Frontlines Online Edition

Ghana From The Tree Tops

Kakum Rope Walk. Credit: Kelly Ramundo
In 1995, with support from USAID, Ghana opened a first-of-its kind attraction for Africa-- a canopy ropewalk at Kakum National Park that offers visitors a bird's eye view of the forest. FrontLines editor Kelly Ramundo travelled to Kakum in May of 2013 to document the nexus between tourism, food security and the country's recent economic transformation.

Narrator: This is a podcast by the U.S. Agency for International Development. I’m Kelly Ramundo.

Narrator: When you think of Ghana as a tourist destination, perhaps what first comes to mind are the forts and castles that line the West African country’s former “slave coast.” These were the exit points for millions of Africans forced across the Atlantic by the European powers from the 1400s until the early 19th Century when the slave trade was finally abolished.

Two of those slave castles, at Cape Coast and Elmina, were declared UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1972. These sites have long held special historical meaning for the African American diaspora. For some, traveling to Ghana for what is known as “roots tourism” is a rite of passage.

But by the 1990s, Ghana also started to expand its tourist offerings, investing in attractions that feature the country’s rich natural bounty - beaches, rainforests, and a bird-watchers’ paradise.

In 1991, 135 square miles of rainforest were officially protected as Kakum National Park, around 20 miles to the north of Cape Coast Castle.

Four years later, with support from USAID, Ghana opened a first-of-its kind attraction for Africa-- a canopy ropewalk that took visitors a hundred feet off the ground offering spectacular views of the forest.

Today, Kakum is one of 22 critical biodiversity hotspots worldwide, and it is one of Ghana’s most famous attractions drawing visitors from around the world. 

I visited the canopy ropewalk in May of 2013. I’m about to venture out on the canopy, which is a series of wood foot planks with mesh rope walls, broken up by seven platforms built high around tree trunks. A group of excited schoolchildren has just gone up the canopy walk ahead of me.

Agnes Ampon: You have to walk a little fast...When you walk slow…no no no no...

Narrator: So right now a bunch of kids are going across the canopy. The canopy is shaking, they’re stopping. So a guard is going after them, telling them to walk a little bit faster.

Nana Enseign is my guide, and he says that people can react to the ropewalk in wildly different ways. Some people are terrified when they see how high up they are and the rangers have to be prepared for that.

So we are out on the platform, it’s a little bit wobbly. And we are currently 28 meters from the ground.

What you hear there is the kids going a little bit crazy. All right we’ve reached our first platform.

Narrator: Today the park is teeming with tourists. In 2010, 180,000 visitors made their way to Kakum National Park. The numbers have grown dramatically from the early 1990s when the visitor list was in the tens of thousands and the park lacked basic infrastructure.

Ampon: If you know you are afraid of heights, don’t look down…

Narrator:  One park guide Agnes Ampon has been working in Kakum for 13 years. She’s a member of the local community that used to rely on the park for a living, hunting the wildlife, and chopping down the timber. She says great efforts were made to convince the community to preserve the park. Now, she says, the locals are on board and many are employed here.

Agnes: Oh yes, the communities around are involved for the protection of the park. I am one with the community.

Narrator: USAID has played a large role in this long-running education and anti-poaching campaign. Part of its success has been helping locals find new sources of income, as tour guides, as artisans, as beekeepers, or working in the park’s restaurants and shops.

Narrator: We are coming up on the second platform. So do you actually see any wildlife? Do you see any wildlife from up here or are they all hiding from the kids? It gets a little bit narrow.

Nana: They are hiding; the monkeys come out though.

Narrator; I didn’t see any monkeys while I was there-- most likely they were scared off by the roar of school children -- but Kakum is home to about 40 species of mammals, including elephants and seven species of primates.

If you want proof that they do exists, Agnes says just ask the farmers. She says that the community still has trouble with rogue elephants that stray from the park’s boundaries and gobble up the local farmers’ crops, including her own family’s.

Agnes: And my father’s land is near to the forest, and because of that we sell it. Anything they do they will come and destroy it, they eat it.

Narrator: It would be better, Agnes says, if the community could be compensated for that.

Narrator: On the way out, I run into a group of excited group of kids.

How was it? Was it fun?

Students: Yeah! Good!

Narrator: Another visitor, 27 year old Ben, says it’s his first time in the park. I ask him what this attraction means for Ghana.

Ben: Oh, it’s a tourist attraction for everyone. You have experience on how our rainforest is like.

Narrator: And did they teach you about the conservation and why it’s important?

Ben: Yes.

Narrator: Do you think something like this is important?

Ben: Yes. It’s important because we foreign aid from it, like  money and revenue from it to have the country.

Narrator: Thank you, have fun! Thank you.

This conservationist and tourist-minded attitude among Ghanaian youth impresses Fenton Sands, who was head of USAID’s economic growth office in Ghana from 1997 to 2002. He says that starting in the 1990s, USAID worked to get local communities to understand the significance of their cultural and ecological heritage -- including the importance of preserving wildlife habitats and areas that were historically important to the slave trade.

Sands: And what we did was working with the Ministry of Tourism was to go into these areas and try to get the local to people to appreciate and understand the significance of what they had.  And it meant locating these places, going to those areas and trying to get people to understand that if you wanted to make it into a tourism site, this is what you would have to do: and trying to make sure its indigenous, its authentic…

Narrator: And while tourism has grown in Kakum, Sands says it was actually only a small part of what USAID was trying to do in Ghana in the early 1990s.

Sands: The relationship that started the spark in tourism was relating to the fact that we were also pushing non-traditional exports of say horticultural crops. And that was trying to get Ghanaians to meet world standards of exports peppers, melons, pineapples, for example.

Narrator: Sands says that with the rise in tourism, there was increased domestic and regional demand for these types of new crops, especially in the hotels.  And this pushed Ghana’s agricultural boundaries.

Today, as back then, agriculture is the backbone of the Ghanaian economy.  And Sands is back in Ghana working on Feed the Future, the U.S. Government's flagship food security initiative. He says Ghana is a much different place from when he arrived in 1997. Today Ghana is largely food secure, meaning it can provide enough food for its population and more for the region. This is why the country is so important to USAID’s larger efforts to bring food security to millions of West Africans.

Sands: It’s a stability force in the fact that this country is not seen to be one that is  likely to become food deficit: it can provide food for the region and that’s a big shift. Ghana was not viewed like that before.

Narrator: Though Ghana is still a poor country by most standards, Sands notes clear signs of progress, though some of them are bittersweet.

Sands: On a personal level, just to shows you how things have changed in a different sense that is annoying, is that the traffic is terrible. It is horrible, to the point where it becomes an actual real factor in people lives. This is one of the costs you might say of becoming a lower middle-income country. The numbers of cars has gone up dramatically, the infrastructure has not adjusted….

Narrator: Another visitor at Kakum National Park has noticed the changes, though she is decidedly upbeat.

Rita Norman: My name is Rita Norman, and I’m with an organization called ROPE for Girls, which stands for Rites of Passages program, and we’re here to have a rite of passage here in the Cape Coast area this this week.

Narrator: Norman is on the trip with seven high school girls from Dallas, Texas, including her daughter. She is taking them to places of special historical significance to the African slave trade, teaching them about their roots. No stranger to Ghana, Norman says that this is her fifth time in the country since 2009.

Norman:  And I can see the improvements just since 2011, which is when I came before. Every place that we’ve stopped, I’ve seen improvement, even in the painting the buildings and adding artwork along the sides of the buildings. It’s a BIG difference, it’s a big difference.

Narrator: Ghana still has far to go before becoming a mainstream tourist destination. It will need better roads, more well-developed sites and more investment from the government. But for those that have been around to see it, the progress of the past two decades is substantial. In 2012 the Word Economic Forum estimated Ghana’s tourism sector to be worth over 2 billion dollars, making up around 5 percent of the country’s GDP. And judging by the activity at Kakum National Park on a weekday in May, tourism will be a healthy part of Ghana’s future.

I’m Kelly Ramundo reporting from USAID.



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Last updated: October 13, 2017