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Opinions of Tuesday, 8 January 2002

Columnist: Press

Africa touts for hi-tech firms in development quest

By Kwaku Sakyi-Addo

Jazz music floats from a radio over the rattle of fingers at computer keyboards.

The operators process huge volumes of U.S. medical insurance documents every day, but their plush air-conditioned office in West Africa is a long way from the suburban Americans whose claims they handle.

The operation in Ghana's capital Accra is seen as a role model as the country once known as the Gold Coast tries to promote hi-tech development and reduce its dependence on minerals and farming.

"The data is carried by satellite to the Accra site, our staff process it and then we turn it around back to the States within three hours for validation and transmission to customers," said Sam Crabbe, the deputy manager for the Accra office of Lexington, Kentucky-based ACS-BPS.

More than 800 people work in a modern glass-walled block shaped like a pyramid, which stands out in this low-rise city.

The company is following the example of data entry operations in Senegal further round West Africa's Atlantic coast that have helped train a generation of information technology-literate workers.

Major computer vendors like IBM, Compaq and Apple have representative branches in Senegal, which experts say is a sign of success as well as future potential.

They also cite Senegal's computer penetration of 15 PCs per 1,000 people, according to World Bank figures -- almost twice the average for sub-Saharan Africa and well above Ghana's three.

Value-added service industries like data processing, they add, can boost economic activity and pave the way for growth.

African leaders searching for a way to kick-start their economies could do worse than look to India, whose explosion in technological expertise earned it a name as the Third World's "research superpower" with Bangalore as its own Silicon Valley.

QUEST FOR HI-TECH GROWTH

Ghana's President John Kufuor is planning to visit the real Silicon Valley in California to make a personal pitch for investment in his country.

His government is urging citizens to gain related skills -- starting at the top with computer courses for ministers.

Communications Minister Owusu Agyapong wants to push teleconferencing for government and regional ministers.

"Just consider the time, fuel and hotel bills that we would save," he said. "We see IT as an industry, but also as a new tool for making a leapfrog in development."

Kufuor's technology adviser Dr. Sam Somuah agrees.

"It's clear after exporting primary products for over 100 years that we need to make a major switch away from commodities whose prices are fickle, are dependent on the weather and destroy the environment," Somuah said.

"Our economy has been growing at an average of five percent per annum for eight years, but we need to double that in order to make any significant impact on the lives of our people."

The former British colony's main export commodities are cocoa -- it is the world's second biggest producer after neighbouring Ivory Coast -- and gold.

Somuah said he hoped to encourage IT companies to set up subsidiaries in Ghana, or even relocate there.

SKILLED LABOUR IN FORMER SLAVE TOWN

The Accra unit of ACS-BPS -- its full name Affiliated Computer Services Business Process Solutions is even more of a mouthful -- processes data for insurance groups Keystone Mercy and Aetna Inc, the biggest U.S. health insurer.

It hopes to get new business from United Parcel Service (UPS) and United Health Care, which would take its employee roll to over 1,000 within a few months.

"Within the next year or two, we'll open four more sites, and we're targeting Cape Coast," said Crabbe.

Cape Coast, west of Accra, is popular with tourists, especially African Americans, for its imposing colonial fort from where thousands of people were once shipped as slaves across the Atlantic.

Crabbe says the town is a perfect location because the district has about 10 well-established secondary and technical schools and a university, and he expects to have no shortage of able students willing to work part time for extra cash.

The 24-hour, seven-day a week Accra operation is rated as the most efficient among the six sites used by the parent company, which also has units in Mexico and Guatemala, he said.

"In fact, some sites in Mexico were closed down and their work routed to us here."

Bossman Dowuona-Hammond, the aptly named head of ACS-BPS in Ghana, said working conditions were good and the company's clients did not want a sweatshop environment, or image.

The workers, mostly women, sit in rows tapping away for eight hour shifts for an average of 4,225 cedis ($0.60) an hour -- well above Ghana's minimum daily wage of around $0.60 a day.

"Recently we hired a young woman who was secretary to a minister of state. She was earning 150,000 cedis ($21.40) a month," he said.

"The Americans will go wherever they can guarantee efficiency and quality of work, especially if it costs them less -- and we're delivering just that." ($=7,000 Ghanaian cedis)