Can Ghana position itself as the ‘Bangalore of West Africa’?

Ghana Cyber City, a proposed US$100 million technology park to be built in Accra, is expected to position the capital as the ‘Bangalore of West Africa’, mimicking the Indian city’s success as an IT hub. How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi caught up with Eric Osiakwan, a tech investor and a director of Ghana Cyber City. Below are excerpts.

Eric Osiakwan Picture: iHub

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a serial entrepreneur. I have invested in several companies in the last 15 years. I like technology and investing in startups. I started as a consultant and worked for several firms before I started my first company, Internet Research. It is a consulting company and interestingly the only company [that] I own 100%. In every other company I have invested in, I’m sort of a minority shareholder. I believe it is better to collaborate with different people.

What does Ghana Cyber City seek to achieve?

The big objective of what we want to achieve with the Ghana Cyber City project is to create a technology enclave for existing technology businesses globally and more importantly for startups in Ghana. We are at a threshold of a new revolution in a continent where we are beginning to see the innovation and creation of new technologies that will essentially change the paradigm. Africa is moving from consuming technology to creating its own technology. Think of innovations like M-Pesa, which are disrupting payment platforms all over the world. We need to leverage that and see how much more technology we can innovate. Creating these cities will unleash an environment that will support more innovation.

Ghana has close to 100% mobile penetration. What are entrepreneurs doing to capitalise on this?

We are seeing a lot of mobile innovations coming out of Ghana. I run between Nairobi and Ghana and I see the same level of innovation in terms of quality and depth and a similar culture of collaborations. At the foundation of this is what I call a ‘software development culture’ that has been lacking, but is emerging fast. I believe there are more and more avenues for innovation to be unleashed.

Is the money flowing in yet?

The Forbes Africa magazine published its list of Africa’s top 20 tech startups earlier this year and two of them were from Ghana – SMSGH, which offers bulk SMS solutions, and Dropifi, a web messaging platform. We had several innovations compete in Demo Africa – an event that connects African startups to the global ecosystem. We are using technology to solve important problems like customer service or employment. These innovations from Ghana are sprawling across the continent. In the next ten years we will have technology companies out of Africa that will be global. M-Pesa is already global, that’s terrific, but we need more of that.

Describe some of the challenges facing Ghana’s technology sector.

The biggest challenge is startup investment. This worries me a lot. We need more people who can take risks and invest in these ideas. It’s sad to have a great idea and not have resources to implement it. We also need to cultivate a culture that tolerates more innovation. One of the unique things about Silicon Valley is that it allows failure. If you have an idea and it fails, you will not be stigmatised. But in Africa, if you fail once you are stigmatised and beat down. This also links to the mindset that most of our families expect us to complete school and get a white collar job. Our parents enjoy seeing us work for big companies. At government level, we need more policies that are pro-startups, where governments create incentives for startups. In my company for instance, about 22% of our revenues go to taxes. Many startups would die of this.

As an investor, what do you bring to the table other than money?

My skill set is in raising funds and I have a bit of experience from the last 15 years. I bring these experiences to the table as well as mentoring and advice. I have actually invested in two companies in Kenya that failed. I like to talk about failure, because it teaches us what does not work, so that we can teach people what works.

Kenya wants to be the Silicon Savannah; what’s Ghana’s dream?

Ghana will be the gateway to Africa. I am Ghanaian but I spend a lot of my time in Kenya. I have been coming here in the last seven years and have invested in companies here. It is important to leverage the strengths of both countries. I have taken companies from Kenya to set up in Ghana and vice versa. Intra-African trade is very important.

Any advice for entrepreneurs?

We need more risk takers. We need more people to jump in the water and figure out how to swim. By the way, not taking a risk is also a risk.