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Climbing Ghana's economic ladder

Innovative college in Accra helps aspiring middle class move on up.

A Ghanaian girl poses for a portrait at a tailor shop in the northern city of Tamale, Jan. 28, 2008. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

ACCRA, Ghana — Sulemana Mohammed was destined to become a maize farmer like his parents, battling floods and droughts to eke out a living. Graduating top of his class didn’t assure placement in the public university because his family couldn’t afford the fees.

His dream survived, however, because he had an alternative. The privately run Ashesi University College in Accra accepted him on scholarship and today the 26-year-old is an investment research analyst for Frontline Capital Advisors who pays his brother’s university fees.

“I’m climbing the ladder,” he said. “There are more opportunities now.”

The trend is reflected throughout sub-Saharan Africa, which despite corruption and political instability is making tremendous progress in expanding higher education opportunities, enabling more Africans to reach middle-class status.

Who is part of Africa’s middle class is not easily defined nor is it clear how many people make up this group that is key both economically and politically. A strict level of income is not sufficient to determine who is in the middle class. Education, career paths and aspirations are also important features that can add large numbers to the sector.

More on Africa's middle class:

Enrollment in higher education has tripled to 4 million across the subcontinent since 1990, out of a total population of 850 million, according to a World Bank report published in 2008. Private universities are a major factor, growing from two dozen to 468, while public institutions have doubled to 200 in that period, said the report.

The 30 private university colleges in Ghana today have been created in the past decade. Like elsewhere in Africa, a deregulation movement prompted their growth. Post-independence states, including Ghana, attached symbolic importance to things like public universities and national airlines. Shortly after independence in 1957, Ghana had three public universities and the country has seven today.

The universities and Ghana's middle class as a whole suffered when the economy collapsed in the late 1960s and the country went through a series of military coups.

“Nationalizing companies, setting price controls, that hurt a lot of people,” said Patrick Awuah, Ashesi’s founder and president. “The middle class took a beating back in those days, but it’s coming back.”

Awuah, a Ghanaian who earned a scholarship to Swarthmore College, left his engineering job at Microsoft Corp. to lay the groundwork for Ashesi. That was in the late 1990s, soon after Ghana liberalized its higher education framework, allowing private involvement.

Ashesi launched in 2002 and has grown to 350 students studying for degrees in business administration, computer science and management information systems. It recently began construction outside Accra for a $6.4-million campus that will allow the school to eventually accommodate 2,000 students.