Why exactly has it proven difficult for African countries like Ghana to become as technically sophisticated as South Korea and those other countries like Finland that have built serious national capacity despite having started out on their “development journey” with similar challenges around the same time as we did.

‘Technical sophistication’ is closely related to ‘economic development’ but the two are not completely identical.

The Eastern Bloc nations, for instance, developed a very high level of technical sophistication without ever matching the material wealth of the Western, capitalist, countries.

Technical sophistication also appears to be more cohabitable with a wider range of political, social and cultural conditions.

China has serious institutional limitations, which it has addressed much more slowly than it has its technical constraints. As many have pointed out, South Korea was for many decades politically chaotic.

Nor is geopolitics as strong a determinative factor for technical sophistication as it is for economic development.

North Korea continues to make strange progress in a wide range of national defence objectives despite a very hostile geopolitical environment.

In that respect, most of the usual explanations we give in Africa for our lagging economic development (American aid to South Korea, for instance) are rather less impressive when it comes to explaining our bumbling attempts at building national capacity in various technical domains.

My own view is that our situation is best explained by one word. Meritocracy. We only pay lip service to meritocracy.

In my experience a Ghanaian (the African I know the most) will always flow with the person, team, institution or arrangement that makes him or her feel ‘comfortable’ and least threatens his or her ego, as opposed to the individual, team or arrangement that challenges him/her and compels him/her to improve his/her craft.

That is the key differentiator. We prize psychic comfort. The more technically advanced cultures prize ‘improvement’ and are extremely keen to deepen their self-capacity. We are not. We need constant assurance that we are okay.

This attitude creates a spiral towards ‘degeneration’ in the words of Max Nordau.

It makes ‘apprenticeship’ next to impossible. It makes ‘schools of thought’ next to impossible as no one is keen to hone a craft for years by following a ‘master’ who is also honing her craft every day, and participating in a peer group that challenges his/her thinking and forces upon him or her high standards of exactitude.

Everyone needs only enough to assuage their ego-anxieties. That’s all. One learns quickly in such a culture not to cast one’s pearls before the trough. If you have ever wondered why there are almost no “schools of thought” in Ghanaian academia for any major area of enquiry, consider this explanation carefully.

A school of thought requires ‘ego subjection’. It requires a high degree of tolerance for psychic discomfort. One has to continually justify every new ‘step’ in the expansion of the subject area for which the school has emerged, and one must do so in the context of sharp scrutiny by a critical peer group. This requires a good tolerance for cognitive stress.

To use a more contemporary example, take a look at open-source computer projects or the development of protocols, new frameworks and utilities.

Your first instinct might be to say that poverty is the reason, until you observe how Indian, Ukranian, and other post-Soviet space technologists aggressively participate in such projects. The average monthly salary in urban Philippines is not that different from urban Nigeria or Ghana or Kenya. And yet, I often see a lot more Philippino involvement in such projects and activities. We must clearly look to psychocultural factors, specifically to the issue of “psychic comfort”.

Our love for psychic comfort also makes delayed gratification difficult. Why care when no one rewards the attention to detail that is often the result of what one might call: “the masochism of thoroughness”?

When I was in secondary school in Ghana, we had a word, ‘posse’. A naive take on it might lead to a conflation with the term, ‘cool’, widely used elsewhere.

But to be ‘posse’ in fact was not really about being ‘cool’. It was about not compelling people to want to examine themselves too much and seek to improve on what they have and what they do.

A posse in the camp meant that no one would ever feel ‘inadequate’.

We reward those who leave us feeling adequate. We give them promotions and accelerate their advancement. Those who assure us that we deserve the best without extra effort win our loyalty. Those who comfort us with the notion that we are ‘valuable’ and ‘precious’ just for being us get our votes.

We believe that if something feels difficult to grasp or deal with, then there is a flaw in the source and not in us. That we don’t have to spend days chewing over something difficult. Because in our current state we are fine, so if something we are working on keeps foundering then the problem must be in some other domain, natural or supernatural.

If one observes carefully, one would conclude that the corruption we complain about so much is often mere scaffolding for deeper problems of the type described in this short piece. The confidence a public official has in awarding a large contract to a completely inexperienced contractor comes from certain knowledge that a meritocratic debate would be incoherent. The culture simply does not exist to host such a debate properly. It will rub off badly on many people.

A civilisation that prizes its psychic comforts cannot create complex things. And the truth is: moving from one phase of development to the next is INDEED a complex thing; there is no silver bullet. It takes ‘deep’ penetration into discovery on multiple fronts. It takes insatiable LEARNING and IMPROVING.

Learning and improving, unfortunately, CANNOT happen in one’s comfort zone. Any society or civilisation that prizes comfort cannot build technical capacity fast enough to make a difference.

This simple fact has the force of a universal law.

Whenever I look at the charismatic churches in Ghana and Africa I am reminded of the “modernisation theories” I read long ago. The most poignant were by Samuel P. Huntington.
He theorised, and based on theory predicted, that the military in Africa would be forced to convert their ‘latent power’ into ‘overt power’ (I’m summarising crudely in my own phrases).
The reason for this inevitability was the fundamental nature of military culture itself. Any kind of military develops organisational cohesion. If it grows in size and resources the cohesion becomes ‘heft’.
In an environment where little is organised and most things are under threat of erosion, the military becomes ‘exceptional’ and their ‘manifest destiny’ as natural ‘dominants’ become so obvious as to become self-actualising and self-fulfilling. In short, the military ‘couldn’t help themselves’ but take power.
Half a century later, I look at an Africa where political parties, after the brief surge in capacity following democratic liberalisation, have begun to stagnate. In the more advanced states in Africa, like Kenya and Nigeria, we already see a ‘post-partisan’ big-boy politics, where the parties are merely instruments for trade-offs among personality blocs grounded on very loose and non-ideological ethnic coalitions.
The trade unions are barely ghosts of their former power. Outside South Africa, and even there COSATU is in the sunset of its career, the unions no longer represent a growing force for ‘counter-positional’ politics.
The academic movements have long dissolved into a vat of permanent nostalgia.
Civil society has professionalised and shrank on purpose, into compact organisational units that use branding rather than mobilisation to project relevance.
Only the Churches continue to maintain cohesion as they grow in size and resources. Only the churches have a rendezvous with destiny.
Only the Churches have the luxury of courting the overreach that finally shackled the African military into its current state of ordinariness.
Because only the Churches have reached a certain ‘peak’ from which point latent power has to burst forth into overt power or the container itself will be consumed from within.

Myth: Great businesses start with a ‘great purpose’.

Fact: Great businesses start with a ‘big latent market’.

Example: John Kellogg. What was his ‘purpose’ for inventing corn flakes? To suppress runaway libidos and lust, which he blamed on eggs, sausages, and other protein-rich breakfasts (he believed that the world’s biggest problem is ‘self pleasuring’). In the first year the business went commercial, 1 in 500 Americans bought the stuff. Last year, 1 in 5 Americans did same. Nearly none of them have a clue why corn flakes came to be. And they really couldn’t care less. They just love the fact that it is sexier and more instant than porridge.

One hears often that engineers and entrepreneurs must practice “human-centered design”.
The problem is that this is often presented as an “attitude” that they must adopt and never as a deep and broad field of knowledge they must be immersed in.
This almost certainly stems from the increasing disrespect for the humanities.
Hello, “human centered design” is simply about respecting anthropology as a discipline with relevant things to say about modern life!
Take for example my recent observation about hotel bathroom showers and sinks, which happened merely through a fluke of curiosity. I went further to contact a number of other frequent hotel stayers and humbly pleaded with them to record their observations.
We discovered, as a collective, that when the handle of a faucet requires a screwing rather than lifting/pressing action to open and shut the tap, we invariably left the water running during our various ablutions five times longer.
Furthermore, whenever the shower had a temperature calibrator with visible numbers, the vast majority of us left the dial at 40 Degrees Celsius and rarely tampered with it. When it lacked a dial, we frequently overheated the water.
Both experiments proved that hotels could save millions of liters of water and cubic feet of gas simply through the deliberate selection of certain faucet handles and temperature dials over others.
Can anyone deny that such a didactic approach can grow the knowledge base for sound environmental engineering, and by so doing actually *generate impact*? Bear in mind, that none of us were particularly environmentally conscious about these matters upon the onset of the experiment.
In matters of design, knowledge trumps attitude.

Firstly, congratulations definitely are in order. A small Ghanaian university has joined the Space Race by participating in the ongoing CubeSat launch trend.

A CubeSat costs nearly $100,000 to put in orbit (rocket launch costs are significant), and getting JAXA (the Japanese Space Agency) and others to back your university project requires showing some seriousness.

In this particular June deployment from Florida, universities from only five countries leveraged JAXA’s backing to deploy CubeSats, of which only two were from Africa, Ghana’s All Nations University at Koforidua, and Nigeria’s Federal University of Technology at Akure.

Kenya’s earlier project (1Kuns) was also backed by JAXA but with the apparent intermediation of the Italian Space Agency. It did precede the efforts of the Nigerians and the Ghanaians within the KiboCube framework (the JAXA-UN effort pushing universities around the world to deploy CubeSats) but it seems to have garnered precious little coverage, compared with the latter.

Ethiopia’s CubeSat project, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have won KiboCube’s support. At any rate it was in the ‘mini’ rather than the pico-nano range that CubeSats fall within.

It is intriguing to see that the bigger Engineering universities in Sub-Saharan Africa haven’t jumped on the CubeSat bandwagon at all. Which is all the more reason ANU needs to be seriously commended for this effort.

What does CubeSat signify though, and why is the UN pushing it?

Maybe I should first explain what it is.

Think of it as the Raspberry Pi of space technology. The first ‘readymade kit’ for building a satellite the size of a box of Papaye’s rice and chicken.

The specifications were developed by CalPoly and Stanford in California, USA, around 1999. Since then it has become the platform of choice for universities in getting space science students practically immersed in the engineering of satellite technology.

As a U-class sateLlite, CubeSat platforms are awesomely miniaturised.

They represent the culmination of several generations of space technology advances in terms of reduced cost, simplicity and shrunk size.

In short they can do for the space industry what wireless has done for global telecommunications: democratise, decentralise and distribute it.

Even if only a few countries can launch rockets to put satellites in space, the fact that the satellites post-launch can be radically differentiated creates serious room for innovation.

So where does that leave GhanaSat-1, the ANU CubeSat (which was originally scheduled for 2020 but appears to have been fast-tracked)?

Firstly, the race is still open to transform CubeSats from educational kits into real commercial applications. Which is hard to do when they are so tiny, degrade so quickly and have too few specialised payloads in today’s commercial arena to transport. But that is precisely where the opportunities for innovation lie!

As for the mechanical contraptions themselves, Planet Labs (the startup in San Francisco which dominates the CubeSat commercial world), CalPoly, Stanford, and assorted Californians have ringfenced them with patents and sucked much of the joy out.

The real contest is for the gadgetry that can be put on these spacefaring devices; in modifications of their propulsion systems; and in fuel unit redesign. Can we come up with breakthroughs in any of these dimensions?

Think of it this way: cell phones didn’t become as revolutionary as they are today just because they became smaller. Their radical contributions stem from the digital applications ecosystems they have enabled.

So whichever country develops the most awesome mini-gadgets that can sit on top of something the size of a takeaway box, survive the harsh conditions of Space, and offer clear benefits from hundreds of kilometers above the Earth’s surface wins.

Here is where, despite having been fulsome in praise for ANU, I still have to do what I always do: find a bit of fault with their approach. When I listened to the project leads, they appeared to be emphasising aerial imaging and measurement of microelectronic degradation due to ablation.

I don’t see what competitive advantage ANU’s spin-off companies (if they manage to crack the commercialisation) or Ghana can gain from those two focuses. Near as I can tell, atmospheric drones have conquered the aerial photography space.

And in general communications I simply don’t see how pico/nano satellites can compete with the beasts of Eutelsat.

ANU will clearly need to think much harder, and their collaborators in government, in addition to upping support, need to dig more creatively into potential nano-applications in which tiny satellites are considerably superior to bigger satellites and drones in delivering.

One approach that is beginning to gain attention is the use of such satellites in ‘swarm’ and ‘constellation’ formations to achieve data-gathering objectives in a way that a single platform, whatever its size and sophistication, cannot achieve.

Another vision of the future is one in which the cost of deploying these satellites drop to the price of a small car more quickly than anticipated, and tens of thousands of them get launched. The ‘cloud-centric’ and IoT (“internet of things”) possibilities generated by these tiny space robots distributing work among themselves in a specialised way may lead to innovations too awesome to fully contemplate now. Just as we have seen on the terrestrial level.

ANU, please start cranking out those patents.


A look at data and precedents does not suggest that trust in hard institutions must grow considerably before deviant attitudes such as suspect lynching can be changed.

There is nothing that shows that suspects are more likely to be lynched in neighbourhoods with high incidence of crime, which could then be interpreted to mean high grievance levels due to disappointments in policing.

East Legon for instance is notorious for car break-ins and burglaries but is not noted as a hot zone of lynching. We also know that mob violence erupt frequently in contexts that could not have derived from disappointing encounters with the Police.

For example Kobina Aidoo just reminded me of the likelihood of a driver involved in an accident involving a pedestrian or a motorist considered a “resident” of certain parts of Accra being lynched.

We have also seen many instances of similar mobbing up in situations where “sexual deviance”, not usually a province of the Police, is alleged, most recently in a well known inner city suburb abutting the Kanda Highway.

The facts and data simply do not support the view that distrust in *formal/hard institutions* is the primary driver of spontaneous retributive violence in Ghana.

There is however a very strong case to be made that changing worldviews and belief models (“soft institutions”) is a more effective approach.

Until the mid-nineties, it was commonplace across urban Ghana that a widow would be ejected from her matrimonial home by members of the deceased’s family.

Many have credited the interstate succession law as having contributed immensely to considerably reducing the scale of this problem.

The truth however is that many similar laws passed to address similar problems have not achieved any concrete outcomes. The problem of public financial malfeasance, for example, has grown in intensity as public financial administration laws have multiplied.

Nor is there evidence to suggest that interstate laws were enforced any more rigorously than other laws passed in that era.

What was different about the interstate reform agenda however was the role of the women’s movement, today a pale shadow of itself.

Women’s empowerment enjoyed the concerted support of artistic institutions (I recall at least six major drama pieces with widow maltreatment as the theme in a two year stretch in the early nineties) and mass mobilisation forces within the women’s movement.

Efforts were made to “construct” an alternative worldview and belief model that was pitted against “available belief models” then rampant that a man’s assets belonged to his extended not nuclear family.

This deliberate and sustained problem-solving approach offered a hyper-rational alternative to the dominant hypo-rational system of widow marginalisation even though strong vested interests were at stake and stood to lose from the changing mindset.

The success of the Interstate Succession Law was thus the product of soft institutions not hard ones. In fact the growing trend of spousal rights & assets protection by the courts derive clearly from the availability of attitudinal content in support of such moves, at least in comparison with the situation three decades ago.

What does this mean? It means that hard institutions (Police, Courts, Departments, Regulators etc) require “building blocks” and “mortar”. They cannot operate without an adequate pool of normative resources mined by soft institutions, particularly “thought movements” and “organised social forces”.

Suspect lynching is but one minor symptom of a wide range of hypo-rational belief models in circulation that can only be suppressed by alternative systems of thought organised by soft institutions and then reinforced by hard institutions.

In fact, it may turn out to be far simpler to address suspect lynching through basic, multi actor, educational campaigns than it would be to address far more pernicious problems such as procurement malfeasance and galamsey.

There is no better time to concern oneself with ‘hair’ than when one is having a haircut.

Which is the kind of profound insight one gets promoted to Admiral status in General Francis Kennedy Ocloo‘s armies for. But there is more.

As the rotors purred and the clippers cropped, my mind wandered to our childhood.

Virtually every household in Ghana, except the fantastically wealthy (by Ghana standards), had to deal with the woes of hair among the young.

First is the small matter of lice. Second, the impossibly named problem of “hypochromotrichia”. Yes, you heard that right!

That is the name of the problem that “yomo” was meant to solve. Stop being coy, and ‘fess up: “were you yomoed or were you not yomoed”?

Yomo eventually came to be made primarily from the carbon powder and magnesium oxide coatings in the conducting rod of dry cell batteries. Said substances were dissolved in a water base until consistent and stored in bottles.

Medium-aged women would then move from house to house plying a greasy trade in the ‘yomofication’ of youthful hair.

Children needed to be yomoed frequently because micronutrient deficiencies often led to the blackness of their hair fading, though in some instances the sun was also to blame.

No one took any serious notice about any potential toxicity of the yomo dye. Such things as ‘toxicity’ was a mouthful then, and mouths were needed for better pickings.

And I am not talking about young children picking up lice from the hair of their friends and rewarding them with a knock for every one of the arthropods they removed either.

Because by the early nineties this was no longer fashionable. Chemicals were in vogue. This, after all, was the Age of the Walkman, and science meant comfort.

So mothers blended camphor (naphthalene, for you SHS Chem snobs) in soothing balms or oils and soaked hair coverings with the concoction. Then chirpy little Kofi’s head was wrapped like a fetish with the improvised headgear. Amidst moans of mild protest, genocide was inflicted on the pediculi.

What fascinates me now is why the Yomo Mammies never succeeded in capturing the lice-busting market. A few of them did get in on the game but it stayed generally domestic.

Here, however, is the point. There was never, to my memory, any kind of public health campaign against yomo or melanin bleaching of hair due to malnutrition.

Though a great number of children may have suffered in school and dropped grades due to these arthropods (in league with infernal bedbugs, to be sure), somehow we muddled through it until the prevalence of both lice and hypochromotrichia dropped considerably.

And the prevalence dropped simply because of growing incomes.

For the mid-90s, just before the economic downturn, saw the first sustained growth of incomes in Ghana after a two-decade decline. ‘Bronya akoko’ and ‘Bronya atadee’ more or less disappeared from our common lexicon around that time. And apparently so did lice and yomo.

Which brings me to the second insight of the post: many of our seemingly intractable problems are merely “problems of poverty”. Until incomes rise we can chant down mountains in our calls for giant institutional responses but nothing much will happen.

Note that I am not saying ‘all’ our problems are of this nature. There sure are some that coordinated political action and simple institutional interventions can solve.

But many are also simply “kwashiokor paycheck” problems.