Growing in Southern Ghana, Building a Hub in Northern Ghana: Akosua Osem Frimpong

Akosua Osem Frimpong spent her early years in the southern parts of Ghana, shuttling between Takoradi and Tema. Her junior high and senior high school years were all spent in Takoradi, after which she pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Regent University in Accra.

Akosua always had a dream to set up a hub, but the trailing question was where to establish that hub. She felt Accra was already flooded with a decent number of hubs, so she decided in 2018 to travel to all 16 regions of Ghana to explore, discover and decide. She fell in love with Wa, the people, their loyalty, their hospitality, their shea butter, indigenous groundnut pastes and the richly grilled guinea fowls that make her mouth water every time she sets her sight on them.

Nectars are sweet, and labs breed innovation. Akosua Osem Frimpong and Samuel M Tengan (co-founders of Nectalab) decided to bring the metaphorical sweetness of the nectar into the rigorous procedures of modern-day labs, to build Nectalab, a technology-focused business, that creates products and services for clients, while training and supporting the youth of Ghana’s North in gaining the 21st-century digital skills required of change leaders of the Earth’s future.

Nectalab presently has over 100 volunteers, who have become change agents in Ghana’s Upper West Region, democratizing knowledge, sharing digital skills, mentoring the youth, and bridging the technology opportunity gap.

What was your earliest introduction to technology?

My dad was practising as an electrical engineer when I was growing up, focused mostly on solar-powered systems, so there was always an air of some form of engineering around the house. By age 12, the 4 computers we had in our little home-based computer lab became my friends. I would play around with them, assembling and disassembling them to understand how they functioned connectively.

It is not uncommon to find computer-loving children to be somewhat reserved if not socially awkward. I was regarded as a very reserved child in school, which landed me a nickname — Lil Shondy — a derivative nickname from the perception that I was always “shunning people”. Well, computers were my friends and to this day, they still are. When I write codes in Python or PHP, I like to view that as me talking with the computer.

What steps did you take to formalize your training into the technology space?

I took a couple of courses from NIIT, touching on hardware, networking and some training in the use of Microsoft products. At Regent University, I studied Computer Science in a male-dominated class — the total class size was about 30, but there were only 2 girls that graduated from my year-group. There were definitely great experiences that I had from my undergrad years, but there were also disturbing times that the guys would look down on us the ladies, thinking that we were not as capable, but we did our best to prove them wrong.

How did Nectalab start?

After my National Service at Ostec, I roamed Ghana from region to region, trying to find the right spot for the hub I had a dream to build. I mostly aligned my visits to the regions with an event that would be relevant to my development. There was a Django Girls event taking place in Wa, so I signed up and travelled to attend. By that time, I had travelled to all the regions but for the Upper West Region. I found the people at Wa very willing to learn — there wasn’t a lot of technology bustle within their ecosystem, but those who had an interest had a strong eagerness towards the field.

I participated in another event, a Mobile App Hackathon which was also held in Wa. That was where I met my co-founder (Samuel Tengan). We won the regional competition and had to come to Accra for a National Competition. We both had an interest in building a health tech-related product, which has now become one of the products of Nectalab, called Medoc, a mobile app that connects health patients to doctors.

The ideation process for Nectalab took not less than 3 months and we started the business, bootstrapping with our earnings from our individual freelance projects. Thing is, we had won the competition, and we were publicly presented an award for winning, but never really got the money. We had banked our hopes on getting that money to start our business but quickly learned that not all the competitions around actually give the promised prize awards for the promised purposes.

How has your social entrepreneurship journey been by far?

It has been rough as well as smooth — being female is one side of this coin of toughness, and getting funds to run the company is on the other side of the coin. But moments like our first ever training which had 30 people without any background in Computer programming getting trained on JavaScript using React, and later creating technology solutions from the training they received brings some sense of fulfilment.

What are some of the digital divide challenges you have observed in the Northern part of Ghana?

Beneath every digital divide is an educational divide. I would like to start with the educational divide. First of all, majority of the young ones are not as dedicated to education as they should be. Right after completing JHS or SHS, then turn to riding tricycles for commercial purposes. When they are urged to go to school, they often refuse because they think there is more money to earn from riding a tricycle than learning programming for 6 months. We have had to provide transportation and food allowances as incentives to bring some of them to our training programs. We do well to organize other interesting social events like movie nights to have them see that it is not all about learning and training.

Ladies are very reserved there and in some contexts are not allowed to even be part of meetings. In some situations, they get to attend the meetings but aren’t given the opportunity to talk. We sometimes need to involve their husbands and parents. It was mostly hard to convince the parents and husbands to have their ladies come for workshops and trainings, but we managed to succeed in some cases and things are gradually changing.

The Internet network accessibility and connectivity speed is also not very strong there. That would be more on the infrastructural side, tying in with access to laptops and devices for the practice of computational skills.

What are your final words?

I know that gender isn’t balanced in Ghana, so I mostly like to speak for the ladies. I used to have a manager who used to call me his favourite tech lead — it was just because I was a lady.

One thing I have come to realise is that, in a lot of cases, even though women are being encouraged to pursue technology, they are not being corrected as much. I think girls need to stand up now, and get things done, and face technology squarely.

We need to work hard and challenge other ladies around us to push harder. Most males will tell ladies what they are doing well and leave the bad. For every lady reading this, my advice is that you get to find out what you are doing wrong in technology and work to correct them so that you are as good as anyone.

Nominate someone for me to interview.

Ebi-Yaa Kwao, Co-founder of Xpendly. They are building an AI-related fintech product. I got to test the first prototype, and from the experience I had, they are about to change the fintech landscape in Ghana.

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principally an interviewer, consequentially a poet, and occasionally voicing opinions

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