First Tuesday founder pioneers Net in Africa

Wales-born American and dot-com millionaire Mark Davies loves the frontier experience. After starting up several ventures during the Internet boom years he is now pioneering another technology phenomenon, this time in Africa.

It's been just over a year since he founded busyinternet, a cyber center for businesses that focus on new technology.

"We are dealing with the opening chapters of a modern economy," Davies said, referring to the technology bustle that is engulfing some parts of Africa.

Busyinternet in Accra hosts a dozen startups as well as conference facilities, a restaurant bar, a 24 hour copy center and an Internet café that has an average of 1,500 visitors per day and boasts the fastest Net access of any café in the city.

The idea to establish busyinternet came to Davies after he made a three-month tour of Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana, after dabbling in IT businesses for 15 years."I wanted to create the same opportunity that was given to me in New York in computers and technology," he says of his motivation for founding busyinternet.

Davies is used to grappling with the issues surrounding startups. At the formative years of the dot-com boom in the U.S., he started an Internet company, Metrobeat, that provided practical information and content. It merged with CitySearch, now Ticketmaster Online - CitySearch Inc. In 1996, he broke new ground in the U.K., when he started First Tuesday, a networking organization that brings together entrepreneurs and financial partners. First Tuesday eventually spread to cities around the world, and Davies was bought out by various members of the venture.

Comparing his previous experience to busyinternet, Davies says people in Africa are responding quickly with enthusiasm to new technology, "in the same way that humans have responded to technology anywhere. They have responded with imagination," said Davies.

Busyinternet started showing profit in the first four months and he is confident that he and his partners can repay the US$1.6 million that was invested in the next five years.

Davies says there are several reasons why the cyber center has caught on. He first of all traces it to the Ghanaian extended family system and the phenomenon of overseas workers; most people communicate with their extended family and friends outside Ghana via e-mail. He also thinks the interest of the populace at improving themselves contributes significantly. Apart from noticing clients receiving and sending e-mail, you also see them looking for schools and courses online.

It is not only the Internet café that is doing well. He showcases AV International (AVI), one of the startups that used to be at the incubator, to demonstrate that it is working. AVI is in partnership with Data Management Internationale Inc., of Wilmington, Delaware, which provides data entry and information management services to companies and government agencies around the world.

It took them just four weeks to set up."It is very difficult to do that in this environment," Davies said, speaking of the experience of setting up a new enterprise in Ghana.

The startups at busyinternet pay a monthly rent of US$400 for 18 square meter space and $250 monthly for other services such as reception facilities, phones, electricity, broadband Internet access and security.

AVI used another company at busyinternet, Ecoband Networks Ltd., to do its networking. Davies is encouraged by that synergy between the startups."The concept is all about synergy, speed, service and cost," he says of the incubator. AVI has expanded and moved on.

But setting up busyinternet has not been all trouble-free. There are plenty of difficulties in the day-to-day business of the enterprise, because companies can not rely on their suppliers, including electricity, telephone and technical services companies, Davies said.

He does not have to think too hard for examples. For instance, he says it took a supplier 10 days to find a truck to pick up a faulty printer for repairs at the copy center.

"It is 10 times more difficult running the same enterprise here (Ghana) than in the U.S.," Davies said.

"I think there is no shortage of raw processing power, but there is a tremendous lack of project management skills, customer service. There is a different culture of service here compared to my background. That has posed the greatest challenge," he elaborated.

In spite of all the difficulties, Davies thinks the experience has been worth it. "It has been a very enjoyable environment to work in. You are dealing with community values, humor and enthusiasm that is certainly more rewarding and inspiring than some of my experiences in the U.S."

Busyinternet in Ghana has emboldened him to replicate the concept in other African cities. Davies and his partners plan to invest about $3 million in five West African cities -- Douala and Yaoundé in Cameroon, Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, Bamako in Mali and Port Harcourt in Nigeria in the next three years.

"Many developing countries can benefit tremendously from the kind of efficiencies IT offers," Davies says.

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