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General News of Tuesday, 1 October 2002


Silicon Valley's "TechNow" TV show is big hit in Ghana

Scott Budman likes fan mail. Who wouldn't?

And who cares where it comes from?

But Ghana?

``We put it up on the wall,'' says Budman, who hosts ``TechNow,'' a locally produced technology show on San Jose's KNTV (Ch. 11).

It was exciting, that February letter. And then another arrived from Ghana. And another. And five more.

``It's become a flood.''

``TechNow,'' it seems, is a smash hit in Ghana.

The letters are still coming, maybe 50 so far. Mostly from young men. The air-mailed notes praise the show and ask for pen pals. And they ask for the computer games reviewed on the program, which is beamed internationally by satellite though an information program sponsored by the U.S. government.

The letters tell of living without electricity and of having seen a computer on television but never in real life. They contain stories of poverty and orphans and they contain sincere blessings bestowed on the ``TechNow'' cast and crew.

``Any time this `TechNow' is shown on the television and I do not watch, then I become sick,'' an 18-year-old wrote. ``For I am seriously in love with this special `TechNow.' ''

Mystified, is what producer Scott McGrew says he is. He first had to go to a map to find where Ghana is, which is in West Africa, right between Togo and Ivory Coast.

I was a bit mystified myself, when Budman and McGrew told me of their Ghana groupies. Was it a function of the reach of Silicon Valley? The seductiveness of technology? The ubiquity of U.S. media and marketing?

Maybe all of that. But no doubt it's also a function of Ghana's embrace of the digital age, says Ethan Zuckerman, who is an expert in technology and Ghana.

``Accra, the capital of Ghana, has weirdly become the Silicon Valley of West Africa,'' says Zuckerman, who made millions in the dot-com boom and started the non-profit Geekcorps in 2000. ``I realize that sounds a little bit like an oxymoron.''

Let's just say everything is relative. Ghana is a country of about 20 million, with a serious AIDS crisis and an average annual income of $400.

But, it is home to a company that handles data processing for traffic tickets issued in New York City. And in Accra, street-corner stands are popping up to offer the chance to play electronic games.

``It's mostly been guys who have a PlayStation and a couple of pirated games and they'll rent it to you for 10 cents for a half hour,'' says Zuckerman, whose organization helps businesses in developing countries with technology issues.

And then there's Busy Internet, a prominent Accra Internet cafe doing a brisk business.

``You go into Busy at 3 in the morning on a Tuesday night and there are 100 young Ghanaians in front of computer screens.''

All of which has helped feed a belief that high tech can lead to a better life.

``Everybody looks at it as the path out,'' says Zuckerman, who means not so much a path out of Ghana, but a path out of poverty.

And maybe it is. Or maybe it's a start down the path. Or a step along the path.

It all has me thinking about the promise Silicon Valley offers to those who live in places nothing like Silicon Valley.

And how the promising is so easy and the delivering so hard.