Just after immigration control at Accra airport, a large government sign advises paedophiles and sexual deviants to take their business elsewhere. Outside, travellers are seated or queuing quietly. Downtown Accra snoozes after hyperactive Lagos: two-storey buildings, no skyscrapers and far fewer people on the streets. Ghana – with a 25 million population – is one of the most stable democratic countries in Africa: but its huge potential remains unrealised. Now that it has discovered oil, will it assume some Nigerian swagger?
There is as yet no confirmation that President John Atta Mills will receive us. A former head of the Internal Revenue Service, Mills was chosen in 1996 as an improbable running mate by Ghana’s strongman Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, the charismatic coup plotter, army ruler and elected president. I want to interview Rawlings about how he stage-managed the transition to democracy. But he is holed up in his country house near the Volta river and unavailable.
We drive 30km to the hilltop retreat of Herman Chinery-Hesse, a technology entrepreneur, real estate developer and mentor to young Ghanaian businessmen. Herman, a big warm man with an intensely inquiring mind, comes from a distinguished Ghanaian family whose mother and father worked for the UN and World Bank. As an unruly adolescent, he was dispatched to Austin, Texas, to attend high school and college. “It was the first time I had experienced racism,” he says. He returned home, battle-hardened. His success as a software entrepreneur highlights how oil- and gas-rich Ghana – which grew 13 per cent last year – has become one of the new frontiers in emerging markets. Over beer and snacks, his guests, many of them aspiring businessmen, tell their tales.
David Baldwin Barnes and Chris Washington, both 29, grew up in Berrien Springs, a two-traffic-light town in the south-west corner of Michigan. Barnes is of Haitian-Jamaican stock, one of four children; Washington grew up the youngest of eight. Boyhood friends, their first venture was selling sweets at high school until the authorities shut them down (teachers complained the kids were too high on sugar). After several business failures – interspersed by a stint by Barnes as press secretary for the House Foreign Affairs committee in Washington, DC – they have come to Ghana to make their fortune.
Their chosen venture is aquaponics – growing fruit and vegetables in water troughs fed with nutrients from fish. New agers and some scientists believe aquaponics is an environmentally sound alternative to fertilisers. Barnes and Washington reckon they can make serious money in Ghana’s underdeveloped food industry, growing basil, cantaloupes, dill, lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes and lots more. “Back home, we could not even get the CEO’s secretary’s phone number, let alone the CEO’s. Here you get straight through to the CEO, no problem.”
Washington could easily be taken for a Ghanaian until he opens his mouth. “They call me a white black,” he laughs. Barnes says his family can trace their lineage back to the slaves from Ghana. In a sense, he feels he’s coming home. “When I went back to DC, my friends said I was crazy: I could be a speechwriter to Obama. No way. I’m doing what I wanna do.”
To Elmina Castle on Ghana’s Gold Coast, where the slave trade flourished for more than two centuries, first under the Portuguese and then the Dutch. Kwame, our guide, describes the suffering of the tens of thousands of men and women slaves who died in the castle’s cells. Slaves who rebelled were left to starve in a dungeon marked by a skull. Women who refused to have sex with the Dutch governor were chained to eight cannonballs in the sun until they relented. “We tell this story of the slave trade not to cast blame but to make sure this can never happen again.”
Lionel Barber is editor of the FT. Next instalment: Volta River, Ghana
Read a Q&A on the future of west Africa with Lionel Barber