George Arthur-Sarpong has been passionate about using technology for social impact and development since our days as Computer Science undergraduates in KNUST. I recently caught up with George over an online call to hear his journey over the years. Here goes our conversation.
How did you get to join Viamo (then VOTO Mobile)?
After I graduated from KNUST, I spent a year serving as a teaching assistant in the Computer Science department of the university. A great part of my undergrad years had been spent freelancing as a developer, building web-based systems for diverse clients, a lot of which were pro bono. Thankfully, most of the solutions I created, especially the voluntary ones, didn’t go unnoticed and created helpful recommendations for me.
While serving as a teaching assistant, I met the founders of Viamo who were looking to build Viamo and were at the very nascent stages of the launch of the company, still making a basic decision to either start Viamo in Tamale or Kumasi. They finally decided on Kumasi and I ended up becoming the first hire. I have been with the company for over 7 years now.
What roles and positions have you filled in the past years?
I juggled a lot of roles at the beginning, combining software engineering with administrative duties (day-to-day operations, handling tax filings, going through financial statements etc). These experiences increased my versatility. I later supported with business development for the company before becoming director of engineering.
How did your time in KNUST equip you for the tasks you have had to take up over the years?
Universities are a solid testing ground for the experience you will need to make yourself relevant in industry. I always encourage upcoming developers that I meet to create experiences for themselves. I used to carry my laptop almost everywhere, even to church, because I was solving problems everywhere. And, most of the skills I later found to be relevant to my career came from some of the extra-curricular leadership roles that I had while in school.
What does Viamo do?
Viamo creates opportunities for information accessibility, leveraging on the availability of mobile phones. Whether it is the classic Nokia 3310 or the latest iPhone, all phones essentially place calls and exchange SMS messages. Our goal is to engage every mobile phone on the planet using these essential functions of phones. We provide solutions to businesses, organizations and governments, expanding their capacity to disseminate information, especially to rural areas.
In Pakistan, we ran an engagement and reached over 10 million people in 1 month. Had radio been used for that same engagement, only a single-digit percentage of the total number reached by mobile would have been reached.
The 3–2–1 service which is available in 18 countries is always up to date with news, weather insights for farmers, and relevant health tips. We partner with Vodafone in Ghana to make this possible. If you are a Vodafone user, you can try dialling 321 on your phone after this interview to experience the service.
The Viamo team is currently made up of about 200 staff working across 35 countries in the world.
How do you keep your team motivated in the use of technology for social change?
As director of engineering, I challenge my colleague engineers to strive for the ultimate satisfaction that our work offers in us making a life-changing impact on others. We create opportunities for every engineer to see the impact the solutions they create are making, from expectant mothers in Northern Ghana listening to our service to adopt healthy behaviours for themselves to individuals calling in to access legal aid in Rwanda.
How was your experience at the Kumvana Fellowship Program?
The Kumvana program is a fellowship program that EWB (Engineers Without Borders) Canada sponsors, where they invest in potential leaders. I was nominated in 2015 to be a part of the program. I participated in the exchange program and visited organizations in Canada and got to work with some tech firms. That was very helpful for my line of passion in combining technology with development. I got to share ideas with some amazing people from different parts of the world.
Any final words?
We are in an era where with our laptops and devices, we can create change. We have access to information at our fingertips. We have the opportunity to open doors for others. For people in computer science and technology-related fields, we have the ability to create solutions that make life easier for others.
Sometimes solutions could just be simple — they don’t need to be overly complicated. There just needs to be a clear identification and understanding of the demographics that need the solution and then creating a solution that is relevant to the focus of the problem.
This is something I share whenever I get opportunities to consult for firms and to mentor young people aspiring to contribute to development through technological change.
Nominate someone for me to interview.
Felix Kwame Yeboah — he is doing some amazing research work at Michigan State University, exploring how to promote youth employment in Africa’s agri-food system.