Of tech and payments in Accra, Ghana.
Paystack, the company I work for, is now live in our second market, Ghana. With a number of increased efforts to grow our presence in Ghana, the team decided I’d be a good fit to test some of our assumptions and gather more insights on opportunities. And just like that I was packing my bags and heading off to Accra, joined by my colleague, the one and only Spencer Park.
The Kindness of Strangers.
Ahead of my departure I spent quite a lot of time trying to line up meetings. Keyword searches on linkedin, twitter and YouTube led me to connect with tons of tech and payments leaders. A quick search on YouTube led me to this great video breaking down all the digital payment providers in Ghana. I decided to ping the video’s creator, Ishmael, to see if he was up for a chat.
Following some brief email exchanges Ishmael agreed to meet up with me Saturday afternoon, and we sat down for some juice. We talked payments for 30 minutes and I learned that he builds websites, creates uDemy courses, and gets occasional video gigs off the back of all the YouTube work he’s done. Following our meeting, he offered to show me around Accra.
Ishmael proceeded to take me on a spectacular 5 hour tour of Accra. We spoke of family, ambitions, religion, politics and Ghana’s history. And it turns out Ismael’s true passion is actually metal work. He pulled out his phone and showed me the mock-up of a two story home, made out of storage containers. My immediate reaction was skepticism until he proceeded to show me that he’s already built an office out of a storage containers. His goal is to create affordable, safe and stylish housing. What can’t this guy do?
It’s refreshing meeting someone who not only has a clear vision for the impact they want to make, but is actually taking steps towards making it happen.
Developers Developers Developers
Two weeks before my flight to Accra I was introduced to two of the leading developer groups in Accra. My first meeting in Ghana was with Edem Kumodzi, and I think we could’ve talked all day. His story and insights into the emergence of Ghana’s developer and tech scene were fascinating. Edem shared his journey of becoming a developer and working for a prestigious consultancy abroad in South America. He learned a ton about himself, being an African abroad and how to shape his career and work with large companies. After returning to Ghana, he began mentoring young developers and later played an part in helping shape DevCongress, one of the leading developer communities in Ghana. Later he would be one of the first pioneers of Andela Accra, a perfect fit for the role Edem wanted to play in creating opportunities for young developers. In nearly every meeting that followed, Edem’s name came up. He’s clearly an OG in the world of web developers in Accra.
That same evening I met up with Oliver Mensah who helps organize Facebook Developer Circles Accra Community and arranged a small hangout with some other developers. Our conversation spanned across a world of topics. How Accra still has gold specks on the ground, all the way to how much opportunity there is in Agriculture and Agritech in Ghana. Most of the young devs work for companies but their curiosity and interest spans well beyond their careers. Off the back of a fantastic evening I received follow up messages from nearly everyone who came.
One of the developers Duncan offered to take Spencer and I out for a Sunday lunch which ended up being such a fantastic taste of local cuisine. We’ve been asked to keep our feelings about Nigeria vs Ghana jollof to ourselves for our own safety. A fringe benefit of this was Duncan bringing along his friend Samuel Korley. Long story short, Samuel opened so many key doors for us in Ghana both in terms of setting up meetings but also helping us understand the infrastructure of payments in Ghana. Biggest thanks to you Samuel and Duncan for your generosity and assistance. I’m still in shock that they gave up an entire Saturday and woke up at 4am to take to the Cape Coast Castle. Seeing the brutality of the slave trade with my own eyes alongside our new Ghanaian friends is something Spencer and I will never forget.
S̶i̶d̶e̶ ̶H̶u̶s̶t̶l̶e̶ Job + Passion.
We all have a friend or colleague with an online store. Frankly, I’m not sure how people manage to balance so many things — I barely manage to have a social life. In Accra I met countless people working for very exciting startups, but it turns out many of their true passions are the other businesses they run. I’m not even talking about moonlighting. Take Foster Akugri, for example, who’s running Stanbic’s (large bank) accelerator. Foster has seen first hand the talent scarcity Ghana faces when trying to find developers and believes there’s a lack of education in schools for coding and technology for the next generation. Foster started Hacklab Foundation, which is aimed at working with schools across Ghana to educate students on coding and serve as a bridge to global tech companies that want to play their part.
One of our final meetings we connected with a very talented developer Samuel Adranyi who’s investing much of his free time hosting amazing digital interviews and webinars, focused on technology.
Out of 30 meetings I can only think of 3 where the people didn’t have a passion project in parallel with their career.
The fact that so many Ghanaians have side projects in itself was fascinating but what made it even more fascinating was the why. The why was always tied to solving big challenges. Take Gad Ocran for example who had a ton to share and couldn’t wait to tell us about marketing in Ghana. He works for a well known Ghanaian startup: mPharma. Aside from building mPharma’s brand, Gad’s passion lies in the hundreds of small businesses that he’s coaching to become more effective at selling online. Gad feels that small businesses are often overlooked and underprepared to handle growth. And he feels strongly that small businesses are disconnected from the developers and technology they need to grow and automate their businesses. This is how his group trainings through Express Social are aiming to help.
Some of the most interesting startups we came across are addressing fundamental needs that are relevant to the entire population. Our meeting with Alfred Rowe was one of the most compelling. He was incredibly open about his experience founding MPower Payments, a successful payment platform that he ended up selling. He’s now working with COO Michael Ofori-Akuffo on building an event ticketing platform called eGotickets. Michael and Alfred are both clearly very passionate about payments. It was just a few minutes into our conversation that he began demo’ing all the things for us and showing us just how much opportunity there is in Ghana.
Bottom Up Influence. Lessons from Africa.
Leading up to my time in Ghana I’d heard quite a lot about the role mobile money plays in Ghana, but I had no idea just how pervasive it was. According to all of the meetings we had, mobile money accounts for 85–90% of all digital payments. The way mobile money was rolled out across Ghana is fascinating. It essentially started with solving the person-to-person payments challenge and has resulted in mobile money being embded into the lives of nearly the entire country. If you need a micro loan, mobile money. Need cash, why not visit one of the 100k+ mobile money vendors. The beauty of the solution is how it’s bolstered financial inclusion amongst all people in Ghana. With many transactions happening in one place, mobile networks can now begin rolling out other financial services to consumers that might not otherwise have access to them. It’s easy to make the assumption that the global west has so much to teach Africa but the innovation, adoption and implementation of mobile money in Ghana is something the world should take note of.
Ambitions abroad and close to home.
When discussing why many developers seek employment rather than looking to create startups one person told me that “Africans have to work extra hard to secure credibility and trust”. This is why it appeared that many people I spoke to looked forward to studying or working abroad, if they end up being so lucky. What was fascinating to me was that many of the entrepreneurs whom I met that went abroad and found success, decided to make the move back home to Ghana to pursue a more impactful future in their home country. Nana Ama Yankah from NayabyAfrica.com and sat down over some coffee just across from her beautiful retail store. Nana has been hard at work building a brand around her locally developed skin care line. We spoke of the intersection of opportunity and challenge. Scaling a small business isn’t easy but she’s managed to build up a base of domestic and international customers by investing heavily in her brand, partnerships and building out a stunning omnichannel experience.
Another fascinating entrepreneur we had the pleasure of meeting up with is Kwami Williams of MoringaConnect. Kwami left Ghana as a kid with dreams of being an aeronautical engineer. He was very deep down that path following time at MIT and interning at NASA when a class trip to rural parts of his home country disrupted that momentum. Kwami came across the opportunity to build an agribusiness from his home country while empowering thousands of small scale farmers. You can now find Kwami’s products in Whole Foods and online.
Solving real challenges without a playbook.
For all the tales of success and opportunity we heard an equal number about challenges. From the leading tech companies and retailers in Ghana it’s clear that they see opportunity. However, in the world of payments in eCommerce it’s not easy to quickly instill trust. We met up with serial entrepreneur Gerard Yitamkey who’s been at the forefront of making moves in the eCommerce space. He launched one of the first marketplace style websites Ahonya.com back in 2012. More recently he’s been working on solving eCommerce logistic challenges at Mmirika. He had a fleet of 50 motorcycles at one stage but ran into many unforeseen challenges around cash collections and managing such a large fleet. Gerard’s sentiments towards eCommerce coupled with many others confirmed the reality of the eCommerce opportunity. It’s a growing space with a growing number of small businesses online but trust tied to logistics and payments are still huge hurdles. I’m very excited for Paystack to be part of that solution but it’s clear that it’s going to take more than innovation to fuel growth in the eCommerce space.
I wasn’t sure what to expect for my time in Ghana. I had doubts about venturing into the unknown. But all went well — really well.
Perhaps there’s something to be said about being the new guy and/or a foreigner. When it comes to approaching people to learn and gather advice, people are willing to help. This was 100% my experience in Ghana. At each meeting I was taken back by how open and eager people were to share their impressions about their country and the spaces that they operate in. There’s so much to be learned by sitting face to face with people. And naturally it’s hard to meet with anyone and not arrive at some way you can help each other.
This trip was a reminder to me that people want to help; people want to connect; most people are eager to embrace foreigners. What drives that? I’m not exactly sure, but Ghanians are particularly warm, kind and helpful. This trip was also a reminder for me that I thrive in the tension, adrenaline and awkwardness of the moments where strangers meet. Particularly in new places, over some good food.
Why did this trip mean so much to me?
I had 10 days to learn as much as I could. In terms of the business opportunity there’s so much positive to glean from. But there’s also an overriding sense of untapped potential. Things like the developer community and startup space have come so far in the last 5–10 years. The investment in payments and technology to help businesses big and small is here. Still, in my short time there I felt like I could see myself playing a role connecting people. While communities and accelerators exist there’s still a lot of interesting work happening in silos. The most well known startup we met with are still solving some big challenges. For every story we heard of growth, we heard several others of failure.
So the reality it seems is that the Ghanian tech scene is blossoming. It’s eager. Based on my interaction it’s curious. It’s open to new ideas and tech. It’s hungry for investment.
In 10 days what do I know? But what I do know is that I felt something. I felt excitement. I felt pride. I felt a goodness. Thank you for embracing me and being open. Thank you for testing my spirit with your Ubers without air conditioning. Thank you for reminding me how good worship music can be. Thank you for reminding me how to care deeply. Thank you for reminding me that I secretly want to be an investigative journalist. I realize once again that I can swim in the deep end without fear. And most of all I am encouraged by the idea that when interesting people meet, good things come of it.
So Ghana, I’m a fan. I’ll be your honorary unofficial ambassador here in South Africa or wherever life takes me. 🥰 🇬🇭