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Last Updated: Friday, 11 March, 2005, 18:05 GMT
Ghana: Former 'beacon of hope' makes strides
Ahead of the Commission for Africa's report on stimulating development, the BBC's Mike Wooldridge went to see how Ghana, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to gain independence, is faring.

In a room above an internet centre in Accra, a radio presenter is holding the ring between his two studio guests as they argue over issues of aid and trade and over the progress of Ghana's development.

Ghana market
Ghana: Seen as having potential to leave cycle of underachievement

Every minute or two, a phone caller chips into the debate. This is Vibe FM and its morning phone-in.

The discussion becomes steadily more passionate as the two-hour programme passes. The rich nations are castigated for the way they deal with Africa, as are Africans who share in exploitation.

But there is criticism of Ghana's own government too, over the state of the roads and erratic electricity and water supplies. Criticism or praise, the presenter challenges it all robustly.

Vigorous democracy

A few hours later I meet Ghana's President, John Kufuor, for an interview in his office in a building overlooking the sea known as The Castle. Slave trading was once conducted from this building.

A short distance away is an imposing monument commemorating Ghana becoming the first of the colonial territories in sub-Saharan Africa to gain its independence - the "winds of change" swept through here in 1957.

Ghana's President John Kufuor, re-elected in 2004
1957: Gained independence from Britain
1966: President Kwame Nkrumah deposed
1981: Flt-Lt Jerry Rawlings seizes power
1992: Rawlings voted president in multi-party poll
2000: Kufuor elected president

Ghana was not to remain a beacon of hope and potential prosperity for long.

Military rule and several economic difficulties saw to that.

But now Ghana has had four consecutive multi-party elections and the kind of debate over the airwaves I had witnessed at Vibe FM - and taking place elsewhere in the media - seems to be a symbol of the country's vigorous democracy today.

Mr Kufuor presents it that way. He says he recognises that democracy itself can be vulnerable if a government does not improve living conditions for its most vulnerable citizens, or if any section of society is left feeling excluded.

Though levels of income remain low for many today and unemployment is a serious issue, Ghana is widely seen as a country with the potential to break out of the cycle of underachievement that afflicts much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Successes and failures

Just under an hour's drive out of Accra on the road to Kumasi is the Blue Skies fruit company, set up to package fresh fruit and send it to supermarkets in Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

Children playing
Entrepreneurs want a level playing field

The site was bush seven years ago. Now, the company provides work for more than 800 people, calculates that it injects some $100,000 (60,000) a week into the economy of the local area and is responsible for 30% of Ghana's pineapple exports.

For the employees, there is no clocking on, everyone uses first names and 60% of the management are women.

The lowest pay is more than a teacher's - which doubtless also says something about teachers' wages.

But Blue Skies is operating in a specialist field and has had outside investment. I visited companies that are struggling to make their way in rather different business environments.

One is a hatchery that was doing good business supplying chicks to local farmers - that is until trade liberalisation saw imported frozen chickens come into Ghana from western Europe and elsewhere at prices below those the farmers can compete with.

Ghanaian firm
Local firms face tough competition

Empty shelves in the hatchery tell the story. A quarter of a million newly-hatched chicks have been destroyed in the past three months because they could not be sold. Workers have been laid off.

Ernest Bidiako started out trading on the streets. Now his company, Ernest Chemists, has a modern factory producing generic drugs at prices Ghanaians might be able to afford.

It has a range of 150 products and the ambition to export to other African countries and break into the European and American markets as well. But it is up against strong competition from countries like India, and operating at well below its potential capacity at present.

Acid test

Ghana's entrepreneurs are not so much against trade liberalisation as asking for a "level playing field".

Their president says it is demeaning for Africa to have to beg for aid and he wants to see trade and manufacturing industries driving Ghana's economy forward.

In Ghana, as in many other African countries, a test of the proposals from Tony Blair's Commission for Africa will be whether they help to create a new relationship between the poorest continent and the rest of the world.

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