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Former Microsoft Employee Brings High Tech Courses to Ghana University

In Ghana, a small private university is helping with entrepreneurial efforts to turn the aid-dependent West African country into a high-tech hub. Although the task is daunting, early signs are encouraging.

"This is our Africana and English collection. Again, it's a small collection but it's very focused on the courses that we are teaching here in Africana studies, African history, African philosophy," explains Associate Director of Development Matthew Taggart as he gives a tour of Ashesi University.

The name means "Beginning" in the local Akan language.

Students here are mostly interested in computer science and business management and all the computers at their disposal.

The university's president and founder is Patrick Awuah. He studied in the United States and worked for the software giant, Microsoft.

But, after he and his wife - also a Microsoft employee - had a child, they decided it was time to give back to his native Ghana.

"This is a very rewarding project to be engaged in," he says. "Students are doing well. The first class graduated last year and they are placed in industry and are doing very well. We are getting very good reports back and that's very important. Frustration has to do with (the fact) working in Ghana is not always easy. Infrastructures are not where it needs to be and we have to struggle with that. "

"I've written part of it but I need to test it. So I have to write a little more code and then test the program and then submit it. I'll just email it to my lecturer," explains

Araba Amuasi. She is doing homework for a computer class. She is scheduled to graduate in 2007. Like most students, some of her schooling is paid by her parents, but she also gets a loan to cover the several thousand-dollar tuition.

Amuasi says her dream is to become a great African computer programmer.

"I want to get a couple of friends together and set up a company that would develop software that is cheaper and will fit into our context better," she says. "Because, now, almost everything we use here is developed outside the country, outside the continent. There are certain scenarios that don't quit work when you implement the programs here. So I want to do something that is more centered on Africa."

Over at a nearby company called Rancard Solutions, Ehigozie Binitie is introducing two Ashesi graduates he recently hired.

He is the chief technology strategist for the development of business application software.

"We are an ambitious young company, forward looking with every intention of going global," he explains. "Now, it is a little hard to capture that culture and mindset. There are lots of graduates who do not really believe in it. They have not experienced, first hand, what it is to work at the cutting edge. And, so, they struggle to see how and why it can be done in Ghana by Ghanaians like themselves. There is just a bit of a mind gap. And, I think it's an exposure thing. So, I think it is definitely a breath of fresh air to meet kids coming out of school with a mindset (with which) you can really accomplish a lot."

Binitie says, after initial frustrations to turn Ghana into a high-tech center for West Africa, refocused efforts are starting to pay dividends.

"I think it is coming back around. I think that in 2000 the mood for high tech companies started out, but what we, initially, fundamentally, a lot of us got wrong was our business model," he says. "We were not quite sure where we fit in or our relevance in the economy and how that played out in terms of pure business economics. There were lots of novel ideas but the relevance in the market space was not clearly defined. Since 2001, there has been lots of shaking and consolidation in the industry. And we're beginning to see companies who are using technology to deliver services from core telecommunications to using telecommunications to deliver anything from money, to services, to education. We're finding companies who are beginning to discover real market needs."

The man behind some of these new high-tech prospects in Ghana, Awuah, says it was nice to succeed for himself in the United States. Still, he feels he is doing much more now for others.

"When I was working at Microsoft that was also very exciting. Those were heady times when I was there in the late 80's and early 90's," he says. "There are times when I am back in Seattle and I go visit some of my colleagues who are still there. They are working on some pretty cool technology and certainly there is a part of me that misses that sometimes. But what I am doing now is equally challenging, even more challenging I think than what I was doing at Microsoft."

All the students at the university seem to be full of ideas and business plans, trying to design profitable and useful technological improvements.

Amuasi wants to develop software in local languages for Ghanaians who cannot read or write in French or English.

"We are looking at something that is developed in a language that will suit them. Stuff like that has been done in India where they use software that uses language that people are familiar with in India," she says.

Rather than adding to the brain drain that afflicts so many sectors of the continent's economy and leave to the United States or Europe, she and other bright students now say they have enough opportunity to stay here.