From the Field: Observations on tech production & innovation in Ghana – Part 1

By Seyram Avle

I’m back in Ghana to continue fieldwork I started in 2012 – documenting & making sense of technology and new media production  [see here, here, and here for published work on this]. This is the end of my third week, and in that time, I’ve (briefly) visited two co-working spaces in the city, attended a couple of industry events, and spoken to some tech entrepreneurs. Given the limited time and data so far, my observations should be not be interpreted as sweeping claims about technology production/entrepreneurship in Ghana as a whole. Kumasi, another major city, has its own stuff going, as does Takoradi which now apparently has a fablab and hosts a maker group (more on that later). These are just some things that are striking based on what I saw in 2012 and what I’m observing this time around. I expect that some of these impressions will change as I spend more time with a couple of companies and talk more to the different actors in the tech and new media sectors.

So, what’s changed since 2012?

New and varied players

  1. Several new companies have emerged, still largely software based. However, many of these companies are service providers first, tech companies second; i.e. lots of tech enabled services like food/grocery delivery, banking, e-commerce, etc. serving both local and diaspora based Ghanaians.
  2. Some of the startups from 2012 have been acquired by foreign entities (E.g. ClaimSync, now part of Genkey, Saya is now part of Kirusa) and many have evolved in what service/product they deliver.
  3.  The school/Incubator (MEST) that some of those companies came out of has refashioned into a “school and incubator for African startups” – showing a broader continent wide focus that speaks a lot about its growth in the last few years.
  4.  There are two additional incubators/hubs in the city (iSpace and Impact Hub (formerly Hub Accra) that house a number of startups while doubling as co-working spaces.
  5. Most, if not all, of the telecom operators now offer some sort of mobile money (See Airtel Money, Vodafone Money, Tigo Cash, etc.) that are either competing or working with companies like MPower, expressPay, etc. Likewise banks are offering mobile services for their customers, e.g. GT mobile, all showing how pervasive mobile based products are in the fin tech sector.
  6. National aid/development actors (eg. USAID, DANIDA, etc) are getting in on the action by directly funding companies or initiatives, reminding me of just how entrenched the NGO infrastructure is in Ghana and Africa in general. I had an interesting conversation about the implications of this shift and keeping my fingers crossed that my interlocutor will write a neat post about it that we can share here and elsewhere.
  7. Chinese technology in the form of user products have become a formidable force in the marketplace. Huawei and Tecno phones are competitively priced for both the middle class and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Samsung and Apple are still the high end desired products but those other two are not to be sneezed at in their higher end lines. There appears to also be some more collaboration between Chinese firms and Ghanaian partners, not just in phones but across different industries. (The China angle is a whole other post that will come later).
  8. Women technologists are more visible. I don’t know for sure if there are more women moving into tech related endeavors or some other broader issue. What I do know is that I’m looking out more for more women techies (especially at the C-level (i.e. CEO/CTO, etc) and thus seeing more of them.  I only managed to speak to 4 women tech CEOs compared to 14 men (as a subset of the larger group of people I spoke to) in 2012.  I’ve since met or heard of a few others at that C-level or other positions of power, with many more at various levels. Just take a look at Women in Tech Africa, and see for yourself. You can search by country under “meet amazing women in tech”.

Innovation is a keyword

In 2012, I was very much focused on technology entrepreneurship and my research questions were centered around the activities happening in that space. I’m following up this year but I’m also interested in the term ‘innovation’ and what it means to the people using it, what my own understanding of the word is, what extant literature both from the global north and south say about it, and what my fieldwork presents for empirical evidence. At iSpace, it was explained to me that the ‘i’ there is for innovation and not information or information technology as some might think. Indeed, not all the companies there are IT based (e.g. ZaaCoal, a green energy from waste start up). While hanging out there, I run into folks from a company that recycle plastic into cool looking bags [Trashy bags]. Impact Hub also has non-tech companies (e.g. Raffia) and one of the co-founders spoke of ‘innovation funding’. Unlike many of the tech hubs around Africa, these spaces have broadened the narrative beyond information technologies; and, while entrepreneurship is still privileged, the path is not predetermined to be a tech focused solution or idea.

Last week I purchased an ‘emergency fan’ designed by a Ghanaian and manufactured by a Chinese company and then shipped back to Ghana. This multifunction device (labeled Ferddy King (and no, that’s not a typo)), like the power bank phone, is a response to the ongoing electricity crisis in the country (dubbed ‘dumsor’ from the Akan phrase for ‘turn it off, turn it on’). This thing has a rotating fan, a fairly large LED light, a radio tuner, USB port for an MP3 player and another to charge your phone, and a tiny remote control for the audio components. Its  battery is charged by A/C power but lasts for more than 10 hours thereafter.  The few people who saw me using it all expressed surprise at the revelation that the design and specs originated from within the country. Those encounters reminded me that its easy to miss innovation because we’re used to seeing a specific kind from a specific place and don’t open our eyes to possibilities outside of those places. Moreover, the mix of design, manufacture and distribution factors around this device underscore the new forms of collaboration that are emerging in and outside Ghana, both in terms of technology and other forms of production.

In my next post, I’ll talk some more about innovation and what it’s looking like in the info tech space specifically and perhaps talk a bit about how new partnerships and collaborations are emerging with China in that area in Ghana.

 

 

 

 

 

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