Geeks in Ghana

"All right, so many of you have asked me what the hell I am actually doing here while I'm in Ghana. Some folks have even suggested that I may be on a beach in the Riviera, telling stories based on a few books I've been reading in between cocktails."

So begins a letter from Scott Ryan to friends back home about his stint as an IT volunteer in Accra, Ghana, that began in September 2000. But Ryan's three-month stay in the small West African country was not a day at the beach. Ryan, who is usually found in New York working as an e-commerce strategist at Accenture, dealt daily with the capital city's snarling traffic, unrelenting heat, and unreliable public services.

Ryan had been looking for a way to donate tech time and talent to a worthy cause, and found it when he signed up with Geekcorps, a North Adams, Mass.-based nonprofit committed to expanding the Internet revolution and closing the international digital divide.

Ghana, with a gross domestic product of US$22.6 billion, is one of the most developed countries in sub-Saharan West Africa. The country's IT industry is still nascent, but still ahead of that in other African nations. Many Ghanaian portals have launched recently as companies look to IT to improve business processes, increase revenue, and help their own communities in the process.

Ryan and other IT volunteers supported by Geekcorps' small staff are breaking out of the bottom-line box and applying their IT knowledge and small-business experience in Ghana. Some Ghanaian managers have found IT mentors in the small, IT-focused 501c nonprofit.

In February 2000, Nathan Zuckerman, 28, a co-founder of the online community Tripod, and Elisa Korentayer, 26, a graduate of the London School of Economics, founded Geekcorps. Zuckerman and Korentayer funded the effort with $350,000 in seed money.

Other major sponsors include Dick Sabot and Bo Peabody, co-founders of Tripod.com, who each chipped in part of their profits from the 1998 sale of Tripod to Lycos Inc.. But even with this funding, Geekcorps looks to others for fiscal help. The volunteer organization is "funded primarily through donations from myself and other individuals, most of whom are Internet entrepreneurs," Zuckerman says. "We are working to diversify our funding to include corporate, foundation, and government support."

With the ongoing development of their funding model, Zuckerman and Korentayer are preparing to send volunteers to the Dominican Republic and are considering Bolivia and Jordan as possible future destinations.

Ghana bound

Choosing Ghana as Geekcorps' first destination for IT volunteers was a natural for Zuckerman. The Geekcorps co-founder, who was Tripod's vice president of research and development, spent 1993 to 1994 in the country as a Fulbright Scholar. "I thought it would be easier to attempt our first project in a country where I already knew the landscape and business climate," Zuckerman says.

"Ghana's exactly the sort of place where we thought a Geekcorps project could work. There is some Internet and business infrastructure already present in the country. There are ambitious and talented businesspeople, many of whom have worked in the United States and are now enthusiastic about building IT businesses in Ghana. The government has relatively liberal telecommunications and investment policies, making it possible for IT businesses to be built there," Zuckerman says.

Not surprisingly, volunteers had many more possible activities than resources and workers. Deciding which Accran companies to work with was a two-fold process, Zuckerman says. Geekcorps staff chose companies based on their potential benefit from IT consulting. The companies' management also had to agree to give back to their own communities by volunteering time, donating equipment, or both. This, says Zuckerman, was a way to extend the reach of Geekcorps' mentorships.

Trained to go

Looking for adventure, Ryan made the decision to take an unpaid -- but supported -- leave of absence from Accenture last fall. The then newly christened Geekcorps program seemed the right opportunity. But signing on to the program wasn't a given -- Ryan and five other IT volunteers were chosen from a pool of 200 international applicants.

Once chosen, and before heading overseas, volunteers still had to receive training on how to communicate and teach skills to the Ghanaian professionals with whom they would be working, says Ana Maria Harkins, director of training and recruitment at Geekcorps.

"What hopefully emerges out of the Geekcorps training is a volunteer who is more open, more tolerant of ambiguity, better able to cope with the vicissitudes of a different living environment, and able to help businesses achieve a solution that is appropriate to their environment," Harkins says.

The volunteers' training doesn't end once the plane takes off from the States. After landing in their destination countries, five more days of training prepares volunteers for the practicalities of day-to-day living and working in the new society and culture, Zuckerman says.

Sign on/ship out

Once in Accra, the Geekcorps volunteers preached the gospel of Java and Perl programming, wireless Internet, database development, GIS (geographic information systems), and Web development. The reasons seemed simple: The Ghanaian companies where Geekcorps volunteers worked were using legacy programming languages and were relatively unfamiliar with the benefits of Internet and database technologies.

Jean MacDonald, a Web designer from Portland, Ore., was a volunteer with Geekcorps' second mission to Ghana; she trained a staff of 13 at TSS, a Microsoft-certified solutions provider. MacDonald worked with TSS staff in all aspects of Web design so that the company could in turn provide Web sites for its clients.

When MacDonald arrived in February 2001, the small company had just begun to create Web sites for their hotel clients. With her help, the team learned HTML, JavaScript, Dreamweaver, and Fireworks. "I set up training three afternoons a week. ... Nearly the entire staff of 13 participated in the training, including the receptionist and the managing director," MacDonald says. "Geekcorps was an incredible experience for me. I have a feeling it won't be the last time I take my Internet skills to a developing high-tech economy."

Ryan used his planning consultant skills to help Francis Provencal and his Australian wife, Catherine McNamara, narrow down a long list to a few achievable business ventures and Internet-related ideas for their company, Nuku. The small company had the financial resources to pursue only one or maybe two of those ideas, Ryan says. "Extremely creative minds like theirs are not easy to bring into focus on something like a business plan or the painstaking process of cost/benefit analysis," he adds.

Achieving both Ryan's and the company's goals was manifestly difficult. Ryan says he confronted "very frustrating government restrictions, with access to generic information next to impossible."

Looking back, Ryan says he had a "65 percent perception of success," mostly because of the slow pace of moving forward with project goals; nevertheless, he was "amazed by the resourcefulness of the Ghanaians. Home now, he sees broader success on the horizon. "Right now I'm involved in Accenture Digital Community of Interest, a group formed to increase awareness of efforts like Geekcorps' program and what the [United Nations] and other international organizations are doing to help close the digital divide," Ryan says.

Internet users as percentage of populationREGION[->IN 1998[->IN 2001United States[->26.3 percent[->54.3 percent.

High income OECD* members (exc. U.S.)[->6.9 percent[->28.2 percent.

Latin America and the Caribbean[->8.0 percent[->3.2 percent.

East Asia and the Pacific[->5.0 percent[->3.0 percent.

Eastern Europe and CIS**[->8.0 percent[->9.0 percent.

Arab states[->2.0 percent[->6.0 percent.

Sub-Saharan Africa[->1.0 percent[->4.0 percent.

South Asia[->0.4 percent[->0.4 percent.

World[->2.4 percent[->6.7 percent.

**=Commonwealth of Independent States (former Soviet Union republics).

Source: United Nations Development Program.

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