Ghana: The New Brazil?

It has been an inspiring week in Ghana for the Learning {RE}imagined team. It would be hard to find a more welcoming place to begin our learning journey where there is a real sense of a bright and prosperous future ahead with education & lifelong learning positioned at the centre of people’s lives.

JamestownOur first, impromptu, visit was to a community school in Jamestown. The school sits on the beach nestled between the hustle and bustle of a busy fishing area where grand wooden boats designed and carved by hand await to be launched for an evenings fishing before returning to unload their catch for the family and local traders to take to market. It must be said that there is probably nothing tastier than a freshly caught tilapia or even local lobster grilled and seasoned with local spices and served with banku. 


The school is funded by the community and characterised by its close proximity to the principle industry of the area. The boats leave in the evening and catch their harvest with locally made nets. There is an embedded understanding for the need to manage the environment and ensure that the fishing activity remains sustainable for today and generations ahead. It was thought provoking watching how the boats were constructed from large blocks of locally produced wood, carved and then painted ready for the sea. Here is a genuine example of what Dame Ellen MacArthur calls the “circular economy” where everything is designed around sustainability and natural recycling. That a school is situated within this activity is very telling and one can only hope that in its quest for modernity that Ghana doesn’t lose this vital sensibility.


Our second visit was to a school in Adeiso in the Eastern Region, a 2 hour drive from Accra in glorious countryside, to experience the work of Worldreader in action. We arrived early to meet children arriving for school. Out of term time the school operates vacation classes and even during the schools holiday period students and teachers alike are keen and eager to attend.


At first sight the school looks like a typical rural building with 1950’s style school desks and chairs reminding me of my own primary school growing up in England. Situated within the village, overlooking a communal play area, the classes are bright and airy to let in the Atlantic breeze.


The mission of Worldreader is to provide children and families in Ghana (and now other African nations) access to books which it achieves by providing them with e-readers in the form of Kindles or their new mobile app that works with regular feature phones rather than smart phones. While the debate in England about whether children should be using such devices in class continues, here in this rural town in Ghana they are already embedded within the learning and teaching practice.


Adeiso SchoolGiven that access to the Internet here is both scarce and expensive the choice of standalone Kindle devices makes a great deal of sense and their mobile app holds books in the cloud downloading them chapter by chapter for just a few cents. The appetite for reading is voracious. 


Colin McElwee, co-founder of Worldreader, tells me that whilst it would be possible, subject to device cost, to provide full blown connected Android tablets, starting with e-readers meant that there was a low skills threshold to introducing digital technologies within the school and wider community. Rather than attempting to immediately disrupt teaching practice or obstruct the project with extended CPD and infrastructure this was a good place to begin. Colin refutes that these devices are a trojan horse but never-the-less does see the future potential to introduce new features such as web-browsing, communications and creativity tools that will allow children to publish their own work. Already Worldreader is providing a viable publishing platform for African authors to reach African readers as well as access to the global market. The key issue here was to have a starting point with access to knowledge where few people or homes own a printed book. Teachers already have a framework in which to practice but are liberated knowing that every child has a device that they bring to school and take home to share with their family.


Our third visit was to Mobile Web Ghana (MWG), a non-profit organisation started originally with support from Tim Berners-Lee’s Web Foundation and lead by Florence Toffa to stimulate local creativity and entrepreneurship within the digital world for Ghanaians. We arrive to find a team of students from South Korea mentoring local students and adult learners in mobile app and web development. The Korean students are supported in this mission by the South Korean government as part of a cultural exchange and knowledge transfer programme and it is clear that they are enjoying the experience here as much as the Ghanaian students who are learning from them.


Florence ToffaI am reminded of a time 25 years ago when I was working with Lucky Goldstar (now LG) in Seoul which, believe it or not, did not look dissimilar to the building that I am in Accra. The rapid development of Seoul, now eclipsing Tokyo, is perhaps an exciting vision for what, with the right stimulus, could happen in Accra. MWG is one of a number of exciting incubator and tech hubs here whose objective is to establish the conditions for transformation of the economy and make a serious impact within the digital economy to enable local businesses to promote themselves locally and internationally whilst also producing digital content for export. Given that the work of organisations like Worldreader will ultimately provide a generation that is digitally agile one can justifiably have high hopes for the Ghana’s future where it is a creator of digital resources rather than simply a consumer.


We complete our time here with a visit to the Villagio district which, opposite the modern shopping mall complete with designer goods and an Apple Store, offers a glimpse of what Accra may look like in the near future. 21st century architecture that feels comfortable within the environment of the city rather than something that feels out of place. Here we were treated to a meal in a Japanese restaurant which was every bit as good as those I frequent in London lending an international cosmopolitan feel to the area suggesting that Ghana is open for international business and not just for those here to take the oil.


I’m left wondering about the future of this beautiful country and whether it can reach for modernity whilst maintaining its unique culture and way of life. It’s easy to imagine how Accra could develop from the centre out but would this, like Brazil, mean that the surrounding areas become favela districts with the locals looking in or will it provide the engine that provides opportunity for all?


Historically Ghana’s trade with the rest of the world hasn’t always been positive. Rich in immense natural resources from gold to cocoa and oil it has been colonised many times which has meant that the people have not necessarily seen the full benefit. Perhaps with its investment in people it can create a resource that can establish sustainable wealth that is  not so easy to take away.


Thank you Ghana for making us so welcome – everything is sweet!