Some lessons from Ghana

We’ve been in Ghana for seven weeks now, and plenty has happened since the last blog. I’ve been to a rainforest canopy walk, appeared on radio, written a speech for the UN, possibly created Accra’s first public transport map, and almost mastered eating a fish with my hands. I want to share four lessons that I’ve learnt over the past weeks:

Lesson 1: Be prepared

In the UK you can get away with not planning much for day to day life. There are public transport maps and apps, you can be pretty sure that power and water will be running when you need them, and if you need to buy something it’s not difficult to locate a shop that sells it. I’ve had to adapt a lot for Ghana. I’ve created my own rudimentary public transport map so that I don’t get Circle and Roundabout, or Tema and Tema Station confused as they’re yelled from a moving minibus. Visiting friends is timed around who has a power cut that day, and you take every possible opportunity to charge phones, laptops, etc. before the power goes again. Internet is problematic too, and I write this with a wireless dongle balanced on my head, both because I get slightly better signal and because it amuses me. It’s not quite effective enough to allow me to add pictures yet, so until I find a taller friend or a better wifi connection photos will have to wait. Finally, it’s harder to get anything, official addresses include instructions such as ‘near Shell garage’, and ‘69’ (a billboard which is not to be confused with the Achimota 69 area). So you set aside more time to do anything; and if you’re lucky, while you’re waiting at the traffic lights someone might sell you that table you’ve been looking for all year.

Lesson 2: If you’re not prepared, learn

The ICS Entrepreneur Programme uses volunteers who specialise in accounting, marketing, or business operations. I am a history graduate. While I’ve done tax work and marketed individual events I’m definitely not a specialist in any of those areas. To get everything completed I’ve had to learn to use Microsoft Access, which I enjoy in a geeky way, and to stop people as they leave a shop and ask them to fill in a survey. I’ve found that I can stop shoppers quite effectively, especially in narrow shops, but I’m not so good at the survey side as so many people struggle to understand my accent, which is where I usually have to hand over a Ghanaian colleague.

Lesson 3: Explore

It’s tempting after a day at work to just go home and chill out, especially as it can take over an hour and at least two vehicles to visit anyone else from the group. Fortunately a sense of adventure (and the national electricity company) have stopped me from having too many nights in. I’ve discovered the local beach hotel, where I can go to the gym, or enjoy a beer while the beach pigs waddle into the sunset. I’ve met someone who organises Rastafarian street parties, had a beer with the contractor building the airports’ new fuel supply, and corrected many taxi drivers who wrongly believe that Chelsea are the greatest football team in England. I’ve visited lots of parts of the city where people will call out “Obroni” because a white man is so unusual in the area, and seen parts that are completely different to the developed centre of the city. I’ve even experienced the fifth dimension at Osu Mall’s unique cinema, but I’m afraid it’s impossible to describe using these clumsy two dimensional letters.

We’ve also been on a team trip to the rainforest, where we went on an amazing canopy walk along narrow rope bridges, and visited Cape Coast Castle, which was an important reminder that the West’s past in Ghana is far from perfect. As much as you hear, it’s still shocking when you actually see the dark, cramped conditions that slaves were kept in, hear how they were treated, and see the door of no return that so many people left from, never to see their home again.

Lesson 4: If all else fails, sound convincing

One of the greatest skills that I’ve needed to master here is sounding convincing. You end up out of your depth far more than at home, but you’re far more likely to get a good taxi price, or arrange a meeting to assess another company when you’re confident about it. It’s very easy to say that things are beyond your comfort zone, but when it’s realistic it’s better to push yourself and learn the skills on the way. It’s got me through so far, from using public transport here, to writing a speech about African agricultural industries that my boss delivered at the UN this week. Sometimes though, this scheme can push that to an extreme.

You might have guessed from the infrequency of this blog and the lack of photos that I’m not really into social media. I was of the same opinion, but turns out though that I am in fact known internationally for my social media marketing expertise.

I went as a guest to a social media marketing event run by the Africa Business Network (ABN) as a guest to learn a bit more about it myself. We’d met the CEO of ABN, IK Adusei, as part of our training, and he began the session and showed a video on marketing techniques. He then leant over to the front row where we were sitting and asked myself and Will to come to the front, before announcing us as the guest speakers and entrepreneurs. So suddenly we were facing a room of around 60 expectant students, ready to grill us on the nuances of how to hastag #correctly.

Incredibly we came out of the experience still sounding convincing, thanks largely to our fellow panellist, who has set up a new photo sharing site called Suba, and the old trick of turning questions back onto the audience, “why would you follow a social media account that didn’t belong to a friend?”, which doubled up as a useful bit of market research! We were then invited to have our photos taken with the team who came up with the winning idea, and the organising committee, and individually almost everyone who attended the event. We were also interviewed for radio on the challenges that businesses face in Ghana, and how farmers could improve their farming techniques to produce more consistent oranges; the last question was a step too far, even for such internationally renowned entrepreneurs.

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