A Letter from Africa: A Berkeley MBA on his field work in Ghana
By Samir Mehta, MBA 05
In the summer of 2004, the Management of Technology program and its partner, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), began sending teams of UC Berkeley students abroad as MOT/UNIDO Fellows. Samir Mehta, MBA 05, was on the team that traveled to Ghana that summer to implement and test a Distributed Searchable Cache system (DiSC). DiSC saves frequently viewed web pages on the local area network to enable web site access even during service disruptions and creates a searchable index to assist users in answering their search queries.
DiSC was created by Computer Science Ph.D. students RJ Honicky and Omar Bakr, who, along with Haas School Ph.D. student Aaron Chatterji and Mehta, spent three weeks in Accra, Ghana implementing the project.
Here are Mehta's recollections from the trip:
Living as the Ghanaians do was a theme of this trip—one of my teammates, RJ, had traveled in Ghana before and his knowledge allowed Omar, Ronnie, and me to enjoy the Ghanaian culture and way of life that we might have missed. Our first night in Accra RJ took us to eat Kenke, a traditional Ghanaian delicacy that is made from fermented corn dough and eaten with a spicy, vinegary red sauce. This expedition really set the tone for our trip.
Much of our research involved working with the University of Ghana. By the third or fourth day of our trip, we had transported and set up the computers we had brought with us in the Balme Library at the University of Ghana. Omar and RJ were working diligently to install the DiSC software, while Ronnie and I were recruiting students at the University to test the DiSC system. The project was running smoothly, until the fifth day when the entire university administrative staff went on strike, which meant that the Balme Library had to be closed. While nobody on our team had ever participated in a strike, it was uncanny that each day we had to cross the picket line in front of the university gate. The irony was pungent: here we were to help the people, but each day our crossing the picket line signaled the opposite.
The unexpected strike put a huge damper on our research efforts. We immediately devised an alternate strategy and, instead, focused on Internet cafes and a smaller university— Ashesi University (a private Ghanaian university co-founded in Accra by Patrick Awuah and Nina Marina, both MBA 99). Ronnie and I shifted our focus to interviews with technology and policy thought leaders in Accra, including entrepreneurs, government officials, and the leaders of the Kofi Annan Information Technology Center. To help with survey work, we hired six University of Ghana students as interns. Many of these students, who were studying computer science at the University of Ghana, had never even worked on a computer before, but we had them administering over 500 surveys on computer usage using Linux, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in just a few weeks.
After all this work, it was clear that there is significant value for users of our caching application. Without a national information technology backbone, Ghana depends on a costly and unreliable satellite connection to access the Internet. In closed or relatively homogenous environments (such as university research centers) students and faculty would benefit from having a cached source of information that could hold academic papers and other results from common searches that could be accessed instantaneously from the DiSC system. When we finished our field work, we left our six computers and the DiSC system up and running in the university library, and RJ and Omar are still remotely collecting usage data from the DiSC system.
As a team, we found the entire experience amazing—it helped us to understand first hand the nature of the problems faced by sub-Saharan countries. For me personally, exposure to the values and norms of a different culture allowed me to make connections with individuals in a more personal way. Last but not least, the experience taught teamwork, global-mindedness, and cultural plurality in a way that is difficult to achieve in the classroom. In the end, our trip was filled with good discussion, political arguments, cut-throat games of hearts and euchre, and, of course, some interesting research insights.