I had never before stood so close to an African king. Otumfuo Osei Tutu II - ruler of the four-million strong Ashanti tribe, the largest in Ghana - was an impressive sight, decked out in traditional royal "kente" cloth and gold adornments, and escorted by loyal subjects beneath a huge multi-coloured umbrella, as if to protect him from the searing African sun. Though, of course, we were in north London, and the sparse October sunshine that did creep through the clouds was anything but searing. The king was surrounded by a procession of drummers and trumpeters that lead him into one of the many large halls of Alexandra palace, where he was escorted through the excited crowds to a modest-looking throne, upon which he sat and delivered a stirring speech. He urged British businesses to forget about the negative images of Africa often created by the international media, and insisted that the continent was a good place in which to do business. It just needs investors to have a little belief. But, unfortunately, there were only a very few of us non-Ghanaians to witness the magnificent spectacle or hear the resounding speech. This was a real shame. All the major British news outlets had been there: the Telegraph, CNN, Sky TV. But they had all arrived at eleven o'clock. They should have known better. The Asantehene didn't turn up until just after four, by which time the less determined journalists had grown tired of waiting, packed up their stuff and left. Those of us that remained took refuge in the nearby Phoenix tavern, or else wandered aimlessly through the halls of the Alexandra Palace, demanding of the organisers and representatives of the Ghanaian embassy in London why the king hadn't yet turned up, and how much longer he was likely to be. No one seemed to know the answer. The king was only two hours late. He was supposed to arrive at two, and those journalists that thought he was turning up at eleven had been misinformed. But the king's lateness, on the very last day of the four-day event, for many signified the poor organisation of what was supposed to be the largest ever African trade fair in the UK. The whole of the Ghana Expo 2003, which opened on October 16 and culminated four days later with the Royal Grand Durbar, had not been put on for the benefit of other Ghanaians. Its real objective had been to showcase Ghana for British businesses and to advertise the country as a good place in which to invest money. It did go some way to putting Ghana on the European business map, but almost everyone connected with the event now agrees that it could have done a whole lot more. Spokesman for the event Tony Gearing accepts the criticism levelled at the Expo, but says that the organisers have learnt from their mistakes. "Yes, we are disappointed that we managed mainly to attract members of the Ghanaian community rather than British investors," he says. "But it is heartening to hear many of the exhibitors say that they would like to see a similar event held next year." Atlanta, Georgia in the USA is now being tipped as the next venue for showcasing Ghana's business potential. Privately, organisers say that they were disappointed with the level of interest shown in the event, and add that more energy should have gone into targeting larger business, rather than just the smaller enterprises. The Centre for British Industry (CBI) nor the Institute of Directors would have been obvious organisations to invite to the event, but neither were contacted. Very few things during the Expo actually took place when they were supposed to. One woman who helped to organise some of the seminars said that this was the African way of doing things. "Have you ever been to Ghana? If you go, then you will see why nothing can ever be properly planned. For example, if the rain comes, in Ghana we all stop work." This explanation didn't wash with everyone at the event. One veteran journalist, who had worked in Western Africa for years but was originally from England, said: "Yes, that's true, but there is a point at which excuses don't work any more. Nothing has run smoothly over the past few days." There were five hundred exhibitors at the Expo. About 350 of these flew over from Ghana specially for the event. The rest came from UK firms with business links to the former colony. Unofficial estimates say that the number of visitors that turned up at the event was in the low thousands. The event was held at the splendid Alexandra palace in north London, which first opened in 1873 as "The People's Palace" to provide Victorians with a recreation centre and conference venue amid magnificent parkland. Sixteen days after it was opened, it burnt down and had to be rebuilt, opening for the second and final time on May 1, 1875. The Alexandra Palace, with its many hallways and seminar rooms, is the ideal place to hold conferences and exhibitions. The surrounding Haringey suburb also houses a large Ghanaian community, which was no doubt part of the appeal for the organisers of the Ghana Expo 2003. It is perhaps unfair to say that the Expo was a complete failure. It did encourage a few potential UK investors to take an interest in Ghanaian businesses, and perhaps one or two profitable deals may yet emerge from this. But perhaps the most important thing that the event did was start the ball rolling. It set a precedent for future years, and showed Western investors that Africa is serious about the business potential of the continent. The organisers have learnt from this year's mistakes - next year, the event is sure to be a much grander affair, and encourage large investors to attend as well as the smaller ones. It may even encourage other African countries to launch similar initiatives. Ghana has made it clear that it doesn't want to be seen as a country that is splintering off from motherland Africa, but rather as a country that is heading the vanguard of African nations into the developed world.
The true benefits of this year's Expo are yet to be seen.