Thursday, August 23, 2007

Setting up an Internet Café for a Ghanaian School

I had already been involved in a project getting computers to Kenyan schools for a number of years. When I was visiting Ghana for the first time, my friend Marlene and I went to see the Akosombo dam, which is holding back the Volta river to create the largest man made lake in Africa, and the second largest globally - as I was told. On our way back we were looking for a hotel to spend the night. When we came through the fishermen’s village of Anloga at the coast of Ghana towards Togo, we noticed a large and clean looking building in Western style among all the fishermen’s houses in native style. Our curiosity aroused, we came to the “Pin Drop Inn”, a neat little hotel. Quite unexpectedly, each of the rooms was up to Western standards, offering its own bathroom – with shower, toilet, and running water, air conditioning, and satellite TV. And most surprisingly, everything worked! I then started talking with Jerry, the owner of the hotel. His bright 11-year-old son offered to take me through a tour of the village. When I got back, Jerry’s daughter joined our discussion. The three of them were asking all sorts of questions about computers and the Internet. It soon became clear that their biggest dream was to get an Internet café to Anloga. When I left the Pin Drop Inn the next morning, I promised Jerry to help him set up an Internet café for the secondary school of Anloga.

Back in Switzerland and the US I asked around for used computers. One of my Swiss friends, the CIO of Elektro-Material AG, a large electronics parts wholesaler, offered to donate a dozen used but still usable computers, fully equipped. He even agreed, together with some colleagues, to install Windows XP and Office on the computers so we would only have to plug them in in Anloga. Microsoft had also generously agreed to provide us with free Windows and Office licenses for our school Internet café project. The only thing left to do now was to pack the computers up and ship them to Ghana. I found a shipper who specializes in moving stuff to Africa. He promised to ship the computers to Ghana to be there around July 8th such that they would be ready for us when we would get to Accra on July 24th. I was therefore not too pleased when he called me a few days after I had paid his bill to tell me that the computers had been lost on the way from Zurich to Antwerp, and that the ship therefore had left without our computers. He would put them on the next ship which was scheduled to arrive at the Ghanaian port of Tema July 24th. Timing started to get quite tight now. To get the computers out at the port in Tema I again contacted the Ghanaian Embassy in Berne. This time, the Embassy was very helpful, and – within 2 days – wrote and faxed me back a confirmation letter, also asking the customs authorities in Tema to forego import duties, as the computers were destined to go to a school.

However, getting the computers to Ghana was the easy part. Connecting them to the Internet, once they were in Anloga, proved to be a harder nut to crack. When I was visiting Anloga for the first time more than a year ago, the closest phone land line was still dozens of kilometers away, so the only viable option seemed to be to get Internet through satellite connection - using a so-called VSAT connection. I was told that setting up the station would cost about $10,000, while monthly access fees would amount to at least $800. As this seemed quite excessive to me, I started asking around. Through a friend at the MIT Computer Science and AI Lab (CSAIL) I was referred to Jack Constanza, CSAIL’s infrastructure director. Jack told me about Don, a professor at the University of Maryland, who was involved with similar projects. Don knew Erik Osiakwan, an Internet journalist in Ghana, who in turn referred me to Kwaku Boadu, owner of Ghanaian Internet access provider arrownetworks. Kwaku told me that he might be able to get me Internet access at lower cost than through setting up a vsat connection myself in Anloga. He had an access point in the nearby border town of Afloa, and my location in Anloga might be close enough to get a terrestrial point to point connection. For that, however, I would need the GPS coordinates of Jerry’s Pin Drop Inn. When I called my friend Marlene in Ghana, her husband knew of a surveyor working for the Ghanaian state who might be able to give us the GPS coordinates, but it would be quite expensive because he would have to drive to Anloga, to get a GPS reading right at the Pin Drop Inn. It then occurred to me, that using Google Earth, and locating the Pin Drop Inn that way might be an easier way to get the GPS coordinates.

So, when, I and my children finally arrived in Ghana on July 25th, it was one of my first activites to ask Jerry to come to Accra, and locate the Pin Drop Inn on Google Earth, which I had loaded and cached on my laptop. Jerry was indeed able to spot the Pin Drop Inn on Google Earth, and when I called Kwaku to tell him the coordinates, I got back the good news that we would be capable of getting a terrestrial signal from Kwaku’s access point in Afloa to Anloga. But we still might have to set up a 30-meter high pole to capture the signal directly from the access point in Afloa.

In the meantime, I also tried to get the computers out at the port in Tema. I asked Jerry to look into this. When he contacted the port, he was told that, while the ship had indeed arrived on time, unloading it was backed up by a week, and the earliest time the ship could be unloaded and the computers be obtained would be one week later, on Monday August 6. My children and I therefore decided to do our sightseeing in Ghana during the first week of our stay, and set the computers up during the second week. I arranged with Jerry that he and I would meet again August 6 at the port to get the computers. When I called Jerry on Sunday August 5 to arrange for the computers to be unloaded, he told me that to obtain the computers within the next few days I would not only have to pay customs, but also a handling agent, and a substantial release fee for the local representative of the shipping company which had shipped the computers from Antwerp to Tema. I was also told that while I could indeed claim an exemption from customs for the computers, this would take a few weeks to be approved by the ministry. Also, if I would try to deal with the complexities of clearing goods at the port of Tema myself, this would further slow me down. As I learned I had not only to pay customs duties, but also the so-called documentation fee of the handling agent who would be walking me through the release process at the port, and the release fee of the local agent of the shipping company. I agreed with Jerry that he would come Monday August 6 morning to the house of my friends to pick me up, and we would then go to the port of Tema together.

Unfortunately, Monday morning no Jerry showed up, and when I finally called him around noon, he told me that he would only be able to come Monday afternoon. We then agreed to meet Tuesday morning. I was pleasantly surprised when on Tuesday morning Jerry was only one hour late for the meeting at our house. We then went to the port of Tema, where it turned out that Nick, the handling agent at the port, was a relative of Jerry – and a former customs officer. Nick generously agreed to manage the clearance process of the computers for a reduced fee of $100 (he originally wanted $150). Nick then promised that I would get the computers the same day, but first I would have to come with him to the various offices to pay my dues to the different parties asking for money in return for the promise to release the computers. Off we went in his glitzy new Nissan Infinity SUV, first to the local representative of the shipping line. There, the lady initially requested the equivalent of 247 dollars, but after same bartering accepted 207 dollars. After I had also handed the $180 for customs to Nick, I was sent home, but was promised that next day I would get the computers.

When I came to Nick’s office the next morning – it was now Wednesday, and our return tickets to Zurich were for Friday evening – nobody was there. After a half hour wait Nick showed up. First, he took me to the bank, where he had me wait outside and went inside to pay the customs duties. Afterwards, we drove to the port, where I was handed over to Edward. Edward was one of the young clearing agents who do the actual legwork for Nick. Edward now took me on a tour criss-crossing the port of Tema from one office to the other. After the first four stops I lost track of where we were, I just noticed that one of the stops was with the lady who had wanted to pay me the 247 dollars, and another one was at the customs office, to show our receipt that we had actually paid customs duty. In the evening, with sore legs and totally exhausted from a day walking around at the port with Edward, I was sent home again with the promise that finally, on Thursday, I would get the computers.

Thursday morning, after my mandatory wait for Jerry at Nick’s office, Jerry appeared in a Trotro, that is a Ghanaian taxicab. Jerry had rented this Trotro, a Mazda minivan, including driver and driver’s mate (the fare collector), to shuttle our computers to Anloga. Jerry also told me that the Trotro would cost me about 60 dollars. The three of us, Jerry, Trotro driver, and driver’s mate, went to the port, where Edward was waiting for us. After some more waiting, and after paying an entry fee of one dollar for each of us at the port, we were finally allowed to go to see the container with the computers.

After the customs officer had checked that the lading bill and the contents of the container matched, we were then allowed to load our 12 computers including accessories into the Trotro. I never thought that all the equipment would fit into the Trotro, but in the end Jerry and the Trotro driver succeeded in squeezing everything into our little bus, even the driver’s mate, who could only sit sideways on top of some monitors.

On our drive to Anloga, we had to stop a few times at police barriers, which were supposed to check the safety of the vehicles passing through. Paying a “small gift” at each roadblock ensured that the policemen waved our fully loaded mini bus through.

Two hours later, it was now Thursday at 5pm, we arrived at Jerry’s house, where a group of about half a dozen children was eagerly waiting for the computers. In no time had we unloaded the computers, and set them up.

I was amazed how the kids, who had only seen computers a few times in an Internet café, succeeded, by observing me, to assemble the computers. About half an hour later all the computers were set up, and the kids were already starting to experiment with Microsoft Office.


  1. CONGRATULATIONS! I'm so proud of you. Count yourself lucky that you got the computers. Yep, you can either cry or laugh, but I choose to laugh, because that's how business is done.

    Bye the way, I attended Anlo Secondary School and I'm from Anloga. Thank you for your kindness. Right now, I'm trying to get computers to HECTA school, in Akim Oda,but it's harder than I thought. Good Job!

  2. This is late, but as a Ghanaian, I understand fully the trickeries and corrupt manners. But I thank you for your patience and ambition in helping. You are a true angel. May you be rewarded in many ways. Thank you again.