline, Kudobuzz are just a few examples. But there are also successful projects in the media sector, most notably OMG Digital, a exclusively digital media company that follows the example set by BuzzFeed. The MEST Incubator-sponsored start-up AF Radio, on the other hand, wants to help local radio stations open up digital channels. AF Radio is a consumer app through which people can listen to their favorite live radio shows and play back the ones they missed as podcasts, while enabling radio stations to increase their revenue through dynamic ad placements.
The support infrastructure also includes a number of initiatives to train girls and young women for jobs in the digital economy. Vanessa Otchere is active in several of them. "I am part of Unlocking Women and Technology (UWAT) which is a flagship program by iSpace foundation where they teach women how to code," said the 24-year-old. "I'm also part of ‘developers in vogue’ where they teach you coding skills and after that they connect you to jobs related to the training.” With this support, she is already working on her own business idea: TicketEx, an online ticket platform for public transport in Ghana.
Lack of access a problem for innovation
The Impact Hub in the Osu district of Accra is a kind of flagship innovation center. Foreign dignitaries and high-ranking state officials almost always pay a visit when they’re in town. Most recently in 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stopped by. For William Senyo, the co-founder and CEO, such visits represent both praise and an incentive to do more. While heartened by the recognition, he sees an urgent need to catch up. In large parts of the country, infrastructure is still inadequate and unreliable, and rural areas are completely left behind. He’s concerned that too few people have access to the tools that enable them to innovate. "Even we as an institution, I worry that we are slightly elitist. I don't know what a solution could be except to commoditize the Internet almost like it is a basic human right," said Senyo. He wants Africa to emancipate itself from the West in terms of progress: "We are big consumers of technology and we adapt technology to local use and we call that innovation. That is incremental innovation at best. The reality is, we are not creating enough to actually shape the future of digital society."
Jemila Abdulai, a blogger, digital marketing expert and founder of Circumspecte.com underlines the positive aspects of digitization for progress: "Just like the mobile phone enabled a lot of Africans to skip over a lot of things that the West had to do, digital platforms and social media will allow a lot of young Africans to connect with each other and extend their boundaries."
The government is also straining to keep up with the ever-changing cycle of innovation. Getting face time with successful Internet entrepreneurs such as China’s Jack Ma and executives in Silicon Valley is part of their efforts to stay ahead. To tackle the funding deficit and reduce youth unemployment, the government has launched a $10 million initiative called the National Entrepreneurship and Innovation Plan (NEIP). NEIP is now the government’s primary vehicle for providing support to start-ups and small businesses.
However, digital technologies offer a greater potential than just economic development. They are particularly suited to widening social participation. With the e-transform project, the government is trying to digitize administrative processes. Jerry Sam of Penplusbytes sees more opportunities, especially in the fight against corruption. "We need data to inform citizens. We need to involve state institutions that are fighting corruption," Sam said. The "Red Flag Movement” is one example. The project allows reports of corruption on social media to be tracked down, evaluated, and passed on to the investigating authorities.
What experts say:
William Senyo, founder and CEO of iHub Accra calls for more original innovation: “We are big consumers of technology and we adapt technology to local use and we call that innovation. That is incremental innovation at best. The reality is we are not creating enough to actually shape the future of digital society. “
Jemila Abdulai, Blogger and Founder of Circumspecte.com “There's a big misconception that in order to use digital tools you need to have hardcore technical skills. Digital skills and tools are just that – they’re skills and tools that you can use to improve what you're already doing.”
Ashwin Ravichandran, CEO of MEST Incubator in Accra stresses that the perspective of digital participation must be adapted to the regional context: “For me, having access to infrastructure is the most important thing when it comes to digital inclusion. In the western world, this is now a given. So first and foremost, we need to readjust the lens of our definition of digital inclusion. The second thing is applying intervention principles. In Africa, people tend to skip whole trends, like pagers, for example. So you need to adopt one trend which you think would be scalable and then work on that trend.”
Precious Ankomah, who works on media innovations at Penplusbytes sees the lack of digital participation by women as a wider societal problem: “Usually the Internet provides a level playing field for everybody – men and women. But the social differences we have in real life are truly manifested on the Internet. It is actually a very dicey situation here because what happens offline is mirrored online.”
Jerry Sam, director of programs at Penplusbytes sees innovative forms of participation as an opportunity to give people more control over their lives: “We came from the standpoint that once citizens are involved in monitoring, not just elections, but in a government process, then they come to own the process.”
#speakup barometer recommendations:
— Greater efforts to create a secure, affordable, and nationwide digital infrastructure is necessary
Secure, affordable, and nationwide digital infrastructure is the key to further innovation in Ghana, which would benefit from more training and less red tape.
— Youth education is key to paving the way for innovation
Impact Hub CEO Senyo believes that the younger population must be introduced to the opportunities offered by digitalization. "We have to develop a critical mass of young people who will eventually shape the dynamics of digital society to our advantage. The disadvantage of being here is that policy is not catching up as quickly as innovation is developing." Nevertheless, he is optimistic and refuses to be slowed down by the government: "I think there has never been a better time to be young, black and African. And I think there is a lot of untapped energy here in terms of both economic gain and empowering people to flip the African narrative."
— Ghana must create conditions to make the country attractive for global investors
Experts agree that Ghana must create conditions that make the country attractive for investors from around the world. One of those conditions is greater self-confidence. "I think the first thing we need to do is stop applying traditional western definitions to African markets. Digital inclusion is driven by need. If that need grows, companies and start-ups are going to figure it out and build products for it," said Ravichandran.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer