Kick-Starting the Internet in Ghana

Illustration by David McLimans

While Google, Netscape, and Telnet are part of Penn students’ everyday reality, that Internet technology is “still a dream” in countries like Ghana, points out Joseph Sun, director of academic affairs at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. To help turn that digital dream into reality, Sun spearheaded Penn’s involvement with the Hewlett-Packard Digital Villages project in that West African nation last summer. 

Sun and a team of Penn students and staff spent 19 days there, working with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) to set up computer labs in accordance with a grant from Hewlett-Packard worth $1.12 million in equipment and services.

“There are two phases to the grant,” Sun explained. “The first involves enabling the university [in Ghana] to gain its own campus computing infrastructure; the second is to set up community computer labs”—particularly in needy areas of the country, ranging from tiny villages to Kumasi, the nation’s second-largest city. 

Penn’s relationship with the Ghanaian university began two summers ago, when 25 computers were installed in a middle school there. This past summer, in addition to their efforts at KNUST, the team installed four labs, including one set up in cooperation with a cocoa-research institute. Yet despite a gift of 16 bottles of cocoa brandy from the institute, the team put the new lab in a community center near where the staff works, not the institute’s scientists.

“The purpose of these labs is to provide this level of resource to needy communities,” he adds, noting that the staff members at the institute now have a better lab than their supervisors. According to Robert Lavan EAS’04, a member of the undergraduate team, one task that comes with wiring computer labs in a developing country is being sensitive to cultural differences. “It used to be a theory of the U.S. that you just go in and drop medicine,” he says, “but you have to make sure you do it properly.” For advice on teaching, the team of engineers appealed to the National Center for Adult Literacy at Penn, which also sent volunteers to accompany them in Ghana. As Sun explains, “We as an engineering school are best prepared to do the technical and hardware end, but the Graduate School of Education’s International Literacy Institute is best prepared to provide the educational content.” 

Together, the team trained groups of Ghanaians to use Microsoft Office, showing them how to keep finances for small businesses in Excel. Those groups, in turn, continue to learn how to train other Ghanaians to use computers, with a special emphasis on secondary-school students. “The university students we worked with [at KNUST] were smarter than we were—geniuses,” says Lavan, adding that “when you put everything together, culture plus technology, they can teach faster and more efficiently than we ever could” in Ghana.

Reaction to the Penn students among local residents was mixed. While most Ghanaians welcomed them with open arms, a few had reservations about the entrance of Western inventions. According to Lavan, one of the strongest cultural barriers was convincing some residents of the advantages of computers, which was often accomplished with help from such Ghanaian leaders as the tourism minister, the country’s head of AIDS prevention, and the king of one of the regions the team visited. 

Watching children discover computers for the first time was a highlight for faculty and staff alike. While Lavan acknowledges that “You can’t just go in there and say to a nine-year-old, ‘Click on this icon,’” Sun recalls that once the children began to execute commands, play with the mice, and even dabble in Paintbrush, “there was an incredible amount of excitement and anticipation.” Together with the students at KNUST, the team regularly stayed up into the wee hours of the morning installing computer labs, which are now officially owned by the Community Services Foundation, a non-profit organization founded by Kwame O’Beng, a graduate of KNUST and the Penn parent who originally set the Ghana project rolling.

“I see our efforts as enabling ones: kick-starts for the local community,” says Sun, who points out that it is now the Ghanaians’ task to acquire Internet access through the Hewlett-Packard grant, which provides for the installation of high-speed fiber-optic lines through KNUST and Ghana Telecom. “Access to knowledge and information is key in order to advance the educational experience of students there.”

—Sarah Blackman C’03

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