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Rise of the Ghanaian entrepreneurs

By Stephen Evans
BBC News, Accra

In one way, the British legacy in Accra is olfactory and aural. In other words, you can smell it and hear it.

Central Accra
A Ghanaian diaspora is now re-congregating, drawn by democracy, stability and profits

To walk around the Jamestown district, the maze of British colonial stone houses, is to be bombarded by a revolting smell.

These days, the former seat of British prosperity is a slum of open sewers, a latrine even.

It is left to the poorest, to fishermen, beaching their long wooden boats on sand you would not want to walk on. With the eyes, the historic setting by the glinting sea is picturesque. With the nose, it is downright unpleasant.

With the ears, though, throughout Accra you recognise a much more benign British legacy. I went to meet everybody who is anybody in Ghanaian business, and I repeatedly heard British accents.

The diction of these leaders would resonate the moment they opened their mouths, and I would immediately ask bankers and internet entrepreneurs and makers of smartcards in which part of Britain they had lived.

They would show surprise and then disclose they had spent years and decades in Surrey or North London.

Business savvy

A Ghanaian diaspora is now re-congregating, drawn by democracy, stability and profits. They have confidence and the skills of the modern world, skills learned in Britain.

Brits might run Britain down, I thought. Ghanaians do not.

Map of Ghana showing the capital Accra

Take Estelle Akofio-Sowah, the managing director of BusyInternet where 1,000 ordinary Ghanaians surf the web every day.

The man I sat next to just gazed longingly at the iTunes website.

After talking to Estelle for maybe a minute, pondering her rolled "r's", I suddenly said: "So where did you get your Scottish accent?"

It turned out she learnt her skills in Edinburgh. Now, in Accra, she deals with everything from texting the market price of tomatoes to remote farmers, to the absence of running water at her offices.

She takes anguished calls from sad men in Europe who have sent money to beautiful women they thought they had fallen in love with on the internet, only to find it was a scam perpetrated from the BusyInternet web address.

Estelle has little sympathy.

She said she could do nothing to police the thousands of her customers, but she also wondered why the victims in Europe had been so naive.

Loyal links

Estelle Akofio-Sowah, with her Scottish burr, is savvy and brash.

Mostly, I met only affection for Britain among the returnees

Edward Effah, on the other hand, is a quietly-spoken banker, with a slight lisp to his cut-glass southern English accent.

He exudes prosperity in his crisp white shirt, silk tie and trendy spectacles.

He worked in the City of London for 14 years, before taking his sophisticated financial skills back home.

Now, his Ghanaian creation - Fidelity Bank - is introducing the cash machine to parts of Ghana's deeply rural and traditional economy.

Mostly, I met only affection for Britain among the returnees. Occasionally though, I did detect some resentment against those who had come back with smooth British accents.

The chairman of the Accra stock exchange, Frank Adu, who trained at the University of Ghana, said the problem with those who had learned their business skills in Britain was that thereafter they only ever wanted British goods.

According to Mr Adu, a hotel in Accra was not finished in time because the managers insisted on British fittings which had not then turned up.

Mr Adu, I have to say, is not wholly unimpressed by Britain. He is very proud of his Jaguar, which he finds speedier than a BMW.

Back-breaking work

Others too are ambivalent about the link to Britain.

A man works on cutting open cocoa pods
Ghana is the world's second-largest producer of cocoa

I went to the village of Adjecrum which depends on the back-breaking cultivation of cocoa for Cadbury's chocolate.

When I was there, Cadbury's top executive in Ghana paid respect to the elders in the shade around a courtyard.

He stood and offered a bottle of schnapps for the chief, apparently tradition dictates that whisky or brandy is not quite good enough, something of an insult even.

The 700 inhabitants of Adjecrum are grateful for a well that Cadbury has sunk. The British company is investing millions in similar projects across the country.

But the President of Ghana, John Kufuor, told me he was grateful, but it would be good, too, if Cadbury actually made chocolate in Ghana.

"We've been raw material suppliers for 100 years since Cadbury came to our shores," he said ruefully.

It struck me, though, that Britain's really useful gift to Ghana is much better than any chocolate factory.

It is the bright, enterprising Ghanaians who are returning to build their country, but who still gaze back warmly at that chilly, northern country that taught them so much.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 7 February, 2008 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Ghana's growing optimism
21 Nov 06 |  Business
Dealing with the brain drain
04 Mar 07 |  Special Reports
Country profile: Ghana
06 Feb 08 |  Country profiles

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