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02.06.2002 Feature Article

Africa's best new chance

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Africa's best new chance
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By Nicholas Thompson, Globe Staff, 6/2/2002

ACCRA, Ghana - If it's lucky, this is what Africa's future will look like: rows of sharply dressed women pounding furiously at their keyboards and squinting at their computer screens.

That was the scene here at Affiliated Computer Services, a bustling American company in the center of the capital of the West African nation of Ghana, that Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Irish rock star Bono visited early in their two-week sojourn to Africa that ended Friday. It's not the normal portrait of Africa - a continent better known in the West for its giraffes - but it might be the look of the future as the continent steps tentatively into the information age.

Affiliated employees take the raw data from claims sent in to American health care companies such as Aetna and United Health Care, type the information into a database, and then zap it back via satellite to Affiliated's Kentucky headquarters. The company's Accra office started with 20 Ghanaian employees in the summer of 2000 and now numbers 850 workers, with plans for further expansion. That may not be a lot by American standards, but it's a near revolution here. Ghana's President John Kufuor has visited the company 10 times, and Affiliated is the talk of the town in a place with an average income below a dollar a day.

The operation is one of the first examples of this sort of outsourcing in Africa, and other businesses in Accra are scrambling to fill similar niches. One company types in handwritten street violations for the New York City Police Department, another writes software for Phoenix Insurance, and a third is trying to set up a call center for an American doctors' answering service company.

There's clearly room for growth: Outsourcing companies in India earned more than twice as much writing software for US industry last year as the total amount of annual US aid to Sub-Saharan Africa.

To be sure, the men and women at Affiliated aren't getting rich in what many people refer to as an ''electronic sweatshop,'' where work breaks are regimented and employees are paid by the keystroke, with deductions for errors.

Salaries range from $100 to $200 a month, which is high in a country where many people don't even earn the minimum wage of about 75 cents a day. Affiliated offices are air conditioned, and the jobs highly sought. ''This is a dream come true,'' said Bossman Dowuona-Hammond, the head of the Ghana office. ''Imagine what all of these people would be doing if they couldn't work here.''

O'Neill and Bono were nearly as ebullient as they toured the offices, with O'Neill asking pointed questions and Bono cracking jokes. O'Neill said that the work Affiliated is doing is ''equivalent to anything you can find in the world,'' while Bono said, ''These are the smartest, hardest workers you'll find around.'' Asked whether Affiliated exploited its workers, Bono said, ''As long as the government and the employees are exploiting the corporate world too, I think that's fine.''

O'Neill agrees, and for good reason.

Since becoming the first African nation to win independence, in 1957, Ghana had failed to attract foreign companies or generate many of its own. Its governments have ranged from weak to incompetent to predatory, and per-capita income has remained at the same level for 45 years.

Yet things are getting better. The foreign investment currently flowing in is a strong indicator of Ghana's improving fate. The country has remained politically stable for two decades and even had a peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in 2000, a rare event in Africa. Now many Ghanaians living, working, or studying abroad are coming back and starting companies, having stayed away while the often-brutal military leader Jerry Rawlings ruled the country for the past 20 years.

But even while they agree on Ghana's need for investment by foreign companies, O'Neill and Bono are ''far from being on the same page'' when it comes to US foreign aid, Bono said one morning while bargaining for peppers in a market as O'Neill interrogated textile makers about their production costs. Bono wants America to at least triple its foreign aid budget from its current level of about $11 billion annually in order to spend more on sanitation, clean water, and roads. O'Neill doesn't think such aid has worked well in the past and isn't particularly optimistic about its effect in the future.

''If we are going to have economic development in the world,'' he said in March, ''most of that will come from capital coming into those countries to create jobs. We are not going to do it with welfare.''

The pair decided to take the trip last year after Bono impressed O'Neill with his knowledge of Africa and work in an Ethiopian refugee camp. The result has been good for Africa, even if almost no one in Accra had heard of Bono or his U2 band. (The only people asking for his autograph were State Department staff members.)

In the end, there may be nothing better for the continent than showing that companies can do business here, where people speak English and are desperate for work.

Moreover, the country has fallen in love with technology: There are more than 200 Internet cafes in Accra, and people will soon be able to tap into a fiber-optic Internet connection with America. Most people just use the Internet to check their e-mail, but it's also possible to find cocoa traders, for example, using the Web to check prices and the weather conditions faced by their competitors in Sri Lanka. At the military hospital, every nurse and pharmacist has a high-speed connection that allows them to do research on the Net.

Despite this high-tech foothold, Ghana still has one huge disadvantage: It's in Africa, the continent that seems to trail the world in everything that people need (clean water and literacy, for example) while leading the world in the things that people fear (such as malaria and AIDS). And overall, Internet use is low. Although there are pockets of activity in Ghana, South Africa, and the more affluent northern countries such as Egypt, only about one in 250 Africans is online, compared with one in two Americans. There are more phone lines and Internet users in Tokyo than in all of Africa combined.

As Asian countries demonstrated in the last two decades, one nation's growth can be great for its neighbors: setting an example, creating an easy market for goods, and spurring competition. But Africa has never had a national economic leader, and its constant troubles have made it easy to box up and ignore.

Now, maybe Ghana can lead. At the very least, Affiliated is showing one company's potential impact. Edward Mahama, a leading gynecologist and former presidential candidate, says that he had a patient recently who demanded whatever treatment would get her back to work the quickest. Surprised, Mahama asked her where she worked and learned that she enters data for Affiliated. ''It's what I have always said. People should be paid for their productivity,'' Mahama said.

Kwame Pianim, one of Ghana's most respected economists and the CEO of Ghana's New World Investments, calls Affiliated's growth the most important economic event in his country because it shows how Africa can use new technology to create economic opportunity. ''We can use information technology and the Internet to leapfrog,'' Pianim says. ''But if the digital divide is added to all the other divides, then we are sunk. We are dead.''

Appropriately enough, Affiliated's offices are in a high-rise that towers over Accra. Everyone knows where it is, and it has a clear address: Premier Towers on Pension Road. That may not seem like much in America, but it's impressive for a country where, as Bono might sing, most of the streets literally have no names. This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 6/2/2002. © Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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