Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Notes from Barcamp Ghana 2009

Yesterday I attended
Barcamp Ghana 2009. Most exciting to me was to see so many people congregate with the express purpose of sharing strategies and ideas about building enterprise and engagement here on the ground in Ghana. And I appreciate the effort to use social tech: I found out about this Barcamp Gh on Twitter and found the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (a nonprofit venture by the Norwegian IT company) the morning of using Google Maps and GPS on my G1 phone (without which it would have been infinitely more difficult to find). The use of technology--both in organizing and real-time sharing of this most recent barcamp in Ghana--was also testament to the opportunities for using social tech/media more/effectively (check out #bcghana09 on Twitter).

The morning panel addressed opportunities for youth leadership in development, mostly on an entrepreneurial/open-source/civic-engagement tip. Panelists were Estelle Akofio-Sowah (Country Manager of Google Ghana, former CEO of Busy Internet), Patrick Awuah (founder of Ashesi University), George Minta (ED of Empretec Business Forum) and Anna Bannerman-Richter (CEO of the Longevity Project). After lunch were threee one-hour blocks of break-out sessions. Notes (my highlights, not comprehensive) from the three sections I attended are below... I'm particularly interested if there is more out on there from the sessions on prison reform, using Google maps for businesses, social networks and innovation, and the entrepreneurship session taught by Meltwater faculty... Oluniyi David Ajao has notes from the session on blogging led by Kajsa Hallberg Adu of GhanaBlogging.com

1 // FASHION // leads: Adwoa Perbi and Esi Cleland

Ms. Perbi and Ms. Cleland have launched afrochiconline.com - 'an online clothing store born out of a vision to clothe Africa from within.' The broader business vision is to demonstrate that African print clothing can be contemporary and through sales of Gh-made clothing support local textile manufacture and resist the pressure of cheap imports: AfroChic clothes feature exclusively Gh-made prints (only womens clothing to date, but plan to sell menswear eventually as well -- AfroChic is afro-sheek not afro-chik). They led a discussion about starting an online clothing retailer in Ghana, sharing their own experience and soliciting feedback.

They developed their own standards for clothing sizes. An early visit to the Ghana Standards Board suggested over reliance on ISO designations for clothing sizes, largely un-calibrated to the Gh market or local clothing production. So they chose to define their own--after compiling data from a large number of seamstresses/tailors in Accra metro (I think as many as 50 or 90). Interesting that the founders are a computer scientist and a physicist.

AfroChic releases new clothing items online as often as biweekly. They warehouse ready-made garments sized according to their in-house sizing. Shoppers browse the catalog and order online but pay on delivery--AfroChic delivers to buyer's home or business. Clothing production is distributed across a local network in which each individual seamstress/tailor has first successfully sewn a default size of the garment they produce. Quality control derives from the centralized warehousing prior to delivery. The intended market is Gh women 18-35; the online shop only sells within Accra metro now but sees the entire West African market as a viable future.

Re: competition. One of the participants explained that he stopped the business making bags that he started in high school because suddenly a dozen classmates were also making and selling bags, and blatant copying was rampant. At the same time, the ubiquity of fashion-related signage alone in Accra hints that there is a huge market for homegrown options. Perbi and Cleland added that not only do they welcome competition, it is critical for the development of African clothiers that can compete at scale with imported clothing.

In my opinion, if they can sustain their sizing standards it could represent a major innovation--not simply as a metric, but as a method to build a local platform for distributed production and delivery of Gh clothing. This could be amplified considerably if they integrate social media (how many Ghanaians in their target market *do not* visit Facebook each week) and geo-tagging (I have no idea how they manage delivery now, but using GPS-enabled smart phones and Google Maps could be instrumental as they increase volume). Having consistent sizes, quality, fresh design available via online shopping and to-door delivery seems like a winning combination, while the sizing itself has potential to become a market-wide standard.

Picture: Golda Addo, left (who chaired the session on renewable energy) and Esi Cleland, middle. Lively debate over setting optimal price points. Verdict: type of fabric and stitching affect cost, and a modest premium can help establish brand quality at launch.

2 // GREEN ENERGY // lead: Golda Addo

Ms. Addo is the founder and managing director of Energy Solutions Foundation - 'a Ghanaian NGO focused on the development and use of Renewable Energy Technologies (RETs) and the promotion of Waste Recycling in Ghana.' She became interested in sustainability when she witnessed Accra's garbage dumping practices and felt driven to organize against ecological degradation and energy crisis in Ghana. Ms. Addo opened up a group conversation about greening Ghana after an overview of the Energy Solutions Foundation's findings, how they have been seeking change in policy and on the ground in both enterprise opportunities and wider cultural attitudes about waste and energy.

Most significantly, she pointed out that Ghana has tremendous potential for the use of solar and wind energy, biogas and biowaste briquettes. How optimally can adoption of these alternative energy practices counter the decline in available firewood and electricity, especially hydropower. The Foundation has lobbied Gh government to prioritize renewable energy and commit to solutions that engage communities. (Wind turbines were installed on the Tema-Kpone road, but have apparently fallen into disrepair...has anyone seen this or know more info?) Ms. Addo also argued that one of the biggest deterrents for consumer adoption is the lack of access to simple output vs. cost metrics (e.g. if I pay GHC1800, I will get 1kW of solar power with 48 battery back-up). Break-down of renewable energy technologies by size vs. cost is a way to help citizens better understand their options. Renewable energy does not have to be either/or. It is just as possible for people to re-wire a few outlets to switched solar--so that when the power grid goes off, they retain a modest supply perhaps enough to run a fan a few lights, a laptop. Incremental change can--in aggregate--transform how Ghanaians generate and use energy.
Of the maybe 15 participants in this break-out session, only one had renewable energy installed in their house(s)--although notably, it was a house with solar and battery back-up. Participants noted that it is also hard for consumers to find technical capacity. In Ghana, its easy to find a mason or a plumber, but radically more difficult someone who can install a PV solar array or a biogas digester. The Energy Solutions Foundation has a number of volunteers and contacts on request who can assist in many cases, and also leads workshops and training. Several inspiring projects so far include student design projects and plastics recycling. There is a wide open space for creative thinking (see Trashy Bags) but scaling up remains a challenge (e.g. a plastics recycler in El Mina does weekly pick-ups in Accra, paying 15 pesawas per 1 kilo of lightweight plastic, but how do potential collectors identify this business opportunity?) Participants also asked: how do we find out more information?

Ms. Addo offered the Foundation's network as a resource, welcomed volunteers and mentioned that GTZ may be a reference source for more substantial projects. A Google search also returned this list of solar (and wind) energy businesses in Ghana, no idea how up-to-date and the Energy Center at KNUST.

Picture: the facilitator for the session on starting a company in Ghana, introducing his break-out during the agenda setting session.

3 // START-UPS //

I didn't get the name of the gentleman who led this third session on 'how to start a company in Ghana.' But it was a big group of over two dozen young people (median age under 30 or 25), many of whom had already started businesses both in Gh and abroad, and many more who were either actively beginning the process or planning to in future. It was a lively discussion and the moderator did well by steering the conversation away from corruption! transparency! integrity! critiques to nuts-and-bolts dialog of lessons learnt and best practices.

A lot of the conversation centered on registering a business. Some complained that the documents dated 'from the colonial era' while other countered that the legal language can be frustrating but is useful in the event of litigation (wording is designed to avoid ambiguity). There was some disagreement on requirements such as how long you can operate without registering and sequencing registration across a decentralized set of government agencies. Answers to my question 'why bother registering in the first place?' were a) to avoid getting in trouble down the line; and b) to support Ghana's development by paying taxes...I thought both responses were pretty solid.

Similarly, one participant explained how his company--which develops games for mobile phones--is registered in Ghana and just completed a nontrivial process of getting a (paid I assume) game on the iPhone App Store. The company deliberately chose to register in Ghana and seeks to prove that is not incompatible with global ambitions. Clearly in digital space, there are exciting prospects for this class of attitude about global competitiveness. It was also cool to see a rep from Web4Africa, a sponsor of Barcamp Ghana 2009, sat in on the break-out session...growth of Gh IT and web entrepreneurship should demand infrastructure for local hosting.

Other key points:
! Everyone thinks they need someone to do *it* for them...but be proactive--do things for your yourself! ...where *it* ranges from registering a company to navigating red tape to filing paperwork. Several participants mentioned that they paid consultants to facilitate their registration process, but one noted that he paid GHC 200 for this service several years ago and only GHC 80 when this year he directly registered a new company himself.

! That said, don't try to do everything: Complement your expertise with assistance from experts in other areas. Know your limitations and find top people to consult for your business when you need help.

! Business success in Ghana occurs within an 'economy of affection.' While the group had competing approaches ('I include finder's fees in my books,' 'it was suggested to me by government employees to keep two sets of books,' 'what are the actual legal guidelines for ethical behavior?') there was still consensus that all aspects of business are easier the more people like you.

! In Ghana we don't have documentation centers--the information is in people's heads. (see above)

! You are expected to have started your business *before* you initiate the registration process. Application materials will ask for a 'date of commencement.' Although there are different forms of incorporation, with various exemptions in some cases (e.g. Ghana Free Zone businesses, manufacturing, start-ups that are not-yet profitable) typically you are legally obliged to register within 30 days of commencing business (possibly defined by date of first sales?); it is illegal to operate a business after 1 year without having registered that business.

! Anticipate timelines. Some suggested that people tend to pay for fast-tracked or preferrential treatment when they have not budgeted enough time for a given task. If you may need a passport in six months, apply now: you will then have sufficient time to follow official procedure.

George Minta-Jacobs, Executive Director of Empretec Business Forum which supports SMEs in Ghana, offered three rules of thumb: 1) Register your business (after developing your business plan and setting a 'date of commencement'); 2) Get your Tax ID Number and VAT (if your business is not turning a profit in early stages, report nil profit but you are still required to file); 3) Keep your books well! (get help if you need to, but educate yourself or you could unwittingly be taken advantage of).

The session focused more on educating yourself and the power of documentation than on specific business models or opportunities for entrepreneurship. For more information: former Gh Attorney General Joe Ghartey has written the best overall guide, Doing Business and Investing in Ghana: legal and institutional framework if you can find it. Several participants also praised Doing Business which documents business regulations globally and has a section on Ghana and the SME Toolkit developed by the IFC which is available online for free. Participants of the break-out session compiled a list of emails and phone numbers in order to generate a working group on entrepreneurship out of Barcamp 2009.

Thanks and congratulations to the organizers for a great event.


Oluniyi David Ajao said...

This is a good round-up of yesterday's event. Keep up the good job.

Dk said...

Thanks.. btw i liked your post on how you found MEST on Google Maps mobile. Especially since I used it too (just searched Meltwater in Accra and compared against 'My Location' until I found it, I feel like this is a simple technology that could make it much easier to find people, places and businesses in Ghana--as opposed to the classic "find Church X in neighborhood Y, opposite business Z, past the mango tree..."

AfricaLiving said...

Thanks for the notes- esp on fashion! I am really interested in how we develop trends forecasting for the West African market. The South Africans want to get into the mix, but don't get the colors, festivals, weather patterns etc. I checked out Adwoa Perbi's website via facebook and I'm sooooo psyched about it. The sizing is definitely the biggest innovation!

Nina said...

I appreciated your write-ups on the three break-out groups as they were ones I didn't attend! And thanks for sharing your experience in finding the venue! I'm afraid I did it the old-fashioned Ghanaian way: I asked a driver colleague, who told me, "go to A&C Mall, and at the T-junction, turn right, then first left". He didn't tell me it was dirt road, but I did see the sign, so didn't have too much problem!

Golda Addo said...

Nice job ... good summary.
Let's hope it translates into a positive effect on everyone!
The 3rd session's lead is called Nii Shipii Quaynor. I hope I spelt it right, since I am familiar with such names.

Mac-Jordan - AccraConscious said...

I really enjoyed the round-up. So to the point and precise. Keep up the good works. Let's see more of you.

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