A bustling setting with Ghanaians surfing the internet typifies a day at BusyInternet, an internet hub situated in the heart of Accra, Ghana. Combining a unique mix of social and business objectives, BusyInternet boasts that it provides the best IT services in Africa.
The boasting is not hollow; as any visitor who enters the two-story BusyInternet building would soon find out.
Located in a 14 000 square foot former gas-bottling factory with an investment of two million dollars, the centre offers its customers high-speed workstations for low-cost public internet access, a photocopying shop and serviced offices for, among other things, an incubation program.
As the second World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) African Regional preparatory meeting kicks off in Accra this week, the role BusyInternet plays in bringing ordinary Ghanaians closer to digital opportunities represents a beacon of hope in a continent beset by a lack of access to ICTs.
"Busy," as the locals call it, is exactly what delegates attending the preparatory meeting look for when they speak of African-owned measures required to build an all inclusive information society on the continent. As the largest internet center in West Africa, Busy is a model for homegrown African initiatives aimed at bridging the digital divide.
Established in 2001, BusyInternet provides high-tech services to a growing 'digital' community in Accra. The internet centre is a promising 'hybrid' model for Africa. Equipped with Pentium III computers, flat-screen monitors and internet access via satellite, business at Busy is booming.
"Busy is making a lot of money, but it is also putting Ghana on the digital map of Africa," says Eric Osiakwan, one of the Ghanaian internet consultants who regularly use Busy's services.
As in many other African countries, the internet has been warmly welcomed in Ghana. Five years ago, there were no internet cafes in Ghana; now there are at least 250 in Accra alone, according to official Ghanaian figures. Nua Internet Surveys, a company in Ireland that tracks internet use, estimated that there were about 20 000 Internet users in Ghana last year.
Busy is the first in a series of internet centres across Africa. According to the Busy website (http://www.busyinternet.com/), the company plans to open similar centres in other African countries including Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Uganda. With plans to launch two new centres each year, Busy seeks to spread rapidly across Africa, creating a network of centres of excellence where participants and businesses can share best practices and help each other exploit new opportunities.
What makes this primarily commercial entity remarkable is that it has combined commercial interests with public service initiatives such as its new program, BusyIncubator. This initiative allows the company to assist small start-up entities to grow and become sustainable.
According to Lesley Dodoo, 41, head of the BusyIncubator, the program is a key Ghanaian initiative focused on transforming the local economy to meet the opportunities of the digital age. The BusyIncubator program was launched last year with a $300 000 grant from the World Bank and the government of Japan's InfoDev (Information for Development) program.
The first of its kind in West Africa, this small business incubation program is designed to increase the chances of survival of young companies by providing them with opportunities to grow in a supportive and nurturing environment.
"Incubating a business means providing new start-up businesses that qualify with a set of facilities -- physical space, shared services, business and legal advice, and sometimes financial inputs to cushion them during their early days of formation," Dodoo says.
"We assist them until their 'graduation', when they have the capacity to survive in the outside competitive environment," explains Dodoo, an ICT/management expert who worked at the Ghanaian ministry of finance for 11 years.
To date, five companies have "graduated" from the program - Data Management International Inc, EshopAfrica, Interface Technologies, Soft Internet Solutions and Graphicolor. This year another six companies are in the facility learning how to "survive" in the market in the areas of connectivity solutions, software development, management consulting, entrepreneurship development and business process outsourcing, among other ICT-based skills.
The Busy team, led by managing director Estelle Akofio-Sowah, is made up of 90 employees from across West Africa. Six out of the ten management team are women.