Two minutes before the opening bell sounds at the Ghana Stock Exchange (GSE), soft gospel music rains down and the trading floor remains virtually empty. Josephine Quaye, dressed in a smart brown pinstripe pantsuit, is the lone trader on the floor. When the buzzer-like opening bell rings, she's busily scribbling on red 'sell' cards and filling in blue 'buy' cards and will be the first to write up her offers and bids on the seven whiteboards scattered around the room. Ms Quaye's colleagues will trickle in slowly over the next 15 minutes, until the doors are firmly locked in an attempt to wean brokers off 'African time'. They'll seal their deals with the uniquely West African 'slap and snap' handshake: a slap of the palm finished with a snap of the middle finger. Barely an hour later, it's all over. More than 20,000 shares from 28 companies, some selling for as little as six US cents, have changed hands. Despite its size and the fact there are only two computers in the room, Ghana's 15-year-old stock exchange was judged one of the fastest performing for the past two years running. 'We can't compare ourselves to Toronto or New York,' general manager Ekow Afedzie laughs. 'But in terms of returns, people make more money here.' In a country that only recently lost its 'highly indebted poor country' status, which receives US$7 billion in foreign aid and where citizens earn an average yearly income of US$290, it defies logic that there's money for playing the market. But two years ago, the GSE had a US dollar return of 144 per cent, outpacing 61 markets worldwide, according to Databank Financial. Last year, Ghana's bourse led the world with a compounded index return of 256 per cent. Its market capitalisation - the dollar value of outstanding shares - is about US$10 million and a provisional listing category means local companies are slowly joining the fray. 'It's picking up, the understanding is picking up,' says Alfred Bortey, a trader licensed by the exchange who has worked at the GSE with three of the country's 14 brokerage houses over the past nine years. Brokers must first complete a four-level course on securities trading then spend 60 days working with a licensed trader on the GSE floor. Mr Bortey says more than half of his clients are Ghanaians. The rest are foreign investors, who are limited to owning 10 per cent of any security listed on the exchange. No company may have more than 74 per cent of its shares held by foreign owners. The exchange currently has three wholly local-owned companies, including an internet technology firm, a pharmaceutical manufacturer and a vegetable-oil processor. When two of the three companies went public, their stocks were oversubscribed by about 50 per cent. CAL Bank's initial public offering managed to raise US$38 million in a month, against its own expectation of US$9.2 million. 'That is a trend we want to see,' Mr Afedzie says. 'We want to see local companies use [the exchange], raise the money and expand. That will raise the economy.' He says that is the real importance of the exchange - it builds local companies without relying on foreign parent firms or hefty bank loans with high interest rates. The challenge has been persuading the average Ghanaian to take a gamble on the stock market, says the trading floor's presiding officer, Elizabeth Mate-Kole. 'The average Ghanaian is used to treasury bills, where there's no risk,' she says. When interest rates plummeted in 2001, GSE turnover and value surged as Ghanaians looked for a better place to put their money. Now trading has increased from 11 companies traded twice weekly to 28 companies traded daily, making the market less volatile and improving liquidity. Listed companies include Accra Brewing Co, maker of the light and ubiquitous Club beer; a processor of palm oil, the heavy orange liquid that flavours virtually every Ghanaian dish; and FanMilk, an ice cream maker whose products come in individual serving-sized plastic bags and are hawked by boys on the street. Murals ringing the public gallery of the stock exchange depict fishing, construction, cocoa plantations and harvesting timber, the industries most commonly associated with Ghana's economy. So far, however, there is only one cocoa processor and one gold miner listed on the exchange. The highest share prices belong to the banks and AngloAshanti, the gold mining company that also sponsored the electronic signboard displaying the day's pricing. (It is the only thing that goes down when the electricity blinks out 20 minutes into trading.) The stock exchange is not yet automated, there is no online trading and the room is cooled by an ocean breeze blowing in through the windows. By 11.05am, one of the floor stewards is digging through a snaggle of electrical cords trying to find the plug for the buzzer. Eventually, he gives up, clicks the buzzer noiselessly with a resigned smile, then walks away. Everyone has done trading anyway.