Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ashifi Gogo - investing his talent where it counts through technology

I've known Ashifi Gogo for a long time. He was two years my senior in middle school (KNUST JSS) and was one of the top students. I followed him to Presec and there too, he was making a name for himself. Every junior student needed a guide for academics or school father to protect from bullies, Gogo was one of those to me. (not the bully, silly!) After Presec, he went to Whitman where he balanced an excellent academic record with working on the online home for Odadees (old Presecans) - odadee.org. His work on this site ignited my passion to help my old school and reverse the pronouncement I made at the end of my three years there 'never to help Presec in any way'. Recently, Gogo has been busier with his start-up Sproxil (& Mpedigree), which is a service that fights counterfeit drugs. For his work, he is winning awards and going into high places. This weekend, he'll be a featured speaker at BarCamp Diaspora. I am truly honoured to present Ashifi Gogo as one of the young African movers and shakers.

When Ashifi told me he was going to Ghana to start his own business, I was impressed. He was still in school, and had gained admission to a PhD program at Dartmouth. He was going where most of us could only talk about - make some things happen. Before I knew it, Gogo was spending more time in Ghana and then Nigeria, and I had no idea when I could reach him on his US phone. When I attended the Presec 70th anniversary launch in Ghana, Gogo was there. Ebe some Odadee move? Gogo go go. He had been in Ghana working on MPedigree (together with another Odadee Bright Simmons), and had been preparing a documentary to present to ministries and other stake holders in the industry in which he was targeting. Effective busyness making serious business.

When he was asked by the Clinton Global Initiative "why fake drugs", he said, "I commit to craft technologies specifically for the developing world. My current realization of this lifelong goal is to provide an easy service for any developing world consumer to check their medication against counterfeits using any cell phone. Just like a lottery ticket, consumers scratch off a label on their medication, revealing a number that they could then text and receive instant verification of their drugs at the pharmacy or open air market. This will help prevent disasters such as the death of 84 infants in Nigeria last year due to teething syrup laced with antifreeze." Ashifi is socially conscious first and has found a niche where he can make an impact. He's naturally began pushing the service in West Africa but he's thinking bigger and soon enough, the Ghanaian-made service would use global technology to solve problems that are localized in many places around the world.

Working with him on Odadee.org, we faced various challenges, which is surely nothing compared to what he's faced working on Sproxil and MPedigree. "It’s been tough trying to raise funds for a long term venture based in West Africa, especially in these economic times. The appetite for risk seems long gone. Fortunately, leading foundations and business plan competitions are still supporting great ideas. By participating in a number of national and global business plan competitions, I’ve been able to raise funds for a proof of concept and I’ve seen great interest from reputable Angel investors. While planning for a large scale technology trial later this year, I realized I would need a decent amount of computing power. The
logistics of maintaining a server farm in West Africa, with challenging electrical power supply, was a bit daunting. I solved this problem by switching to cloud computing, only paying for the amount of computational power I need, while benefiting from network security and uptime only large firms could afford back in the day.
" We all realise the infrastructural and financial challenges we face building enterprises in Ghana, or Africa in general. Ashifi Gogo gives us hope that even today, while we wait for significant improvements, we can succeed. That's how all the entrepreneurs did it, challenges shall always exist, no matter how small. He navigated the challenges he faced and used available technology and information to solve them. Sounds like engineering but anyone can do this with by doing some homework, together with dedication and hard work.

Ashifi has been shuffling between the US and West Africa as he builds this project. Last December, he found the time to help make BarCamp Ghana a success, latching onto the team late in its planning and taking ownership of enusring that everything run smoothly. He coordinated the photo and video documentation and helped get internet connection at KACE-AITI for the BarCamp. He must have a ton of experience on how things work in Ghana and he firmly has a foot there. On the Diaspora/path to return to Africa, he stated, "As an undergraduate, I majored in mathematics and physics, and co-authored a paper in quantum optics that was subsequently published in a reputable journal. I quickly realized that while my work was intellectually stimulating, it would have been challenging to make a substantial impact on pressing needs in my home country, Ghana. I subsequently switched to engineering in graduate school. Now, as a PhD Innovation Fellow at Dartmouth College, I’ve got exactly what I was after – practical skills in science and business that can transform ideas into high-impact ventures. To make an even larger impact with the mobile authentication concept, I’m working with socially oriented investors to raise an Angel round of funding. This will help us prove the concept on a large scale with a number of local drug manufacturers in West Africa, before signing on multinational firms in a few years. I am also actively working with leading industry trade groups in pharma and telecom to raise awareness on the need for a cross-boundary “911 for fake drugs” number for checking drugs with cell phones."

Since late last year, Ashifi's work has been recognised by the World Summit Awards, World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers, etc and he's given presentations at top institutions. When I made a grand entry into Boston earlier this year to attend the Harvard African Business Conference, Ashifi was in town too, but to speak at Harvard. Level. He's still very humble and accessible and is there to guide me when I need him. I couldn't be more appreciative of this guy and it's really great to know him. When Odadee.org went through tough phases, he strategized and re-tooled the project for sustainability purposes. He didn't ask for a dime. When he was in Ghana, he'll go by Presec and take pictures for the Odadee website. Ashifi almost always had an answer to some technical problem. He was the webmaster for Odadee.org while studying Math and Physics.

All of this, and he's under 30. Obama called on young Africans to take charge. Ashifi has been doing that for awhile now so if you need an example, here's one. Even the non-Ghanaians know, including my Ugandan buddy from MIT who met him at a Global Health Conference. In Ashifi's own words, Sproxil is doing the real heavy lifting (not MPedigree), and focuses on providing software and systems that capture market intelligence in emerging markets using cell phones. Obviously, fighting counterfeit drugs is only a start. This Ashifi entry follows the one I did about Eyram Akofa Tawia of Letigames and there are more entries like this to come. Let's begin to celebrate the young upstarts and acknowledge their work. More over, it will give us more inspiration to start investing our talents where they count. Tsooboi!
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