A conversation with Emmanuel Gamor, William Senyo and Donald Ward

From hackathons to incubators to tech conferences and proposals for a ten billion dollar tech hub, Ghana’s tech industry is slowly coming into its own. The increased interest in tech has been influenced by the entrepreneurship trend on the continent, as well as a new generation with a burgeoning skill set. Ayiba’s Edem Torkornoo spoke to three Ghanaian techies about the West African nation’s growing tech space, the Africa Rising narrative, and why it is difficult for startups on the continent to get funding.

Emmanuel Agbeko Gamor is a multimedia journalist who trains people on multimedia use and social media strategy, as well as journalism. He is also the Founder of Urithi Media and the co-host of the Mpwr show on Ghana’s Y107.9 FM.

William Senyo is the Co-Founder of Hub Accra, an incubator and ecosystem that works to create a strong support system for early stage entrepreneurs. He is also Co-Founder of SliceBiz, a platform focused on alternative funding for innovative, high-growth African startups.

Donald Ward is the Founder of Era Global, a digital activation company that works with clients to leverage technology tools that are available in order to grow their businesses.

How would you describe the tech industry in Ghana?

Emmanuel: Tech is exciting! I think we’re on the first wave, or rather Tech 1.2. The very first wave was about getting excited about it. We’ve had a few incubations, and some have had some level of success. We’re seeing a young class of professionals who understand problem solving. Even better, they learnt it locally. They’re going international and coming back with a skill set. Then, we have people who are international but who are looking locally.

I am a strong believer in process. Everything has its own gestation period; there is a process. I think the West-African sub-region, by sheer size, has the spotlight and people in the right direction. I am so excited because there is a pipeline, if you will, of young people, especially young women, who are connected in the tech innovation scene. I am excited for what they are going to come up with because the ecosystem for tech spaces—hubAccra, iSpace Foundation, and MEST—is not going anywhere.

William: Vibrant. Now, you won’t pass any corner where you won’t see a kid trying to build an app. It’s vibrant but nowhere close to well-executed projects that are highly profitable. You can’t name twenty products that have crossed the Ghanaian border. We have Egotickets, which is used in six countries, mytxtbox run by SMS GH, and mPedigree, which is the lead in all this.

Donald: I agree that the Ghanaian tech space is very vibrant. We’re building tech products and data solutions by the day. But I believe that we have to be a bit more strategic and patient to build the infrastructure and test out our technology before sending it out there. The applications that have been built need a lot of time to build resilience. You don’t want your product to get onto the market and start facing the very same problems that you are trying to resolve. So, we are building good products but we need to build them better and we need to work together.

People are trying to build communities around the tech space in Ghana and Africa as a whole. In every country you see about two or three tech companies building a community. I think with collaborative efforts, we would be able to create a lot more. We would get to learn from each other and we would get to see each other as industry players. We would learn to share tech practices, and instead of viewing ourselves as competitors in the market, we would share ideas to help create healthy competition for ourselves.

How does the industry here compare with Kenya or Nigeria? Is it as big?

William: For Nigeria’s size, its tech scene is abysmal. We have twenty-five million people in Ghana. Lagos alone has twenty million people. What’s the revenue for the top two ecommerce websites, Konga and Jumia, for a market that big? Yes, Nigeria has a bigger tech scene but only in terms of the market size, not the level of innovation that is coming out of Kenya and Ghana. But Kenya has both. It has the large market and the level of innovation.

What are your thoughts on the digital revolution happening in Ghana and on the continent?

William: Anything that happens within a decade and happens this fast is definitely a revolution. The scale and size is massive but what we’re afraid of is that it stagnated at a point. I think that stagnation has happened over the past five years. There’s no actual 4G LTE infrastructure across five countries at a go. You leap over countries. It should have followed the same trend. When everyone was getting 3G licenses, it should have happened everywhere. I can have 4G in Ghana and someone in Togo will be using 2G. What’s the use of having 4G if I can’t connect with you? So there’s some stagnation. We need to have uniform growth.

Donald: I would rather touch on the digital revolution happening in Africa rather than on just Ghana. I think we are on the second wave. The first wave is where everybody understood the basics of the technology age. We knew there was internet and all this digital age stuff, cellphones and laptops. But we were not really making use of it, apart from going on to social media platforms. It’s recently that we began to realize that we can get way more than just social networking online, especially for the corporates. We can talk about way more: advertising, client interactions, building online communities, and even researching your potential market.

I think innovation has become a buzzword that is thrown around. Do you agree? Also, what is your definition of innovation?

William: It has become a big buzzword. I’ll strip the definition down to the bare bones. For us right now, innovation must be able to affect the base. If it can’t affect a million people and take them from A to C and cut costs considerably whilst doing so, there is no innovation. For small market sizes like ours, if you say you’re innovating for a group of farmers and there are fifteen million people and you target 50,000 and think you’re innovating, you’ve not innovated. It has to have scale and it should be able to cut costs considerably. For me I think it has become a buzzword that everyone tries to throw around to get grant funding.

Still on buzzwords, you use the word ‘empower’ a lot, especially in the context of the African Rising narrative. What does the word mean to you?

Emmanuel: First, empower means being true to one of the oldest adages; “it takes a village to raise a child.” When you listen to it, you think of the responsibilities of the village. It is acknowledgement that all of us, no matter who or where we are, started off as children. Whether you are a nation state or an entrepreneur, the only way for you to have positive development is by having empowering encounters. So, for me, empower, is huge. It says that, as a business or a professional, an adult or as a healthy citizen, it is only right that I give back.

When you hear someone is ‘empowered,’ it means you helped them get from Point A to B. That’s the funny thing – when people hear about something, and they become comfortable with the word, it becomes a buzzword. Because again, the storytelling becomes comfortable and the doing becomes complacent. If it was a verb, it wouldn’t sound like a buzzword, because we would say, “Oh, we’re actually doing.” For me, it’s not a buzzword, it’s a necessity. You can translate it into multiple languages. We have to actually see ourselves progress and giving back, enabling, encouraging, fostering, all these other verbs, to the point of success. If you pushed someone from point A and back to A, you didn’t empower them. You only empower them if they progress from one point to the other. So, for me, whoever thinks of it as a buzzword, can keep it. Empowerment is not going to become a buzzword. It’s supposed to be an action, a verb.

What are your thoughts the African Rising narrative?

Emmanuel: There are mixed feelings. To be fair, if you look back, a lot of the African countries, in terms of national identity, rallying for cultural prominence and everything, are young. In the grand scheme of things, advanced countries could be considered adults. We will probably be toddlers still crawling. Essentially, they understood the nation state. When you take a step back and you compare along those lines, Africa is truly rising.

We’re a young continent that was divided by geographical lines. We need to self-align, especially with culture. If you go beyond the geographical layout and you travel on the ground, you’d find so many of what others would call tribes and people of different languages and cultural makeup that live side by side in a way that is not Eurocentric. It’s not America-centric. It’s just African, period. I think for us to be able to adapt to a world order we didn’t create, there are parts to this.

The other thing, though, is that over the last five to ten years, we’ve gotten very good at storytelling, but it has to have a foundation. You can speak about it, but you have to have actions that can back that. Where we have been found wanting is that we got conversant in saying Africa is rising, but we forget that the foundations to take the steps to the rising have to be more solid, more solid than the narrative itself.

William: It is a positive narrative only if it is realistic. So it’s Africa Rising but rising on Chinese manufacturing and construction. It must be said that way so people know that. Those who are not comfortable with this can then decide what to do about it. Tell people that Africa is rising, but it’s spurred by Chinese infrastructure. And then let them know when Dangote spurs it.

Why is it difficult for tech startups to get funding, especially on the continent?

William: From the investor’s side, there’s the fear of the unknown and on the entrepreneur’s side, the need to convince them. I say this because I work with startups. I’ve started startups and failed miserably. We’ve been overloaded with information so we think we know what we are doing.

We don’t have market insight, we don’t know the pulse of the market, we create products and expect people who should put their money in real estate to put it into technology. We don’t know what we’re talking about. And once the investors talk to you they realize that you don’t know sh*t about the how the world works. Before you know it, they’ve lost confidence in the first tech guy they talk to and so they won’t talk to anyone after that.

 What challenges do you anticipate startups will face in the future?

Donald: For a very long time, I think our challenges will remain the same. Funding will be the basic challenge in the next two or three years, unless we see a shake-up in the system and our African millionaires and billionaires decide to become angels who would actually pick five or ten initiatives and invest a great amount of money in them. I’m not talking about a millionaire that would invest 5,000 dollars into a business, I’m talking about the millionaire who would invest five million dollars in an initiative with the belief that it will become successful. That angel who would invest a million dollars in an initiative and say, “Hey! Let’s go big. Let’s spend as little as we can on overhead and spend as much as we can on clients.”

Do you have a favorite Ghanaian tech product?

Emmanuel: The most useful one I have is expressPay. In terms of favorite, 233Law. It is a basic app. It doesn’t have any fancy frills but it is an informative app.

William: mPedigree. People may disagree but I like what they’ve been able to achieve with global recognition. The fact that it is local technology that has achieved global notoriety is an amazing feat. Never in our history have we seen such African innovation reach scale outside of the continent. It might not be a five billion dollar company, but what it’s solving is a real local African problem. We can call it our own.