Ghana’s Growing Pains

By any factual account, Ghana is charging into the 21st century. But if you ask a Ghanaian, he or she will say “we have a long way to go and far too many problems.” This critical self-awareness from many Ghanaians is, itself, just one of many signs that the country knows its potential and is striving toward it.

I’m writing from the bustling neighborhood of Osu, nestled in the heart of Ghana’s capital city of Accra. At first glance, one might fixate on the battered assemblies of metal that haphazardly navigate the streets, or the blue-green sewage slime carrying bags and Coke cans out to sea. On the other hand, Osu’s Oxford Street is lined with electronics stores, mom & pop print shops, banks, internet cafés, and restaurants, all teeming with activity from 7am to the wee hours of the night. And most importantly, it is not the “obrunis” (white tourists) that fill this demand, it is Ghanaians.

The numbers are there to support what I’m seeing: according to IMF statistics, Ghana is the world’s fastest growing economy in 2011. The entire West Africa region, in fact, has tracked at around 5% average growth per year for the past decade. In a recent feature article of The Economist, the message is clear: this is not a short-lived burst, this is meaningful change.

However, as my Ghanaian colleagues keep pointing out, many challenges remain. I’ve been doing a deep-dive into the food processing industry in the country. There are countless producers of shea butter, edible oils, dried fruits, and many other food products (for a first glance, check out West Africa Trade Hub’s website). For the most part, these enterprises produce on a small scale, and have trouble expanding their operations. They cite three major obstacles:

1. Getting financing for capital investments
2. Finding high-quality packaging that can compete on the supermarket shelves
3. Government policies which affect industry development

Some mentioned other challenges, including finding well-trained, globally-minded staff, and meeting the stringent requirements of export markets.

However, if one thing has come through clearly during my research, it is that Ghanaians claim full responsibility for meeting these challenges. In the past Ghana, like many African countries, has been heavily dependent on foreign aid; today, as a staff member of a packaging company told me, “if we want to make this happen, if we want to build a successful industry at home, it is not up to America or Europe or Asia to do it. It is up to us.” This mentality is perhaps best reflected in Ghana’s educational achievements. For example, reforms in the 1980s established additional schools, science centers and teacher training colleges, yet there is still record enrollment every year; girls’ enrollment alone increased 8% from 1990 to 2000. It is this growing class of educated Ghanaians that will shape the country’s future.

What does all this mean? It means we owe Ghana and many of its neighbors a big congratulations, and a little more patience. Everyone has growing pains, and at around age 50, these West African nations are still in their youth.

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