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Opinions of Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Columnist: Kwami Ahiabenu

Ghana’s software industry - Take off or take flight

Software powers our information society. Each of the billions of people on the surface of the earth today, makes use of the new digital technologies either directly or indirectly on daily basis. From making a phone call, to driving a car or following your favourite sport on television, software is the invisible tool which makes it all possible.

Most computer or information technology systems are made up of essentially four critical components; hardware- which is the most visible aspect-process, people and software. Computer software, or simply software, can be described as a set of instructions, applications, operating systems and documentation that instructs a computer or related equipment on what to do, and how to do it. For example, a banking software is basically a series of instructions and associated documentation which directs a banking system that accounts to credit or debit and under what circumstances.
There are two major types of software; a systems software which manages the computer and its related devices and an operating system which handles file management and other utilities.
The process of creating software is known as computer programming. A product (software) is usually built to undertake automatic execution of a task or a clearly defined computing challenge. The person who writes computer codes (programming) is called a programmer. This is distinct from a software engineer who provides specifications for the programmer to code. Software programming and engineering skills are needed to create software and sometimes this role can be played by one person. However, the main skill required to develop a software is the mastering of a programming language.
A programming language is a set of instructions, commands and other syntax used in the process of creating software programmes. Computers do not understand human language, therefore, to give them instructions, you have to use their type of language, called “machine language” made up of “1s” and “0s”.
Programmers make use of “high-level languages” such as C++, Java, Perl, and PHP to write code, therefore to become a programmer, you must learn how to use and code in a programming language. Most programmers tend to learn and use one major language in developing software.

Software development in Ghana

Since the late 1980s, Ghana has had a long history of indigenous software development and customisation; SOFT can be described as one of the pioneers in the area of commercialisation of software on the Ghanaian market. Today, there are a thousand and one software companies providing solutions from mobile apps to software applications in all aspects of our society.

In spite of this, Ghana has not recorded a major break, where a local Ghanaian company has been bought by a major international player for millions of dollars as has happened and continues to happen in other markets. This is one of the most celebrated achievements for any software company. Also, we have not managed to export any groundbreaking software to the global market yet.

Currently, we can estimate that only five to 10 per cent of computer software consumed in Ghana are developed locally with most multinationals or big corporation not consuming home-grown software products. This means as a country, our Information Technology (IT) industry is not providing software solutions to help drive our development.

This in itself raises national security concerns. For example, recent news about the multimillion Social Security and National Insurance Trust’s (SSNIT) IT application suite software component was not built in Ghana; there are other examples. Should the software programmers decide to be mischievous and build in any kind of malware, our government agencies will grind to a halt. Experts in the industry proffer a myriad of reasons for this situation.

Among these are lack of skills, lack of sharp and focused policy directed at providing enabling support for software development, low level of financial resources available, inability for the industry to organise and advocate for their interest, poor marketing of Ghanaian software products, no software development enclave, low government support, lack of relevant tools and low standards.

As a country, there is no gainsaying that we do not have the competitive advantage to compete in the hardware market, therefore, software and its related services is a huge opportunity for us since it is more or less a level playing field needing no great investment. The global software market is valued at billions of US dollars, getting a single digit percentage share of this can earn the country more revenue than what oil and gas is contributing to our gross domestic product (GDP) currently.