Ghana Summer 2012 Blog

University of Ghana, Legon
June 18, 2012 to Aug. 3, 2012

Customer care, code, and gratitude

Alessondra Springmann

July 30, 2012

Final demos are on Thursday; products will be ready tomorrow evening so we can spend Wednesday debugging and preparing presentations.  This morning, Michael of Kuzima (which means speak) came by and delivered a great talk on how to take care of your customers to keep them coming back.  I'm a passionate believer in good customer service and care.  What can you do to delight your customers?  It's easy here, as a lot of service providers don't value keeping customers happy, so being the one providing exceptional customer care can set you out from your competition quite easily.

Here's a group shot of everyone in front of the Balme Library, one of the main landmarks on campus.  Notice LiAn sporting her Google+ shirt!


And a team photo! More are here.


As we wrap up life in Ghana, there are a few folks we'd like to thank publically: our hosts at the University of Ghana, Legon, Drs. Robert Sowah and Godfrey Mills; our hosts at Google Ghana, Matti Donkor, Nana Amoah, and Estelle Akofio-Sowah; our students; our daily taxi driver Edward; the staff at our apartment complex, especially Stephen and Nana Ama. We'd also like to thank our favorite chop bar in Adjingano, a fried chicken and rice stand known as "Don Chicky".  It's been a source of sustenance for us, conveniently located on the main road a five-minute walk from our home.  After a long day of debugging labs, nothing gets the team excited like the prospect of cheap and quick "special rice" and chicken in a green building by Adjingano's tro-tro station.

Don Chicky

Textiles and advertisements

Alessondra Springmann

July 27, 2012

In support of the Ghanaian textile industry, Ghanaians everywhere wear traditional African print clothing on Fridays.  This isn't limited to citizens: the UN offices in Accra have a policy that employees wear local fabric, or traditional garb from their home countries, at the end of the week, sort of an un-casual Friday.  I'm wearing the dress that our local seamstresses made while our students sport batik, print, and kente shirts, as well as dresses and skirts.  

This afternoon students are presenting their advertising and promotional schemes, whether radio spots, flyers, or other ways of getting the word out about what they're building.  Business plans have been turned in, and we'll be putting those on the team sites soon.  Watch this space!

Android development has been quickly adopted by the group and some teams are inspired enough that they intend to spend the entire weekend working on polishing their UIs.  So long as your underlying product works, sure.  Though it took a while to download Eclipse and the SDK, it's great how quickly you can get up to speed with building Android apps.

Unprompted, Darko today at lunch told me how much this program has inspired him and opened his eyes to what he can do with his computer science skills.  He's always been interested in entrepreneurship, but now feels like more things are possible as a result of AITI.  He handed me a proposal that he'd written on his own for a media distribution platform for Ghana using Android, web, and IVR.  "It took me so long to write!"  It was ten pages.  An evening?  "Three hours!" Darko exclaimed.  If there's one thing that's going well in this program it's that writing is getting easier for everyone involved.

Yesterday we had a rough demo day!  Each group sent a representative and a laptop to the front of the room to show off SMS receiving and sending systems, Android interfaces, and websites.  Earlier this week when I told them they'd be doing rough demos, they all expressed dismay, but by yesterday morning everyone knew they'd be fine.  I'm impressed with how good everything looks, and I'm very confident that by our demo day on Thursday that everything will be quite polished for our visiting judges.


Working further backward, yesterday morning we bid farewell to LiAn, who had to leave the program early to wrangle the visa overlords in China and Singapore before she starts work there the week after MIT AITI Ghana.  We had a sendoff party for her poolside on campus, and one of our local developer friends paid a visit.  We tried to azonto (this dance craze sweeping the nation) and played Set, befuddling students, instructors, and visitor alike.  Encouraging thinking and pattern matching outside of the lab?  Ey!



We have a couple of guest lectures scheduled for next week, on customer support and funding options for companies, but then things finish on Thursday for our final demo day.  It seems like ages ago that Jovana, Louis, LiAn, and I strode into the ICT Directorate building for our first day of teaching and Ubuntu installing.

Time to demo advertisements!

AITI, meet Github

Louis Sobel

July 27, 2012

AITI Heroku Github


What do the funny looking words 'doncheezy', 'pilas', 'darkhunt', and 'dzidzor' have in common?

Though they sound like they could be, they are not Ghanian fruits. They are all Github usernames of our students. Github, if you don't know, is a website that allows people to easily share and modify their own and other people's code. Jovana and I have been using it this summer to distribute programming labs and assignments to our students.

We have an organization, aiti-ghana-2012, through which we make code and instructions available in a number of different repositories (folders). At the beginning of the summer, we had every student make an account. To complete a lab, they would copy the repository for that lab from the aiti-ghana-2012 organization to their own account, download it, and get to work.

There are over 20 repositories up there; most of them were for just one day's work. Some of them, however, are for projects. The repository 'django-blog-project' contains a 6-part lab that guides the students through creating a working blogging web application (using Django, a web-framework) and launching it on Heroku.

Heroku is a website that makes it very easy for developers to launch their own websites. It was a part of our web curriculum from the very beginning. The experience of working on a website in the morning and having it on the World Wide Web before lunch's Fufu has even settled in your stomach allows you to really understand the powerful ability to build and prototype ideas that tools like Django give you.

The Django blog project ended with a contest, judged on design, functionality, and quality of implementation. Interested students were asked to submit the url of their website on heroku and the name of their Github repository. This allowed us to judge both their code and the final result. One of the prize categories was "People's Choice", where students could vote for their favorite. A list of all the submissions is here. What's your favorite? Feel free to submit a vote. We'll be announcing winners next week.

Kumasi and Lake Bosumtwe

Alessondra Springmann

July 27, 2012

Kumasi and the Ashanti Region

Louis, LiAn, and I ventured to Kumasi while Jovana had a round of I Can't Believe It's Not Malaria™! last Friday night.  We took a VIP bus up on Friday night, this Korean-made "gargantuan" (as they say here) red vehicle with disco lights and a soundtrack of Michael Jackson and Donna Summer to match the interior illumination.  The route to Kumasi starts out with smooth pavement, like any other road in this country, but very quickly turns into maybe 50 kilometers of bumps and potholes.  Calling this a "road" is an affront to paved surfaces everywhere.

Rules of the road are also thrown out on this gravely patch.  Cars and trucks spread out, each rumbling along and picking the best and flattest way through the metaphorical minefield of holes.  Southbound traffic threads their way through the fanned out northbound vehicles.  It feels like a post-apocalyptic road rally.  It would not have been out of place to see the trucks from Transformers weaving in and out of potholes around us.  I can't imagine what this is like during the rainy season, with the road turned to mush.

Eventually the rough patch gives way to a proper road, and we swayed through the night to Kumasi, alighting at the junction near KNUST (West Africa's premiere science and technology university), and finding our hostel around 3 am.

After a couple hours of sleep, we presented to members of mFriday at KNUST about our program, getting some excitement from both the students and board members for MIT AITI Ghana.  Whether our program alumni join mFriday as peer mentors, or mFriday winds up helping us recruit, I think they'll be a valuable organization for helping our participants sustain their interest in their projects, as well as build a developer community across universities and cities in Ghana.

Godfried and Godwin (and earlier we met with Godsway) picked us up and took us to the main market in town.  It's the largest open-air market in West Africa, if not the entire continent.  Following Godfried, we ducked into the maze of shack shops, selling used clothing, food, chickens, jewelry, peanut brittle, toiletries, cleaning supplies, injection-molded plastic products, and just about any other basic supply.  Including chickens.

IMG_0446.JPG IMG_0454.JPG

We met up with Pierre, one of the founders of mFriday, and a complete firecracker.  We had a lively discussion about people skills, MBAs, smoothie making, teaching innovation, building infrastructure and capacity in Ghana, and how to get your yard boy to negotiate with the trash collectors.  

Lake Bosumtwe

As the sun set, we pulled out of Pierre's home and acquired Anna, a friend from MIT in Ghana on a Fulbright fellowship.  We drove up a hill and down a wiggly road to Lake Bosumtwe, an almost perfectly round lake formed from a meteorite impact in the verdant hills.  Godfried wouldn't tell you this, but his father was on the research team that proved the lake was not volcanic, but impact in origin.

The generous manager at the Bayview Resort found us rooms and we awoke the next morning a few meters from this splendid lake with rays of sun streaming through the clouds.  Anna, LiAn, and I sauntered down to the lakeside and ordered breakfast, fresh grilled tilapia fish and coconuts.


LiAn relaxes

As the lake is sacred, there's a restriction on fishing from actual boats on the lake.  Fishermen here use these planks that look like unhollowed canoes.  One cast his net as we watched the sun rise over the lake, light streaming over the thickly forested mountains.


It took forever for the food to arrive.  Bored and hungry, we dug into a soursap fruit, this rich creamy thing that looked like a spiky avocado on the outside and thick white cotton with large seeds on the inside.  The fisherman came into shore, his 'boat' laden with a dozen or so fish.  Anna and I looked out at the water, the chickens, and talked about developing capacity in Ghana.  Throwing a house party in Stinson Beach when we get back.  Next up: a cocoa pod, filled with the precursor to chocolate: beans.  Each bean had a delightfully sweet, fleshy coating that you could suck on.  The beans themselves were highly bitter and ranged in color from bright purple to murky brown.

Cocoa pod filled with beans

A teenaged boy scaled a nearby coconut palm and brought down a coconut.  Then a few more.  He proceeded to go at them with a machete, carving them down to just the nut, removing the husk.

More coconut acquisition

After about an hour and a half of waiting, I went in to inquire about the state of our breakfast, and the caretaker at the hotel assured us that it'd be out soon. I could smell the fish cooking, so I decided it'd probably be better to wait than find another source of sustenance.  Finally, Nana brought out the fish and the coconuts.

"That took a long time!  Did you have to go out and catch the fish?"
"Actually... yes."

We all laughed.  Coconut meat was perfect.  Fish was flawless.  Best food in Ghana so far, hands down, not hurt by the fact that it was served with a fresh ginger/pepper sauce and that IT WAS CAUGHT IN A CRATER LAKE FORMED BY A METEOR IMPACT.  Why yes, I have a master's in planetary science, so slow customer service is okay so long as the food was caught inside a meteor impactor crater.

These are the (An)droids you're looking for

Alessondra Springmann

July 27, 2012

Jovana is teaching Android basics including layout, while I sift through business plans our students have turned in. Louis is helping with regular expressions and the stock market app, and LiAn was instrumental in getting the financial sections of business plans written.  For the most part, they're really good, and show an understanding of the markets, their users, and their products.  Really excited to see some live and rough demos this afternoon.  

We've had some interesting conversations with Google and Dorothy Gordon of Mobile Monday at the confusingly-named Advanced Information Technology Initiative at the Kofi Annan Centre [sic] for Excellence in Accra about how to improve the program for next year, specifically in terms of recruiting.

Our current students are mostly 300- and 400-level students, as well as some recent graduates.  Dorothy suggests targeting younger students, especially those with established entrepreneurial skills (you couldn't throw a ball of fufu in the campus hostels without hitting someone running a computer repair or data analysis enterprise out of their dorm room).  This would give them more opportunities to mentor younger students, as well as to apply for incubator programs like Meltwater.  It'd also mean that program alumni could help with future recruitment of future students, taking some of the onus off of our hosts for finding qualified MIT AITI participants.

Tuesday saw the passing of John Atta Mills, Ghana's president.  Within a few hours, his vice president was sworn in as his successor.  Ghana has been calm, sad, and hopeful that this peaceful transfer means the elections in December will be equally placid.  (Recent elections in neighboring states were marred by violence and numerous deaths.)  

Yesterday was LiAn's last day of teaching (she has to leave early to go deal with visas in China before starting her job in Singapore) and my birthday, and the students were tremendously generous.  Gifty and Priscilla went to Art Center and picked up this amazing cloth called piecey-piecey, sewn from patches of a dozen different pieces of fabric, as well as necklaces made from local glass beads.  We reconverged on the Coconut Grove Hotel's pool deck later that night for a free salsa lesson, joined by a couple of our friends from Meltwater as well as Oliners, a Tufts alum, and Anna.  Neither Mills's passing nor the evening drizzle could dampen the mood at the Grove as we taught our students to salsa under the clouds and the first quarter moon.

Monday we finally were able to visit the Google Ghana office.  Run by Estelle, an alum of Busy Internet, a team of 10 works, focused on marketing and business development, while enjoying a splendid view of Accra.  In a place where people may use the Internet once a month to search for one thing, how do you promote better access to networks, make search, email, and web information relevant, and make it sustainable for people to keep asking a computer for information?

In the US and Europe, we take consistent access to the Internet completely for granted, both in terms of ubiquitousness and speed.  (In Japan, you'll see one unprotected wireless network for every 100 you encounter.)  Want a book?  Prime it from Amazon and it'll be on your doorstop in a few days.  Need medical advice?  Ask Dr. Google.  If you need a thing or knowledge, the infrastructure exists to get you that almost instantaneously.  

Here a friend working at an NGO needed a scale for some laboratory work, measuring things to hundreds of a kilogram.  Where can you get such a precise balance?  It's not like you can Prime one overnight, go to Google Shopping, or check online inventory at a store.  Is there a reliable laboratory equipment supply in Accra?  Who do you talk to at the university to find something so simple?  It could be a several day effort to track down a scale with the required precision.

Google sees this as an opportunity to build infrastructure to support having not only business online, but the ability to do business online eventually.  It's a great time to be in emerging markets, what with the amount of technology we have available to us.

Transfer of power

Alessondra Springmann

July 24, 2012

I was going to write something here about student selection and thoughts for next year and our visit to Google, but then Twitter imploded and the classroom got loud and the international news sources reported things and then finally the Ghanaian news sources confirmed the passing of Ghana's president, John Atta-Mills.

He seemed well-liked, and relatively not corrupt, and the students seemed sort of flattened by the news after they sat down and began thinking about what it means.

No more run-on sentences for the night; have a safe and peaceful transition of power to the vice president, Ghana, and good elections in December.

Go to (Makola) Market

Alessondra Springmann

July 20, 2012

Another Friday!  We're going to Kumasi this weekend to meet with Mobile Friday, or MFriday, a community/incubator program at KNUST, the premiere science/technology university in Ghana.  We'll give a presentation on AITI's technical and entrepreneurial curriculums, and hopefully strengthen some support structures for our participants' projects to continue in the coming year.

Technical curriculum this week was light, mostly Django as students submitted blogs they'd written from scratch in the web framework and submitted them to an internal competition.  The business plan pitch was on Wednesday, attracting judges from Google, Tigo, MFriday (Farmerline), as well as representatives from VC and PE firms, and two tech startup founders.  The winning idea was TroApp, a system for demystifying the often complicated and unclear network of semi-regulated private vans that serve as public transit across West Africa.

Getting the modems working on Ubuntu for SMS and voice applications has been a big struggle.  Louis and Jovana are all but rewriting the drivers, as the VM they were tested under at MIT isn't working.  This has been an immense source of frustration for everyone as it's delaying introducing SMS, IVR, and thus Android.  There's a workaround where we can send SMS and voice messages through Android phones, but that's not quite the solution we want.  Some students are already downloading the Android SDK for their final apps, so it's good to know that technological hurdles on the instructors' end aren't hampering their ability to figure things out on their own.

While walking home the other night, LiAn and I encountered some neighbors making fufu, pounding boiled yams and plantain into a sticky substance.  We asked if we could help, and to our surprise they said yes!  They gave us a giant stick, about 2.5 meters tall, and I pounded that fufu for a good minute or two until my arms became tired.  LiAn pounded just long enough to pose for photos.  Fufu pounding is hard work!  The neighbors teased us for being weak. 

Yesterday we had a fantastic visitor from mPedigree, a group here combatting counterfieted drugs, electronics, and even fabric.  One of our students had lost a best friend to counterfiet medication, so this was a topic near and dear to our hearts.  Selorm has very deep knowledge of the technologies his organization uses, ranging from the codes printed on medication labels to the processors in mobile phones to Android's potential in Africa to the types of dyes used in the making of African fabric.  Seriously, this man is an excellent mentor and contact for our group.

AITI Ghana this year is a mix of students from UGL, KNUST, Valley View University, Ashesi University College, GIMPA, and Wisconsin International, so I'd hoped the students could create opportunities to hang out beyond the classroom.  The first few days in a program like this are spent showing off the academic equivalent of peacock feathers: whose school is the richest, who had the highest scores... at some point, this stops and they all become friends.  Encouraging social evvents has been hard, but finally last night our "social committee" hauled about half the class down to the campus pool.  We played Dame, a Ghanaian twist on Checkers that left Louis somewhat confused but a good sport for several games.  Next week we'll try to actually go swimming.

Today is due a design document for final projects, and on Wednesday we're expecting some fabulous business plans as well as advertising/promotional material for their products.  Enough with the theory, GO TO MARKET!

Weekend report, and speaking of going to market: Two of our students took LiAn and I to Makola Market on Saturday, a maze of fabric shops bursting with every color of cloth.  Decision paralysis!  I purchased a few yards of what appeared to be a local wax print, but upon closer inspection it's a cheap Chinese knockoff.  The colors will probably run or fade, according to Selorm of mPedigree.  So much for intellectual/cultural property.  LiAn dropped off her few yards of a beautiful blue wax batik print at the local seamstresses; we're excited to see what the dress looks like next week.

On Sunday, I took two friends from Tufts and Olin to Ada-Foah, a little town where the Volta River meets the Atlantic Ocean.  We'd connected with a community of expats calling themselves the Ghana Sailing Club, a little slice of paradise on a sandy beach amidst palm trees.  They graciously let us sail a couple of boats and all but convinced me to move to Ghana and join their club.  There's something that feels very right about sailing boats under coconut palms.

Louis and Jovana headed out to Cape Coast to visit the castle, as well as Kakum National Park and the monkey preserve.

Here are a bunch of photos from the last few weeks, including some of the students' pitching on Wednesday!  Enjoy your weekend.