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“I believe manufacturing is one area that can push the country…” – Dr Ernest Ofori Sarpong, CEO, Special Ice Ltd

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He exudes the calm confidence of a truly accomplished man without the desperation for money seen in others. He loves to share whatever he has with people. He’s built for himself an amazing business career that has led to the establishment of his footprints in the real estates, manufacturing, mining, media and finance sectors.

He is one of the Ghana’s illustrious entrepreneurs with credible track record. He started his business career from the humble beginnings of trading and moved to imports and currently operates as an industrialist. His God fearing attitude has led him to the current height he finds himself.

He is always grateful to God for how far He has brought him. A man of few words but great accomplishments. He is the current CEO of Special Ice Ltd. In an in-depth conversation with the Vaultz Magazine, Dr Ernest Ofori Sarpong tells his story.

ECONOMIC/ INDUSTRY FOCUS

TVM: As somebody who has played a lot within the Ghanaian industrial sector, what’s your initial assessment of the industry so far?

EOS: Unfortunately, Ghana’s industrial sector hasn’t lived up to expectation. We could have done better as a nation when it comes to industrialization. We still have a long way to go when it comes to industrializing the economy.

TVM: It’s being said that industry contributes about 25% to Ghana’s GPD but we are pushing for more. We’ve seen the current government having a lot of conversation around one district one factory hoping that many of these initiatives will tilt the scale and get us doing more. What’s your assessment of that and how do you see all playing out?

EOS: It’s a nice idea the government has come up with; it’s a good policy. But, what government needs to do is to make sure it materializes and also get the right people to manage and run these businesses, other than that, if it becomes politicized and fails, then we will have a long way to go as a country.

TVM: Is it feasible?

EOS: It’s very feasible if given the needed attention.

TVM: There are those who compare Ghana’s industrial growth to countries like South Korea, hoping to grow quicker. What kind of acceleration do we need to go through? You’ve built amazing businesses. What kind of lessons can we draw from you?

EOS: It’s a matter of time. With time everything is possible. What we also need to do is to be very determined as a nation to understand the fact that the nation needs industries; the nation needs these industries as its backbone. We need to grow more than the 25% we have; we need to grow above that. It’s a matter of us being more determined than we are now. I think then the country will improve.

TVM: The Deputy Minister for Trade and Industry, Hon. Robert Ahomka-Lindsay at the 2nd edition of the Ghana Manufacturing Awards did indicate that Manufacturing is the hope for Ghana and it’s quite critical to our advancement as a country. A lot has been said about building Ghana into an industrial hub to ensure manufacturing is put on a full scale. How do you see it play out? Is it just talk or you see a lot of actions? What kind actions do we need to put in place as country?

EOS: We are seeing signs of actions. It is something we can’t run away from. After independence, our first President, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, established a lot of industries but mismanagement of those industries led to their collapse. That has obviously made Ghana a more import-based economy and it’s about time we change that trend. We’ve seen some signs of actions but we need to do more.

TVM: Over the past decade you’ve moved from trading to import and probably may have been affected by the dollar at some point. Are there any specific lessons you want the government to pick, maybe one or two that we need to take a look at critically?

EOS: Until we move away from imports and build for ourselves a more industrial-based economy, we will always suffer in the hands of the USD or foreign currencies which is a big issue for any businessman or the country Ghana. I, for instance, started off as a trader and moved into import. I learnt my own lessons as an importer because of the fluctuating rate of the dollar. So, I had to cut down drastically on imports. Currently, I hardly do any imports. You’ll realize that most of the industries that I’ve ventured into are not import-based industries. So, anytime I want to engage in a particular business I try to ensure that, even if it’s an industry, the raw materials needed to be used are mainly obtained from the local market rather than importing them. I’ve had my own fair share of what the dollar can do to a businessman.

TVM: Talking about ‘local’ takes my attention to local content and local participation. In other jurisdictions, let me say Nigeria for example, partnership with locals become a prerequisite for foreign investors in the country. How do you see it play out in Ghana; is local participation or the local partnership working? Is it important; is it working; what should we do?

EOS: It is not working here because government has not made it a policy that every investor has to partner with a Ghanaian. Ghanaians naturally are very honest people and so making it a policy will help the country. What we’re seeing is: most of these investors who are foreigners repatriate their funds back to their countries and all that. This is how come they’ve taken over the economy because the government hasn’t established any policy that stipulates that foreign investors must partner with the ‘locals’.

 

TVM: There are those who have argued that maybe, just maybe, the locals are not stepping up in terms of capital mobilizations needed in key areas; the telecom sector, for instance, is one area; the banking sector as we look at it now is struggling from a low capitalization point of view. Do you agree with this assertion?

EOS: Not really. I think government should make it a policy that investors should partner with Ghanaians and it will help the country.

TVM: It seems as if the State favors more foreign investors than locals because of the kind of treatments foreign businesses get with the Free Zones Board. Do you think it’s an avenue which favors more foreign businesses? Is it working to our advantage or disadvantage as a country?

EOS: For us the local businessmen, it’s working to our disadvantage. Free Zones is a good idea. The incentives that businesses get there; the whole idea is to create employment. It is designed to get this foreigners to set up, invest and create employment. That aside, they are expected to export most of these products to other countries. But, inappropriately most of these companies end up selling their products on the market and make it a bit difficult for local investors to compete because they don’t get a level playing field to compete with these companies. This is because Free Zones’ companies don’t pay certain taxes. So, they import the raw materials, manufacture them and then end up selling probably all of the products manufactured on the market. It’s a big problem and must be checked.

TVM: If you had one advice to give to the government in terms of the operations of the Free Zones’ companies, what would it be?

EOS: Free Zones’ companies must be properly regulated. Not necessarily sanctioning them after they default but making sure they do the right thing first. I wouldn’t say we should deal with them but I think they must see the need to do the right thing. It holds a lot of employment for Ghanaians and that is a plus when it comes to economic development. Aside that, they must be made to do the right thing so they don’t compete with the locals on the local market. Free Zones’ companies have added advantages of not paying certain taxes. They have a lot of incentives and a lot of advantages when it comes to their operations. Unfortunately, Ghanaians have not taken too much advantage of this. Rather, it’s the foreigners who have taken advantage of this with the aim of trying to export most of their products. That’s okay only if they export to bring foreign exchange into the country. But the question is: are they really exporting these products? Government has to do a lot more monitoring to ensure the right thing is done but not just necessarily sanctioning them upon default.

TVM: The government upon assumption of office sought to move the country from a tax-based economy to a productive-based economy. Considering the tax rebate given to foreign companies, some estimates put it that the country loses about $2 billion annually because of the concessions given to foreign businesses. Are these ideas becoming a reality or they are still fantasies because when you cut down the taxes and it’s not leading to the productivity envisaged then it’s like cutting off the nose to spite the face?

EOS: If the essence of cutting down these taxes are genuine, that is fine. But, I believe most of the rules are not being adhered to. Cutting down taxes are to encourage businessmen but we shouldn’t give foreigners a lot of incentives so they don’t overshadow the local players. It won’t help us as a nation. We need to encourage our people to grow because they are here; they won’t repatriate funds to anywhere as foreign investors do! Local players should be given equal incentives and the focus should not be too much on foreigners. Some of us are even better than them. We should also be treated as investors rather than we being seen as locals and as such not deserving certain incentives when it comes to tax rebates.

TVM: As a local business investor, you are obviously looking for a level playing field to have an equitable benefit same with the foreign companies. What one or two things would you request from the government?

EOS: Some of our taxes have to be looked at especially with the introduction of the special tax issues and all that. Special Tax that is fine, Tax too that is fine. But special tax has to be placed on luxury items and not items like mineral water that is a necessity for us humans. What do we categorize as luxury items? Luxury items are, for example, if I decide to take a bottle of beer, I chose to for my pleasure. These are some of the things that we can categorize as luxury items, but not, for instance, I have to drink water that is a necessity. Air is free, also God created water. Water should have even been free if not for the cost of manufacturing. When there is a lot of taxes on water, a daily necessity, what are we trying to do as a nation; are we trying to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor; are we trying to expand or create a gap that will forever not even make the poor drink something like bottled water? In certain countries you don’t even see something like sachet water but in Ghana bottle water is so expensive; the tariff on it is too high. So, government should reconsider certain things; things that are daily needs and reduce the taxes on them.

BUSINESS FOCUS

TVM: ‘Special Investments’ has become a household name in Ghana’s business environment. What is special about ‘Special’?

EOS: There is nothing special about ‘Special’. However, Special Investments is a parent company; it’s a real estate company which was formed some years ago. So, when I decided to venture into mineral water I didn’t want to veer off the brand and so went for ‘Special’. So, as for ‘Special’, it is special!

TVM: Why that brand identity?

EOS: I have no particular reason. I just love the word “special”. I wanted everything of mine to be special; I wanted to do some form of special investments. So, when it came to the mineral water, I said to myself let me stick to the name ‘Special’.

TVM: Have you been able to achieve something special?

EOS: Yes, I would say so. I’ve had special patronage from the public on the products. So, at least I have been able to achieve something.

TVM: Is Special Ice doing very well on the market?

EOS: Yes, it’s doing pretty well on the market.

TVM: How would you define the business climate in Ghana? What does the concept of “ease of doing business in Ghana” mean to you; is it working?

EOS: To a certain extent it’s working especially when it comes to power. Some few years ago, we had lots of problems with power. But currently power is quite stable. The problem we manufacturers have now is that the cost of power in Ghana is very high. If you go to certain countries, power is being subsidized for industries. But, in Ghana there is the domestic rate and the commercial rate. The question is: why domestic rate and commercial rate? If government is not even subsidizing the power; why should they make it twice the price when we use it to produce something? This is unfair and it’s not in the right direction. Government should rather be encouraging people to set up industries by giving them constant power and also better rates when it comes to power tariffs. If I have to pay twice the rate for industry consumption and pay less at home, it’s difficult to appreciate. I don’t personally welcome this.

TVM: Under the same heading of “ease of doing business,” there are those who complain about the cost of borrowing in Ghana. They’ve categorized it as “uneasiness of doing business in Ghana”. What’s your thought on this?

EOS: That is very true. The cost of borrowing is very high in Ghana. I believe that is the economic trend of events. We can’t run away from it as far as that is concerned. But I know probably with time, if government continues a lot of what they’re doing now, interest rates may probably come down. We saw a sign in the recent past but quite recently the cedi to dollar has plunged, and we know it will surely affect interest rates.

TVM: What are some of the biggest challenges confronting industrialists aside the cost of power, forex fluctuations and interest rates which you’ve mentioned?

EOS: These are mostly the issues but we also have labor challenges where the normal Ghanaian attitude towards work is sometimes appalling. I think Ghanaians at a point complain there’s no employment but when given the opportunity don’t live up to expectations. The general Ghanaian attitude towards work has to be looked at. People, especially factory hands, need to improve their attitude. People sit at home for years because of lack of jobs and all of a sudden get employed but still fail to live up to expectation. It bothers a lot because it disturbs employers on what to do. You can’t keep firing them all the time. Sometimes you need to be tolerant a little bit and then maintain them.

TVM: How are you dealing with each of the challenges enumerated starting with forex fluctuations?

EOS: Forex does affect me. Sometimes, as individuals we can’t even control it and that’s why I always try to avoid the dollar or foreign currencies’ complications. It’s not the best for industrialists, especially for those who import raw materials into the country for production. The economy can only be controlled by the government and sometimes there are also external factors that even the government may not have control over. So, controlling the forex is quite a difficult one.

TVM: So, your basic approach to dealing with it is to focus more on businesses which probably enable you to avoid the complications of the forex?

EOS: Yes. Businesses that are not foreign exchange inclined.

TVM: What about the interest rate; that you cannot dodge?

EOS: Yes. That I can’t dodge. But, I try to avoid borrowing as much as possible. My team and I always try to work within our own means.

TVM: So does that mean your capital mobilization has always been internal and borrowing less?

EOS: Yes. I can’t say we haven’t borrowed before but we borrow less.

TVM: Any other challenge you want to share?

EOS: Well, these are the four main challenges.

TVM: You’ve touched manufacturing, media, real estate, mining and finance. What should Ghanaian be looking up to next from you in the line of business?

EOS: For now it could be anything. I don’t have anything in mind currently. Moreover, some of our businesses are quite young and have the potentials to expand to full blown companies. For example, BestPoint Savings and Loans can become a full-fledged bank. Also, the insurance company which currently is engaging in General insurance operations can be expanded. We still have other areas we haven’t explored, for instance, life insurance and all that. We would be looking at exploring all these areas before moving into other areas. I haven’t explored fully everything that I have touched my hands on.

TVM: Do you follow opportunities and take advantages?

EOS: Yes. That’s what business is all about.

PERSONALITY PROFILE

TVM: When the name Ernest Ofori Sarpong is mentioned across the globe, what comes to mind is “the philanthropist”. Does this have anything to do with your upbringing?

EOS: Probably, let me put it that way. I just happen to have that power of sharing. Such that when I happen to have something I always want to share with people. So yes, it’s part of my upbringing; the Presbyterian upbringing I got from my parents.

TVM: By the way, who is Ernest Ofori Sarpong?

EOS: As you rightly said: Ernest Ofori Sarpong is my name. I am the CEO of Special Ice Mineral Water as well as Special Investments Company. I also happen to be a partner in BestPoint Savings and Loans, Best Assurance, Best Ventures, UTV, U2 Salt and a few others. The only person I have had partnership with is my senior brother, Osei Kwame Despite. We’ve had a very cordially relationship so far.

TVM: Currently you have maneuvered, survived, existed and now a ‘power house’. How has that worked?

EOS: It’s just by dint of hard work.

TVM: Does that mean you’re less of a theory and more of practical? What lessons can be learnt?

EOS: I believe as a businessman you should have your own goals and should strive to attain those goals. With determination heaven favors everyman. Along the way you may have some failures but when you’re determined, success will be yours.

TVM: What ignited the spark in you to undertake this journey of entrepreneurship?

EOS: Maybe because I was determined to be a successful man in life. That’s what sparked all this. Also, my relationship with my mom may have contributed because she made me realize I could do well if I kept at it and that’s what has driven me to where I am today. Nonetheless, hard work has been key.

TVM: How have you sourced for ideas?

EOS: I used to read a lot especially books that have been authored by some of the successful personalities and I took a lot of inspiration from them. So, I knew that once I had that entrepreneurial skill, I could make it in life. I relied on it very strongly and at least for where I am, I’ve been able to achieve something.

TVM: Have you been a Presbyterian all your life?

EOS: Well, ever since I grew up.

TVM: Can you tell us how your Christian faith has shaped your business and personal life and the correlation between the two?

EOS: In every business, one should just remember that the key owner of the business is God Almighty. You can’t do business without remembering who has brought you to where you are. I have always been grateful to God for what He has done for me. That’s one of my keys to success.  I always remember that God has been kind to me. I don’t do anything without praying about it and I pray a lot and I think that is one of the things that has made me successful. We should all remember that our successes depend on the Almighty God, once we forget about Him anything can happen to us.

TVM: Is that the discipline that runs through your businesses and employees? Is that something you try to instill in them?

EOS: Yes, I try to but as to whether they take it or not, I don’t know.

TVM: What drives you or keeps you going in business?

EOS: Well, it’s not just venturing into any business because I feel it’s a good venture; no, not at all. I consider certain areas– areas that can support the businesses I’m already engaged in. For instance, when I looked at banking I realized it will support what I’m doing; also when I looked at insurance I realized it will support what am doing; when I looked at the media I realized it will support advertising of my products. So, it’s not just venturing into any business but as to whether it will be beneficial to the operations of the other businesses.

TVM: Does it mean your business model is an ecosystem that reinforces one another?

EOS: That is perfectly right.

TVM: Your hard work has paid off through the numerous laurels you’ve received both locally and internationally. How do they make you feel?

EOS: They make me work harder; they inspire me. It’s not every award that I even accept. I’ve had a number of them come my way but I try to be as selective as possible. When I receive these awards, right from the very first one that I was given, they have inspired me to whatever level I am today. It makes me work harder and harder by the day.

TVM: What will make you say no to an award?

EOS: It depends on where it’s coming from.

TVM: You are described as “absolutely a man of his word, seeing through every single promise that he makes during an entire transaction, all his documents are legitimate, intact and well-kept and he exudes the calm confidence of a truly accomplished man without the desperation for money seen in others.” Is this true; do you concur to these descriptions?

EOS: Well, I think it’s true and I do

TVM: With the afore-mentioned description, what are your ideals in life?

EOS: To be honest as possible. Honesty, that’s the key word that I would use.

TVM: In the very distant future when all is said and done, how would you want to be remembered?

EOS: Well, probably to be remembered as someone who helped a few others to come up to certain levels in life.

TVM: If you had the chance to start your life over again, what would you have done differently?

EOS:  Nothing much. Because I don’t think I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. Probably, I will go through the same process.

TVM: If you had a chance to rewrite a wrong, what will it be; is there any you can pinpoint?

EOS:  Not necessarily. For instance, look at the number of businesses that I own, some are doing better than others but I wouldn’t necessarily say, I wouldn’t have gone for those ones. Almost everything that I’m doing is for a purpose. I wouldn’t write any of them off; I would go through the same thing.

TVM: You sure there’s nothing you wish you could make right?

EOS: I would have corrected a few things and probably done certain things better than I did them when I didn’t know too much about those things. I would have corrected myself, if I had the chance to go back. But I wouldn’t run away from the things that I have done. I would have made a lot of corrections then vary it a little bit better.

TVM: Who has been your greatest inspiration both in business and in personal life?

EOS: Probably, I would say Osei Kwame. My wife also inspires me a lot and above all the biographies of other accomplished personalities.

TVM: What is your hobby?

EOS: My business has become my hobby.

TVM: Aside your business, what else?

EOS: I will prefer to be on the football field. Football is my hobby, both watching and playing it.

TVM: Any favorite team?

EOS: Non in particular. But on a good day, I’ll support Barcelona in the Spanish La Liga and Chelsea in the English Premier League.

TVM: It is on record that you are an ardent auto fanatic. Which is your favorite?

EOS: My favorite car is Bentley, and a second choice would be Mercedes Benz.

TVM: What’s your favorite delicacy and wine?

EOS: My favorite delicacy is rice; all sorts. While a red wine is good. My favorite wine will probably be Chateau.

TVM: What genre of music do you love and listen to most?

EOS: I like to listen to old school. But if it’s Ghanaian music I’ll possibly go for Daddy Lumba. But, I like to listen more to old school.

TVM: What is your advice to the government?

EOS: Government should make the atmosphere a bit more conducive for manufacturers. I believe manufacturing is one area that can push the country forward and so government should focus critically on that area to develop the economy.

TVM: What is your advice to the youth?

EOS: To the youth, I would say they should set their own goals and strive hard to achieve those goals and work towards them.

TVM: What is your advice to your peers; industry players and business community?

EOS: To my peers, I would say everyone should work hard. They shouldn’t let peer pressure have an effect on them. They should just work hard and try to move according to their own pace.

 

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  • Sir i salute your thought that manufacturing is bones of any country who is growing

Profiles

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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