Hackathon in Ghana
This weekend I took a suprisingly pleasant 10.5 hour direct flight from DC to tropical Accra, Ghana (I was never picked first for basketball at recess but I slept just fine in coach - winning!). I was in Ghana to help facilitate a hackathon at Ashesi University, a new school outside of Accra. For those not familiar with West Africa, Ghana is nestled between Cote d'Ivoire and Togo. You probably don't care about geography, but I don't care about your ignorance. Sorry.
Like many rapidly developing countries, Ghana is a land of polar opposites. Modernization has brought shiny new shopping malls, but most people still buy what they need on the street.
Because of this dichotomy (not in spite of it), Ghana is phenomenal location for a hackathon. Here's why:
1. Ghanaian Hustle
The "Gig Economy" may be taking hold in the U.S., but this nothing compared to the entrepreneurial bent of the average Ghanaian. Walking down the street, it can seem like literally everyone is selling something (especially to you Obruni!). Haggling is a national pastime. This is a good thing for hackathons. Ghanaians are willing to sell. They are comfortable with commerce and view themselves as business people.
2. Ghana Has Serious Structural Issues
Like power. Intermittent power is the norm. If you have the money, you get a generator. Most people and businesses do not. Refrigerating any food product? Good luck.
This may sound like a surprising benefit, but here's why. Unlimited power in the U.S. has made us numb to real product issues. How long does that smart phone battery last? We don't care, but they certainly do. Basic cellphones hold a charge much longer. Enter SMS-based apps.
We also take for granted that fossil fuels should produce our energy. Solar-powered refrigerators and bicycle powered generators are not liberal-hipster products here, they are valuable inventions.
3. Ghana has a labor problem
Due to laziness I won't cite any statistics, but Ghana used to employ most of it's country in agriculture. That is changing as more and more young people leave the farms and move to the cities. Food production will become a big issue as populations continue to grow while agricultural production fails to keep pace.
With fewer resources and higher needs, technology will have to be part of the answer to Ghana's looming food issues (and Africa's as a whole).
4. Ghana has badass schools like Ashesi University. Founded by a Ghanian who kicked ass at Microsoft and decided he wanted to replicate the liberal arts education he received at Swarthmore with technical rigor, Ahsesi has the values and class sizes of a small liberal arts school combined with a computer science/engineering curriculum.
The school is growing slowly, focusing on maintaining it's small class sizes and unique culture. For example, Ashesi has an honor code similar to UVA or Washington and Lee University (or lots of schools, I'm sure). They vow not only to not cheat but also not tolerate those who do.
This honor code creates a moral dilemma for many who witness acts that might violate the code. If you do not report the infraction, you too are in violation. Silence is dishonor. But for most people, "snitching" on their friends is as well.
Ashesi takes an interesting view of this dichotomy. Rather than simply insist students abide by their honor code, they experiment. First year students are not held to the honor code, but instead they are allowed to live among a student body that practices it. They frequently take part in debating the merits of the honor code, i.e., is it better to turn my friend in than to remain silent.
At the end of the first year, the students vote on whether they want to adopt the honor code for their class (for the remaining three years). A simple majority wins. And get this, classes have voted the honor code down, so students are not forced to adopt it. And yet the honor code remains strong (all current classes at the school have adopted it).
5. Ghana has some badass developers. Don't let their smiles fool you. These kids are intelligent and motivated to kick ass.
This hackathon took place during the students fall break. So they finished exams and projects on Friday and showed up for a three day hackathon starting Saturday. We had about twenty five students, and the lead professor repeatedly apologized for the low turnout. Evidently some of the CS students actually wanted to go home for their fall break. Crazy.
When the teams finished their presentations Monday afternoon, I found a group of seven fourth-year students surrounding their CS professor. Again, although they were on "fall break", it turns out they had a mobile app project due for his class that Tuesday afternoon.
I heard cheers from the group. The Prof agreed to push the deadline for the project back to Tuesday night. Hooray!
I spent my free time in college drinking to excess and polishing my specific blend of asshole persona. These students are starting businesses (every student at Ashesi is required to take Fundamentals of Design and Entrepreunership as a freshman, where they start a business. Students are encouraged to keep their projects going past the course and the best are given funding by the school). They have powerful combination of entrepreneurial chops and technical skill we would do well to replicate.
Note: I do recognize that just because these students are smarter and more motivated than I was in college, that doesn't mean that there aren't similar students in the US. I never attended anything resembling a hackathon in college, but if I had, I assume I would have met a similar crowd.