With mobile internet growing strongly and the government committed to extensive ICT development, Ghana’s IT sector is gaining momentum. Demand for tech services and products is rising from private and public sector bodies, as well as individuals, and the rollout of new in-country cable networks and nascent 4G is boosting connectivity. These factors, as well as Ghana’s competitive advantages as a business destination, are stimulating the start-up scene. “On the whole, Ghana fares quite well regionally for ICT, and a number of factors have contributed to that,” Christoph Fitih, vice-president of sales for Africa at Sevis Systems, a US-based mobile backhaul and signalling company, told OBG. “Ghana is in a strategic position where international cables deliver connectivity; it has a relatively stable political environment, and there are a number of major international companies that have set up here. We are seeing an environment that is increasingly conducive to enabling the development of the sector and the delivery of new services.”
Ghana’s ICT sector has a number of strengths, including relatively high mobile penetration, excellent international connectivity, and a liberalised telecoms and IT market. However, use of ICT across society, in business and in public services such as health, education and e-governance, has a lot of room for improvement. To address this, Ghana launched the e-Transform programme, initiated in late 2014 and backed by $97m from the World Bank. It draws on the preceding “ICT for Transformation” report from the bank, which highlighted Ghana’s “potential to develop a knowledge-based economy and become a strategic destination for ICT-based business processes in the region”.
The programme runs until June 2019 and is wide-ranging, covering areas such as nurturing entrepreneurship, job creation, health care, education, justice and public administration. It aims to strengthen public service delivery, encourage ICT-enabled business and improve access to ICT tools for all Ghanaians, particularly women and the youth. Specific targets include cutting the time to register a company from four days to one day, extending education portals to 20,400 students and teachers in rural areas, doubling the number of government services available online to the public from eight to 16 and opening three so-called innovation centres.
In August 2016 an implementation status and results report from the World Bank stated that 21% of the project funds had been disbursed, with good progress in several areas, and that the government had increased the number of technical staff working on the implementation team. Both the e-immigration programme, which deploys technology to improve border management and provide better service to travellers, and the tertiary institutions access programme, which provides connectivity to selected universities, were nearing completion. Requests for proposals for the e-justice and e-procurement programmes had also been issued, with the latter designed to improve the functioning of parliamentary business, including allowing members of parliament to file questions online. Meanwhile, the e-health project is being rolled out at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital, Wa Government Hospital and Zebilla District Hospital, and aims to transform health care management.
One of the goals of the e-Transform programme is to develop the environment in which home-grown tech companies can emerge and flourish. On opening the new Accra Digital Centre in November 2016, then-President John Dramani Mahama said that the project – the largest digital park in West Africa – was a sign of Ghana’s progress in developing ICT. He highlighted a range of Ghanaian start-ups developed through initiatives, such as the Kumasi Business Incubator.
Ghana already has a fledging start-up scene, and a range of local start-ups have been acquired or financed by international investors. The Accra-based, Silicon Valley-backed Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology training institution and incubator has been instrumental in developing the early-stage tech environment and is launching a venture capital fund to fill a notable gap in the market. Universities are also increasingly supportive of the start-up environment, though red tape and patchy infrastructure remain challenges (see analysis).
Internet access and data provision is the first and most crucial stage of development for any country’s IT sector, and in this respect Ghana has seen laudable growth. Ghana’s internet market is dominated by its mobile operators, which had a combined 19.33m mobile data subscriptions in September 2016, for a penetration rate of 69.22%, according to the National Communications Authority. Market leader MTN Ghana, which had a market share of 54.4% in September 2016, currently offers 4G LTE access in all 10 regions. Together, Ghana’s mobile operators carried 43.3m GB of data in the year to the end of June 2016. By the end of the second quarter of 2016, the monthly mobile data usage per subscriber averaged 815.72 MB, up from 452.84 MB a year earlier. In terms of volume, MTN accounted for 41.4% of total data usage in Ghana in the second quarter of 2016, followed by Vodafone (26.1%), Airtel (23.1%), Tigo (8.8%) and Glo (0.6%).
Ghana’s launch of 4G licences has seen the wireless broadband wireless access segment grow. As of September 2016 there were three wireless broadband companies in operation: Surfline, Blu and Broadband Home (BBH). Together, they had 109,655 subscribers, up from 93,126 subscribers in September 2015. Surfline was the market leader, with a share of 73.1%, followed by BBH with 25.7% and Blu with 1.1%. In the second quarter of 2016 the wireless broadband operators carried a total of 8.9m GB. In volume terms, Surfline represented 85.1% of total data traffic, followed by BBH (11%) and Blu (3.9%).
Ghana’s location on the coast of West Africa has made it a natural landing point for international telecoms cables. Five such major submarine cables currently link to Ghana’s mainland. The first, the South Atlantic 3/West Africa Submarine Cable (SAT3/WASC), links Portugal and Spain to South Africa, and started operating in 2001. It now connects to the South Africa Far East cable linking Melkbosstrand, north of Cape Town, with Penang in Malaysia. It has a capacity of 800 Gbps. Nigeria’s Globacom – which owns the mobile operator Glo – is a major backer of the Glo One cable, which landed in Ghana in 2009 and has 2.5-Tbps capacity. The cable connects Lagos to the UK, with other landings including Senegal, Morocco and Portugal. The 1.92-Tbps MainOne submarine cable, owned by the MainOne Cable Company of Mauritius, linked to Ghana in 2010 and now connects Portugal to South Africa via landfalls in Morocco, Ghana, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. The $650m West Africa Cable System connected to Accra in 2011 and has a design capacity of 14.5 Tbps. Lastly, the African Coast to Europe cable, a $700m project, landed in Accra in 2013, carrying 5.12 Tbps. “Ghana’s international cable connectivity is a progressive one, and has been going from strength to strength, with a profound effect on the local ICT industry,” Paul Osei, general manager at KNET, a broadband service provider, told OBG. “It has been a positive development with its attendant effect in price reductions.”
While Ghana’s international bandwidth grew strongly in the 2009-13 period, a regular complaint of businesses operating in the country was that in-country networks, and particularly last-mile connectivity, were less advanced. This is now changing as the government, international partners and private investors form partnerships to develop Ghana’s fibre-optic infrastructure.
“Last mile still needs a bit of work, it’s getting better but it’s not quite there yet,” Regina Honu, founder and CEO of Soronko Solutions, a software development company, told OBG. “There is a concentration in Accra, and while there is development in the regions, it is still a challenge. If you can afford it, you can get really good 4G connectivity, but it is very costly. Established companies can do it, but for start-ups, it is hard to afford good-quality internet.”
In May 2015 then-President Mahama inaugurated the Eastern Corridor Fibre-optic Backbone project, an 800-km, north-south fibre-optic cable from Ho in the Volta Region to Bawku in the Upper East Region, near the borders with Burkina Faso and Togo. The $38m project was funded by the Danish International Development Agency and designed and implemented by France’s Alcatel-Lucent, and includes a data centre and managed service to ensure data security.
The corridor directly connects 27 towns and municipal centres, and links to the existing cable network, improving access to a total of 120 districts and municipalities and the communities within them. It strengthens connectivity between Ghana’s populous coast and the northern border with Burkina Faso, and also improves communication links for the public administration offices along its route, as well as enhancing local businesses’ access to high-speed internet, and is thus expected to have significant socio-economic benefits in the regions it serves.
Work on the Western Corridor Fibre-optic Backbone project, a counterpart on the other side of the country, is due to be completed in 2017. “To date, ICT infrastructure has been highly concentrated in a few large cities, and distribution into homes remains expensive,” Ken Ansah, CEO of KNET, told OBG. “Foreign direct investment has to be at the forefront of national development to bring investment for ICT infrastructure. This is case with the Western Corridor Fibre-optic Backbone project. Its connectivity will have a much bigger impact because it can connect to Accra. But tertiary links, and whether they can reach out to other parts of the country, remain important.”
The improved access brought about by these fibre-optic projects will drive growth across various sectors, boosting connectivity and transfer speeds. “The laying of the Western Corridor fibre-optic cable will aid not only ICT but additional sectors, including oil and gas companies,” Amar Deep Singh Hari, CEO of IPMC Ghana, an IT solutions provider, told OBG. “The cable will support significant data transfer and improve data penetration.”
In 2016 Google continued to roll out its Project Link fibre-optic network across the country. The project aims to connect long-distance fibre cables with new urban-fibre networks that can be used by internet service providers and mobile operators to deliver fast broadband to their customers. “Once the network is in place, bandwidth in Ghana will increase and costs will decrease,” Jonathan Tawiah, managing director of Ostec, an IT infrastructure provider, told OBG. “Meanwhile, Google owns the cable it lays, and it naturally benefits when people use the internet.”
The expansion of 4G networks by private wireless and mobile providers is also playing a central role in boosting broadband capacity. MTN launched its 4G offering – for which it paid $67.5m – in June 2016 and is investing in its ongoing expansion. “Internet penetration is not that high in Ghana, but mobile penetration is very high,” Honu told OBG. “So 4G is very important. Mobile internet has allowed a new understanding of technology. It helps in different sectors, so an app like WhatsApp allows people to sell products, and people use Facebook and Instagram to connect and do marketing. It opens a lot of doors.”
The growth of non-cash transactions in Ghana was long limited by a low level of banking penetration and a lack of access to technology. Over the past decade this has started to change, in part thanks to e-zwich, a system introduced in 2008 by the Bank of Ghana in partnership with all the country’s commercial banks. Those registered with e-zwich receive a biometric card onto to which salaries, benefits and pensions can be distributed to employees, and which can be used for payments and to withdraw money from banks. Funds can be transferred from the card to bank accounts and to other e-zwich cards.
The Ghana National Service Scheme (NSS) – the country’s compulsory public service programme for graduates – uses e-zwich, which helped the government eliminate a remarkable 35,000 names from its payroll, saving GHS146m ($37.7m) annually, Michael Kpessa-Whyte, CEO of the NSS, told local press in April 2016. He added that elements of human interference in the system had been eliminated, reducing both corruption and payment times. The e-zwich system now pays around 40,000 NSS personnel a month.
Ghana’s ICT sector has developed rapidly over the past decade and is on track to continue to do so. A range of factors will drive growth, including the government and the World Bank’s ambitious e-Transform programme, which will help embed modern ICT in health, education and public administration. This should improve the enabling environment, allowing investors to catalyse further development of the domestic ICT industry. International investors, from those rolling out 4G and fibre-optic networks to those investing in start-ups, will continue to be central to the sector’s development in the years to come.