Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Living an African success story - Eyram Akofa Tawia


When the VentureBeat reporter started getting the hang of iWarrior while playing it and pouring all his efforts into the game, I knew this was a great moment. A Wuzu moment. Eyram Akofa Tawia's game was on the iPhone and a Stanford-educated tech journalist was getting addicted to a computer game Eyram had made. I looked on smiling and thinking, this is the beginning of great things to come. And this was just March 24th. Eyram Akofa Tawia had come very far from the day he fell in love with playing computer games, he now owned his own computer game company, LetiGames, which was going to be the Star of Africa. He was being interviewed by VentureBeat, a blog whose mission is to provide news about innovation for forward-thinking executives. Earlier that week, Eyram had been interviewed by the San Jose Mercury for a feature. He had been spending the better part of March attending the Game Developers' Conference and having business meetings at Google amongst other places in the Silicon Valley. How did he get here? Let's find out. I'm just happy I have been close to the action.

I grew up with Eyram in the same neighbourhood on the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) campus. I don't remember ever being in the same class with him but we interacted many times, playing computer games, playing soccer, etc. Somewhere during middle school, we all started calling him 'Wuzu' - The Great One. That's some nickname for a 12 year-old to have. I don't even remember why we called him that. We all loved to play Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Super Mario, Tetris, etc but Eyram was more interested in how these games were made. He'd make up his own comics and illustrations and with the help of another friend, Godfred (a really good artist), they made a comic book. Eyram's friends were all impressed. Eyram wanted a computer really badly! He didn't ask his parents for clothes, he asked them for a computer. Eventually, he arranged with a seller to bring a computer to his home and 'forced' his father to buy it. Still in middle school (junior secondary school), Eyram started learning how to program, starting with QBasic and VBasic. One day, when he typed, "cd qbasic" at the DOS prompt on his screen, and saw Qbasic in action, his passion was born.

When our class hit 15, most of us left our homes in Kumasi to various senior secondary (high) schools. I left for Presec-Legon, because it was one of the best schools, some of my friends were going there, and I wanted to be near my aunts in Accra. Eyram left for Mawuli School in Ho, alone. His friends went to these other 'bigger' schools in groups, but his father was making him go to his alma-mater. Eyram was not too happy with this but this is the comment he made about it last week, "You should look to brighten the corner where you are at". I will never forget this comment. Eyram took solace in computer programming, and by the time the 21st century hit, he had written a simple computer game using QBasic. He banded with Justin Dakorah and Kofi Opuni Asiama, also good friends of mine, to form TOPSSOFT, and started making software solutions like an Internet Cafe timer, amongst others.

When I finished Presec and came back home to Kumasi, I realised Eyram's love for computer games hadn't died like mine and together with Justin and Opuni, was 'programming'. I was extremely proud of him. I may have left the country to what I thought was the best engineering university in the world, but I kept in touch with the TOPSSOFT crew. They progressed into making a radio program managing software called TopStudio, a deejaying software called Black DJ, etc. They had taught themselves to do all of this! They had gotten jobs as assistants at the neighbourhood internet cafes and 'browsed' even more than the whole of KNUST combined! They started to teach programming classes and were well ahead of their peers who were even studying computer science at KNUST. Eyram was a different breed and he still is. Just this last December, I was in a post BarCamp Ghana 09 radio interview at CITI FM with Eyram and Henry Addo (Ushahidi, Fienipa, Suuch fame) and the radio software used there was TopStudio.

He may have been programming in different softwares during his university days but we all know, his first true love was computer games. So, for his final year project, he embarked on making a 3D game called the Sword of Sygos. His professors discouraged him, saying they didn't have the capability to guide him through this. They had a point, nothing like that had ever been done in Ghana. His advisor had some of the knowledge Eyram needed to pursue this and eventually gave him the greenlight. Eyram finished the game, working with his friend, Francis Dittoh. An NGO I formed with some friends, GhanaThink, had decided to organize an Invitational Programming Contest dubbed 1.GTPC.06. The main aim of the competition was to encourage and motivate graduating seniors of Ghanaian tertiary institutions to design and develop their senior projects for the Ghanaian market which would not be prototypes for their departments only. Eyram and Francis entered the competition in 2006 with a 3D Computer Game called "The Sword of Sygos", a game implemented using the Microsoft® Visual Basic® .NET programming language and utilised the Truevision3D engine. They won. We gave them $300. Eyram and Francis had also worked on another educational game called Tsatsu.

Later, he, Francis, Justin, Opuni, myself and other friends learnt about Wesley Kirinya, a Kenyan, who had claimed to build the first 3D computer game in Africa. Eyram said he learnt about it in his local newspaper. I guess GhanaThink's publicity wasn't that strong :-) Eyram and Wesley put their little 'feud' aside and decided to work together. This led us to 2007 where they, myself, and some other friends embarked on the ambitious project of creating a soccer/football computer game for the African Cup of Nations which was going to be hosted in Ghana in January 2008. Yes, we were going to make a FIFA 08 type game right here in Africa. Eyram, Justin, Opuni, Wesley worked on the game, came up with a model, built the engine and we were pretty much ready to roll. The task of drawing support for it lay largely with Dave Danso, a GhanaThinking friend of mine. We couldn't get the funds to support the project and it went kaput. It was disappointing but Eyram and Wesley kept going.

In 2008, Eyram joined the MeltWater Entrepreneurial School of Technology as a Teaching Fellow. He had been hoping to enter as a trainee but he was so advanced he was made a fellow instead. Wow! He continued working on his passion for computer games and it came to a head in 2009 when he formed LetiGames and was incorporated as a company in April with Meltwater funding. At the first BarCamp Ghana event on December 22, 2008, he was a panelist in the Mobile Technology panel, where he discussed his plans to launch African-made computer games for mobile platforms especially. He was exactly the kind of person I had wanted to bring to the BarCamp, to inspire other young Ghanaians to be innovative and entrepreneurial like him. People like him enriched the experience for us all.

In 2009, he continued working on computer games like iWarrior, Bugzvilla together with Wesley. He contracted different tasks to other young brilliant Africans and people at the Meltwater Incubator. In October 2009, LetiGames released the first African-made game on the iPhone called iWarrior. I've never had an iPhone so I had never played the game but I publicized it here. The game is set in Africa. Your mission is to protect your village, farm, inhabitants, etc from marauding animals. Fun. It's a wholly African-made production with African art and sounds. The game sounds simple and maybe even primitive, but it's awesomely addicting. When the VentureBeat reporter was playing it, you could see it.

Eyram's been working on LetiGames for almost a year now. Earlier this month, he attended the Game Developers' Conference, something he had known about growing up in his passion for computer games. It was a week-long conference, 9 to 5 for a week. He had never imagined he could have attended it and talked to all his role models in the industry. He told me he had grown out of his shyness and now had the confidence to talk to anybody about his passions, interests, ideas and goals. He had come a long way. This trip to San Francisco has opened and will continue to open so many doors for him.

There is more to come from LetiGames' stable. We'll blog about it as it unfolds. We'll be there every step of the way to make sure this African success story continues to have many chapters and opens doors for more African success stories. I saw the potential. I called Eyram 'Big Shot'. He's the prototypical entrepreneur. He is not settling for anything less than the best. He may be a big shot but he's still backpacking. He may be appearing on KSM's TGIF show (see picture above) but he's still the kenkey lover from Buroburo road. He may be interviewed by the San Jose Mercury but he's still the guy dancing in public near the Kumasi Sports' Stadium. He's Wuzu.
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