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23.04.2005 General News

Talk is profitable in Ghana

By Peter Day for BBC

In the West, the mobile phone is often thought of as a luxury or the latest gadget, but as Peter Day has been finding out in Accra, Ghana, the device has been providing new opportunities to transform lives.

What we want, said my boss, is good news out of Africa.

So I went to Ghana to find some.

This is the same Ghana where the economy has actually shrunk for much of the past two decades, like so many other places in what the diplomats call sub-Saharan Africa.

The Ghana where 30% of the population still live on or below the poverty line.

So where is this good news in Ghana?

Well, in the capital, Accra, you see something of it everywhere you go.

There by the side of the road is a battered desk with a mobile phone sitting on it, an umbrella to ward off the beating sun, and underneath a crudely painted sign saying "Space to Space", 2,000 cedis. The cedi is the much-devalued Ghanaian currency and 2,000 cedis is about 25p or 50 US cents.

There are said to be 25,000 of these new entrepreneurs in Ghana.

What they sell is phone calls at 2,000 cedis a minute on Ghana's rapidly expanding mobile phone system.

Minutes of call time to people who have not yet managed to scrape together the money to buy a phone for themselves.

And only 8% of the population have access to a phone.

Expenses are minimal for the phone-call entrepreneur.

Calls cost them under 1,000 cedis. They sell the time for double that.

Some "Space to Space" operators are said to be making more in one day than they used to earn in a month.

A new little industry has been created.

Awaiting competition

Two schoolgirls I talked to were running the side-of-the-road business for their big sisters.

The profits help to pay their way through school.

Even in Africa something tremendous is happening to the telephone.

Ghana was the first African country to deregulate, and partly privatise, its phone system 12 years ago.

The intended competition in fixed line phones has yet to arrive, but instead something like a miracle has happened in the air.

Five mobile phone companies have connected Ghanaians to themselves and to the world.

The Telecoms Minister, Kan Dapaah, gave me the extraordinary figures.

After four decades of post-colonialism, still only 400,000 people had got telephone lines by the year 2000.

Thanks to the mobile, that doubled in 2001, and in 2004, one million mobile phone users were added in a single year.

The same helter-skelter take-up is expected this year, too.

'Human right'

The mobile phone is much more than a pampered person's plaything in Africa.

I would say, and in Ghana I found plenty of people who agreed, that what is happening is a profound advance in human behaviour.

Countries do not have to be rich to benefit from mobile phones. In fact you might say that this is a technology designed for poor countries.

You might also say, if you pushed it, that mobile phone access is fast becoming a basic human right, like clean water and access to affordable healthcare, two other things which many Ghanaians do not yet have.

The familiar mobile phone is rapidly morphing from being a mere communications provider to being a vital extra-sensory device with which a user can browse the internet, capture ideas, send pictures, write books and reports and think. Outsourcing The Ghana government is putting great emphasis on information technology as an agent of growth.

Tentatively, US companies are starting to outsource their basic data processing work to Ghana.

Some 1,600 people in Accra work day and night transferring US health insurance information from filled-in forms to computerised databases.

New York parking tickets have been coming all the way to Ghana for processing too.

This is of course low-grade work. But Ghana's entrepreneurs have their eyes on the sort of call centre work currently being done in India.

They can do it, they claim, for half the Indian price, if US and maybe European companies will entrust their business to Africa.

Coming home

On a sweltering Sunday evening I drove up into the hills above Accra.

It is a little like Tuscany.

Up a rough red road there is a weekend retreat where a software entrepreneur called Herman Chinnery Hesse introduced me to seven of his friends.

They gather there in the bush most Sundays to drink beer and chat.

What was remarkable about the group was that they were all Ghanaians in their 30s and 40s educated at top places in Europe and America who had now made the decision to come home because of the business opportunities Ghana is offering, and the way of life.

Lawyers and computer people - and an English Literature graduate now chasing affordable housing as part of his new job as a real estate broker in Accra.

Ghana was where they wanted to work.

When a country's brightest emigrants start to come home, it marks a very important turning point.

The Roman scientist Pliny the Elder wrote 2,000 years ago that there was always something new out of Africa.

Well, there is now. And it is going to change their world and ours.

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