up a state-of-the-art technology center in a place where consistent
telephone service, electricity and even running water can be hard to
find may seem like a pipe dream. But a new company named
BusyInternet is trying not only to set up that center but also to
help connect more of Africa to the Internet through it.
With the help of Ghanaian business partners, BusyInternet is
preparing to open a high-tech development center in Accra, Ghana,
that offers training rooms, office space, meeting rooms,
workstations for low-cost public Internet access, a photocopying
shop and a cafe. The center will be housed in a 14,000-square-foot
former factory building. Equipped with Pentium III computers,
flat-screen monitors and Internet access via satellite, the
BusyInternet building is expected to open next month.
The start-up cost of the center, its support staff and equipment
is more than $1 million. The company plans to open similar centers
in other African countries like Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Uganda
BusyInternet is temporarily based in New York and will maintain
an office there after it moves its international headquarters to
Ghana later this year. The Internet is not exactly unheard of in
Ghana. The country already has a few Internet service providers and
more than 100 cybercafes for surfing the Web and exchanging e-mail
on public computers, although phone service over all is poor. Nua
Internet Surveys, a company in Ireland that tracks Internet use
statistics, estimated that there were about 20,000 Internet users in
Ghana last year.
"There are 240,000 telephone lines in Ghana for 19 million
people," said Mark Davies, the founder and chief executive of
BusyInternet. "It takes about seven dials to make some phone calls
go through, just across town." He said that BusyInternet would be
independent of the local utilities. "We've put in our own link to
the national electric grid, our own generator, our own satellite
dish for bandwidth," he explained.
Mr. Davies, who also founded the Metrobeat Web site in New York,
which was purchased by CitySearch in 1996, said he got the
inspiration for BusyInternet while reflecting on a backpacking trip
through West Africa. The government of Ghana did not provide any
financing; the company has formed partnerships with local venture
capitalists and information technology entrepreneurs and is
negotiating with several Ghanaian financial institutions.
The plans put BusyInternet in the middle of a debate over the
role of technology in developing countries. Some people, including
William H. Gates, the chairman of Microsoft, have argued that such
countries need basic amenities like food and medicine more than they
need personal computers. Others, like Freeman Dyson, in his 1999
book "The Sun, the Genome and the Internet," point out that the
technology can be used to educate people in developing countries and
help close the economic gap between them and industrialized
South Africa is the most technologically advanced country in
Africa, with more than two million Internet users. But a number of
companies are trying to get the rest of the continent wired as well.
A deep- sea data cable that will connect Africa to Europe is already
being laid by a consortium of more than 40 international
telecommunications companies, including Telkom South Africa. A
private company called Africa One is planning to build a system of
fiber-optic cable across the entire continent as well.
Mr. Davies envisions the center as a place where all kinds of
individuals and businesses will share information, from health
practitioners presenting interactive seminars on H.I.V. prevention
to companies learning how to set up e- mail systems.
"Our philosophy is to say nobody really knows what's right for
Ghana," he said, "and the technology is sort of culturally specific
in terms of how it's implemented and how it works. So the best thing
you can do is create these little incubators, if you will, where
you're bringing people together and coming up with solutions on
Although there is still much work to be done to get the
technology center ready to open next month, Mr. Davies compared the
excitement of the startup to Western fervor about the World Wide Web
in the mid- 1990's.
"It was great to come back into a place and a time where it was
still about invention," he said. "It was still about doing things
because you love to do them and it was a great idea and you had that
conviction, rather than you just felt it was the next way to make
two million dollars."