For the second time in its history, Ghana has a northern leader. Does it bode well for this agricultural region where investment is strong but electrification slow to arrive?
The Harmattan blows a hot dusty wind early each year across the savannah of Ghana's Northern Region.
Rural communities there still live in compounds of mud huts. Few can afford zinc sheets for their roofs, and electrification has been slow to arrive.
Pylons line the football pitch of the primary school in the village of Gushie, but the headmaster says power has yet to be turned on.
They are holding out hope for the Bui Dam, under construction to the south-west, which is due to start providing energy for Ghana's three northern regions this year.
In Tamale, the provincial capital and Ghana's fourth-largest settlement, the tallest buildings are its mosques, each with a spindly minaret peeping above this sprawling university town of 371,000 people.
Behind the tarmacked thorough-fares is a maze of dusty side streets where worshippers kneel to pray at sunset next to hairdressers and small stalls selling vegetables and everyday wares.
Around 60 percent of the population of the Northern Region is Muslim.
Though many people in southern Ghana have never been – nor want to go – up north, there is little of the political and religious divide found in Nigeria.
Tamale is experiencing something of a renaissance.
A new football stadium built for the 2008 Africa Cup of Nations lies on the city's outskirts, as does a newly refurbished hospital due to be opened soon.
A large banner on the airport road showcases the design for a new international airport to be built by Brazilian company Queiroz Galvão. Most of Ghana's main banks already have offices there or are opening them.
LOW AVERAGE INCOME
Yet the city still remains the unofficial non-governmental organisation (NGO) capital of West Africa, with a host of development experts set on proffering their own model to solve the problem of the north's underdevelopment.
The most recent Ghana Living Standards Survey, conducted in 2008, put the mean annual per capita income of the Northern Region at ¢296 ($271), and even lower in the Upper East and Upper West regions, well behind the nationwide average of ¢397.
Expectations in Ghana's north are high after the December election of President John Dramani Mahama, who hails from the minority Gonja ethnic group of the Northern Region.
Mahama is Ghana's second northern president, the first being Hilla Limann (1979-1981). "It's a great victory for the north, the prospects are very bright," says Ibrahim Mahama, a veteran northern politician and former minister (not to be confused with the president's brother of the same name).
"I think during his period of government he's likely to bring a lot of development to this part of the country. People are expecting him to do wonders."
However, Mahama's National Democratic Congress (NDC) did not sweep the board in the north in the December 2012 elections.
Mustapha Sanah, chief executive of NGO Northern Ghana Aid (NOGAID), says while the region may have voted overwhelming for Mahama, many were fed up with the governing party's MPs.
The opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) won 10 seats in the Northern Region in 2012, compared to four in 2008. "Some people think MPs don't consult them enough," he explains.
Sanah also puts some of the blame on anger about the 2002 murder of the Dagbon king, Ya Na Yakubu Andani II, and 30 members of his entourage as a result of a feud between two rival families.
Sanah, who is the dead king's nephew, says some people are angry that nothing was done by the NDC government of President John Atta Mills to prosecute the perpetrators.
Imusah Issa, a farmer from the village of Duko, says his community is happy with Mahama's election, but they now want help from the government to subsidise inputs for farmers and improve the availability of tractors.
Around 20 farmers in the village, including Issa, are part of a farming cooperative called Masara N'Arziki (meaning maize for prosperity).
Wienco, which buys the maize, and Norwegian fertiliser company Yara helped to set it up in 2009.
For the 2012 season, Masara counted 8,000 farmers cultivating 12,000ha of maize.
It's been a productive year. "At the moment, we're still recovering our credit, but it's looking very good," says Luuc Smits, Masara's general manager.
The breadbasket of Ghana, the three northern regions are key production areas for crops such as rice, groundnuts and sorghum.
Cotton production, which had been in decline for decades, is also picking up, with the north the focus of the Cotton Sector Revival Strategy.
Both Wienco and Singaporean company Olam are investing in cotton production in the north.
Drawn by the agricultural potential, investment is already streaming into the region.
Indian firm Avnash is building a large rice mill in Tamale as part of its expansion plans.
It will be the only substantial processing capacity in the north outside of the Integrated Tamale Fruit Company (ITFC), a mango plantation and out-grower programme that began in 1999.
ITFC's manager Louis De Bruno Austin has watched waves of prospective investors come through, many visiting his site, which hosts a mango processing and drying factory.
He has little good news to tell them.
Mango growing there is a difficult business – if the flowers are late, the dusty Harmattan winds dry them out and the crop is poor.
Many of the out-growers are frustrated, and some are walking away.
ITFC's shareholders told the management that it must start making money by 2014.
There is cross-party agreement about the need for a concerted strategy to develop the north.
When Mahama was vice-president, his office was home to the newly created Savannah Accelerated Development Authority (SADA).
Born out of a ¢25m Northern Development Fund set up by the NPP government after severe floods in 2007, SADA was created by the NDC government in 2010 with seed capital of ¢200m, in addition to annual budgetary allocations that stood at ¢30m in 2012.
It is not enough, says Charles Jebuni, SADA's chief technical officer. "Over the next 10 years or so we're talking about ¢2bn," he says. This would be needed to pay for irrigation, roads and electrification.
WHAT IS SADA DOING?
So far, SADA's main focus has been the Agricultural Support Programme, which has contracted around 20 companies to provide inputs such as fertiliser and seed on credit to around 2,000 mango and 10,000 maize farmers.
SADA's target was to increase maize productivity to about 5tn/ha within three years, up from the national average of 1.9tn/ha.
But, Jebuni says, in 2012 alone it was able to increase productivity to 3.2tn-4.9tn/ha.
Although SADA's Jebuni says "we learn from each other and we cooperate with them", few of the large agricultural companies speak with much confidence about the authority.
"They have money, but they don't know what to do with it," says ITFC's De Bruno Austin.
Masara's Smits says it does not want a state-led approach.
Others are sceptical about SADA's mandate, which they say is a muddle of policy coordination and service delivery. "[It] is yet to take off, it's still on the runway," says NOGAID's Sanah, who argues that SADA has become a political tool.
The debate is still raging on whether plantation agriculture is a good direction for northern Ghana.
"What these large acquisitions do is they disturb the organic processes of agricultural intensification," says Dzodzi Tsikata, associate professor at the University of Ghana.
She also warns against selling off common land, used for hunting and gathering. "People think that there is a huge savannah to annex to your purposes," she says. "You don't want to worsen the plight of the poor" ●