Out of Africa: the Evolving Web Cafe

Mark Davies is one of the great unsung heroes of the information-technology scene in Africa.

The founder of the finest Internet café in the sub-Saharan â'' the spacious and stimulating Busyinternet café in Accra, Ghana â'' Davies is true original character who recognizes the monumental deficit in African scientific and technological communities. The signal problem is not money, or opportunity or â''bandwidthâ'' or even brain drain. Rather the big deficit in Africa for technical people is social networking.

Everything Davies does in Africa is based on his shrewd understanding that until Africans communicate with one another more effectively â'' and build fluid networks that can improvise and tackle urgent problems â'' technological innovation will always lag in the region. Creating ad hoc, ever-evolving teams of African innovators is the key -- a form of social knowledge more important than any electronic tool or service.

BusyInternet has been a smash hit in Ghana -- and drawn accolades around the world -- not because of its computers or connectivity, but because this spacious meeting place in the middle of Accra has served to link talented young people together, permitting them to grow in unexpected ways by drawing on each other's talents.

Davies, who hails from Wales and came to Africa by way of California, is a relentless experimenter, always trying to upend African stereotypes. His new project is called TradeNet, that tries to leverage the mobile phone and agriculture â'' the fact that many successful African farmers now own phones and use them to help conduct business.

Hereâ''s how Ethan Zuckerman, who follows technology matters in Africa closely, describes Davies, whom he's spent time with in Accra (as I have):

â''Mark is one of the key figures in Ghanaâ''s IT scene. After retiring from the dotcom world in 2000 (he was one of the founders of Metrobeat, which became part of CitySearch), he poured his energy into the founding of BusyInternet, a remarkable cybercafe and business incubator in downtown Accra. In more recent years, Mark has been helping to build software businesses in Ghana, working with programmers around the world, but especially focusing on African software developers. Given the model I started Geekcorps with - encouraging local IT entrepreneurship - I canâ''t help but be a fan.

â''TradeNet is designed to take advantage of the boom in mobile phones on the African continent, a boom thatâ''s put mobile phones in the hands of 10% of Africansâ'¿ an amazing growth over the number of people connected via wired telephony. TradeNet is designed to be an open marketplace for buyers and sellers of agricultural products throughout West Africa. The reason for this is simple: most farmers sell their goods to wholesalers located near to them. They might get much better prices for their goods selling to customers located elsewhere in the country or the region. But without accurate pricing information, itâ''s difficult for a farmer to invest the money neccesary to bring goods to a faraway market.

â''TradeNet tries to solve this problem by letting farmers and customers post their products and find each other via the web and SMS. Theyâ''re building a set of server software that NGOs or for-profits could use to build local or national exchanges. As the software gains popularity, it should become increasingly possible to search for products both locally and internationally using little more than a mobile phone and an account.â''

The code for TradeNet was written in Accra by African codewriters -- another hallmark of Davies' approach. He nurtures local talent. While commercial success has yet to come for TradeNet, the project is both a dazzling example of whatâ''s possible in Africa â'' and a reminder of how technologists can easily get ahead of their times. Information is a big issue for African farmers, and there is no question that the mobile has helped keep African farmers informed as never before.

But the problem of selling crops â'' and food products generally â'' is not solved by identifying customers and making deals. TradeNet indeed helps this process enormously and deserves being tested widely. But the problem moving material goods from one place to another remains. The cost of transporting goods is quite high in Africa â'' when it is even possible to do. Too much produce still spoils in Africa for lack of ready transport. And the Internet, not even linked to the mobil phone, wonâ''t change that.

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