ACCRA, Ghana (AP) — Coby Asmah is a success in a part of the world that is hardly ever equated with success. The design and printing business he launched from his dining room table 14 years ago now employs 54 people. He drives a new gold SUV, dresses as sharply as any Madison Avenue executive and vacations in the United States. And despite winning U.S. citizenship, he has chosen to stay in Ghana. Asmah belongs to an Africa all but unknown outside the continent — one of growth and business opportunity, with a tiny but rapidly spreading middle class.
Fifty years after Ghana became the first African country to gain independence, Africa’s economies are expanding by 5.4 percent a year — compared to a world average of 4.2 percent — and are projected to hit almost 7 percent next year. Investments are up. Banking firm Merrill Lynch & Co. concluded that Africa now offers investors as much potential as Russia.
These signs of economic hope come as the world is increasingly aware of its broader stake in Africa. Rich countries fear any disruption in the flow of resources out of Africa, which now rivals the Middle East in the quantity of oil it sends to the United States. Terrorism has revealed the danger of failed states, and hundreds of thousands of African immigrants flee to America, Europe and the Middle East every year.
The picture across the 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa is still very much a patchwork. But a yearlong exploration by The Associated Press shows that progress — while fragile — is finding a foothold, in spheres ranging from democracy to education. Perhaps most strikingly, after few results from five decades of advice and $568 billion in aid, today’s developments in business, education, government and other areas are being led by Africans themselves.
There is a new sense among many Africans that it is up to them to rethink their continent and challenge the West to do the same. The change shows up all over — in newspaper editorials, in a regional partnership for African leadership, in the revamping of the African Union, in a newly aggressive stance for fairer terms in agricultural trade, and in the confidence of entrepreneurs like Asmah.
“The change of thinking has been coming from Africa,” says economist George Ayittey, a Ghanaian teaching at American University in Washington, D.C. “Civil society in Africa is becoming more and more empowered and emboldened, and they are driving the agenda.”
Signs of prosperity are everywhere in this country of about 23 million people on the west coast of Africa. New roads are choked with cars, construction cranes dominate the skyline, and shops brim with televisions, air conditioners and luxury goods. Real estate prices in the capital, Accra, rival those of an average American city, with a four-bedroom home in a nice area selling for over $500,000.
Asmah’s office and printing press are located in a middle-class neighborhood of older homes converted for business. Asmah, 42, was an artist in the Ministry of Education in 1993 when he first started selling graphic designs to friends. Soon he was ready to give up the secure government job, which for most of Africa’s history was the hallmark of success.
He launched Type Company with money borrowed from family and friends. Business grew rapidly — almost too rapidly. Type Company had to outsource printing to others in Ghana, and the quality fell. So Asmah bought a state-of-the-art, custom-made printing press and other equipment from Germany for more than $1 million. He diversified into security printing for banks, colorful packaging for local products and annual reports for dozens of businesses, which, like his, are homegrown and growing.
“Once you have a solution to someone else’s problem, you have a business,” says Asmah, whose polished appearance and calm demeanor project the image he wants for his high-end designs, despite a cluttered office full of computers and printers. “There is a lot of opportunity, because here, there is not a lot that is done right.” Things not done right trip up businesses like his. It took five years to persuade a bank to help him lease $10,000 worth of equipment. Financing in Africa is hard to get, with high interest rates and stringent requirements. Government tariffs on paper and ink also drive up his costs, and he can’t compete with preprinted imports because they are not taxed.
But Asmah says the odds of success in Africa are greater than anywhere else, including America. Asmah is part of what economist Ayittey calls Africa’s “cheetah generation” — young entrepreneurs who are fast, smart, adaptable and ready to tackle Africa’s problems. Eventually — and it will take time — he predicts the cheetahs could overtake the bureaucrats and dictators who blame Africa’s problems on colonialism and don’t address them.
It is already happening in Ghana. Democracy is strong, and the economy is growing by 6 percent a year. The World Bank recently praised Ghana as one of the leading business reformers in the world. Ghana’s debt is down by more than two-thirds from its peak of $6 billion in 2001, and inflation is under control.