Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 Reflected

by Haresh Karamchandani

Today is the last day of 2014 and I am feeling so satisfied and happy with our achievements this year. It is a good time to reflect on the year gone by and plan for the year ahead.

2014 started slow as every other January. The regular contracts were being adhered to, nothing new happened. It was a relaxed slow month.

Then came February, when we managed to bag a juicy Networking and Supplies contract with the Ministry of Lands Mines and Energy. This contract involved supplies of:
  • HP Proliant DL380 G7 Rack Mount Server
  • TRIPP LITE B021-000-19
  • 1U Rackmount Console
  • KVM Switch with 19" LCD
  • CISCO 3925/K9 Network Routers
  • 42U Switch Rack with PDU  
  • APC Smart UPS
  • 25kVA/360V  Pure Sine Wave (3Ø) Inverter with 200AH/12V SMF Battery  Bank,  that would provide up to 8 hours of backup time
  • Microsoft SQL Server Standard Service Pack License 2012
  • Terastation 5800 Network Storage 24TB
We had to network a new trainingbuilding and install 30 Desktop computers with adequate UPS. This kept the team busy for most part of the month, closely monitored by senior management.

We also bagged a contract to supply 90 pcs of  Sony Experia E Dual Sim Android Phones, Factory Unlocked to the USAID. NATC actively participates in Government and Non-Government tenders and since we have very good overseas supply contacts we have been able to be quite competitive.

As soon as we commissioned the MoLME project, we bagged another similar networking contract from Bureau Veritas. They wanted to re-network their whole office block on Broad Street and add more network points throughout the office. As usual the team was up to the task and completed and commissioned the job in record time to the satisfaction of our client.

During the month of March we managed to secure a supply order for an Ultrasound Machine which was to be donated to a Women’s Fertility Clinic by Lonestar Communications. The machine was ordered from our source in the USA and was promptly delivered. I guess this is the only functioning Ultrasound machine in the country at that time. We also received many other regular supply contracts for Genuine Toners from our regular clientele. The regular maintenance contracts continued to be serviced as usual.

Something exciting and different happened in April. We bagged our first ever training contract from CICA Motors (Toyota Garage). They wanted us to come in and train about 20 personnel in how to use Microsoft Office Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, Outlook etc. At that time we had Osman Fofanah working with us who was well qualified and Microsoft Certified to carry out this project. Osman prepared some handbooks, and a proper plan. The training was done successfully and we handed out Certificates to the CICA staff at the end of the training.

We also bagged a huge contract to supply the Liberia Electricity Corporation a big quantity of HP ENVY  17  Leap Motion 8E NB Laptop Computers. These computers are State of the Art machines with Intel Core i7 Processors and a powerful NVidia Graphics card. We also supplied the LEC with some HP525 Multi-Function Printers.

At the end of the month we managed to secure another contract with a Harper based NGO, Danish Refugee Council. This entailed travelling to Harper and fixing about 20-30 machines, printers, Desktops, Laptops that were not maintained for a very long time and were giving multiple problems. Our Head of IT along with Head of Operations spent a whole week in Harper and were able to resolve most of the problems which included, printer fixes, Anti-virus installation, Operating system, networking issues.

The month of May was quite tragic. We bagged a contract from a USAID funded project for supply and installation of a 25KVA Battery Bank for a Government Agency. Due to the “tight delivery deadline” set by USAID our Head of Operations personally decided to travel to Nigeria to procure the Heavy Duty Sine Wave Inverters and Deep Cycle Batteries required for this project. The goods were procured and shipped out by Air Freight. We meanwhile began all necessary preparations for Grounding and Stacking of the Batteries at the client site. When the batteries arrived we called the USAID to come and inspect before delivery. They came and inspected and gave us the go ahead to supply and install. The heavy batteries (each weighing 65 kgs) were transported and manually lifted to the 1st floor server room of the client and we began making all the connections. Then an officer of USAID visited the site and rejected all the goods!! He said there were scratch marks on the Inverters and Batteries and therefore they were not new! He also said that the shelf life of the batteries were close to expiry date. We tried out best to assure him that yes, there was a 6 month shelf life, but if we begin to use the batteries within this period and since they were Deep Cycle and once they are re-charged they would be good to last for at least 4 years if re-charged regularly. We even offered to extend the warranty from 1 year to 3 years as we were confident that the equipment was good to last that long. All our explanation, pleas, requests, guarantees fell on deaf years and eventually we had no choice but to bring all the equipment back and return the order back to USAID. The batteries have since been installed at another site and are working PERFECTLY well!

And we learnt recently, that the USAID changed the order and purchased the same equipment from another vendor for nearly DOUBLE the price we had offered and it has been 7 months and the job is still not yet complete or commissioned. Talk about “tight delivery deadlines”!! Ha!

We have taken this experience in our stride and have moved on. Some clients are impossible to deal with!

The Ebola crisis struck in June and July and we were equally affected by it. No new contracts! The regular maintenance contracts were cancelled and we watched the panic from the sidelines. We ensured that we put all necessary precautions in place to protect our staff from the deadly virus. We are proud to say that we are all safe so far.

Come August and we were able to secure another interesting supply contract with UNMIL for supply of air conditioner PCB Boards. Apparently the UNMIL here has more than 1000 air conditioners and need to keep spare parts for the regular service and maintenance. We were able to procure the parts directly from the source in China and have them delivered on time as usual.

September was quite uneventful, Ebola was at its peak. We had a house guest, a NBC cameraman. I would hear his dreadful stories and see his camera work on a regular basis, warning my staff and friends that Ebola is indeed real. We just tried to keep safe and continued the regular rigmarole.

Then came October: Something that I really dreaded and hoped would never happen. One evening, I get a call from Ashoka, “Haresh, I am having a high fever and I think it is Ebola!”” I was terrified. This man was in my house, with Ebola! I decided not to go home that evening and instead try and look for a hotel room at Mamba Point. All hotels were fully booked. No rooms available. I had no choice but to go home and face Ebola heads on! I armed myself with rubber gloves, face masks, and some anti-bacterial sprays. I sprayed the whole house and kept my gloves on till I went to bed. Poor Ashoka was in his room, on the telephone trying to plan his evacuation to the USA. I gave him some food and he assured me that he would leave for the ETU the next morning. The night went by. I could not sleep, wondering if the Ebola Virus would sneak under my bedroom door and attack my immune systems. I left the house very early the next morning, Ashoka managed to find his way to the MSF ETU at ELWA. I kept calling him throughout the day to check if the blood test was out. Finally at about 3 PM he confirmed that yes indeed he was Ebola Positive! Shivers ran through my spine. I started panicking. What if I was also infected??!!??

I called my travel agent and asked him to book my ticket to Mumbai the same day. Got the ticket issued. Then the same day, I heard that one Mr. Duncan had landed in the USA with Ebola and had mis-declared his health condition at the airport. He would be prosecuted. I decided that this was not a good idea. In case I did have Ebola I did not want to travel with it and endanger other passengers. I decided to resign to my fate and if I had to die, I would die in Liberia. I called my agent and cancelled the booking. The next few days were terrifying to say the least. The slightest cough or sneeze would send my mind into panic mode. I kept myself under self –imposed quarantine and monitored my temperature regularly. The first 2 weeks were stressful. I kept a bottle of Anti-bacterial handy all the time and would wipe my hands when I would touch a door handle.

Well, I did not contract Ebola! I am well and alive and kicking.  I celebrated my 50th Birthday in style with Farzana and Kavita at the Royal Palms Resort in Labadi Beach Accra! I think I deserved it.

November and December have been very fruitful. We have bagged a couple of new Internet contracts. Our team is currently in Zwedru setting up a V-satconnection to end the year with a big bang. We also managed to secure many supply contracts, the biggest being a contract to supply Genuine Toners to the US Embassy valued at US$275,000.00! These goods are already on the way and will be arriving during the first week of 2015. We are very excited at our prospects for the new year and look forward to implementing a whole range of new business ideas and plans.

I thank all our valuable clients, friends, bankers, well-wishers for making 2014 such a great year and look forward to working with them in the next.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Reflection: 2014 the year they wanted to make Liberia famous for ebola

by Farzana Rasheed

After a combination of requests, gentle reminders and frustrated yelling, I managed to get all of NATC staff to write an end-of-year blog post. I think this year's posts were a little more interesting and demonstrated what kind of challenges our team faces when delivering IT services. 

Now it's my turn to reflect upon this past year. 

2014 - the year the international media wanted Liberia to be defined by a new scourge: ebola 

The ebola epidemic made 2014 an especially challenging year for everyone in Liberia but we are happy to report that despite dwindling of operations and even suspension of maintenance contracts, curfew, and almost complete aviatic quarantine of Liberia, we are going to end the year on a good note. 

I was away for the better part of the year, partly because of the enormous hysteria created by the media and the suspension of the main flying routes between Monrovia and the rest of the world. I went off for a break back to Pakistan to visit my parents whom I had not seen in two years in late February, hoping to also skip and hop to India, so my daughter Kavita could see her Dad's family. It turned out I need notarised, original sponsorship certificates from people in India. That took time to organise and have mailed to me. I extended my trip for a month in gleeful anticipation. 

Meanwhile, I had another awful cramp attack which I had never got properly diagnosed for a year in Monrovia but suspected it was probably some kind of stones. I got myself checked in Islamabad and indeed, I had gall bladder stones and they needed to be removed surgically. By the time I had had surgery, recovered and was ready to head back, the ebola epidemic hit Monrovia. I was advised by everyone to stay away for the time being. 

Later, most airlines operating to and from Liberia were also suspended and I literally became stuck unless I wanted dish out a few more thousand dollars for a new route via Belgium or Morocco (SN Brussels and Royal Air Maroc were the only two operating airlines). It was quite a frustrating time since my holiday now became an extended sojourn putting me in a limbo.

A clear, rational part of me knew, from gleaning the news, facts and first hand accounts, that there was no real danger to me unless I directly came into contact with a very very sick person. Moreover, unfortunately, people who were actually affected were living in poorer communities and/or were health workers.  This was more or less what I thought and felt frustrated at having to stay away while I wanted to be around since business was more or less usual for NATC. But to make things interesting, it was Haresh who had had a near ebola scare; you will need to read his post to find out more about that. 

Thankfully, since I've been back in Liberia in early November and as everyone will agree, life is quite normal in Monrovia. 

It was extremely good to be back and see my staff and almost everyone else in good spirits. 

Kicking back as CEO and taking a longer view of things

It's been an interesting year for me where I have really kicked back and taken a break from the day to day affairs of NATC. I have kept abreast of things of course by reading my e-mails regularly, asking for certain reports, and bugging Haresh regularly, but it has been a year of letting go. It gave me a lot of perspective in terms of my role at NATC as CEO, of what we have achieved as a company since I took over in 2009, and how things will probably look like in the near few years.

Haresh has done a good job of keeping things going and bagging some good projects and supply orders (we not only provide IT services but also participate in public bids and RFQs for a range of goods and equipments). My insistence on certain procedures has been adhered to and things were kept in a relatively organised fashion in my absence.

What have I learned?

IT is about problem solving. If you approach problems in a methodological and scientific manner, you will eventually solve it.

If you want to survive (forget about thriving) as a business, you need to take a "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" approach to corruption. You're lucky if you manage to get clean business but otherwise be prepared to spend money on commissions. It stinks, it feels rotten but it is how things are done here regardless of public or private sectors, regardless of whether or not it is an international organisation.

What is important though is still try to maintain your professional dignity by at least trying to deliver the best goddamn service and product you can.

Still need an accountant and migrate our manual accounting to software

But to my absolute annoyance, the admin/finance manager we hired shortly before my departure - one Osman Fofana, a very promising young man - disappeared in my absence. Now we really don't have anyone properly paying attention to filing, accounts, paperwork, payments, banking reconciliation, etc. This work is now done in an ad hoc manner and, moreover, we still haven't switched over to an accounting software! It is kind of embarrassing since we are an IT company ourselves. 

Instead now, I have two office assistants, neither of them computer literate! 

Our Liberian team of IT Technicians is doing a fantastic job

On a more positive and aha! note, I realised that we are doing fine with the techies we have and my earlier efforts to find a so-called expatriate engineer were unnecessary. Our team is working hard, solving problems and performing good quality work. They are even improving their communication skills and, now we have a sort of consolidated a team after a long time of trial and error, hiring, and firing. Haresh and I are extremely confident of Jonathan's abilities and appreciate his hardworking attitude. Daniel has now also matured to a senior technician's position. What's more, our janitor - office assistant, Emmanuel, has joined the technical team as a trainee and, seems to be picking up the ropes steadily. What more could one want? A hardworking local team as it should be. 

Moreover, which of our clients were ever going to let us mark up the price of our services in case we ever did get an expatriate Head of IT Services?!! If things go well, I would rather focus on sending Jonathan abroad for training. 

Of course, we would love to still find someone who knows the latest technologies and help us fill gaps and also offer newer products and advanced systems to our clients. Perhaps we need to look in Nigeria. But for now, we are very content with our team.

At the same time though we need to the team to consolidate skills and experience. Right now, Jonathan is over extended and we and our clients depend on him the most.

What is driving growth of IT services in Liberia?

The company's growth for the past few years has been random and followed no real patterns. What was initially a promising trend and in fact the foundation of the mother company (NLTC)'s vision - namely, maintenance contracts have not been in that much of a demand. Some of our clients have drastically reduced operations and suspended maintenance contracts this year because of the ebola epidemic. But even before, the demand for outsourcing maintenance and servicing of IT equipments and IT support has been hit and miss. Some of our contracts seemed to be going on beautifully but change of management and/or apparent reduction in budget (especially in the NGO sector) resulted in canceled contracts. Or in some cases, a promising one off job did not result in a permanent contract as it would seem it would. All in all, spending on IT has been rather conservative. 

So, while our monthly maintenance contracts have dwindled drastically we seem to be getting networking projects and ad hoc requests for support, some of it even from old clients. 

Instead we are delving more and more into Internet Services but I will leave it to Haresh to delve into about how he sees this area of IT to expand for us. 

To put it another way, because of the small market and changing circumstances for our clients over the years, NATC has sort of not been able to specialise yet long term per se in any one field of IT services. We are doing a range of IT services - from monthly service to hardware repairs to installation of internet services to ad hoc support.

What am I still concerned with?

I feel we need to work out a better offer to our clients in terms of monthly maintenance and outsourcing of IT support. This could help us to gain more experience, standardise procedures and perfect a business model. I need to do more aggressive marketing and brainstorming to get more business in this area.

We need to continue to improve quality of our services and continue to fine tune and standardise procedures. That means going over procedures again and again with our staff, improving turn around time, getting client feedback and recording jobs properly. 

Grateful all our staff and their families are safe and sound 

We're ending the year on a really good note with our team in Zwedru setting up internet services for two clients. We have some good business lined up for 2015, too. 

I'm glad all our staff and their families are safe and sound and, we hope to grow together as a company and a close team in 2015.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Getting ready for an internet installation job in Zwedru

We came back from Christmas and, have had a hectic morning preparing for a project in Zwedru: setting up internet services across three offices. See background below:

An existing client requested us to give them a proposal for Internet services at their Zwedru offices. At the same time another existing client requested us for internet at their Zwedru offices and Guest House. This was a great co-incidence and we put on our thinking caps.

We came up with a plan:

Install a V-sat at Client “A” offices and extend the network via Micro Tik wireless microwave to Client " B "'s office and Client "A"'s Guest House complex.

This way the cost could be shared and the client could enjoy more bandwidth across the entire network!

We sent our senior technician to do a site survey in Zwedru and he reported the Geographical Coordinates and elevation. The distance between the sites was less than 2 kms and this was a workable plan since the Micro-Tik could extend up to 5 kms.

We prepared a detailed proposal to both clients, offering FREE V-sat equipment, and clinched the deal.

The contract has been signed, and our expert technicians are already on the ground working hard to get the installation completed before end of 2014. We have promised the client that they will be online before the beginning of 2015.

Auto rickshaw in Monrovia

Contributed by Farzana Rasheed

Pen pen's, motorbike taxis, were banned from downtown Monrovia and most main road arteries more than a year ago. 

They have been replaced by good old auto rickshaws. There is the typical rickshaw but also many variations, including one with a whole small wagon in the back. 

I will be trying to capture as many photos as possible of these whizzing three-wheeled taxis - so familiar  in South Asia - in Monrovia. 

These photos were taken going home today. 

What do you think of the tobacco adverts?!

New Water and Sewer Lines on Randall Street

Contributed by Farzana Rasheed

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Blog Post for End of Year

by Daniel Collins
Dear reader,
I am so delighted to write my post as an IT technician working here. I joined NATC on June 8 2012 and since then, it has been a growing experience for me on a daily basis.
With the small team we have, issues are handled smoothly and professionally. For every step I move forward with and confidence I found in myself, I must appreciate our hard working Head of Operations, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Head of IT. Your support and encouragement has brought me thus far.
During the beginning of this year, there was a lot of UPS and DOWN. Business was slowing down, contracts/projects were terminated and other interferences due to low budget from our clients' side. Working hard in covering up these gaps, an outbreak of a deadly disease (Ebola) suddenly shows up. 
But at the end of the year, we have got new jobs and there is lots more in the pipeline.
I will like to share with few interesting stories working on site. One afternoon, I got a call from the Head of Operations instructing me to quickly go on one of our client’s site and solve the end-user problem. According to him, she WAS seeing a water sign on her laptop screen which she did not remember drinking near her office desk or taking her laptop at home. I arrived on site, asked the user, ‘’Can you switch the laptop on so I can see what’s wrong’’. The laptop was powered on; this was what displayed with icons on the screen.
She was shocked when I explained what this was and how she changed her desktop background and she was convinced.
After a few months, on my way to office I got a call from another person saying ‘’Daniel, I am trying to print an urgent document and the printer is giving an error message. (Printer properties cannot be displayed, the print spooler service is not running) Please help me this is very urgent’’! I phoned my Head of Operations on this before going on. I tried uninstalling and reinstalling the printer’s driver but still could not work until I came up with the following.
These are the steps to follow:
1)    Hold the Start key and type R and hit Enter
2)    In the dialog box, type Services.msc click on it in the dialog box
3)    Find the Printer Spooler and double click on it in the dialog box

       4) You will see a Stop button. Stop the Service for while

5) The next step is very important. Go to the Recovery Tab and change the First and Second failure value to Restart the Service under Recovery Tab and type OK. Find the image below.
6) Make sure the Remote Procedure Call (RPC) shows in the Dependencies Tab then leave it until next step is complete.
7) Now start the Print Spooler Service again by doing this and click OK below.

Now RESTART your machine, and you are done.
Once again I like to say many thank the management (NATC) for the tireless efforts and supports given us (Staff) here. It takes a management to do so. Words are inadequate to say if I sit and write out. But your leadership ability is always remembered even if I leave NATC one day. Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year to come.

End of Year Blog Post

  By Jonathan Barwon

Hello to all, my name is Jonathan Dolo Barwon, Head Of IT at New Africa Technology Company. I am about to talk about one of my achievements in 2014 as Head of IT for NATC. We were able to implement many  networking projects for clients such as the Government of Liberia. I will talk about the challenges and how we were successful in implementing one of our projects at the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy.   
 The first part of the project entailed networking 2 computer labs and 3 office rooms. We also set up and installed an HP Server with Windows Server 2008R2 as the OS.
The floor plan on how to carry on the work or implement the project was given to us by the IT Department of the Ministry of Lands Mines and Energy. What was meant to be a 2-week project turned into a month-long one.
      I.         Lack of Planning and exchange of information from GOL
The building was a two floor building; we started working on the ground floor, we were at the end of the completion of the ground floor, when the Head of the Project for the Ministry came and said to us that the ground floor will not be used by the Ministry, so there was no need to network the ground floor. We have to disconnect and remove all cable and cables channels from the wall. This took us days to remove all of cables and cables channels from the wall. This was due to lack of planning and communication from the Project Head and the IT Department of the Ministry.

     II.         Lack of Power (Electricity)
The lacks of constant electricity at the Ministry was another challenge. Power was only supplied to us from 9:00 AM to 2:00P M and on some days there were no power at all. The reason was, there were shortages of fuel in the country according to the Ministry.
   III.         Working Hours
All of the Government Ministries in Liberia work from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM, but we needed more hours on site.
How did we complete the Project or achieve our Goal?
In the midst of all of these problems we were able to achieve our goal and objective of the project, by doing the following.

We sat with the Ministry's IT Department and Head of the Project and we redesigned the network Topology. 
NATC Technical team and the Ministry Technical Team were happy with the new Topology.
We also adjusted our time of power usage; all of our drilling was done from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM every day. With that system we did not have any problems with power.
Because of the power problem a battery backup was setup or installed by NATC to power on the server, switches and two points for 8 to 12 hours if power goes down.  As you can see everything was okay.

As for the working hour, in our meeting with the Ministry Team we requested that the Ministry be open to us for longer working hours.
After all of these steps and arrangements, things became easier for us.
One thing I learned from this work was that lack of planning can lose a lot of time. If you plan well your work can become very easy.
I hope you also learn something from here too.