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“Don’t lose hope, keep knocking” – Alhaji Yusif Ibrahim, Board Chairman, GT Bank Ltd.

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From a humble beginning, Alhaji Yusif Ibrahim defied the odds of being a failure. He took every step of the journey by faith in Allah. He wrestled through life to make sure he got to the top. He kept pushing, till he got his first breakthrough.

He once drove a taxi on the streets of New York City and today he is one of the successful investors cum entrepreneur in the country. Alhaji Yusif Ibrahim is the Board Chairman of GT Bank Ltd. and the only Ghanaian shareholder.

He owns a number of firms that operate under the Dara Salam Group of Companies. He operates under the axiom of “Don’t lose hope, keep knocking”.

THE ECONOMY AND BUSINESS

TVM:  How would you describe the Ghanaian economy after one year of this administration?

AYI: I will say that in every situation, when a new administration comes into place, they establish their own fundamentals. They have to put them to play first before we see exactly what they are doing. But I believe that they will also do just as well as the previous government did their best.

I am a Ghanaian, so whatever affects the economy whether good or bad affects me. So, it is the pre-occupation of everyone in the country to ensure the economy performs better and not just the present administration.  I believe very sincerely, with the right leadership, the economy would really perform wonderfully well for all of us to enjoy in the future.

TVM: How would you describe the Ghanaian business enclave or doing business in Ghana?

AYI: I feel doing business in Ghana is much better. In Ghana we have the resources both human resources and natural resources. We have everything; gold, diamond, cocoa, name it. We also have oil, so, with the little thing in place, investment will boom in this country including agriculture and industrialization. It’s a matter of time.

TVM: What policies would you recommend to the government to get the private sector to become the engine of growth?

AYI: Making funding available to the private sector will enable a lot of good minds who want to establish businesses to do so and this will help people as well as the country by reducing unemployment in the country.

But there is no funding! So, if government, as I told you, can provide certain amount of money for startup businesses as capital and give it to people who want to start their own businesses, it will help them to also employ other people and the economy will be booming.

So I believe very sincerely that we are in the right direction and what is helping to facilitate ‘the new conversation on entrepreneurship’ is that white color job is finishing.

Now graduates are coming out of schools and there are no jobs at the ministries so they are forced to do their own thing and that is the way to go.

Once you stop getting salary and you are giving salary, it’s an addition to the economy and so I believe very sincerely that we are on the right path and by the grace of God, Ghana would be a wonderful place for all of us.

Alhaji Yusif Ibrahim

FINANCIAL MARKET

TVM: What’s your general overview of Ghana’s financial industry?

AYI: Ghana’s financial industry is very robust indeed. We can recall that recently, the Central Bank raised the minimum capital of banking institutions from GHc120 million to GHc400 million which I sincerely believe is in the right direction.

Most of the businesses that need huge capital financing by banks or other financial firms, are done by the banks which are outside the country because our capital base is inadequate.

At times, banks even come together to form syndicates to be able to meet the loan demand but still unable because the capital base is very low.

To let us really compete effectively for big-ticket transactions, there should be some sort of amalgamation and a kind of takeovers; one bank that’s bigger than the other to take over the smaller bank or the two smaller banks merging together to raise the needed capital to do big businesses together.

So, it’s in the right direction. I believe when that happens, then they can extend credit facilities to the areas of the economy that we need money to startup businesses.

TVM: Some analysts are of the view that priority should be given to local indigenous banks so that the foreign banks won’t have dominance in the industry. What’s your take on that?

AYI: That’s the real essence of recapitalizing the banks. Any bank that is registered in Ghana, is a Ghanaian bank. When they make the money, the government of Ghana makes taxes out of them.

So, they are considered Ghanaian banks. The worry is about the banks which finance our projects but are not operating in Ghana. They come and make the money and take their capital out of the country and that is what we are worried about.

They come and make the profit and take whatever they invest in as dividend, which is what we are concerned about. The banks that are registered here do businesses here and they stay here and employ a lot of people– Ghanaians unlike the banks that finance those huge projects; they are not here, they don’t employ Ghanaians, they only come and then take businesses away from the Ghanaian banks.

That’s why no matter who owns what but any bank registered in Ghana that employs Ghanaians, pay taxes every year to the Ghanaian government on whatever money they make to build our hospitals, our schools, our roads etc. should be considered as a local bank.

TVM: Some financial commentators suggest that there should be a clarion call on the specialization of banking operations in the sector.  What’s your take on that?

AYI: Well, at the moment, when you want to start a banking business in Ghana, you are issued a universal banking license.

This enables the bank to conduct all aspect of banking and that really made other banks that were created specifically for certain sectors like ADB and NIB– to fund development projects for a longer period, all resort to retail banking as a result of capital inadequacy.

These banks had to also recourse to short term funding just like other banks. All these are what supports the recapitalization argument from the Central Bank Governor. We need banks that can engage in long term financing to support industrial boom and mortgage financing which requires 30 to 40 years financing scheme. These are all good for the economy but then, how many banks are resilient for these types of projects, that’s where the problem is.

TVM: Accessing credit facilities for business development and expansion is a challenge. Why is this situation so?

AYI: The economy as a whole dictate how funding should be done. We have what we call the basic rate that is dictated by the Bank of Ghana (BoG). The BoG basic rate is also dependent on the performance of the economy. It’s not the banks that dictate that.

The performance of the economy plays a pivotal role in the cost of funding to business owners so if the economy is doing well, the access to credit facility will be easier and cheaper otherwise it will remain as it is.

TVM: The government is seeking to establish a new national development bank to mobilize private capital towards the agricultural and industrial transformation. What’s your take on that?

AYI: It’s a good idea because the more the merrier. The issue is provided the new bank will be able to address the needed transformational development projects.

TVM: What difference does this new bank seek to achieve that the current NIB and ADB has not?

AYI: Well I don’t know. All I’m saying is that if it is also coming on board to make money available to the needed Ghanaians, then by all means it will make the market bigger than what it is. 

 

Alhaji Yusif Ibrahim on the turf playing golf

 

PERSONALITY PROFILE

TVM: Who is Alhaji Yusif Ibrahim; can you tell us about yourself?

AYI: I am Alhaji Yusif Ibrahim. I was born in Kumasi Zongo to Alhaji Gado and Hajia Rahinatu. My mother is from Gonja and My father, Wangara. At age 5, I attended Arabic School called Makaranta and after 5 years, I completed. My father didn’t believe in formal education and so was completely against me accessing formal education.

But a very good friend of his, Alhaji Ibrahim Kure, who believed otherwise persuaded my father to allow me to access formal education. He assented to it and I commenced formal education at age 10. I was a complete illiterate as I could neither read nor write.

As a result, I attended Nawarudeen Private School to learn how to read and write before attending Anglican Primary and Middle School in Kumasi. There I had mates like Gobind Nankani (Former Vice President, African Region of the World Bank), Kwame Peprah (Former Finance Minister of the Republic of Ghana) and so on.

After the middle school, I took the Common Entrance Examination and fortunately I passed and gained admission into Ahmadiyya Secondary School in Kumasi. I was opportune to enjoy the CMB Scholarship from Form 1 to Form 5, despite my father not being a farmer at the time. My formal education ended in Form 5.

After completing Form 5 from Ahmadiyya Secondary School, I went into business. I was privilege to go into business through a man called Robert Annor. Robert was my senior at Ahmadiyya Secondary School. While I was in Form 1, he was in form 5 so I was more of his ‘school boy’.

He was privilege as he immediately entered into petrol station business after completing Ahmadiyya Secondary School. He was transporting and selling petrol and kerosene to the villages and he made it. At the time, I wanted to be like him because, to me, he was successful. He introduced me to the business but unfortunately for me things didn’t turn out well so had to quit after a while.

After that period, Alhaji Kure’s son, Ahmed Kure, who at the time was in West Germany precisely Hamburg got in touch with me. We were mates and very good friends. He always wanted me by his side and so he sent me an invitation to come and join him there in Hamburg, West Germany. I didn’t have the money so my father had to go to his friend, Alhaji Kure, again for money to get my ticket.

So, I departed the shores of Ghana to seek greener pastures. Incidentally, the very day I arrived at Hamburg, West Germany, Ahmed Kure had also gotten a visa to New York, United States of America so had left without informing me. I became stranded and wished I could return with the next available flight to Ghana.

In that frustrated situation, I met another friend of ours who was our senior then, Issa Sarpong, who took care of me and made sure I was comfortable.

Life in Germany then was more than a nightmare. But considering the debt my father had incurred as a result of the failed Petrol business and the ticket fare, I needed to get a job to cater for those bills back in Ghana. So, I stormed the streets of Hamburg in search of a job and fortunately I stumbled on one with a brewery company.

I made some good money and remitted them to my father to cater for the bills incurred on my behalf all those while as well as to take care of the basic needs at home.

After a while again, Ahmed Kure, who was now in America got in touch with me and suggested I come to America to avoid the language barrier I was experiencing in West Germany. I was scared and hoped that it was not another futile expedition and so I never consented to it for that moment.

But his constant persuasion and other convictions made me assent to the proposal. He showed me what to do and I followed through till I found myself in New York with him. Indeed, this time, Ahmed was living a very comfortable life in his apartment and had his own car. He was a taxi driver and was making enough money.

Immediately I got to New York, on the following day, Ahmed Kure got me a job at Western Union where they send telegrams. He took his time to educate me on how to move around without any difficulty. So, I started delivering the telegrams without any problem.

One day, one of the telegrams I was tasked to deliver was for a company called Cowen and Company at Battery Park Plaza, Wall Street in New York. Upon delivery of the telegram, I enquired if there was a vacancy there and fortunately, I was asked to speak to the Human Resource Manager and that’s how I ended up working there for 4hours in a day.

After a while, Ahmed Kure advised me to enter into the taxi business and I gave it a try. I drove the taxi to give it a try and realized indeed, it was a lucrative venture. So, I ventured into it and made enough to invest. At a point, I was having 5 taxis in New York City and they were all making money for me.

After making enough money through my savings and investments, I got in touch with Robert Annor and expressed my interest in the petrol business again.

We rekindled our relationship and started our business relationship afresh. I bought 5 tankers of 3000 gallon capacity each from Nottingham in England and shipped them to Ghana. The trucks came into the country in 1974 and I also decided to return with my wife to Ghana in December 1974.

I joined Annor in the petrol business and later he connected me to British Petroleum (BP) carrying petrol from Tema Oil Refinery (TOR) to Kumasi depot, Mayenka. Unfortunately, there were misunderstandings that ensued between Robert and I and we had to part ways.

After parting ways with Robert, I came in contact with Colonel George Minyila whom I have been of help to back in the days when I was in the United States of America and discussed a business idea with him.

He welcomed the idea and help me facilitate the necessary license and finally, I was given the license and started a bicycle assembling plant in Tamale.

From there, I made some money from the bicycle business and I started importing rice and sugar. Slowly we started with one container to two containers till we became one of the biggest by importing a whole ship load.

Then in 1985, I acquired 30 acres of land which had 3 companies namely: Hume Fulgrip (producers of sewerage and pressure pipes for water), Precast and Spun (Concrete producers of precast elements) and Ready Mix Concrete Limited on the premise.

From there, I entered a partnership venture with a gentleman called Andrews Sardanis who is the owner of Meridian Group International based in England and we established a mining company called Golden Ray near Nkawkaw.

We were into the mining of gold and then we established Wade Adams Constructions– a road construction company and then we also established a bank called Meridian Bank at the time. We also established Madison Assurance in 1989.

Unfortunately, my partner had a problem and he went bankrupt in England and so all the companies we had together were affected. But that was not the end so we decided to also try other businesses. At the moment, we own some shares in GT Bank, we have a factory in Tema that produces transformers, and a factory in Kumasi, that treats electricity poles. We are also into real estate development and that’s what we are doing and where we are now.

TVM: Where did you acquire your business acumen that has earned you success today?

AYI: Well, my business acumen is innate that’s first and foremost and also the grace of Allah. If you believe sincerely in Allah and you depend on Him, He helps you if you help yourself.

I say it’s innate because at a tender age, I involved myself in the making of condensed milk into toffees and sold them to my fellow students and was making money. Since then, whatever I engaged myself with, I made sure I do them well. So it takes endurance to do the things you want to do and the grace from Allah.

TVM: What enduring principles have helped you to do all that you are doing?

AYI: Well, patience and endurance have been my enduring principles in life. You never give up in life when life presents its challenges to you.

For instance, if you knock on one door and it fails to open, move on to the second door. You don’t conclude it is finished just because the first door refuses to open. Even if the second door refuses to open, move on to the third, the forth, the fifth door … till you get to the door that will open to you.

So, everyone needs to have endurance and the push backed by prayers to God to be behind you; that is very important.

TVM: I know you operate under the Axiom “don’t lose hope, keep knocking” why that philosophy?

AYI: Because that’s the only answer to life’s philosophy. This is so because in life one needs to keep going forward despite the challenges and circumstances they may be confronted with. If you refuse to keep moving, you will remain on the same spot. So to get to your destination, it requires that we keep moving despite the conditions.

TVM: How are you able to fix your work and life balance?

AYI: As the adage says “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. I am able to manage my time well. I know when to work and when to have leisure. I have time for social events and I make sure I don’t over burden myself with work. Good time management is the key.

For instance I come to work every morning and when it’s 2:30 p.m. I leave for the golf course to play. I do this as a routine and it helps me a lot. So, I think good time management is a vital instrument in ensuring the work and life balance of every individual.

TVM: How would you define success?

AYI: For me, success is the ability to support others who are below you to rise to the top. Success is also the ability to touch the lives of the poor or people around you positively; this is what I see also as success.

If you have the means and are unable to touch the lives of the people around you positively, then you can’t claim to be successful. If you have money and don’t help the poor, you have failed because they don’t care about your riches and when you die you die alone.

But when you help the poor, when you die you become a hero in their hearts. People don’t care about whoever you are but care about those who care for them.

For example, if my success stays with me alone then it’s no success. My real success will be measured by how many people I am able to bring from the ‘low places in life’ to a state where they will also be comfortable in life and until that that’s when I will leave a legacy behind.

If you look at me, I’ve been the Chairman of Junior Achievements where we make monies available to students in Secondary Schools to start businesses.

Aside that, Islam is a religion that believes in paying monies to the poor people every year. Whatever you have, you must pay 2.5 % of it to the poor so that they will also come up and give to other people. So, that’s why whatever I do, I make sure that I give to others.

It’s unfortunate I can’t be mentioning the things I have done because it’s not pleasing to God but I am happy I have impacted the lives of many especially those in Kumasi Zongo where I come from and in Accra in terms of health, education etc.

TVM: What motivates you to do all that you do?

AYI: The fear of God is key. Also, I feel God knows my heart and what I can do for others that’s why He made me succeed so I can take care of the needy.

Mind you, I was not the best in the class and see what I went through in life. But by His direction and this little things that I have done, I have become what I am today.

TVM: At your age, what inspires you to still come to work and try to do more despite your attainment?

AYI: It’s the ability to have enough to give to others. It puts me on the go and I will be doing that till the day I go to my grave.

TVM: Do you have time to engage in any extracurricular activities; any hobbies?

AYI: Yes, I have a hobby. I play golf. I play golf everyday from Monday to Friday at 3 p.m. I used to also play polo since I came back from America in 1974. I became the captain of the Accra Polo Club for many years and I’m now one of the trustees. I have now retired from playing polo. My children are now playing as well as my grandchildren.

TVM: Why did you switch from playing Polo to golf; is it because golf is a game for the rich?

AYI: No. I see polo and golf as the same sports only that one is played on a horse and the other on the foot. They all involve hitting a ball. So, when I realized I couldn’t hit the ball on the horse, I resorted to hitting the ball on the ground and it is easy.

Also, the game of golf helps to exercise the body and it’s absolutely needful for controlling blood pressure, cholesterol etc. So, that’s why I enjoy it first as a game and then take it as doing it for the health benefits also.

TVM: Who was and is your role model?

AYI: Robert Annor was always my role model while I was growing up but by the grace of Allah, I was able to live up to expectation. For now, there is no one.

TVM: Is there any genre of music you love?

AYI: I love old rhythms like Sam Cook and local music also. I like that a lot and I enjoy dancing very much.

TVM: So, where do you get to do this; is it at functions or you stay at home and play music, then you dance to it?

AYI: I do that at functions. For example when I attend somebody’s outdooring or wedding and the opportunity offers itself for dancing then I dance.

TVM: Do you have any intention of documenting your tale for the future generation to emulate from?

AYI: Yes, I’m currently working on that. By next month or two, my biography will be ready. It’s been handled by a company in South Africa and they’re almost at the tail end of it.

TVM: If you had the opportunity to rewrite a wrong, what would it be?

AYI: To be more committed to help the poor to come up.

TVM: With everything you do, you still feel you are not doing enough?

AYI: Well, it’s not enough at all. Because in any part of the world, the rich people are very few while the poor are many.

If we don’t help them as far as I’m concerned, we are not contributing our quota to the development of society. Also, God commands us to give and that’s why I’m doing my bit. But if you consider the social aspect even; it’s in our own interest to make sure that people below are supported and provided with basic needs.

When these things are in place, we won’t have armed robbery and other social vices disrupting society. So, these are some of the reasons ‘giving’ is essential in society just to make sure others are comfortable as well.

TVM: What advise do you have for the government of the day looking at them being in power for a year now?

AYI: The advice I would give to them basically is Ghana is an import-oriented economy, and the money we have normally ends up in subsidizing for the imports and we neglect the core needs of our people like hospitals, roads, schools that are not enough.

I think God has given us more than we need including arable lands for agriculture. If the government was to really pay more attention to Agriculture, we can export more cocoa, pineapples, cashew nuts etc. These are all the things that can be exported in abundance.

In Ghana, we can grow anything even in our backyard and it grows, but what the government should do is not just depend on peasant farmers who only produce for what they can eat and the little they sell and that doesn’t meet export demands.

But government should make sure it lays emphasis on Agriculture both for home consumption as well as exports on commercial basis. I will suggest that every district in Ghana should be allowed to use part of its Common Fund for exportable commodities.

At least if we are able to even feed our people, what we have to import will be very small and the government can divert the money to other areas of our developmental needs.

TVM: For businesses?

AYI: For businesses, especially the manufacturing firms, I will want to urge them to focus on locally available raw materials for production to help reduce the importation of foreign products on to our market. Through this, we will be able to boost our agricultural productivity and industrial boom will set in and the country will be set on its rightful developmental course.

TVM: For aspiring youth and young entrepreneurs?

AYI: Don’t lose hope, Keep knocking! Young entrepreneurs should be careful not to go in for loans to start their businesses because interest rates are now very high. If they do, they will only be working for the banks. It may be difficult to pay back the loans and above all the bank will take the little collateral they have.

So, it is advisable that young and emerging entrepreneurs consider government funding for their business start-ups. Also, the youth should work as hard as they can.

They should see any job they are in as their own. Because it’s only when you work best for somebody, you do better when yours come. First of all, the person you’re working for will appreciate you and compensate you when the time comes.

This also helps to cultivate hard work in you, and that will help you succeed in life. If this attitude can be ingrained in everybody, it will help us all to develop our economy.

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One thing that the oil money should have offered the nation is cheaper money for investment in agriculture – Dr. Abu Sakara Foster, Executive Chairman of Sakfos Holding

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The Role of Agriculture in Economic Development

TVM: What is your general assessment of the current state of the Ghanaian economy?

ASF: Our economy in its current state is one in which the essential transformation of its nature has still not happened. It is still an economy based primarily on production and export of raw materials and not one predominantly described as a value added economy. The service sector has grown but not by servicing Ghana’s industrial sector; it is rather servicing imports. So the nature of the economy really has not changed much. However, in terms of the performance of the economy, what you are seeing essentially is a stabilization of the currency, the building of our reserves, which basically has contributed to the stabilization of the currency and steadying of the national inflation. All this not withstanding, bank interest rates (generally above 20%) are still too high for many primary producers and manufacturing industry to maintain and expand operations competitively in the domestic market. Also liquidity is very, very tight!

On the latter point,  recent enforcement of rules in the financial regulatory sector has meant an even tighter squeeze on the liquidity of funds. This action is however indeed good in one way because it will help bring interest rates down to a more realistic level as entrepreneurs progressively turn towards incentives to do more sensible business and turn away from more risky businesses. But in the short term these measures have dried up access to funds from banks, as they themselves have struggled to find money quickly to meet their obligations with the central bank.

So in terms of macro economy, there is a good turn around in terms of the fact that you have a stronger foundation for improved performance mostly from improved fiscal management. But when I say foundation, I’m relating to the performance of the economy, not the structural nature of the economy per se. By and large, it is a more predictable economic environment; but in terms of evolution from one kind of “creature” to another kind of “creature”, we are still where we are, an economy based on production and export of raw agricultural produce,  raw minerals, raw timber, raw fish, raw unconventional products and crude oil even when we have a refinery. This is where then major challenge of our generation lies.

TVM: Ghana’s economy has been predominantly agric-led for decades. For about two decades ago, there was a boom in the service sector and its continuous growth has seen agriculture over taken. What in your view might have accounted for this?

ASF: Of course the growth in the service sector naturally means that somewhere in the total GDP pie, some other portion of that pie must give.  The reduction in agricultural sectors’ GDP contribution relative to the increasing size of service and manufacturing industry and the mineral mining industry does not necessarily mean that agriculture is doing badly. After all in the final analysis, we want to have the agriculture sector reduced as a portion of it’s contribution to GDP if the manufacturing sector grows in return. We want to have the manufacturing sector grow because it is based on growth of domestic productivity growth and will most likely increase jobs and incomes more significantly. However the service sector can do grow without much domestic productivity increase in fact it may hurt domestic productivity growth and stall our competitiveness in our own domestic markets. That is not any guarantee that increased service sector growth in economies such as ours will increase the good paying jobs for any sustained period. Ultimately the wealth has to be created from somewhere and that in our situation is mainly from transforming the primary to secondary processed products.

In my view the service sector can grow but by only as much as the manufacturing sector is growing and it is servicing the domestic manufacturing sector. But if the service sector growth  is only servicing imports and the manufacturing sector is not growing very much, while agriculture sector is declining, then that is a problem!! Because it means that we are actually going backwards in terms of progressive capacity to have a home grown economy that is more robust and less susceptible to external pressures.

The increase in income from the oil sector has also brought about a new dynamic in terms of proportions of GDP contribution by various sectors, including agriculture. The impact of oil income on national GDP is not perhaps as big as one will imagine, but it has certainly influenced growth of the service sector because we had no previous history of a service sector for the oil industry.

All this recent growth means little if there is no evolution of the economy.  Metaphorically speaking if you are an eight-year-old child and that looks the like the size of a teenager, it doesn’t mean you’re grown yet, it just means you have only expanded in size. The evolution has not yet occurred. So we need to look more closely at how agriculture is contributing to transforming the economy basically from a raw material producing economy to a more value added agriculture. We must also closely observe the changes in all the technological innovations that comes along with investment in agro processing. It is happening, but too slowly. It needs to happen at a faster rate to effect that sorely needed evolution.

 

TVM: As a country, we’ve kept believing that agriculture is the back bone of our economic development. But then, unfortunately, the hypothesis has been disproved by the continuous decline of the agricultural sector’s contribution to GDP. Should we still continue to bank our hopes on agriculture as the basis for economic development?

ASF: The hypothesis has not been disproved at all; and we’ve not been believing. If we really believed, it would have happened. And that is the exact problem with agriculture. We say that agriculture is the backbone of the economy, but then when it comes to the allocation of the pie of the budget to it, sometimes it gets less than three (3) percent, or even a tiny little amount. You don’t need to go to Harvard Business School to figure out that in trading, the thing that is bringing you the most money is the thing that you have to spend your money on, in order to turn over more of it, to make even more money.

 

TVM: What in your view do you think are the main challenges confronting the sector from achieving its maximum impact.

ASF: There are three areas. The first is in the area of national policy which creates the medium within which everything happens including agriculture. The second area is the limits of knowledge base within the sector. Finally there is the service industry associated with the agricultural sector that provides it with inputs and marketing of its outputs. If we take these three areas, all of them have different kinds of challenges.

The main challenge in the policy area is a dysfunctional democracy that is not closely allied with the real things that matter in the economy. We can’t blame politicians alone. They have to get elected. So they respond in short term ways that the populace will appreciate but ultimately are ways that are detrimental to real growth of the agricultural sector. For decades people have called for a reduction of rice importation by any and all means possible. However the same people will scream to the high heavens if rice prices went up a pesewa because tariffs on imported rice were increased. Ghana has also seen the rise of “middle class political activism” that demands more accountable government and better balance of trade to reflect growth in made in Ghana products of which processed agriculture products should have the lion share. However policy makers have encouraged and boasted about the mushrooming of shopping malls filled with mainly imported goods that are consumed by the same “activist” middle class. It appears the need to win elections has dulled the capacity of governments to act more firmly in favor of the national interest to stimulate growth in the domestic agricultural sector.

The second issue associated with national policy is conviction by the leadership. There needs to be a very firm conviction among leaders that agriculture can indeed work sufficiently to give us the take-off we need the next phase of our national economy.  This will make us commit to it for long enough to make it work. Leadership needs to convince themselves and the populace that we can and will make it work!! Every country that has successfully transformed their economy from an agricultural base at the end of their colonial period did so with a very strong commitment and sometimes with only a single single crop. The Malaysians that we admire so much did it with only palm oil. And yet we have palm oil, yam, gold and so many other things. Mauritius transformed an agricultural economy based on only sugarcane to a modern value added economy.  

Fortunately or unfortunately, because we’re blessed with so many good things, we have so many choices. We have consequently dissipated our efforts trying to exploit all of them at once as and when it dawns on us. It is like a drummer with too many drums in front of him and trying to drum all the drums at once. There has to be a coherent medium to long term plan and a focus beyond four year terms of office. In addition to a national focus and we need to learn to live according to our pocket, a good manager should always tries to live within their means. The country and its citizens are carrying too much debt. We need to renegotiate terms even as we  work our way out of debt. Our national debt is not insurmountable given our resource base and it is in our debtor’s interest to give us more conducive terms to work off our debt.

Talking about the knowledge base, we have to have a system where we start looking at the variety of crops that fit our farming systems rather than the mono crops we relied on during the colonial economy that is still with us in great measure. The truth of the matter is that we know a lot more than we are actually applying because our researchers have come up with different varieties that fit many more farming systems, crop patterns and types of farmers. This sometimes leads farmers to make the wrong choices by opting for technologies that they cannot sustain. It’s like choosing a BMW car over a Volkswagen car but you can’t drive faster than 60 km/h because you lack the skills and experience. In spite of that you still want to join in groups talking about the pros and cons of a Ferrari versus a Ducati.  Farmers need to be educated to choose the right technologies for their level of capacity and at the same time take advantage to upgrade their investments to match their capacity through extension and farmer to farmer learning. Farmers that opt for high end technologies beyond their capacity can be likened to ordinary drivers that choose to run a Ferrari car but do not have enough fuel, a good road to race on and also lack the skill to control a fast car in the first place. Just because collapse of farms are not as dramatic as car crashes does not mean that they have less of an important effect on the national economy.

Our operators themselves (the famers and value chain actors) need to assess their capacity and know-how relative to the investments that they can make. I don’t think our farmers are ignorant, they know a lot and they’re quite experienced. If a farmer is not using a particular technology, it is not always because he hasn’t heard about it, sometimes it is because he/she has figured out that it doesn’t make any more money. This is because our marketing system does not always give them sufficient incentives. Also, the transaction cost are so high that sometimes they leave significant portions of the products in the bush.  We need to resolve that through development of farm track roads and greater use of appropriate rural transport to reduce the costs of the first aggregations and homesteads and subsequently at village markets.

 

TVM: In this age of technology, how crucial is agriculture to our economic development

ASF: Agriculture is still very crucial because it must form the platform that serves as a foundation for take-off of our industrial and manufacturing sectors. Agriculture is also where we have the greatest comparative advantage.  However three things need to happen to establish this foundation in sufficient measure. First, we have to intervene to turn our comparative advantage in agriculture to a competitive advantage. We cannot go and start competing with producers of space technologies and all of that very high end stuff. We don’t have even have comparative advantage for that yet.

In Ghana, especially the northern part, we have in abundance arable land, surface and ground water and a varied climate suitable for many crops and livestock.  With good climate it is a question of choosing the right combination of crops, applying the right technology both in terms of the physical equipment and inputs, and also the management know-how. Then we can be competitive in the market place. If Usain Bolt was sat in his lazy chair all the time, he could have never been a world champion in spite of his great potential. He has to go out and train to realize the potential is already there. Our policy makers profess our great potential all too often but what are we doing to realize even a little of that great potential?

This is basically where we have to make more effort and a very deliberate effort at that!  Beyond effort in agriculture, other parts of the economy have to be tuned to support the agriculture sector as the main point of thrust for the economy. When we do that for a consistent period, we get to a stage where we lift the whole economy and then other sectors can then start growing to then exceed agriculture in their contribution to the economy.

TVM: Do we need to reinvent the wheel as other developing countries are doing by focusing on agricultural development as a basis for economic development?

ASF: I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel. The matter is we haven’t pushed the wheelbarrow far enough to the stage where economies can take off. So we need to push the wheels more and faster to get to the stage where it agriculture becomes a foundation for other sectors to take off organically in synchrony and yielding the greatest synergies. The other Countries like Malaysia and Mauritius did not forget about agriculture and then come back to it. Instead they rode on the back of Agriculture. They developed agriculture first and then it formed the foundation for their investment in other sectors. Also we have to remember that one of the key things that we use for development is human resources. So we need to empower and retool the people for productive engagements. That is another important reason agriculture must come first, it helps build the technological innovation skills needed for the other industries. We have to build agriculture as a foundation first.

 

TVM: But then, the government has rolled out several policies to revamp the agricultural sector with the flagship of Planting for Food and Jobs. What is your take on this and do you see this programme succeeding in the long term?

ASF: I think it is going in the right direction. Of course, there are teething problems with it and there are major challenges. It’s success is contingent on the determination to ensure that the fundamental things that have normally failed previous programmes don’t fail this one. So we must all resolve not to let it fail. If there is a threat that there will be no funding for it, policy makers should to sit round the cabinet table and raise the money for it by taking cuts from elsewhere, it is as simple as that. Why? Because agriculture is what is driving the economy and it must take precedence over consumptive expenditure that does not bring immediate income.  That is the kind of leadership direction that we need for initiatives such as PFJ to succeed. The fundamental thing that it is addressing is the availability of seeds and fertilizers at farmers’ doorsteps, using our own local seed producers and fertilizer distributors. Of course some seed is still are being imported, but we hope that will change in time in favor of locally produced seed. It doesn’t just change overnight, nor will it happen without persistent effort and investment in local seed producers and seed systems. We don’t yet have the domestic capacity to meet our full seed requirement. We have to build seed production capacity alongside growth of effective demand to ensure that the seed business is financially viable. For a viable seed system the seed produced must be sold. If it is not bought, producers will reduce seed production and some seed growers may get out of the seed business altogether.

We must strengthen the seed distribution for farmers to be able to buy seeds at their door steps. This means that seed dealerships between seed producers and farmers must be tackled effectively as a national priority and maintained as a national asset. The incremental gains that will accrue as a consequence of the dealership system will exceed its value for access to seed and inputs alone. It can also serve as a point of interface for output markets and evolution of the remaining agro-industry. We need to make these seemingly simple things happen for our agricultural system to work sufficiently well to support interventions and programmes like PJF sectors to succeed. I believe we can do this and already the early signs of success are showing. PFJ will succeed if we don’t blow it by taking things and people for granted.

 

TVM: In Ghana, the old folks practice subsistence farming. Being the executive director of the Rural and Agricultural Development Associates, how can the rural folks be empowered to turn the woes of this sector into fortune.

ASF: I think first of all when you describe our agriculture; it is a composite of different types of farmers. You have the small scale farmers who are subsistent farmers. You have the emerging medium scale farmers that are people who have determined that agriculture is where they are going to make a living and extra money from. Then there are the commercial scale farmers who have decided that they are going to put their lives to it for big time returns to investment. So our agriculture has a spectrum of farmers like an accordion. It is not a one single thing or type of farmer.

Now, it is true that small scale farmers in the past have formed a large majority of where we get our food from and are also the majority in numbers. Together small scale farmers make more money than the medium and large scale farmers. This trend will not however stay as it is in future. If agriculture evolves as we expect it to, then as numbers of the medium and large scales farmers grow, small holder farmers’ numbers will decrease. Small-holder farmers won’t be eliminated all together. Instead the remaining small-holder farmers will become more efficient. Even if they are still on small-holder allotments, they will become more productive and efficient. What we expect to see is that the medium scale grows significantly and maybe the large scale will also grow in a highly specialized market driven manner. Irrespective of the variations and specializations of different types of farmers there exists a relationship between them. That relationship and interdependence will grow stronger through linkages to market networks so let us not divide them artificially.

TVM: You spoke about you knowing older people that started farming and they falling out, so how do we now get the youth to be interested in this? How can the state make agriculture appealing to the youth?

ASF: Agriculture has to be appealing to everybody. If it is not appealing to the old people, it will not be appealing to the youth. And the greater appeal about agriculture is not as a hobby. It is as a business. No one has ever asked how we can make shop keeping appealing to the youth. If you have the capital, you go there and you make your money just like any other business.

Agriculture is however not an easy business like sitting and selling in a shop. Agriculture involves a certain level of difficulty because of its specialized knowledge and physical involvement, especially when one does not have the right equipment and tools. So one of the ways we can make farming more attractive to people starting is to have service centers for tools, equipment and specialized know-how. This applies not just for the youth but also for other farmers and value chain actors because it reduces transaction costs for ownership of equipment and use of services. It also makes service providers more accessible to farmers and value chain actors in rural areas.

TVM: A few years ago you cautioned the nation to focus on the soil not the oil. Can you explain why you did say that?

ASF: When the oil started flowing we were all dreaming and salivating about how this oil was going to change the whole economy. I’m glad you’ve raised that question. We’ve seen the oil sector come and stay. So what has changed?  Not so much and that is why I said at that time, focus on soil not oil. It was on the basis that if we were to see a big transformation then what ever income was coming from that oil, should go into the soil! At least the interest from the saved oil income should go into the soil to address all these challenges we’ve enumerated above to give us that quantum leap we expected from a completed foundation in agriculture.

“One thing that the oil money should have offered the nation is cheaper money for investment agriculture.”

It should be used to make sure that we have the range and volume of seeds and equipment needed to make productivity higher on a big scale. We should not be relying on donor funds that may have their own priorities, areas of focus and limit on the scale of investment.  With sufficiently expanded scale of intervention in agriculture, would come many fold increased incomes from agriculture. Concurrent scale of investments of the cheaper money in improved agro processing would have also pulled up price incentives to sustain the production because higher profits from the added value goods can be shared as price incentives to sustain flow of raw materials to factories. Currently, operators have mills that are not getting enough rice because cost of financing operations greatly limits their capacity to share slender profits. The price structure of commodities across the entire value chain must be scrutinized to ensure a strong incentives for operators either as producers, farm service providers and aggregators. There are many jobs in agriculture apart from production.

The second thing I meant by that was, when you focus on the oil, how many people will be employed into that sector? How many towns can be touched by that sector? If you are not in Takoradi, you won’t know that there’s oil in Ghana. You don’t feel anything. But if we invest those monies in the soil and there’s soil everywhere in Ghana, the impact on people’s lives will be far more pervasive and we would have all felt it by now.

At the time, I said categorically that the best way of managing that money was to pretend we did not have it. In other words, all of it, not one drop should have been brought into the normal economy. All of it should have been kept out of the economy in an investment fund. And we only use the interest from that fund to reduce our rate and cost of borrowing. We could also fund specific turn key projects that are arranged in a hierarchical order of priority setting and they feed into each other. It would have helped us know just how much we take each year taking as chunk of money. In return for that money we must see at the investment period its end product and its value for money on the ground. For example if it is a railway we want to build to reduce transportation costs, we take the chunk of money and build the railway. We would not borrowed the money from anywhere and the railway is in place.

 

The Personality profile segment

TVM: When I started the interview, I did say a lot about who you are and your personality. When you go onto the internet you can read a lot about yourself but then it is always best to hear it from the horses own mouth. So who is Dr. Abu Sakara?

ASF: Well, I’m a family man.  I have been married for 36 going on to 37yrs with the same woman and I have four grown up children. The eldest is 35 years, the next is 32, then 29 and the last is 28yrs old. They are now adults, three ladies and one gentleman. We basically are a very close nucleus family and I’m also close with my extended family too. I come from a family of 22 children and 5 wives. We are the first generation of truly monogamous people but marriage in our culture is still predominantly polygamous.

I had initially had a village upbringing. I was born in Damongo but lived in Kpembi near Salaga for the first 6 to 7 years of my life. I grew up in my great grandfather’s house (the Sinbung royal household of Kpembiwura  Lanyor I). I learnt so much form the village life and my character benefited immensely from their culture of sharing and caring. Above all it left me with a strong identity and high self esteem.

My first crossover happened when I went to live with my father S.S. Sakara, the then Distrct Commisioner for West Gonja in Damango. Living with him in his European style bungalow with European accoutrements and affectations was very restrictive. I liked my freedom in the village  and felt like a prisoner in the bungalow life. But of course it had its benefits for learning academically and struggled to learn how to sleep in the afternoon, siesta!.

Then I went and visited my other cousins in Western Gonja who taught me the differences in culture between Western and Eastern Gonja, so I learned to become a cultural hybrid with capacity to cross over in accent and names of things. Capacity for cultural crossing over has been a major theme in my life. I have  lived between cultures both East and Western Gonja, African and European culture and Eastern and Westen Africa.

I  left for the UK when I was 12 years old. I went to school and grew there so I had to learn to live in that environment. When I became older I started travelling to other parts of the world like Latin America. My experiences have shaped who I am, because life is a sum of all our experiences.

 

TVM: You are one the few celebrated personalities in your field of endeavor. Was this what you always wanted to do?

ASF: When I was younger, I was very active. I was always dong one thing or another.  I initially struggled academically because I wasn’t paying enough attention but one day I was sat down by my foster parent and I learnt  and fell in love with the art of reading and that changed my world.

When I was in England I started doing a lot of sport and I got very much involved in judo. I rose very quickly through the belts and I won the England school boys at 15 years old. Later on I served the national judo team for the u16 and u18 at the same time. And when I was a bit older I was in the u18 and u21 men’s team at the same time. So that took a lot of my attention and at that time I thought my career was going to be in professional sport.

Unfortunately for me I tore a cartilage when we were at the Junior European championships in Bad hamburg, Germany in 1977 and I was required to take some time off and it came just at the right time because I was between 6th form and the university. As a matter of fact, I tried to overcome that and my attempt to get back quickly splitted the stitches so it took a longer time to recover. Thw long lay-off helped me make up my mind to actually go to the university because at the time, though I had a university placement at Reading, I hadn’t quite made up my mind to go yet.

I got into agriculture not because I made a deliberate decision in terms of career choice. It was simply because I had the sciences under control and that was the course that gave me an intercalated year abroad. So I was looking forward to this year abroad because when I saw the brochure, it was somewhere in the Philippines.   I thought if I do this course, I’ll get to go abroad for one year. So I chose the soil science course, only after the second year to find out that I had to win an award scholarship first.

I initially lost hope of going abroad because I didn’t think I had a fat chance of getting that Scholarship considering a student population of more than 18,000 at University of Reading at that time. But, my tutor was very insistent so he went and brought the forms and asked me to fill the forms and bring it back. I filled the forms and on the appointed day went to sit the examination for the scholarship. After leaving the examination hall I just took if off my mind because of the multitude of students that sat the examination.

It was a few months later when the result came to my surprise and I won it. The Dean called me to his office and asked me where I was going with the award? I wanted to go to the  Philippines but he advised IITA in Nigeria because he had been working in Nigeria as a researcher. So I after my seconds year at University I went off to Nigeria for one year as a research scholar.

When I came back to England, I was completely sure that I wanted a career in International Agricultural Development as a Scientist. So may career choice did not happen in a day. It took a period of two years. But by the end of that two-year period, I had submitted my research work and people had gotten to know me and I knew what international agriculture was about. After graduation, I applied for a post graduate training awards with ODA and went off to do my masters at Wye College London University and then off to Mexico for another year that turned out to be three years and  Ph.D. Since then I have been travelling with my work until I arrived in Ghana from East Africa via Washington.

 

TVM: You sought to become the president at some point in time. Given the opportunity for you to assume that position or that portfolio, what key things would you want to do as a president that would change or transform this country.

ASF: The way I’ll approach it is to ask: what can I do as an ordinary person? And then, what can I do as a president that I can’t do as an ordinary person? I will then as a President address those things that I cannot do as an ordinary person.

As an ordinary person, I’m within the policy environment created by others. All I can do is to try and do my best to make whatever I’m doing work well within the limits set by the policy makers. But as a President I can change the limits set by policy makers. This is especially true for developing countries where institutions are weak and policy is still maturing and not well defined. There is obviously less room for maneuver at ministerial level than at the presidency level where the President has the greatest influence toset that policy environment for everybody else.

We have institutions in Ghana and we shouldn’t belittle them because there are  in countries where they are almost non-existent. So I have great respect for our country and what we have achieved as a democracy of sorts. But nonetheless, we are a developing country, not a developed country. Sixty (60) years in the life of a nation is like six years in the life of a man. The countries we admire so much and try to emulate have been around for hundreds of years and yet we want to fly at the same pace. Yes, we can all aspire to shared values but the rate at which such values become an integral part of our society will differ. Values demand an understanding and common acceptance of certain ethics in the society. There is need a cultural adjustments take time to make between generations.

I think that there’s still opportunity to mold or shape our country in a different way along a different path. When I think of the role of a president, what is important is the opportunity to mold and shape the country not just for the present but more for the future. I’d like to be able to address those things that are fundamental to the system of governance, the architecture of our economy and the kind of society that we want to become. And these are three separate areas that all must be worked on in tandem with each other.

I think naturally, one will ask: “So what would you do differently?” For me, I perceive that you can be a president that presides over the most efficient incremental gains but you leave with nothing really fundamentally unchanged. Or you can be a president that seeks to restructure, recreate so that the country can have big quantum leaps thereafter. Those are big challenges. Of course it is not one or the other because there is a graduation in between the two options. One must however pitch camp decisively towards one of them as the totem pole for a presidency.

I think my desire to see some big changes and be able to count them off the tip of your palm is a driving force for any ambition I had to be president. I would definitely want to go with referendum agenda for governance (one six year term limit), organize Ghana into 25 regions as units for decentralized government and abandon the farce with local government a district levels, change nature of the economy (scrap export of unprocessed cocoa beans, timber, Gold and oil) and achieve self-sufficiency in rice production in five years and sugar production in 15 years. Ensure renewable energy for 20% of our energy needs and grow our jute (kenaff) for bags so that we can completely ban use of plastics as bags. And have a compulsory two year army service for all 18 to 29 year olds.

Normally when you ask people what they’ve achieved, they start mentioning so many things but many of those many things are not fundamental changes and will be swept away in the sands of time. This is not to praise the president because he’s my friend but when you look at what has transpired over this short period, what I like is that I can count some fundamental things.

  1. He has tackled a big challenge in the education sector at a fundamental level free universal education up to secondary level
  2. He has began the journey for change in architecture of governance by the creation of five new regions
  3. He has achieved a monumental task of peace in Dagbon which eluded so many for so many years. Yes many others were involved but without his steely determination it could have easily gone on for another five years.
  4. The progress with rail transversal rail transport and industries is too early to count. So I will hold back on that for the moment, the reopening of Obuasi mines not withstanding. We must wait for the commissioning of an oil refinery that stops export of our crude oil and a Gold refinery that stops the export od unrefined Gold and indeed makes it illegal.

 

TVM: The free education?

ASF: Yes the potential  impact of free secondary education is huge. Because free universal education to secondary level will restructure the numbers of people in education and it will have a long term impact if we do it well. It help to prepare Ghana to be able to absorb those people that will come off the farms and give them the  technological skills that we need to transform the economy in a significant way.

Secondly, the recreation of the regions will fundamentally change the architecture of governance in a sense that you will have 16 region. For example, in the Northern Region we had one region covering 30percent of the land mass of Ghana, now we have three regions having 10percent each. What it means is that it will bring the higher caliber of people that one needs at the regional level to stimulate the growth and development of the region.

Also is, the long standing Dagbon crisis which has now been resolved. Again I mention these only to highlight the fact that the hard things are the ones that are worth doing and they make the biggest difference.

TVM: Should Ghanaian still be considering you as a potential presidential hopeful?

ASF: That’s a difficult question to answer. I think if something is in your destiny, it will come to pass. I think every person that has a public spirit will answer that call if it comes to you, at the right time and in the right way.  As I said, for me what is important now is to focus on building a strong agribusiness as an example of what people in agriculture can do to help people in a qualitative way, not just a quantitative way; because if I don’t do that who else is going to that?

Above all, I think there are many people who can answer that call so at the right time, if we’re lucky and blessed, we’ll get the right person to answer that call, it could be me or it could be someone else, I don’t rule myself out. In the meantime I am doing what I advice all technocrats to do, excel in your area of expertise in the private sector if you can. I like the example of the proprietor of Asheshi University.

 

TVM: How would you describe your leadership style?

ASF: I am a fairly open person because I was brought up that way. I’m also somebody who believes in systems and their principles. I tend to find my patience with people who want to bend the rules is a little bit short. I believe very much that you can only make headway if you follow the principles.  One of the things I’m not very tolerant of is that in Africa, we believe the there should be different rules governing our conduct with regards to time, seriousness and morality as if the law of gravity doesn’t apply in Africa. Time is the same anywhere. Whether you are wearing a Rolex watch or a Timex watch, it is still the same time. Whether you are in Ghana or somewhere, same is the same  in its amount. We have to give time a higher value.

It is very important that our country works and follows systems that have been proven and tested. And my leadership style is always to make sure that I push people in that direction.

 

TVM: What kind of books do you read?

ASF: I like to read biographies of people that have achieved a lot. Their lives are very instructive and also gives one a firm conviction that if one persists, one will succeed. I think sometimes, reading about other people’s lives helps. I also read science fiction and mega trends in the world.

 

TVM: what genre of music do you like?

ASF: Generally, I like cool music. I also like cool jazz as well as modern music because I’ve children. I know what Busta Rhymes sounds like. Not that I like it much but I follow what is happening and of course I’ve seen the trends and the genres of new music coming.

 

TVM: If you had the opportunity to right a wrong, what would it be?

ASF: I am somebody who has always moved on. My attitude has not always been not to cry over spilt milk and that is one of the things my foster parents built in me. My frame of mind really is always getting on with the present and the future, so I don’t like to dwell too much on the past.

TVM: A lot of Ghanaians know you as a politician, an agribusiness entrepreneur, an agronomist, what else do you do?

ASF: That’s more or less the sum total of my life. If I’m in consultancy, it’s an agricultural and development consultancy. If I’m in politics, yes it’s about society but I would like to drive the emphasis on the role agriculture can play in shaping the country because I never let go of that part of my life. I don’t try to be something that I am not, you know, I think I have a fairly broad education that allows me to integrate sources of different knowledge and use it but when I want specialized knowledge, I go to the person who has it if I don’t have it.

 

TVM: In your lifetime now, what would you want to be remembered for, as your legacy?

ASF: My legacy would not be complete without being successful in agribusiness. Because, the intellectual and development part  of my career have been done. But I want it to be punctuated with tangible success in agribusiness as an entrepreneur. I want to leave that as my flagship of an intergenerational wealth creation industry. I want to be remembered for taking a successful risk with my own resources and savings  legacy to create not just a production industry but a processing industry that is sustainable over time. I want to be remembered for putting my money where my mouth was. I hope it will be successful, if it is it will be a real legacy. As you know it is important because we can decide that from today, we’re not wearing any make-up, we’re not buying any Brazilian hair anymore. We can even decide not to buy Lexus cars or not to wear expensive suits any more, BUT we can never say we won’t eat!

 

TVM:  Interesting, now with everything that you said, I would want you to advise the government, especially, on what to do to make agriculture more productive and make the economy benefit more from agriculture, make the sector more valuable.

ASF: The real issue about agriculture is that we must walk the talk. If I would give advise to anybody, I’d say walk the talk. Let’s not talk and we don’t walk. If you walk the talk, we know what we need to do and it’ll be done. But we cannot leave it for one person to do it because that person needs help and we have to make sacrifices in other areas for it to happen.

 

TVM: How about advice for the youth and your parting message for Ghanaians?

ASF: To the youth, they should decide what they want to do; decide where their passion is, cultivate their skill set and the relevant industry experience. Rise to the zenith of their profession and then get into policy making to expand their impact. Also, they shouldn’t believe that certain things are not achievable either because they don’t have money or they come from a certain background; the human potential is vast.

The opportunity to change, the opportunity to adapt, the opportunity to overcome are always there for the taking for the person who has the courage to dare. So be somebody who dares. Don’t accept the status-quo. Push the boundaries and I’ll say for African youth that is very important because our societies are changing but not necessarily in the way we want them to change. We are subject to so many influences and we’re copying many things we shouldn’t copy, but find out who you are. Interrogate yourself: who am I? You cannot be who you are separate from your cultural identity. Put faith in your character not your degree. Don’t be rude and arrogant because it is fashionable. So just build your identity, character and passion.

 

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