Thursday, February 20, 2014

As Ukraine burns, its former citizen Jan Koum becomes billionaire in America

Jan Koum
 By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

The American dream just became real for former Ukrainian citizen Jan Koum.

In recent years the American dream seems to fizzle out for many just when they wake up from their sleep. The American dream that some successful immigrants love to tell with touches of intrigue and mystery making America look like 'the land of milk and honey'. They often begin by saying they entered America with just a dollar in their pockets and then worked their way up the ladder to become millionaires.

Koum doesn't seem to have that kind of story to tell, but he has just signed a deal for the biggest start-up snatch up ever in the history of Silicon Valley.

According to an exclusive report by Forbes, Koum came to the US at the age of 16 with his mother - that was 21 years ago. They were running away from "the troubling political and anti-Semitic environment" in that country. They lived in a small two-bedroom apartment through government assistance in the Mountain View area. According to the report his mother even carried Soviet issued notebooks to avoid paying for school supplies in the US. While his mother took to babysitting, Koum took to sweeping the floor of a grocery store to survive. The mother eventually died of cancer, his father never made it to the US. He went through High School and eventually went to college, but had to drop out. Koum even depended on food stamps at one point in his life.

Now 37 years old after building and running the mobile messaging App WhatsApp for some five years, he sells it to Facebook for a record $19 billion. A 45% stakeholder in the company he gets to keep over $6 billion. His other partner Brian Acton, venture capitalist Jim Goetz and others would keep the rest.

His journey was not uneventful, as he taught himself to write codes, held jobs at Ernst & Young and Yahoo. Together with Acton, they applied for jobs at Facebook but were rejected. He even at one point wanted to shut down the WhatsApp out of frustration but was dissuaded by Acton.

When the deal was being signed in the building where Koum used to go and stand in line for food, his native country Ukraine was literally on fire. A stand-off between opposition protestors and government security forces had exploded. Protestors set fires and police shot at them with water canons, stun guns and reportedly live ammunition. About 25 people are reported dead and over 400 injured.

Caught between the European Union and Russia, the Ukrainian government decided to go with Russia against the wishes of the people to join Europe and receive a $15 billion bailout. Most of the people believe that Russian president Vladimir Putin intends to have control over Ukraine so he could use the country as a pawn. Ukraine is located at a strategic position as a gateway between Europe and Russia.

The day Koum signed the deal February 19, 2014 and probably brought hope to many other believers in the 'American Dream', his original homeland, exploded following protests that went out of control - fire blazed the grounds, guns were fired leaving many dead and injured.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

My snow boots, and me

 By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

It has been snowing in New York City for over six weeks now. I am told it is the harshest winter the City has experienced in about 20 years. It has been inconsistent though, with intermittent sunshine and sometimes sleet rain.

It is my first experience of snowy weather and the first time that I physically saw and felt snow. The first time it snowed early in the morning, I peeped throw my window excitedly. Apparently, I wasn't the only adult fascinated by snow. When I went out that evening I saw some adults playing and rolling in snow. I also collected and took some snow home!

Well, if you haven't seen snow before, look into your fridge or freezer, the ice flakes you see in there closely resemble snow, and if you have ever been in a butcher's storage facility, it feels something like walking in snow.

When in September I was advised to get a snow boot as I would need it, I spoke to a friend in Europe about it, but this friend said, I didn't need a snow boot. "You should be fine with your sneakers," the friend said. But I realised sooner that indeed, I needed a snow boot. Wearing a snow boot when it is snowing or raining of sleet isn't the same as wearing an ordinary pair of shoes or sneakers.

Anyway, I went ahead and bought the snow boot. The popular brands on the market are quite pricy, so I searched hard till I got one that was reasonably priced and I bought it. My earlier hesitation to get one was also due to the fact that I wouldn't need it when I go back to Ghana. But I am glad I got it finally. It is insulated and is made of some rubber making it waterproof and it keeps the feet warm. The other day I stepped into sludge without knowing and I was fine. An ordinary shoe or sneaker would have been soaked and I don't want to imagine how cold my feet would have felt that evening on 114th Street on Broadway.

The winter is getting grimmer, but I am getting used to it and having a snow boot increases my chances of attending classes and getting into town whenever it snows and I necessarily have to go out.

And for some of you who might know about the business news website that I started five years ago, it has been offline. has gone offline temporarily.

I have received several mails including phone calls from some visitors to the site expressing disappointment over the shut down. It wasn't an easy decision to make but it was the only reasonable one under the circumstances.

Meanwhile, as the calls and mails that I received from some of the readers emphasised the importance and relevance of the site which incidentally though, is the only major source of business news out of Ghana, that view did not reflect the position of the advertising community.

The site has to be suspended because of rising costs of running it from a shoe string budget that largely had to come from me, after I have sunk my entire savings into starting and running it after sometime.

Over the five years that the site has been running, traffic has been growing exponentially, and the database has also grown, requiring bigger more efficient servers and services that my meager resources are unable to finance any more. I have become tired depending on the goodwill of some friends and family who have been very supportive along the way. It became impossible to hire skilled writers and programmers because the site does not generate revenue - it is not breaking even.

The business model based on pursuing good quality journalism, building high traffic and then generating revenue from advertising didn't seem to have worked.

The site indeed, achieved remarkably high respect and acceptance worldwide, evidenced in some modest achievements for myself and some of the people who have been working with me, making sacrifices to keep it running. We have been invited to cover and participate in international meetings, workshops and press conferences. Articles on the site also won national awards including an international journalism fellowship - the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Business and Economic Journalism at the Ivy League institution - Columbia University in the City of New York.

Since the suspension of publishing of the website, I have been reflecting deeply over not only the future of the site, but the future of journalism in Ghana. Any objective observer of journalism in Ghana in general and business journalism in particular would know that all is not well. Not much can be said of the quality of journalism in Ghana, despite the presence of some very well trained journalists and good editors.

Notwithstanding a constitutional provision that gives journalists protection and the freedom to do their work, most journalists are unable to exercise those freedoms without any encumbrance because the dynamics of media ownership makes it impossible to do so. Most owners of media organisations have more political rather than journalistic goals for establishing these news organisations and they mostly use them for their political objectives, and this has reduced discussions in the media to partisan levels. It is more impracticable for most journalists to focus on news worthy issues, write critical and probing editorials than for them to focus on what politicians are saying or have to say on issues even if what they have to say is foolish.

The least said about the state of business news the better. Business newspapers or business news segments on radio or TV are mostly public relations or advertorials promoting one product or company or some business person. For instance, most news organisations carry what they call 'Stock Exchange News' that only report the stocks for the day. There are hardly any critical and objective examination of company stocks or conduct of stock brokers.

Another example is the fact that, even though Ghana has found oil and has been producing oil in the last three years, there isn't a strong focus and adequate informed coverage of the sector. Most of what is published about the oil sector is often from oil companies themselves or government, even though there are more questions than answers in the oil sector - there is no transparency, nor accountability either by government or the oil companies, both operating offshore or onshore and there is corruption.

The six telecoms companies operating in the country are having a field day ripping off subscribers and providing poor quality service. Vodafone, which bought the state-owned Ghana Telecoms including fibre optic facilities that the government has invested in has now decided to curtail access to broadband Internet to subscribers by 'capping' Internet, eventually making excessive profits. It has also failed to expand landline services in the country, in spite of the fact that it is one of the terms for selling the national carrier to it. But Vodafone's conduct is not being scrutinized in the media.

Journalists dare not probe into the activities of these companies or they would threaten to pull out advertising from their organisations, often leaving the 'small fishes' at the mercy of journalists. Not that 'small fishes' should not be exposed when they break rules and endanger everyone else, but there must be fair coverage under all circumstances - which isn't the case. For instance, it is more likely that a rich and well connected person could commit murder and it would never make the news even if journalists get the information - but more likely to see a poor unconnected 'petty' thief exposed and when arrested sometimes, paraded before TV screens and in newspapers.

As the site goes into hiatus, I am looking forward to exploring further, other means of making it sustainable and then reviving it, even though, after working for 23 years as a journalist and contributing extensively to the global information database and to my country, I don't know how many people I have touched or inspired in my career path, but I do hope that I have somehow touched some people and inspired other journalists. Sometimes I feel that I have done my part - like the Akan proverb says, "humans came to play their parts and not to do all."