Greed and Delusion: How My Silicon Valley Start-Up Tried to Exploit a Developing World Country
As a freelance graphic designer living and working in New York City, I've seen more than my fair share of nonsensical startups: The artisan soap for men; the speed-dating reality webshow; the feminist ripoff of Snapchat. A lot of these haven't worked out, but I'm happy to go in, give it my best shot, and see what we can make happen. One of these startups ended up taking over my life for the better part of two years. Little did I know, the person running it had grand delusions of what was possible in a developing nation like Ghana—harebrained ideas rooted in a delusion of what Silicon Valley technology could allegedly do for the world.
While the media covers large-scale startup failures such as Theranos, stories like mine fall through the cracks. I wound up on the other side of the world trying to put Google Glass on solar-powered electric taxis even though the power goes out at least once a day. Many Westerners are under the Silicon Valley delusion: we want to believe the world's problems can simply be solved through the application of tech. Take Facebook bringing the internet to Africa via drones. Sure, most would say they don't think we can "Grubhub" away problems as big as unclean water with the magic of capitalist tech startups. But the startup community's "philanthropy is the future of marketing" ploy ensures that problems go unfixed as it pats itself on the back for pretending to do good.
In mid-2012 I picked up an interesting freelance design client in New York, a solar startup wanting to do business in West Africa. The company was run by a former NASA robotics expert. I was more than happy to knock out some mock-ups here and there, the money was really good, and I was happy to work with the client. I never had to meet the client, the work was all done over email, and I never had to worry about not getting paid, so it was a good gig. After I completed the project, we kept in touch, and I ended up getting another job with them later that included some traveling, to Atlanta, to London, and eventually, to Ghana.
The job was great, not only for the occasional perks, but also for the opportunity to apply my professional skills to something that would hopefully, in some small way, help improve the world. When the work you do feels meaningful, you're more loyal and dedicated to what you’re doing—and this, I later realized, encouraged the brushing aside of questions about bumps in the road, or the plausibility of proposed ideas. I felt like I was working toward a positive change in the world, putting together project proposals and branding guides and trying to figure out a real plan to get solar power to really work for places like Ghana. Sure, some of these ideas were aiming a bit high, but I was willing to put in the work to make them reality.
In early 2014, I got on a plane from JFK to Kotoka International Airport, in the lovely capital city of Accra, Ghana. I was there to do a job, get paid, maybe improve the lives of some Ghanaians, and leave—or so I was led to believe.
Once we'd settled in and got down to business, I was tasked with branding and developing a vast portfolio of projects we were trying to get off the ground, including a solar research facility with the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission and a space camp for kids. The biggest project was a woman-operated electric taxi service powered by solar energy. When these female drivers weren't taking fares, the Google Glass headsets they were wearing would be used so local consumers on their smartphones could haggle with street merchants from the comfort of their own homes. If this sounds a little confusing, it is.
This is where what I call the Silicon Valley delusion—that tech will solve all problems—comes into play. When I list all of these ambitious projects, most of which don't really have any existing equivalent in Western nations, one would safely assume that yes, there would be a lot of significant problems that would get in the way between Point A and Point B. But I quickly learned that when working for someone under the Silicon Valley delusion, there is no point in bringing these up.
I'll give you just a taste of all the problems I identified: The smartphone/Google Glass/street market shopping service would disrupt the local errand boy industry, so that might not go over too well. Also, in a city where everyone relies on mobile hotspots, how does one reliably stream video at a quality high enough to buy and sell merchandise reliably? Most of the taxi drivers in Ghana are male, so we'd have to recruit and train female drivers, even though the nearest driving school is a sham. Getting electric cars to Ghana from China ended up becoming a logistical nightmare of months of dealing with customs to try to get them out of the port—only to have half of them catch fire. Once they arrived, the Ghanaian mechanics proved to be untrained in electric cars. Oh, and we didn't even have any solar panels at the compound we were living in, so we couldn't even prove we could make this work for ourselves.
There already was solar in Great Accra, at the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research, an institute of the University of Ghana, and gee whiz, was that a doozy. Hearing the deputy director explain it, I started to realize how easy it was for developed nations to exploit the developing world. Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) comes in and spends all of this money setting up a solar panel installation. This gift comes with two kickers: first of all, the solar panels only work two-thirds of the time. So the other third of the time forces the facility to rely on the only electricity provider in Ghana, the Electricity Company of Ghana. Second of all, JICA didn't provide any funds for maintenance and upkeep—and maintaining solar panels in a place like Ghana is a very expensive venture. So it became obvious that this was a very good deal for JICA, which got to spend a lot of grant money and write itself a very nice paycheck, and a very bad deal for the people of Ghana. The Noguchi facility is just one example of so much of what I saw in Ghana: a country being exploited by countless outside influences.
To backpedal a minute, the Electric Company of Ghana has a monopoly on electricity for the entire country. It has a unique scam, in that it offers "prepaid" electricity via rechargeable cards and a card-swiping meter. So instead of paying a monthly bill, you simply wait until your power goes out before you recharge your prepaid meter. Of course, plenty of these meters are faulty, so they'll happily take your money, the transaction won't go through, and the Electric Company of Ghana will insist you just give them money all over again—and you can't do anything about it because they have a monopoly on the nation's electricity.
My office in Ghana was understaffed and underfunded, and our assigned task was to generate proposal letters and get meetings with potential corporate sponsors to get them funding our ideas and get them off the ground—even though we had nothing but ideas in the first place. Suddenly, that sinking feeling that this was all a sham run by someone who had no idea what they're doing started to set in. That, and the power going out on an almost daily basis left only two things to do. The open-air bar next door made it very easy to smoke and drink the long periods of idle despair away.
Trying to get things out of port was a long, arduous process of running around Accra filing paperwork and hoping we got it all sorted in time before it becomes government property and is auctioned off. Of course, you could just pay a bribe to the right person… everybody was hustling to get by. Being a white guy holding onto the back of a motorcycle driven by my black supervisor, I was often taken as someone using an illegal motorcycle taxi. So we'd be stopped by police, who, regardless of any alleged infraction, needed a bribe as well. They wore their AK-74 assault rifles under their shoulders, so you were staring down the business end of a gun for a minor roadside stop.
Regardless, we kept pushing. Dropping off letters and brochures. Requesting meetings with corporate suits and government ministers. Proposings things we didn't have the money to make happen. Things weren't going anywhere. The most memorable of these was when my boss insisted we throw in "solar roadways," an overly expensive and hard-to-maintain technological solution to generate power, in a presentation to the Deputy Minister of Transit. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the cost of maintaining roads is very high due to the climate. Tucked in at the end of every other project we were proposing, it was the only thing the Deputy Minister wanted us to pursue—better roads that also generated power—and we used enough fancy words to make it sound like a plausible ideal.
The problem is that whole "plausible" thing. While the internet clickbait machine was taken by storm by how amazing the idea sounded, anybody with a little expertise in the subject and a blog was happy to actually explain just how bad and how implausible the entire concept actually was. Therein lies the core of the mindset of the Silicon Valley delusion: all of our problems solved by grand ideas, as long as you completely ignore any of the actual flaws or obstacles standing in the way of making these expensive ideas a reality.
In a drunken haze at about 3 in the morning toward the end of my stay in Ghana, I saw everything so clearly: the company I was working for was led by someone who believed that the solution for a country like Ghana was to inject it with a bunch of expensive technological "disruptions." What goes unspoken is that this slyly implies the nation's lack of prosperity lies within the hearts of its own people, not the endless corporate interests from around the world fleecing it for all it's worth.
Tech will not save us. It will not save Africa, that massive continent everyone talks about as if it were a single country; tech it will not end poverty. The reason we talk about these things in this way is to enrich the value of corporate interests, who throw around capital not to empower the downtrodden, but to generate more capital off of the backs of the downtrodden. Until we learn to move past this mode of discourse, this collective delusion of technocratic theocracy, we are forever doomed to repeat the cycle.