A recent two-week visit to Ghana, Africa, offered up scenes that seemed frozen in time. Most of the buildings and infrastructure date back to the 1950s, before seven military coups over a period of 30 years made investment impossible. Open sewers remain the norm, modern paved roads, the exception. The use of English as the official language traces back to the colonial period, but an intricate system of village chiefs controlling local government and ownership of land had its genesis in the period before the arrival of European powers circa 1500. Yet Ghana, like a number of other countries in Africa, has one of the highest mobile phone growth rates on Earth.
The success of mobile phone companies in the country — Ghanaians have access to essentially the same devices, features and pricing as people in Europe or the U.S. — illustrates the opportunity a stable Africa presents for the larger infotech and communication industries. After all, the roughly 840 million people distributed across the continent’s 53 countries represent some 12 percent of the world’s population, and its cash economy leaves it relatively untouched by the credit market turmoil in the developed world. Moreover, Africa’s successful transition to a knowledge economy could make it a sustainable economic engine for the entire planet.
Some are already looking to capitalize on such an opportunity. Vodafone, for example, acquired the state-owned telco incumbent Ghana Telecom for $900 million back in August in a deal that includes the promise of $500 million worth of investments into Ghana’s fiber infrastructure.
Vodafone’s buy bring the number of mobile phone companies in Ghana to six. In the meantime, broadband penetration remains less than 2 percent, but competing fiber builds connecting the country’s cell towers mean cheap and ubiquitous wireless broadband is on its way.
Indeed, enterprising Ghanians already talk about the country’s potential to become Africa’s “Silicon Valley.” While any direct economic comparisons could only be made with the California from the mid-1800s, the rapid spread of mobile phone technologies suggests it won’t take 150 years for Ghana to catch up. And the rest of Africa may not be far behind.