With a population of 1.2 billion people and an economy of just US$3 trillion, Africa urgently needs to wake up, Ghanaian-born fibre optics inventor, Dr. Thomas Mensah tells The Chronicle in this interview, in Accra.
He also warns that the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, AfCFTA, though one of the best things that ever happened to Africa, may still fail, if it does not embrace technology, particularly the concept of the high-speed train, otherwise called the bullet train.
Below are excerpts of the interview between Martin-Luther C. King and Dr. Thomas Mensah.
Q: How can governments in Africa, especially Ghana, leverage technology to address youth unemployment and to improve the general economy?
A: That’s an excellent question, Martin. Technology drives everything; and a government has to accept that without technology it cannot impact anything. Technology has to be used to create jobs, to create opportunities for the youth in Ghana. You have over a million youths who don’t have jobs. So, they should use technology, just like we are doing at the Silicon Valley of Ghana, to help train these kids. Most of them don’t have even the skills for the jobs that are coming.
South Africa’s President (Cyril Ramaphosa) was on television recently saying he is now the chairman of the fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa. That’s a politician. I am on the board of the fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa. Ghana has to step up and leverage technology. Because these youth, they learn very, very quick; just like we are doing at the Silicon Valley of Ghana.
Train the youth, give them skills. Remember, the youth of Africa used to cross the (Sahara) desert all the way to Libya; and from there, try to cross the English Channel risking their lives, just because of lack of jobs and lack of opportunities. Now, Silicon Valley is going to train them to let them stay here in Africa, in Ghana; and give them the skills and the opportunities they are going to look for abroad.
Q: Kindly tell us more about the Silicon Valley of Ghana?
A: The Silicon Valley of Ghana was established by me three years ago.
Q: Where is it located, precisely?
A: It is located at the Kofi Annan ICT Centre, Accra. When you google ‘Silicon Valley of Ghana’, you can see it. At the Silicon Valley of Ghana, we have thirty courses, thirty subjects that we teach. We teach everything practical things, like drones, in five application areas. One, we are using drones for what is called precision agriculture, which the Israeli prime minister talked about. Which means, if you have farms of mangoes, or anything, the drone will fly five metres, manage the farm for you. If it needs water, the drone will tell you that you need water here; and it will activate the sprinklers in the farm to pour water, even if there is no rain.
We have the ability, working with Google, to be able to identify any plant or tree that is sick, and rain insecticides on it to cure it, like the swollen shoot of a cocoa. A drone is a robotic machine. Another area of activity for the drone is in the area of security. We have drones that can fly at the back of a van, and inside the van, and can take the van to any place where there is trouble, Koforidua, Takoradi, Kasoa; and, will fly and bring pictures, whether they are armed robbers, etc, so that they cannot run away. You can even use it to tackle this problem of ‘galamsey’, to take videos of the galamsey operators; so that we can stop the practice, and catch those involved. That’s for security. We use the drone also….the new one we have has a spectrometer on board the drone that can look down and check if there are minerals underneath the earth: whether it is coltan that is used in cellphones, gold, etc. You can check for all minerals, using the drone. And, I am teaching all these at the Silicon Valley of Ghana. I have 30 professors who are teaching people in all these areas. So, we have drones, for precision agriculture, for security, for finding minerals beneath the earth. That’s serious. And, I’m teaching all those.
Q: What has been the response of the Ghanaian government to this Silicon Valley project?
A: Other than giving me the Kofi Annan ICT Center to do it, I have been financing the Silicon Valley project by myself, personally. I am financing all these trainings here. Can you believe that? The Rwandan President, on the other hand, put US$72 million in the Rwanda Silicon Valley. And, I’m going to help him. Yes! Since I did the Silicon Valley of Ghana, Martin, it has brought Twitter here; it has brought GoogleAI; it has brought Amazon to have their head quarter here (in Ghana). Dr. Mensah brought Twitter, Amazon and GoogleAI to Ghana. Before I came three years ago, Ghana was not so known anywhere for technology. Facebook is in Nigeria, not in Ghana. Others went to East Africa. Even my friend, the chairman of Alibaba, whose picture is in the Silicon Valley brochure with me, they all went to Kenya, and East Africa. But, the Silicon Valley of Ghana brought all these people to Ghana. Because on the board are Silicon Valley-USA executives, on the board of advisers of the Silicon Valley of Ghana. I have five astraunots, including Miss Fund that went on the Blue RA Origin, and landed safely. I have five astraunots. I even have an executive from Elon Musk’s group, Space X, there on the board. And, we are also putting Blue Original people on the board. So, that’s the kind of board membership that I have. I have a Microsoft executive on the board; I have an Apple Computer executive on the board. I have a Boeing executive on the board, a lady that manages the assembly of 787 aircrafts; she’s on the board. Nobody in the world can assemble such a team. And, I have a few Ghanaians, like the Minister of Communication and Digitalisation, (Mrs. Ursula Owusu-Ekuful) on the board.
Q: What do you think of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, AfCFTA? And, how can technology help fast-track the implementation of the AfCFTA?
A: The Africa Continental Free Trade Area, AfCFTA is one of the best things that was ever developed and signed by the over 50 countries in Africa. However, without technology, particularly the high-speed train, or the bullet train, the intra continental free trade vision will just be on paper; it cannot move. Because, when somebody in one country orders something from another country, you cannot send their order through the bad roads that we have in Africa. Only (Rwanda’s President) Paul Kagame and his country have the best roads. In Africa, the roads are so bad. You get to some places, you have flood water, making the roads impassable. Somebody orders something, it will take three months to get there. Somebody orders something in the European Union, on the other hand, and it takes one day, or less. Because, even if you ship it, I don’t care whether it’s from Senegal and you ship it all the way to South Africa, you still have the problem of land transportation. So, the bullet train is the only way to solve the problem; and, that’s why I have been pushing it so hard. I am the one that designed the bullet train for Congo (DRC) recently. So, Congo is going to have the Patrice Lumumba bullet train. I did that so that they can have their own bullet train. It goes from Kinshasa, all the way to the border. I’ve been pushing for Ghana to also have one. Minister for Railways Development, John-Peter Amewu, is working with me on that. Soon, we are going to have that.
Q: In terms of its speed and sustainability, kindly give us more details about the bullet train project you are proposing for both Ghana and the DRC?
A: The bullet train is doing wonders in Dubai; it’s doing wonders in Germany. For the one being planned for DRC, I have raised US$3 billion from outside for Congo; they’ll start construction between January and March 2022. I have fibre optics along the rails for the trains, for safety; and, for communication, so that you can sit in your cabin and be on the internet on your laptop.
Q: Have you discussed within the AfCFTA the possibility of getting all members countries to sign on to the bullet train concept?
A: Some countries are working very hard. I hear that in southern Africa, in the SADEC region, that a few countries are pushing for bullet trains. At least, there should be eight bullet trains in Africa; because, that’s the only way you can move goods. Martin, you buy something from Nigeria, and you want it the next day, if not the same day, possibly; not a month, or three months later, given the bad roads we have.
Q: Developmental breakthroughs in most advanced societies have been led by research and development done by universities. How can universities in Ghana, and Africa, be capacitated to also do so?
A: At the Silicon Valley of Ghana, one of my strategies is bringing universities and industry together; private sector and industry. In America, for example, you have the universities and the famous research labs, such as the famous IBM, Bell, which is where I was; Sullivan Park at CUNY; the university collaborating with industry. That’s one of the best thing about the Silicon Valley of the United States, they bring industry and universities together. So, the basic research does its job. For example, in one area, I wrote a book on nanotechnology; the first black person to write an international text book that is used to train and teach PhD students all over the world; PhD students in China are using my book, MIT is using my book, New Zealand, etc. And, that nanotechnology is what we use to create advanced batteries for your cellphones, batteries that are of the size of the thumb of your finger. When you charge it, it will stay for one week; that’s the kind of innovation I am speaking about, the research for which is done at the university level; that we can team them up with the universities. I went and spoke at Cape Coast University, in Ghana; and, I told them, ‘Hey, we’ll have to link your up with the industry so that they can use what you are doing’.
Q: Many inventors, and their inventions, litter the African landscape, unable to mass-produce and commercialise their inventions; these are mostly ordinary people, not PhDs. How can such local talents be properly harnessed to improve quality of life on the continent?
A: They should come to the Silicon Valley (of Ghana). Because when they come to Silicon Valley, one of the first things I teach is to, first, protect your invention in your name. So, I tell them, and in all the conferences that I attend, I tell them to google ‘legalzoom.com‘. When you go there, you pug in your password, so nobody can see what have there except you; and, you put your invention there right away. Describe it; if there are technical drawings involved, put them all there. You don’t have to finish all this at one sitting; you can come back and continue. Once you finish, you pay US$300, and you get what is called ‘patent pending’. Most products around the world are ‘patent pending’. You have one year, from the time you get that, within which you can sell your ideas to investors, to industry, etc. But, make sure you do that first. At Silicon Valley, that’s what we do to help innovators.
Q: Some of such inventors are ordinary people who may not be able to come to the Silicon Valley of Ghana. What can they do then?
A: No, they can just google that address from wherever they are, and enroll. Because, if they go to the universities, they won’t even talk to them. This is why government needs to support the Silicon Valley; because, when they (such people) come, we enroll them and show them what to do; sometimes, help them as start-up entrepreneurs once they get the copyright, the patent through legalzoom, sometimes even help them with business plans, bring money and investors, finance them.Yes!
Q: Dr. Mensah, your ideas are something the whole of Africa can benefit from. What efforts have you madr to get other other African governments interested in your Silicon Valley idea?
A: I am looking at that. As I said earlier (Rwandan President) Paul Kagame saw what I did and committed US$72 million to the Silicon Valley of Rwanda. And, when I finish the Patrice Lumumba bullet train in the Congo, the first in Africa, I will also start the Silicon Valley of the Congo. At some point, I might even do it in Nigeria.
Q: Are you still a Ghanaian?
A: Yes! But in America, they want to grab everything. So, sometimes they refer to me as ‘this Ghanaian-American’. But I hold a Ghanaian passport; I want the kids to know that they can do it. My fifth book, my autobiography, ‘The Right Stuff Comes in Black, too’, which is available on Amazon, (with title also promoted on black t-sheets) I use to encourage the kids. I tell them, ‘Hey, you have the right stuff; if I can do it, you can, too’.
Q: Do you have any final words?
A: My final words, Martin, is, ‘Africa must wake up’. All the speeches I gave in the last two weeks are all geared to awakening the sleeping giant in Africa. Because, 1.2 billion people, with just a US$3 trillion economy? Just wake up, Africa! We should wake up! Some of the work that I’m doing is to awaken the sleeping giant in Africa. They should come together, work hard, put bullet trains all across the continent. We should just wake up!
Q: On that note of a clarion call on Africa to ‘just wake up’, we say ‘Thank you’, Dr. Mensah!
A: Thank you, Martin!
By Martin-Luther C. King