June 18, 2002 - Boston Globe: Geekcorps tries the dot-com model in Africa

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Geekcorps tries the dot-com model in Africa

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Geekcorps tries the dot-com model in Africa

By Nicholas Thompson, Globe Correspondent, 6/18/2002

CCRA, Ghana - If you're a Generation-X computer programmer with free time, some cash, and a hankering to change the world, the Geekcorps wants you. If you can tolerate open sewers and meandering goats, so much the better.

Based in Amherst, Mass., the nonprofit Geekcorps sends young computer programmers to technology startup companies in Ghana. The geeks live in the capital of this bustling West African nation, and volunteer in four-month shifts, passing on their skills and helping the companies grow.

As its name implies, Geekcorps is loosely based on the Peace Corps. But Geekcorps hasn't just traded shovels for motherboards. The geeks want to try something rare for Americans who trek to Africa trying to help - boosting the private sector. To these geeks - whose idols wrote code instead of marching on Washington - development comes from doing well, not just from doing good. The Peace Corps' focus on building schools, bridges and the like is admirable, but not enough, they say.

''The Peace Corps has had the same development model for 40 years. Either they're not doing it very well here or it's not the right model,'' said Stophe Landis, who now runs Geekcorps' Accra office.

The organization was founded in February 2000 by Ethan Zuckerman, a young programmer based in North Adams, Mass., who earned millions in the dot-com boom and wanted to do something to help a country that he had visited to study drumming. The organization, which is partnered with the US Agency for International Development, has a few Geeks in Bulgaria, Armenia and Lebanon, but Ghana is its heart. So far, about 35 Geeks have passed through the program.

The working conditions are exciting if not easy: Earning $100 a week in a very poor country with lots of malaria, not a lot of roads, and a technology sector that seems to be booming as the rest of the economy spins around. Not surprisingly, the corps attracts volunteers who are ambitious and adventurous.

Jonathan Wong, for example, cashed out of a graphics-design company he cofounded in Toronto and applied to Geekcorps because he wanted to see more of the world. Now, he's working for a company called Skao Graphix that is packed with high technology - Macintosh G4s, printing presses, and scanners - much of it donated by a Danish foreign-aid organization. But the phone hasn't worked for weeks, the power goes off all the time, and a giant machine called an image setter takes up nearly an entire room without anyone knowing how to work it. ''We plugged it in a few months ago and it started smoking,'' Wong said. ''We've been too scared to plug it in ever since.''

Because Skao Graphix fills a growing economic niche in Ghana, the company has plenty of jobs right now, but it can't fill many of them - which may not be surprising given Ghana's dilapidated higher-education system and that few people in the country have familiarity with project management or even computers. Wong is essentially running the company now since no one else has much experience and the president just took off for a few weeks on unknown business.

''It's kind of like Peter Pan now, with all these kids running around,'' he said.

And the inexperience of the staff shows. Skao recently delivered business cards to a company six months late and printed 30 stacks of brochures for a company that wanted 300. ''In a couple of years, we'll either be really big, or we won't exist at all,'' Wong said.

Wong's main task is to train a young woman named Dzazior Adanu in graphics programs such as Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. Adanu works 12-hour days and said that she truly enjoys her work at Skao. On a recent morning, she was making an identification card for patients at Ghana's Planned Parenthood. She also said that Wong has taught her so much that she wants three more Geekcorps members to join the company.

But Adanu also demonstrates what Accra office manager Landis calls Geekcorps' biggest problem: Now that she's been trained, Adanu wants to leave Ghana and earn money elsewhere, defeating Geekcorps' original goal of building capabilities in Ghana. At $130 a month, her salary is good for a country with a yearly per-capita income of less than $400, but she knows that she could earn vastly more in America. Plus, Skao's office wouldn't pass muster in the United States.. Since there's no running water, employees have to carry buckets from a tap in a house next door every time they want to flush the toilet.

Still, even as many companies fold and Skao Graphics sputters, Ghana's information-technology industry is growing fast. Four years ago, there was one Internet cafe in Accra where members of the public could surf the Web over lunch. Today, there are 200 and a good outfielder could throw a baseball from Geekcorps headquarters through the windows of at least a half-dozen.

Meanwhile, computer schools are churning out young graduates who want to found their own companies and much of the rest of the country is getting mechanized - even if sometimes through rickety computers that need plastic covers to keep the Northern dust out. The military hospital outside of Accra has a networked computer connected to the Internet through fiber-optic lines in every room.

''Ghana is seen as just another place in Africa, that continent with jungles. But there are cities here with just as many opportunities as cities in the United States, '' Landis said. ''Ghanaians are striving to have this be just one other country that competes with other countries, and that's what we want to help with.''

Although most of the neighbors don't know Geekcorps exists, much less how to pronounce it, the group already has assisted with some of Ghana's most important technological innovations. One ''geek'' helped set up a wireless system for one of Africa's largest Internet service providers in order to help bring the Internet to rural communities. Another helped develop payroll and inventory management applications for Ghana's largest software company - while working out of a shipping container.

Other geeks in Ghana with Wong right now have found more success. Christian Skogh works for a rapidly growing software company called Rancard Solutions, whose chief executive officer, Kofi Dadzie, sounds like a Yahoo! executive in 1996, talking confidently of expanding from eight employees to 5,000 within a couple of years.

John McNamara has helped train African programmers for a growing software company called Persol that helps Ghanaian companies with tasks such as inventory management. According to Persol's CEO, Michael Quarshire, ''Geekcorps is really plugged in and they help us fill a gap. Education is poor here and they have a lot to teach us.''

Other nonprofits also send experts to the developing world like Geekcorps, but Geekcorps stands alone in promoting high technology in the lowest technolgoy part of the world. ''It sounds like a great idea,'' said Peter Frumkin, who teaches philanthropy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He said there is a risk, however, that Geekcorps will only be a temporary boost for the local high-technology industry. ''If it's not married with any followup, it may be a nice break. But I am not sure where it leads them.''

But Geekcorps officials don't seem too stressed about the futures right now. The organization's Web page opens with: ''Hi. We're Geekcorps. We believe that everyone deserves access to the Internet and the economic opportunities it provides.'' It's an appropriate low-key introduction because, if there's anything that unites the geeks as much as striving to help Africa, it's kicking back. They live together in a compound they call ''Geekhalla'' that resembles a fraternity house, with rum bottles and sandals scattered around and Bob Marley crooning in the background. A book describing computer database management sits on the living-room shelf next to ''Walden'' and ''Intro Africa.''

''My previous job was one of those sell-the-soul, be-a-cog-in-the-machine kind of things,'' says Wong, 24, as he stretches his legs and reclines in his chair. But his experience in Ghana, he says, has been ''very excellent,'' even if orders have been late and machines have exploded. Many of the geeks talk of staying for longer than four months and many of the previous geeks who've gone back to the United States return to Ghana to visit.

Moreover, just as with generations of Peace Corps workers, the geeks in Ghana realize that they learn as much as they teach in their new $100-a-week jobs. Wong said that he has discovered a new respect for family, and McNamara said that Ghanaians are by far the friendliest and kindest people he has ever met. The geeks also, of course, are getting a new sense of what matters in life.

''Computer programmers in the United States always get stressed out about whether they've had their latte, and whether it tasted right,'' Landis said. ''A couple of months here really gives a new perspective on that.''

Nicholas Thompson is a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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