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On the discourse of innovation in Ghana

tl;dr: The public discourse on innovation in Ghana is currently somewhat lopsided, favoring a rigid interpretation of intellectual property rights and fixing commercialization as the measure of impact. I recommend a more flexible approach that includes open source and open access to encouraging collaboration and research.

I’m back in Ghana for fieldwork, in part to continue previous work, but mainly to begin working on my new(ish) grant with Silvia Lindtner.. When I was last in Ghana for an extended time (2016), I wrote a blog post about some of my observations in Accra and I’ve been meaning to do a follow up since then. An event I attended earlier this summer in Accra gave me the opportunity to reflect on some things, particularly on what one might call the discourse of innovation, as I perceive it, in Ghana today.

The event was “The Citi Innovation Summit” organized by one of Accra’s English speaking stations, Citi FM (which I’ve written about here and here if you’re interested in radio and new media). Throughout the month of June, Citi had been airing programs on innovation and business, promoting this event as the culmination of the #CitiBizFestival in Ghana. All kinds of pundits went on air to discuss innovation in business and tech, all of whom (I assume) were invited to this final event. I'll describe the event first then give my impressions.

Event overview

Anyways, the evening began with three presentations of ‘innovative thinking’: first, Raymond Akorofu (Safisana), then Sesinam Dagadu (SnooCode), and finally Dr. Mark Amo Boateng (University of Energy & Natural Resources). Safisana, through a private-public partnership incorporated in the Netherlands, processes organic waste from the township of Ashaiman into electricity (which they feed into the grid by selling to the Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG). They also use the compost they generate to raise seedlings which they sell to farmers and other agric folks. SnooCode’s addressing system creates unique codes for location purposes, using minimal phone memory and data, and is reportedly faster and more translatable than Google’s open location code. Dr. Amo–Boateng presented several ideas from his research; from bio-plastic (made from starch) to some deep-ocean explorations to AI projects. Both Akorofu and Dr. Amo Boateng mentioned the presence of masters and PhD students working with them, a point that made the academic in me happy.

These presentations were followed by a keynote by the minister of ESTI, Dr. Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, a (former?) cardio-thoracic surgeon who appears to be a maker and tinkerer also (from his descriptions of harnessing methane, reusing cooking oil, etc.). The Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology & Innovation (ESTI), with the addition of 'innovation', adds a new mandate by, in my view, an already stretched thin ministry. Dr Frimpong-Boateng argued that Ghana has a science and tech deficit and his ministry is working with the ministry of education to change that. I didn't hear specific detail of this, for example if changes would be made to any curriculum, at which level, etc. Regardless, he made a passionate case for an "attitudinal and motivational change', adding that improving research would help shift this (mentioning the 'triple helix along the way). I heard him also say that the new president of Ghana, Nana Akuffo-Addo, has promised 1% of GDP for research activity....

Following that speech was a panel discussion moderated by the host of the Citi Breakfast Show, Bernard Avle. The panel was made up of Dr. Fred McBagonluri (Ashesi University College), Michael Quarshie (Persol Systems), Estelle Akofo-Sowah (Google Ghana), and Bright Simmons (m-Pedigree). Their task was to reflect on and discuss the state of innovations in Ghana and how to scale up innovative businesses. I found their discussion (and the Q &A after) both fascinating and problematic. Reasons after the image jump.


First, I had a problem with the ways that comparisons to ‘other societies’ were made, in a rather facile manner. So, for instance, someone would say, "in other societies, they do it this way, or, other societies are able to do x or y", implying that Ghana needs to learn from that or more often, replicate said behavior or attitude. At the same time, they argued that Ghanaians don’t celebrate their own or recognize local innovations enough. A couple of the panelists saw this as an attitude that affects those who innovate in the country (with two referring to themselves as innovators… ); their point being that Ghanaians, including the government, too often prefer outside innovations to their own, making it difficult for local folks to make inroads with theirs.

I see/saw a tension there. You can’t put ‘other societies’ (often the west, recently east Asia as well) up as the standard to aspire to, constantly giving examples of their feats, and then turn around and criticize the people you say this to for placing greater value on things that come from there. If you are valorizing ideas and products from elsewhere, it’s somewhat irresponsible or disingenuous even, to turn around and criticize others for doing same. If you want to promote Ghanaian innovations, focus on that and draw on lessons learned from elsewhere but at least try to contextualize it.

Throughout the conversations from the panel (including the host's prompts), the minister’s speech, his remarks later, as well as the Q & A session, people kept referencing intellectual property, specifically patents and patenting as a key aspect of promoting (tech) innovation. These were framed as a necessary model to push innovators forward. I've encountered this before in Ghana, in conversation with some tech entrepreneurs and makers, usually in the form "I know someone who refuses to discuss his ideas out of fear that someone would steal them so we need to protect our ideas" (I think this counts as "asking for a friend" or?).

I found it incredibly curious, especially from the technologists at the Citi Innovation Summit, that no one mentioned open source even in passing. Open source design and open access to knowledge historically played (and continue to play) an important role in pushing forward ideas, especially in digital tech. The Open Source movement alongside academic research (and US military funding + immigrant networks but who is counting?) were critical to the development of Silicon Valley into what it is today (problems and all). Likewise, the open collaborative mode of production in the south of China, particularly in Shenzhen, (regardless of the easy claim of copycatting that is leveled against it) are part of what gives that city its edge in rapid prototyping and design for particularly non-western markets. My point is, all the things folks were pointing to as the gold standard emerged in a mixed environment- with some public investment, some IP protection, and crucially open source/access, never purely IP protection throughout the life cycle of any idea. Even where there is tight protection, it's hard for any company to say every single aspect of their product came from proprietary information and not from knowledge from academic research or open source/access to information.

Open source in particular has incredible value if you’re joining the technology production game late, as was implied by the discussion. Many of the makers I’ve met in Ghana rely on open source designs to tinker with and build upon. For instance, the company Klaks 3D, which makes 3D printers, based out of KumasiHive, would not have a product if they didn't have access to open source designs available to tweak using recycled e-waste. There’s a lot of knowledge out in the public domain with years of both academic and industry research from all over the world freely available online. If there wasn’t some commitment to both open source and open access, researchers, designers, etc would be wasting time trying to reinvent the wheel and many of the things we rely on digitally would be unavailable to most of the world's population which, tbh, can't afford products made in/from/for the west.

My point is, its problematic to rely on a rigid interpretation of IP protection within the current paradigm of innovation and to leave out chunks of the story of innovation if that's what you want to focus on. We are at an opportune time to learn from all sorts of models and it will be prudent to find a mix that will respond well to the current time we’re in, and the kinds of innovations we want to see in Ghana. This might means supporting open source/access to a point, while strengthening the legal regime that can be called on to protect IP after a certain degree of adoption or commercialization (which seemed to be the apex of innovation for the panel),, while increasing government investment in both academic and industry research.

I would sum up this post by saying that overall, I saw the comments at this summit as vividly emblematic of broader discussions in the public discourse is Ghana about technology, business, and innovation. Innovation, as it was in 2016, remains something of a buzzword in 2017. With the government now taking a more direct interest in the tech industry, I think it can create problems down the line partial stories are told and narrow portions of some pre-tried model are promoted with little room for experimentation. If the ennui I feel from the tech startup scene in Accra is anything to go by, now would be the time for people interested in innovation to push the envelope to think more broadly about strategies that have more of a chance to succeed than simplified versions of what others have done elsewhere in different times.

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