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General News of Wednesday, 29 November 2000

Source: The Financial Times by Mark Turner

SURVEY - GHANA: Electronic business slow off the mark: E-COMMERCE

Cybercafes have mushroomed all over Accra, and the number of internet users has doubled over the past year to around 100,000. On the face of it, it has been a good year for the internet in Ghana, and operators say it will continue to grow at the same rate for the next two to three years.

"Every day we get new people coming to our door," says William Tevie, deputy head of Ghana's first internet company, NCS. "Next year the number of subscribers will double."

Nevertheless, the country still faces significant hurdles on its way to developing a thriving online economy. While demand for basic services appears to be high, the headier ambitions of the internet world have been dragged back by the general crisis in Ghana's economy - and its dreams of e-commerce and international online trading have been slow to bear fruit.

NCS's new online shopping mall, for example, has yet to move beyond a few inquiries. Neither, says Mr Tevie, have a number of clients' efforts to sell internationally over the web posted any significant successes.

At the same time Ghana's internet community is simply not yet large enough, and the economy too depressed, for electronic lift-off.

"The economy has taken a huge hit, and people are seeking cover," says Mike Quist, managing director of Africa Online in Ghana.

But that is not to say there has been no progress - the leading banks are starting to offer basic online services, and the country is moving towards the kind of payment systems that will be essential for electronic commerce.

Standard Chartered has introduced the Horizon Visa card, and SSB bank the Sika debit card - all-important first steps towards a less cash-driven and more credit-driven society. Mr Quist says Africa Online is even looking to issue its own debit card to facilitate easier online payments. Africa-wide, it recently agreed to team up with Barclays to develop the market.

He also sees a lot of potential as Ghana pursues its goal of becoming the business gateway for West Africa.

Africa Online has already introduced a tracking service into the Ghanaian post office, and as Accra develops its new-found position as a postal hub for the region, it hopes to expand that West Africa-wide, he says.

What is clear is that Ghana certainly has no shortage of ambition, or entrepreneurialism (Internet telephony blossomed until a crackdown by Ghana Telecom, and two local TV stations have begun e-broadcasting).

NCS was looking into the internet before many Europeans had heard of it, and its managing director now represents Africa for the allocation of domain names.

But given the severity of Ghana's current economic constraints, it may still be some time before the e-revolution takes hold.