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In reality, we are in a very high political environment in Ghana… Mr. Eric Seddy Kutortse – Executive Chairman, First Sky Group

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His determination and absolute trust in God, coupled with the abiding principles of integrity, honesty and quality, have made him one of Ghana’s iconic figures in the world of entrepreneurship.

He holds a stainless record on corruption and firmly believes in a philosophy of not robbing the poor to reward them with same. He started his entrepreneurial career with designing and printing of business cards but today his business has transformed into a conglomerate employing over 1800 Ghanaians and counting.

From humble beginnings with construction, the company has moved firmly into hospitality, finance, commodities, bitumen processing and other fields all assembled under the First Sky Group.

His philanthropic gestures, love for humanity and most importantly for God is beyond comprehension. He currently holds an Honorary Professorship degree from one of the world’s most prestigious institutions, Academic Union, Oxford.

In an epic interview with Team Vaultz, Mr. Eric Seddy Kutortse, the Executive Chairman of First Sky Group unravels his journey to the top. Take a seat and enjoy.

Economy/ Industry Focus

TVM: What is your view of Ghana’s economy currently?

ESK: To be able to assess the economy of any country, it’s either back to back or year to year. When I consider the year to year review of Ghana’s economy, I can say the economy is doing very well. This is premised on the macroeconomic indicators of the country. When we consider the various indicators such as inflation, interest rate, GDP etc., we’ll realize that the economy is getting better.

As of 2016, the GDP growth of the economy was 3.6% as compared to 8.5% in 2017 and that made it one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Also, when it comes to inflation, in 2016 it was about 15.4% but today we’re experiencing single-digit inflation of about 9.6% which is good for business. Interest rate in 2016 was almost 26% but today, we are experiencing between 17 to 20%. All these indicators prove that the economy is doing well; the right measures are being put in place.

But then, the most important thing for us is: “how sustainable are these economic indicators having experienced such in 2013 with growth rate of 7.6% and it declining to 5.6% in 2014 and down to 4.8% in 2015 and further to 3.6% in 2016?” How sustainable will this growth be under the new government? You realize that critically the government is not spending on infrastructure. It’s putting the structures in place; it’s discipline in its expenditure with prudent management of the economy.

The question now is: how would this be sustained throughout the four years especially during the election year? For this to be sustained, the government has to undertake massive production and industrialization as a way of injecting into the economy. That is why I’m sure the government has rolled out those commendable programs like ‘Planting for Food and Jobs; One District One Factory; One Village One Dam’.

The ‘One Village One Dam’ will enhance the ‘Planting for Food and Jobs’ and this will also be a facilitator to ‘One District One Factory’. Currently, Ghana imports about US$2.4 billion worth of food annually. So if this ‘Planting for Food and Jobs’ is sustained it will reduce these expenditures and allow government to transfer those resources into other areas such as infrastructure. To drive infrastructure, there must be an investment but the funds are unavailable so we need to drive other productive sectors to raise the capital required for infrastructural development.

People see these policies as political policies but as an entrepreneur I see them as economic policies. Currently, Ghana experiences almost 42% of postharvest losses. If these factories are in place to add value to all these goods for export, we shall be earning foreign exchange.

These policies will create jobs, expand our exports, impact our foreign reserves positively since we’re producing locally, cut down on foreign exchange and the currency will become stable. But for this to succeed, Ghanaians must create the habit and appetite for locally manufactured goods and services. In all these, the critical success factor is: government must begin to conscientize and sensitize Ghanaians to embrace the locally made goods and services.

TVM: As an industry player, what are your thoughts on the current Ghana-Sinohydro infrastructure agreement that the government has signed and how is local content entrenched for its take off?

ESK: Let’s first consider the overview of the infrastructure industry as it stands now in Ghana. As far as the road sector is concerned, Ghana has almost 72,000 km of roads and out of these only 39% is either having the asphalt or the bitumen. 61% as of today are in a very deplorable or poor state and the government needs almost 600 million to 1 billion US$ annually for 10 years to be able to attain 70% of good roads in the country.

Thus, government going to look for US$2 billion for infrastructural development is a welcome news. This will go a long way to improve upon the country’s infrastructure deficit. As far as I know, it’s a barter arrangement for Ghana’s refined bauxite and Sinohydro Group Limited of China will come and construct the roads themselves. We are told, which is not finalized yet, that the local content participation of that project is 30%.

This simply means government is bringing in US$2 billion and 70% of that would be taken by the Chinese company and the rest 30% for local companies. I believe that a lot of critical projects will be covered under this arrangement and that would go a long way to improve the infrastructure of the country.

TVM: Are local contractors covered at the frontier side or on the outsourcing side?

ESK: As far as that project is concerned, it has not been finalized yet. But I’m sure we would be covered on the frontier side.

TVM: You are one of the few successful entrepreneurs in the civil engineering and construction industry in Ghana. Is the industry making progress as expected?

ESK: Yes and no. As it stands, there are a lot of bottlenecks in the industry. The major one is the lack of funds. This eventually leads to lack of capacity on behalf of contractors. Currently, there are lots of backlogs of projects that are not paid for.

This is not an issue of this new government, it has been the issue since Nkrumah’s time. For instance, a project can be completed and after 2 years payment would still be pending. As soon as the payment is made you go back and repeat the same process. Funding is one of the few challenges the industry is engrossed with.

TVM: There are those who argue that the big-ticket transactions are driven by foreign companies and for the locals, it’s a big issue. Do we have the capacity issue with the local contractors?

ESK: This is not an issue of capacity. The issue is that most of these projects are driven by concessionary loans. As part of the agreement on this concessionary loans, it comes with the package that the home where the loan is sourced, that country’s contractor undertakes such projects. Hence, it’s rather the issue of the government taking it or not. The government on the other hand also wants the infrastructure so goes for such an agreement and the funds are released with their contractors undertaking the projects.

That leaves local contractors at the mercies of government-funded projects where funds are also not available. Until such a time where donor countries will relax on some of these conditions to allow fair and free participation in the bidding process by the local contractors, we’ll still be having problems like this. Therefore, for local contractors to participate maximally, we need to raise the funds ourselves as a country.

TVM: Looking at the opportunities that abound, does this mean contractors are having a field day?

ESK: Of course you can be right to conclude as such considering the very many works to be done and a lot being in our hands to do. But the problem is after executing the project, payment then becomes a problem. So, we may have a field day of getting the project but are strangulated by payment.

TVM: Many Ghanaians complain about the quality of roads constructed and the high costs associated with them. Are there checks and balances to address these problems?

ESK: Let’s consider the project lifecycle. It starts with the initiation of the project, then to the planning and designing stage, then to the execution, and then to monitoring and evaluation and then closure. Let’s go through the processes to appreciate the operations and understand how the shoddy work comes about and know who to hold responsible.

The government initiates the project then the planning and designing is undertaken by engineers who take inventories to access the type of road that will be suitable for the area by doing traffic counts and considering the axle load. They normally need to be on the site for at least three months to assess the type of vehicles that ply that road. That will determine the type of design that would be done on that particular corridor. In some cases, especially in high traffic areas, one needs to do the crash-rock base.

After the crash-rock base, comes in the asphalt. Such a project when well monitored can last for almost 30 years.  That design would then be given to the contractor and the contractor based on what has been designed only executes according to the specifications and design of the engineer. During the execution process, there is a monitoring and evaluation by the engineers who are supposed to be with the contractor throughout the execution process.

After that, it goes to closure, where the initiator, the one who designed, the one who monitored and the one who executed the project come together to inspect the work (road). When the initiator is satisfied, he takes over and closes the contract. If after one year the road goes bad who do you think should be held responsible?

TVM: Have you ever been blamed?

ESK: Yes, I have. For instance, there was a project funded by the World Bank. It was initiated by the government. The engineers went there to design the road. At the time they were on the road, they saw only bicycles, motorbikes and the only heavy vehicle they saw was an Urvan bus (trotro) and that even plied once every market day. So the project was designed for that particular type of vehicle whose base needed a natural ground of only about 250 in the bitumen surface.

The project was executed and monitored very closely because it was a World Bank project that had a consultant. The project was officially closed. After one week of closure, Adomi Bridge was also closed for renovation. Diamond Cement in Aflao afterwards located a clinker at the Somanya rocks so the new road became the shortest route for the company’s trucks to load the clinker from Somanya to Aflao. But the road was not designed for such vehicles.

Within the shortest time the road experienced wear and tear. The community petitioned the president and minister and a committee was set up with the World Bank involved. They went in to assess and the blame was placed on the designing and not execution. Sometimes, in my case for instance, the design was proper but nobody foresaw such an incident. Government at that point should have stopped those vehicles from plying that road because it wasn’t designed for such vehicles.

Sometimes too execution can be a problem; I’m not holding brief for contractors. But design is a major problem in most road failures in this country. Monitoring too can be a problem. For instance, under the Department of Feeder Roads which is having about 8 engineers and handling about 30 projects, supervision will be stretched. When monitoring and evaluation are not done properly that’s when unscrupulous contractors take advantage and do shoddy jobs.

TVM: From all you have said, it can be summarized that there’s a funding challenge, design challenge, construction challenge and also a monitoring and evaluation challenge. But all these are fixable. What is the industry as a whole doing to avoid or mitigate these challenges?

ESK: This is what contractors are pushing with the support of the World Bank, of which I’m one of the advocates, that the road after the initiation stage the one executing, the contractor, must be involved in the designing to execution, monitoring and evaluation and if there’s any failure he’ll be held responsible for it.

BUSINESS FOCUS

TVM: You started off your entrepreneurial journey with the First Sky Construction Ltd. Was there any business before that? How did you come about the idea for the First Sky Construction Ltd.?

ESK: Just after completing the university, I convinced myself not to work for anybody; I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I got those ideas from books I had read and they challenged me a lot. I refused to compile my CV in other not to have a second thought of looking for a job. I started business with call card design and printing. This came as a result of attending programs and meeting key personalities including Ministers.

I took their complimentary cards and redesigned them and went back to show them and they preferred mine. So they gave me that as a business. From there, I realized the business was not sustainable and engaged in prayers and searching through the word of God for what to do. One day, I chanced upon James 1: 5 which paraphrases wisdom comes from above, so if you lack it ask God for it. Then I began to ask God for wisdom on what to do.

From there I ventured into medical disposables. I wrote to a lot of companies across the globe and had a company in India which I represented as the local agent for West Africa. The business was okay. At a point I went for a tender and after the tender opening I realized that people were quoting lower prices than my ex-warehouse price in India. They were saying they would supply from India and I was surprised as to how that was possible. Again I realized that wasn’t sustainable as well so I had to do something that was challenging and had fewer competitors.

Sometime in 2001 during the change of Government, I was going through the dailies when I saw a lot of advertisements on road contracts and applied. I was asked if I had a company and I responded no. I was asked again if I had a road certificate and I answered no.  So, they enquired how I was going to go about the project and I answered saying “I just want a project.” They directed me on how to go about all the things and I did.

I bided for the project and fortunately a lot of people did not because the government was new and had not established relationship with contractors. I won and was called to come for my award letter. The biggest challenge was how I was going to start and execute the project. I held the contract for 2 weeks going around. One day I saw one of the equipment I needed in Dzworwulu for rental. I passed by and during all those 2 weeks it was still lying there. I called the contact and requested for a meeting. I informed him about the contract and requested he gave me his equipment to use and afterwards I would pay him but he blatantly refused.

So I picked his number and persisted. On the third day I went to his office and he consented to it. He requested for a bank guarantee and I told him if I had the money I wouldn’t have been troubling him all those while. As a result, he suggested I got a lawyer for us to sign an agreement. Fortunately, I had a lawyer friend so we went and signed the agreement and the equipment was released to me. It was also left with the fueling of the equipment.

I engaged a fuel station and I was turned down. I went to the head office of the fuel company and I was considered but was expected to make payment after one month. Truthfully, after two weeks I completed the project and after two weeks I was paid. With integrity and honesty I went to pay off the equipment and paid off the fuel and gave them the profit I made and requested we continued the relationship on to the second project. After we executed the second project, I had little more to pay as balance and had the rest as my start-up capital. After my projects, there were almost about 20 projects that had not been started by the people who bided for them so I was called upon to execute them one after the other.

I was very judicious in my work and served in all capacities. After three years, I was noted for my aggressiveness, timely and quality delivery of work; they were my hallmark and that impressed the people, the engineers and the politicians. I had to do things differently considering the big players who were dominating the industry and that was my only ticket for sustainability. Subsequently, whenever there was a project, the first person that came to mind was I.

TVM: The First Sky Construction Ltd. that started with just about 5 people has grown to assume a conglomerate status having a construction firm, hospitality firm, commodities firm, financial institutions under its belt with over 1700 employees. How did the businesses all build up?

ESK: The whole idea started with the construction company as mentioned earlier and we’ve expanded. Normally after elections, there is a down slope of business as far as infrastructure is concerned because government does not undertake infrastructural projects immediately. During the down slope, contractors go on recess and during this period, at times, I had a lot of resources at my disposal as a firm and the idea came to mop up the resources to construct the hotel.

Almost all our projects in the construction business depend on government and as such any shock in the system affects everything. We decided to do something that would be slightly independent of government. That was where the idea came for the Volta Serene Hotel. As a contractor, constructing a hotel was not of any difficult issue.

TVM: You just mentioned ‘shock’ and during your 14th anniversary celebration, Rev. Dr. Paul Frimpong Manso disclosed that “… First Sky Group survived the many machinations of the ‘enemy’”. What do you think he meant by the statement?

ESK: Rev. Dr. Paul Frimpong Manso happens to be my spiritual leader. He is the Superintendent of the Assemblies of God where I have my faith and he is my prayer warrior. He might have been speaking from the spiritual point of view because I’m somebody who has devoted all his life to ensuring God’s kingdom is expanded using all available resources to build churches and engage in all forms of humanitarian activities.

He might have said those depending on what he sees when praying. In reality, we are in a very high political environment in Ghana and our democracy is still very fragile and young. So as entrepreneurs we must be very careful and politically neutral. When I was awarded the Youngest Entrepreneur in West Africa in 2015, in my acceptance remarks I made a profound statement that is much related to this discussion. I admonished entrepreneurs and colleague businessmen to try as much as possible to separate their businesses from active politics.

I advised that only their thumbs should decide the political destiny of their respective countries but not their voices on radios or televisions because our democratic environment was fragile. Anything can happen to your business when you combine the two and as a matter of fact, it’s the truth. As a businessman to contest an election, I don’t see it to be right. I strongly believe there should be a fourth arm of government and I propose that should be entrepreneurs and there must be separation of powers among these four arms and this is very important. As far as Africa’s democracy is concerned, entrepreneurs must separate themselves from politics.

The fourth arm of government I propose should be entrepreneurs and not be blended. That is the only way we can see this country growing and individual businesses growing without interruptions. There were instances where people had grown to certain levels and were back tracked for 8 years and had to begin from the scratch again; who loses? It is the country that loses and not that individual. I have not actually experienced that because I stay in business and I do my business.

I don’t meddle in politics. I have never contributed on any political platform. I have never worn any political paraphernalia in my life as a businessman, I use only my thumb to determine the political direction of this country.

TVM: The plush Volta Serene Hotel is a luxurious 4-Star Hotel at the heart of the capital town of Volta Region, Ho. Why did you choose to situate it there and not in the capital city, Accra?

ESK: Well, as a businessman every business endeavor comes in as a solution to a problem. First, I realized that four star hotel was a problem in the Volta Region and also in the regional capital. To develop this country we should not be skewed to one side because it comes with all the social problems such as over centralization. I noticed that a lot of people who visited Ho at the time for programs did not get the type of facility they wanted so had to joggle between Akosombo and Ho for their programs. Consequently, I considered to tap into the available market.

TVM: In the near future should we expect the replication of ‘Volta Serene’ in other regions?

ESK: Of course. As far as Volta Serene is concerned we have the idea of replicating it, first of all, in the Central Region. A land has already been acquired in Kakum where we’re building the same facility, four-star, to also provide for those who would like to come to the Kakum National Park or the Central Region. The facility is for a unique market and those are the people we’re targeting. The idea is therefore to replicate Volta Serene across the country.

TVM: The name Serene seems to be very synonymous to you. What’s your affection for the word serene?

ESK: Serene simply means calm, unperturbed. It can also mean untroubled. These are some of the meanings. In any business endeavor, troubles will come but your name will signify what you stand for. In my case, the name tells me to calm down, not be troubled, not be perturbed, and that it’ll all fade away. That kind of a name reminds and gives the sort of calmness required at any point in time when troubles come.

The name goes into my system and soothes me to make the right decisions at any point in time. That is how I came by the name ‘Serene’ to remind me when all the troubles and problems come, which will surely come.

TVM: Problems may come, accidents will come, fire will come, burglary will come but with Serene Insurance you are covered. Tell us about Serene Insurance?

ESK: As a man who has journeyed far and wide, I identify opportunities everywhere I go. Serene Insurance was borne out of such expeditions. After being to Kenya, South Africa and reading business bulletins, I realized insurance penetration was still low more especially in Ghana with a penetration of about 2%. I realized there are a lot of opportunities that could be exploited in the insurance market that were not taking advantage of.

I asked myself “why can’t I take this up and bring a difference into the industry,” and that’s why our slogan says “Serene Insurance, the new face of insurance.” We are coming in with a new face of insurance to take advantages of all the grey areas that have not been exploited or have been left unattended to in the insurance industry.

TVM: Considering the crisis in the banking industry which is a larger part of the financial sector where you’re venturing. Are you concerned in any way with the happenings?

ESK: Yes, I’m concerned. In life whatever happens to your friend has the tendency of happening to you. With all these things happening in the banking sector, the underlining factor is: Good Corporate Governance. Things must be done in an orderly manner. If you look at the board constituted for Serene Insurance, it tells you that indeed it’s coming in with a difference. The board members are people with proven integrity and are industry experts.

The board constitutes 9 members and I’m not the chair neither is any family member nor a friend on it. About 7 of the 9 board members are all former MDs of insurance companies. The board is chaired by a professor who has almost 54 years in Actuarial Science and retired. He is also a Reverend Pastor. With these caliber of persons, they are in control. Whatever comes to me is at the end of the year when the dividend is shared and that is where my interest in the business must be concerned.

If we understand it this way, I think what is happening right now in the banking sector could have been avoided and that is what I’m bringing on board. When it comes to the management team nobody has been poached, nobody came into the company upon someone’s recommendation. We advertised and had about 4000 applicants. It was short listed to almost 24 and the checks and balances by the HR short listed them to 12 before placing them before a competent interview panel. With all these I’m sure that Serene Insurance is going to be a new face in the insurance industry.

TVM: In your bid to diversify and expand the First Sky Group, you have established a lot of companies. What should Ghanaians be looking forward from you next?

ESK: There is nothing for now. All I have laid on the table I think it’s time to nurture them, look at them very well that they impact the economy positively. For now, I have no intention of any new project apart from these ones.

TVM: Any intentions of the group going global?

ESK: We are already global.

TVM: First Sky Group also plays in the Commodities Market and Bitumen Processing Factory. Where specifically are you playing and why are you there?

ESK: We are actually an LBC company (Licensed Buying Company). We buy the cocoa and then supply it to the government for onward export. This idea came whiles undertaking one of the projects in the Volta Region where I saw throngs of people carrying bags of cocoa on their head to cross the border into Togo to sell.

I intercepted and asked them where they were going with the cocoa and made them understand the illegality of transporting the cocoa across the border and asked how they expected roads and hospitals to be built. To my surprise they told me the cocoa was available and nobody was coming to buy so if I was interested I should pay them and take the cocoa else they would continue to Togo where they had the only available market. I came back to Accra and picked up the matter and went to COCOBOD to meet with the Chief Executive and I told him about the situation.

That year Ghana was unable to achieve its target of 900,000 tons that they had promised the international market. I questioned what he was doing as the Chief Executive to ensure that people were all over the area to buy the cocoa for the country. He was shocked at my utterance. I brought to his attention that I am a Ghanaian and the country needed the resources to develop and that the resources should not be sent outside and he being the Chief Executive must act.

He looked into my face and saw the passion with which I spoke and told me he needed me to do the work for him. I quickly responded that I had no knowledge on it unless I researched and conducted feasibility studies and that it would take three months before I could get back to him. I never accepted the offer straight away.

I went back and did the feasibility study and read extensively about it. At the point when I was convinced, I went back and applied for the license, had it, took it up and registered the company as First Sky Commodities. For the very first year, we bought more than 1200 tons and as we speak we are almost close to 5000 tons within 3 years in the industry.

For the bitumen processing factory which started operations some few months ago has the capacity to produce 2,000,000 litres annually for the Ghanaian and sub regional construction industry.

PERSONALITY PROFILE

TVM: When your name is mentioned, people refer to you as a ‘businessman-cum-philanthropist’. But beyond this, what sort of a person are you?

ESK: I’m a social entrepreneur. As a social entrepreneur, I’m not so much focused on profit making. I’m only concerned about human beings; the welfare of human beings. This stems from my upbringing. I have not been exposed to luxury living. I quite remember a point in time when I was sent off from the dining hall for none payment of school fees. Since then my concern has been on what I can do to improve the life of mankind and to expand the kingdom of God. These are the only focuses I have and work for.

TVM: As a philanthropist, are your early childhood challenges part of the reasons why you do good?

ESK: I didn’t experience so much challenges in my upbringing but the only thing is that it’s biblical. The resources of this world belong to the Almighty God and He says in His word that He gives the power and strength to amass wealth. Without the strength, the power and the blessings of the Lord, there is no way man can make wealth and sustain it for the next generation. Therefore, anytime you make wealth you must understand that that wealth does not belong to you; it belongs to God; for He gives the wisdom and the strength.

The resources belong to God so when they come, I go back to Him and ask what He wants me to do with the resources. I’m on record that the company does not belong to me but to God. So God gives me the idea on what to use the resources for and He directs me on how to expand the business for others to get jobs, to support people who are suffering, to build churches for God’s people, buy instruments for God’s people, worship Him; that’s what I’m concerned about, but not for my personal lifestyle.

As I speak I have only two cars and one house that I live in because it does not make sense to me to have fleet of cars and many houses whiles people around me are suffering. They are in the hospitals dying because they cannot afford to pay their bills. Moreover, I cannot also think that I’m investing for my children because what that means is that I’m telling God that my children are incapable of doing it for themselves and as such I need to do it for them. I don’t see why I should amass wealth in this country.

I sleep on one bed in one house and so who should occupy the second house? My children should also grow and do it for themselves. I tell my children it is by grace that I have made it and that God will help them do it better. The leverage I’m giving to them is the education and that is all. All other resources I have does not belong to them; it belongs to the people, it belongs to God, God’s work, to bring relief to mankind. That is what I stand for.

TVM: What did you study for your undergraduate?

ESK: I studied Philosophy and Political Science combined at the University of Ghana.

TVM: What’s the correlation between what you studied for your undergraduate program and the career path you’re treading?

ESK: One thing about University of Ghana by its old status is to train people to be Genocrats, to acquire general knowledge in everything. KNUST to train people to be technocrats i.e. technology oriented, and UCC trains people to train others. I went to school to be trained as a genocrat; I have been trained to be able to do everything. My mind is generally opened to everything. Therefore, what I need to do is to put bits and pieces of my ideas together to get things done. Based on the training as a genocrat, when undertaking any discipline by way of personal study or by way of improving knowledge it’s very fast. When I engage engineers, they all think I hold an MSc in engineering but it’s all the basis and the ability to learn.

TVM: You averred “we have a stainless record” during your 14th anniversary and annual thanksgiving service. It’s difficult in a terrain like ours to grow in power and influence and not be tagged as corrupt. How have you survived this whole murky business-government relationship and still have your head high?

ESK: It all depends on the word of God. I am a deacon and I preach the word of God to people. So I must be seen doing the right thing before even preaching to the people. Now, the modern way of evangelism is when you talk the talk and walk the walk. Yes, I made that statement that “we have a stainless record” because I have never been involved in any form of corruption or undercutting or shortchanging this country in my 17 years of business willfully.

It is my conviction not to do it because it does not make sense to me to pose as a humanitarian and then shortchange the people and give it back to them. Then, I’m better off keeping and using it for myself. It was a challenge and I threw it to the public. Just after that challenge was thrown, one of the anticorruption agencies invited me and investigated my business for the past 5years. At the end of it I was congratulated. After that, one of the revenue agencies also came in to investigate my businesses for the past 5years and at the end of it all they couldn’t find anything.

At the end of it, that convinced everybody that truly I have a stainless record. I believe any ill-gotten wealth will be ill spent and cannot be passed to the next generation and I give the glory and honor in all this to God.

TVM: You have won for yourself very admirable and prestigious awards both in the local and intentional arenas. Did you expect these achievements when venturing into your entrepreneurial endeavor?

ESK: At a point, I saw them coming because of my conviction about quality and doing the right things at the right times. Some of the awards citations really amazes me. They reveal that the people really investigated almost all my projects and made reference to those projects that they have gone through and have seen that it had stood the test of time, and that was why some of the awards were actually given. It’s a motivation and also saying that whatever thing you are doing people are watching.

That is the one thing that I have picked from these awards. When you are doing the right thing the reward will come, when you are also doing the wrong thing too, its consequences will also follow suit.

TVM: What are your ideals, what do you stand for?

ESK: My ideals are honesty, integrity and quality.

TVM: Who has been your greatest inspiration in your journey of entrepreneurship?

ESK: Books are my greatest inspiration. I can mention a few of such authors as Napoleon Hill, Goldman Sachs and Benjamin Graham. Those are some of the books that really motivated and streamlined me and above all is the Holy Bible.

TVM: If you had a chance, what one major thing would you change in Ghana?

ESK: This is a difficult one. But the one thing I’ll like to change is the separation of the executive and legislature. There must be a strict separation of powers of the first and second arm of government to be able to deal with issues thoroughly and allow the country to be run smoothly.

But if we still want to go with the hybrid system, then we should have somebody who will oversee the second arm of government because you realize that the legislature is just a conduit of the executive and they have their way through things so easily but I’ll prefer that separation to be done.

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

ESK: Not anything different. I cannot imagine what I would have done differently except that I wished I knew God earlier than I did.

TVM: When all is over with work, how would you want to be remembered?

ESK: I want to be remembered for the number of peoples’ lives I’ve impacted.

TVM: What is your hobby?

ESK: I play long tennis. I play it very well and I’m very good at it.

TVM: What makes you stay up at night?

ESK: What makes me stay up at night is what I can do differently to impact the lives of people and also expand God’s kingdom. These two keep me awake at night.

TVM: What’s your favorite meal and wine?

ESK: I like fufu with dried fish light soup. Nonalcoholic wine like Hallelujah wine is my favorite wine.

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

ESK: I love Reggae.

TVM: What’s your advice for the government?

ESK: The government should strengthen the anticorruption agencies well enough to bring corruption to the barest minimum because it is estimated that this country loses about 3 billion dollars to corruption and that is far more than what we receive in form of aid. So for ‘Ghana beyond Aid’ to be a reality, the first point is to tighten corruption and block all the leakages in the system and that will let this country get to where God has really destined it to be.

TVM: What’s your advice to your mentees?

ESK: To my mentees, in all things you do put God first. Integrity and honesty; these will take you far in life.

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Profiles

“In order to bring about a fundamental transformation of our economy …” – Dr. Kwesi Botchwey, Former Minister of Finance, Ghana

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“Rethinking Ghana’s Economic Development after 62years of Independence”

Ghana marks its 62nd independence and many still wonder if the number truly reflects its developmental achievements. The questions boggling many include: where have we gone wrong, what did we not get right, how did we get here? Some even go to the extent of comparing our development with countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and the likes. In this all enthralling and thought-provoking edition of the Personality Profile, Team Vaultz meets Dr Kwesi Botchwey to discuss the most crucial topics on the minds of Ghanaians and find ways of rethinking the country’s economic development after 62years of independence. Dr Kwesi Botchwey is termed the longest serving finance minister in Ghana who led a team to restructure the failing economy between 1982 and 1995. The Professor of Practice in Development Economics at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University in this interview offers some suggestions that can help to rebuild the Ghanaian economy after 62year of independence.

 

TVM: Thirteen years as a finance minister in charge of Ghana’s economy. How did that feel?

Dr. Botchwey: It was very demanding, challenging, and mostly stressful but yet fulfilling. At the end of it all, when I look back, I feel a sense of some gratification

 

TVM: Ghana is 62 years this year. You have been at the front and have understood how our evolution has been. Give us your understanding of how the Ghanaian economy has felt like, studying through the literature; pre-independence, independence and post-independence.

Dr. Botchwey: Well, the story of Ghana’s economic development, according to some, is a very simple one. The most familiar one is “The grace to grass’ narrative that simply says Ghana was a sort of model colony, a country of tremendous natural resources, a good civil service, and a cushion of reserves of about £200million, equivalent to about three years import cover at independence, a legacy that we somehow squandered.

That is the familiar narrative that then goes with our comparison to the Koreas and the others who have done so much better, to drive home the point.

The real story though, is a trifle more complex. To begin with, yes, we were a country of tremendous natural resources at independence and had a very good and committed civil service and all that. But the country was still your typical under-developed country; agriculture was still basically cutlass and hoe activity and we were very dependent on cocoa production and had very little in the way of an industrial base. Indeed we lacked the skill sets for rapid industrial development.

So, Yes and No. We were not exactly the model colony suggested by some in the literature, but were better off than most. In the 50’s when Kwame Nkrumah and the CPP were managing affairs in the transition to independence, the country followed pretty much the path that the colonialists had charted: a stable exchange rate regime, and a cautious monetary policy.

And in the first five years of independence, at least, until 1961, when he launched what was, at least by self-assertion, a socialist path characterized by state – led industrialization and development and a whole host of industries, in just about every aspect of the national economy. It’s important to bear in mind that it’s not as if Nkrumah inherited this bountiful legacy and just squandered it.

This was a time when state participation in the economy was more or less the norm for developing countries. So, Nkrumah’s strategy of state – led industrialization was by no means reckless, although it is not to say that the strategy did not meet challenges.

 

TVM: Was it more tactical than strategic?

Dr. Botchwey: It was more in the implementation of the strategy and in the challenges of governance and good management of the infrastructure and large public investments that were made. The strategy continued till the coup in 1966. President Busia, in his short reign, signaled a change to a more-private sector driven development and all that; but nothing really happened.

We muddled through our economic development for a long time till the onset of the 80s. By the 80s the economy had become shackled by controls – exchange controls, price controls, trade controls, import licensing etc. The exchange rate was fixed and  stayed at GH¢2.75 to a dollar for a very long time although nobody in his right mind who had dollars would surrender them to the bank voluntarily to exchange at this official rate  when on the black market, it sold for GH¢ 10 or GH¢15. Successive governments avoided taking any corrective action to avoid any political upheavals and maintained the peg to the ruin of the economy.

As the exchange rate got hugely overvalued, the export sector including our main export cocoa collapsed, as many cocoa farmers left their cocoa to rot in the bush. They reckoned correctly that that the price they got at the official exchange rate for their cocoa barely even covered their cost of production.

 

TVM: Really?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes, which is why with Rawlings’ first coming, many students were actually deployed to the countryside to help with the collection and carting of cocoa from the hinterland to the ports. There were widespread shortages of basic commodities and inputs for agriculture and industry. There were shortages of virtually everything. The country was literally on brink of total national disintegration. Even so nothing really changed till the mid – 80’s.

It was a very challenging conjunction. We had suffered three successive years of drought accompanied by bush fires that raged all over the country and caused the loss of a substantial acreage of food and tree crops. Then in the mist of all this, many of our country men and women, the relatively better trained and skilled segments of the labor force who had fled to neighboring countries in search of a better life were sent back. Suddenly, we saw a 10% increase in population amid the famine and economic collapse.

That was the setting in which I became, first, the Chairman of what was called the National Economic Review Committee (NERC) and then subsequently, after a few months, was appointed the first PNDC Secretary for Financial and Economic Planning. I must hasten to add that it was a team that was put in place.

I only happened to be the leader of the team but the work was done by the team including Dr. Joe Abbey, one of our leading macro economists and a former Minister of Finance himself; the late Dr. Gobind Nankani who was working with the World Bank but would come and help with macro-economic analysis and programming; Mr. Ato Ahwoi; Dr. Assibi Abudu, Dr. Kobinah Erbynn and Nrkrumah’s last Minister of Finance, Mr. Kwesi Amoako Atta.  Our task was to war to fashion a radical program of economic and social transformation, open up the economy and just make things work.

 

TVM: Move it from the controls?

Dr. Botchwey: Well yes. The controls were not working to start with. People would get import licenses at GH¢2.75 to a dollar and would not even bother to import anything. They would just sell them to willing buyers. The reality was that the cedi was grossly overvalued. Even the State Gold Mining Corporation could hardly pay its workers.

Whatever gold they were producing was dwindling because they had no resources to bring in spare parts, and auxiliary products. They were coming to the budget for support to pay their workers. Not only were they not paying any tax to government, they were taking from government. Our studies revealed that it cost the corporation more to produce a dollar’s worth of exports than they received at the prevailing exchange rate.

We eventually freed the exchange rate and made it market determined. It was not a popular decision. It caused fissures and cracks within the ranks especially of the progressives with some taking the position that this was a neo liberal solution that the revolution wasn’t meant to pursue.

But we forged ahead and launched a phase and integrated exchange reform plans that combined adjustments in the exchange rate and trade reform, thereby bringing about a gradual and to some extent dramatic recovery in exports and output. Long story! But we did.

 

TVM: Could that be based on the confidence in the economy?

Dr. Botchwey: Absolutely. Many African countries were suffering the same ills but were deterred by the prospect of social and political opposition to corrective measures, preferring instead to live with stagnation.

We bucked the trend. But the Program of Reconstruction and Development, as we called it, wasn’t just about exchange rate policy and trade reforms. It was also about a massive program of social and economic infrastructure rehabilitation, better expenditure management and discipline, better public expenditure programming generally, improvement in fiscal policy and social welfare, and civil service reforms to improve efficiency and compensation levels. Indeed social welfare spending went up steeply as a percentage of government expenditure over the program period.

We set up all these institutions that we now take for granted: the forex bureaus, stock exchange, among others. Importantly, we instituted wide ranging reforms of the financial and banking sector which had been badly affected by the general economic crisis and had suffered a major loss of public confidence. We recognized that the crisis facing the banking sector was that they were weighed down by huge non-performing loans of state owned enterprises (some of it guaranteed by Government) and that of the private sector.

Essentially, we removed from the banks’ portfolios all non- performing loans to state enterprises and the private sector, and either offset or replaced them with Bank of Ghana bonds. The banks were thus able to meet the new Capital adequacy requirements within the stated period. All this was accomplished totally transparently, with the full participation of stakeholders and without the uncertainty, the politics, turbulence and angst. The non-performing loans were then vested in a newly created Non Performing Assets Trust (NPART) which was charged with recovering as much as was possible.

 

TVM: That was quite of bit of work!

Dr. Botchwey: that’s an understatement!

 

TVM: You did some privatization as well?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes we did. It was an important part of the reform program and perhaps the most difficult from the political economy point of view. We still had a large number of state enterprises about 200 of them, covering mining, transportation, agriculture, services and the utility sectors. Only a handful of them were operating profitably. The rest mostly had huge financial and structural issues.

We privatized about 50 of them in my time, and those that remained in state ownership, were put through reforms aimed at improving performance. They were made to sign performance agreements with government and legal mechanisms were put in place for the improvement of the financial accounting and the institution of a better framework for assuring the accountability and operational autonomy.

 

TVM: These must not have been easy decisions.

Dr. Botchwey: Of course not. For me personally, some of these measures were rather awkward. In fact, even the turn to the IMF, was awkward given my well known criticism, at that time, of the role of the IMF in low income countries.

 

TVM: I saw an article online that said Kwesi Botchwey, the socialist. So you have obviously taken decisions like these that went against your socio-political thinking?

Dr. Botchwey: Oh Yes. Yes I took many knocks from both the left and the right. The left from those who preferred that we went the way of the Paris communards during the French revolution and the right from those who thought that even my elan and dress code on the job was somehow incompatible with socialism or what you call my socio-political thinking.

This is not the time and place to respond to these criticisms, there will be such a time and place sometime. Suffice it to say that I take Marxism very seriously to this day, and see it as the foundation of social science. I never forgot that Marxism, required a concrete analysis of the concrete situation when faced with any situation. So when I was confronted with the economic crisis that we faced, with state enterprises that we couldn’t run, with workers taking over state enterprises as they did then notably with GTP and running to the budget for financial and other support, and with the prospects of legal action by previous owners of these factories staring us in the face , and so on, I knew that I couldn’t say that in the name of Marx’s theory, I was simply going to find money that wasn’t there to give to the workers. Then I knew we needed some sustainable policies even if as a transition to whatever else we wanted to do rather than stick to the dogma of an ideology and other people’s idea of ideological purity or…

 

TVM: Stay true to your principles.

Dr. Botchwey: Yes. I often remind my friends, sometimes to their irritation of Marx’s observation that we make our history not in circumstances that we wish, but in circumstances that we confront. I couldn’t wish into existence a stable and prosperous economy in which money was just plentiful in the budget and we could deploy money any way we wanted. So there was some pragmatism. Anyhow, the result is pretty much what we see today.

 

TVM: Listening to you, I heard you talk about the exchange rate. Let’s do some ‘juxtaposition’. The exchange rate is still a problem today. So, are you really seeing a difference between the economy then and the economy now?

Dr. Botchwey: I have over the past few years often asked myself whether we are going back to the brink of the crisis of the 80’s. I think not. Yes, we have an exchange rate problem, between December 2018 and February 2019, the exchange lost about 13% of its value against the dollar, compared to a modest appreciation in the same two months period in 2018. The President himself is on record as saying he is not happy with the slide.

The consternation is understandable. When the cedi’s value drops, especially steeply, it does have consequences that are destabilizing for businesses, and consumers alike, it doesn’t make planning easy. It is something that must be moderated and kept within a band that is sustainable.

I see two problems, one is that the public’s perception of the magnitude and causes of the problem is in part a function of the narrative from some policy makers that suggests that the stability of the cedi is just a function of the sheer brilliance and competence of economic managers and that, by sheer dint of such competence the cedi can be somehow immunized from the vagaries of the market.

The other problem is that the public discourse on exchange rate issues is so ridden with partisanship, arrogance and even insult that a principled discussion becomes impossible. The truth is that nobody is omniscient and I mean nobody! Among economists there’s always room for disagreement. It is not for nothing that George Bernard Shaw the Irish playwright, polemicist and social activist, famously said that “if all economist were laid end-to-end they’d never reach a conclusion”. We must foster an environment in which principled and dispassionate debate is possible.

 

TVM: What’s more important? If it is possible to separate them, what should I deal with first? Do I deal with the exchange rate hoping that all other things will work or I need to deal with all other things hoping that it will influence the exchange rate? What do you go for?

Dr. Botchwey: Well the two factors are rather dialectical but if you had to make a choice on pain of death I would have to say the latter. You deal with the factors affecting a particular episode (such as this recent one or the one we had in 2014). First, you identify and deal with the proximate causes such as seasonal and other short term factors and hope that the particular episode subsides.

And then you deal with the longer term structural issues in the economy that affect foreign exchange demand and supply. Trust me there is no magic bullet. We’ve been here before this latest episode and it won’t be the last.

 

TVM: There are those who argue that there was a strong call that was made at independence that the Ghanaian was capable of managing his own affairs. 62years down the line. Are we really capable of doing just that; what’s your assessment?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes, we are capable of running our own affairs and we have by and large been managing (and mismanaging) our own affairs. But it is interesting you ask: are we capable?

Of course, we are capable. If you are asking whether we are really in charge of our national economy, do we have ownership of our national development policy, well, that is a bit complex.

As Ghanaians we own the Ghanaian economy at least nominally. A good chunk of it is owned by those who provide the funding and investments, some of it is also influenced by those who give us support. But not only are we capable, we can also be the ones who decide what our developing policies shall be. I recall in 2014 when we were going through a similar exchange rate crisis as it is today.

The cedi had lost over 30 percent of its value dropping off about GHc 10billion of our nominal GDP at the time. A number of measures were introduced by the central bank, and some attempts were made to introduce new revenue models and some were condemned as “nuisance taxes” and all that. That was the very activity to deal with the crisis that beset the issue. The government actually then called a forum, The National Forum, that met in Senchi. I had the good fortune to chair the committee that was to look into macroeconomic policy issues.

And it would be interesting for you to know that, I chaired that committee and it had people like Sydney Casely-Hayford and Franklin Cudjoe on it and we discussed the matters openly and frankly. The NPP boycotted the forum as a party but there were some NPP delegates there. So we discussed a lot of things. It doesn’t matter what we say, nobody knows everything.

So we had to pull together and a number of good decisions were made. We noted that we had lost policy credibility as a country so inward flows of investments were being affected, donors were more reluctant because we had set ourselves policy targets that were achievable but we had missed them for three successive years. So, the market did not believe whatever we were saying. It was a good forum. Unfortunately, the follow up wasn’t as good as we had hoped and so the body of consensus that had been built somehow got dissipated.

 

TVM: In 2019, Ghana is expected to exit the IMF program. What are your thoughts on this entry and exit to the program? Are we ready to exit based on the experience you’ve had? And how do we ensure never to get back onto the program anymore?

Dr. Botchwey: Interesting! It is important to understand that we are a sovereign country. Nobody can force us to go to the fund even in crises. It is always our choice.

We go to the fund when we need to. With the International Monetary Fund, all the countries join it to get some funds except for those that the US won’t grant membership. Developed economies, when they get into trouble even go there. The IMF was set up after the Second World War as a body that will help countries in Balance of Payment crisis and provide them support in other to dissuade them from resorting to policies that are destructive for international trade. So, the IMF and the World Bank were set up to provide the multilateral institutions that would provide members with support. And we are members. It is for us to decide if we want to go there or not. We did in 2014 but we’re sovereign. We can leave when we want.

Now if we say, we don’t want to ever go to the Fund, it is fine! That’s our prerogative, provided we pursue policies that gives us the credibility that the market wants. This program was supposed to have ended in 2017 but was extended for another year. Now it is coming to an end. Should we decide that when the program comes to an end we won’t renew it, fine! It is all very fine provided that, as a country, we have internalized the discipline of living within our means, subjecting ourselves to fiscal discipline that we need in order not to create the conditions that will take us back to the fund or make the return to the fund necessary.

Secondly, people talk as if the IMF rains conditions on our heads; insist we keep a low deficit, insist our other macroeconomic indicators are fine– low inflation, growth, employment, generating growth and above all, keep our fiscal situation stable.

People forget that even without the IMF, the market today will subject every country pretty much the same conditions. If we choose to go to the bond market, they will look at our budget, look at our ability to pay back the debt etc. In 2014, we went to the Fund because we wanted policy credibility plus resources of about US$1billion, plus a crowding in of private sector investments and donor assistance.

 

TVM: So, it’s not even an issue of going to the IMF but an issue of discipline?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes, it’s an issue of discipline which the market will compel you to demonstrate anyway with or without the Fund. We should not be under any illusion that when the fund is not here we can do whatever we want. Sure we can but we shall bear the consequences.

 

TVM: And five years down the line we will be back.

Dr. Botchwey: Yes. Quite possibly. If you look at our history, I have heard some narrative that suggests that one party, is a better manager of the economy than the other. The facts don’t bear out that kind of narrative. If you look at our history well, you’ll find that we spend years messing up, especially election time, then we wake up to the realization that there is a problem and so we spend three years sorting ourselves out till another election comes then we mess up, then we come back, do fiscal consolidation, get things back on track and sail through until elections come again and we overspend again.

This has been happening quite consistently in our multi-party experience more or less and that has to stop. In order to bring about a fundamental transformation of our economy and make a real dent in poverty which still afflicts our people, we need to be growing at about 8-9% per annum for a generation. One of my biggest worries in my moments of sober reflection is that, at the rate we are going, even when we think we are doing better compared to previous regimes, I fear that very little is going to change and our children in 30yrs will be facing some of these same issues, there wouldn’t have been a really fundamental change in their condition.

 

TVM: So from your estimation, we must be doing around upwards of 8% consistently for almost about a generation?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes, consistently for about a generation. We need to have policy continuity in its essentials. China has done something no other country in history has done. They have brought over 700 million people out of poverty. I mean, out of poverty! Their lives have changed fundamentally just in a generation. We need to be looking at what China has done a lot more carefully.

 

TVM: Once we cut ourselves off the IMF, would there be an impact on the already stretched foreign exchange?

Dr. Botchwey: It depends. If we wean ourselves off the Fund and demonstrate that even without the external restraints that come with an IMF program we will continue to act responsibly in the management of our economy (and politics), that we’ve internalized the discipline of prudent fiscal policy and demonstrate this for an extended period straddling election cycles and political transitions, we will be fine.

But let not get ahead of ourselves. Even developed countries do have recourse to IMF supported programs, even if infrequently. The so-called East Asian Tigers, among them Thailand, Indonesia and Korea with which Ghana has been compared frequently, have had recourse to IMF supported programs in billions when they needed to, During its boom years, Korea made huge investments mainly financed by external short – term borrowing, and when the economy and export growth especially slowed, these large loans caused huge problems for enterprises, in unutilized capacity low profits and severe cash flow difficulties for enterprises and for banks, large non-performing loans.

Korea actually nationalized KIA after Banks refused to lend it money and when traditional policy responses failed, Korea turned to the IMF as the best and perhaps in the circumstances only feasible option. But sure we can say good bye to the Fund and survive, even thrive. Let’s just remember it’s not like eating a piece of cake.

 

TVM: Control our borrowing, drive up our revenues and spend wisely?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes. But you see, all these require something that a lot of politicians do not like to hear. We need both fiscal space and political space. When an incumbent government is in the trenches and must take actions and policy decisions, that are hugely difficult and unpopular and challenging, it needs to create some sort of national consensus, across parties so that it doesn’t look over its shoulders and worry about other parties taking political advantage. There must be a sufficiently large body of national consensus around the basic direction of our national economy. We must live within our means, borrow prudently making sure that the monies we borrow don’t cost more than they should and that they’re invested prudently.

Above all, we can’t transform this economy in just a few years, nobody can. It is not a matter of genius. Nobody on this earth has the kind of genius that can bring an end to poverty and youth unemployment in two years. If that were possible, why would any country be poor? Find the geniuses, bring them to a country, give them two years and, bingo! Nobody can do that.  It can’t be done.

 

TVM: “Ghana: A country of wealth, a people of poverty.” Ghana is a resource-rich country yet with people who are embedded in poverty. ‘Good Growth and Governance in Africa: Rethinking Developmental strategies’ is a book you co-authored with noble prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. In your view, what accounts for this situation in the case of Ghana? What are we missing?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes, we are a country of enormous wealth. We often tell ourselves Ghana is a rich country. We need to qualify that. We are a potentially rich country. The natural resources we have make us only potentially rich. The most frustrating thing for any economist or manager of the economy is to see the macroeconomic indicators moving in the right direction and still hear people saying, as they are doing now, and rightly, that times are hard, that they can’t see the improvements in their pockets.

It is on one hand a commentary on the fact that we don’t have all the answers to many of the challenges we face in our development- which is why a dose of humility is needed among the protagonists in this enterprise called ‘development’ and what it will take to assure the long – term welfare of our growing population and their basic quest for food, decent housing and leisure – that we’re not growing at a high enough level, and that the growth is not employment generating.

 

TVM: So you’re saying the growth must lead to a good employment generation

Dr. Botchwey: It must be transformational and employment generating and no transformation can ever take place except on a long term basis; it takes sustained effort and continuity in development policy.

 

TVM: There are some who’ve argued that government in government out, there seems to be some degree of political biasism when you talk about corruption. So the left is corrupt when the right is in power and then the right is corrupt when the left is in power and we don’t seem to be addressing it. What is your take on this and how can we attempt to deal with it?

Dr. Botchwey: Ah Biasism! I like that. I’ll take that to my lexicon of evolving Ghanaian inventions! The greatest harm that we can do to our country is to jeopardize or compromise the integrity, competence and independence of the key institutions for our democracy including those that are charged with fighting corruption.

When we compromise them by politicizing them, what happens is, we reduce the fight against corruption to just jailing people, especially political opponents through an interesting law on our statute books, a law of ‘strict liability’, more or less, tantalizingly called ‘causing financial loss’ in our popular parlance, which has become a ready-made hatchet that incumbent governments can and often do wield to prosecute their political agendas. That is not fighting corruption. The discourse on corruption is rather confusing.

Apart from the incidence of what you call political biasism which is unfortunate because it undermines the credibility of the fight against corruption and makes the populace cynical – they are not fooled –  except perhaps the growing legion of so –  called ‘party communicators’ who are fired by blind loyalty and other activists often masquerading as journalists!

We have institutions that are meant to address corruption including the Public Procurement Authority and statutes – the Public Procurement Act, Act 663 of 2003 and its subsequent amendments, that are meant to provide the legal framework for preventing and punishing corruption in public procurement where we know value for money considerations in large public investments can be compromised to the detriment of the nation.

The integrity of this legal framework so that it doesn’t get used selectively and worse, as a hatchet for intimidating political opposition, but to prevent, curtail and sanction violations, especially egregious violations that hurt the common good. It is as simple as that. And the fight and public discourse on corruption must also be broadened to include ‘petty corruption’ which is what the average person struggling to make a living confronts daily in getting paid public officials to do their duty, whether it be issuing driving licenses, or passports or clearing goods at the ports or registering title to land. Ever tried to register title to land? It is a monumental scandal!

 

TVM: To smoothen the process?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes ‘smoothening the process “is a convenient euphemism that soothes our senses and curbs our indignation. It must be abandoned in favor of the naked truth; it is bribery! So yes corruption is still a big issue, I think that we are making some progress in dealing with it but I fear there’s too much of what you call political biasism in the fight against corruption.

 

TVM: Let’s talk about Ghana beyond 62years. There are those who are pushing for us to change the dialogue or the discourse in the country, pushing for much more intellectual based discussion, changing the narrative. How can we see this pan out? How do we ensure that we are changing the dragging regressive politics of needles comparison? How do we change the entire narrative to make us more progressive?

Dr. Botchwey: it is a responsibility for all of us i.e. shared responsibility for all of us including the likes of you.

 

TVM: Who?

Dr. Botchwey: Civil society. Unfortunately, journalists are just worsening the process. We’ve made tremendous progress in our journalism but it is often mired in the same political biasm even in reporting and conducting public debate.

 

TVM: How can we capitalize on the late start advantage to develop as a country? How do we get around that? What is the concept of the late start advantage?

Dr. Botchwey: It’s an interestingly question. We live in a globalized world. Enterprises are able to source and locate anywhere they have the best advantages but unfortunately it is a trend that is under threat now, with the eerie re-emergence of the same tensions that marked the inter-war years and a US led bilateralism which has put the world economy in rather uncharted waters unfortunately. Nevertheless we need to position ourselves to take advantage of globalization. We need to decide as a nation where our comparative advantage really lies in.

If we are going to leap frog- and we can, we must train our work force and equip them with the skill sets required in today’s world. Unfortunately, this is not quite happening. Although, we have a proliferation of universities now, there has been relatively little diversification in course offerings. If you ask any young man or woman who has finished secondary school and is looking to enter the University for a degree, what career they have in mind, the most likely response will be: HR, or Marketing. We cannot leap frog unless we harness the force of technology and technical innovation.

 

TVM: We need good skill sets?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes. To take advantage of globalization, we need that. We need planning as I mentioned earlier. Just study what China has done. Now, they are not just assembling things for the world, they are actually manufacturing things from the scratch and are spawning new products. They are going to space. They have just landed on the part of the moon that nobody has gone to before.

They are building their own aircraft carriers but above all, they have internalized those skills and have developed programs for developing even more skills. So in order to be able to take advantage of the late-start advantage, we can’t insulate ourselves from globalization. We must identify what we are good at and how do we prepare ourselves to deliver what we are good at? We sought to address these issues at the NDPC in the 40 Year Plan which is currently under review.

 

 

TVM: In your experience, in just some few seconds, if I ask you to pick two or three things that you think the Ghanaian is good at, as a collective, which should be an area of focus that we could dial up on, what would you pick?

Dr. Botchwey: Not easy. Broadly, labor intensive light manufacturing, and agricultural and horticultural products come to mind. Much work was done at the NDPC in the context of the preparation of the 40 year Plan which is currently under review.

 

PERSONALITY PROFILE

TVM: Many Ghanaians think of you as a man of deep insight. Quickly tell us about your growing up. How was your upbringing like?

Dr. Botchwey: People are very gracious to me, for the most part. I was born in Tamale. My dad was a civil servant and my mother a trader. I didn’t exactly grow up in the same environment with my mum. I went to school mostly in the North: Bawku, Yendi, and Wa. By the time we got back to the south from all these voyages, I could hardly speak any Akan. I mainly communicated in English and was often laughed at by my friends.

I won scholarships and went to PRESEC, St Augustine’s and so on and finally to Legon where I did my first degree. I won a scholarship to Oxford and just a day before I traveled to Oxford, I got admission also to Yale with a fatter scholarship so I ended up going to Yale. But in between, as I was reading my Masters degree something awakened in me a certain revolutionary fervor, a compelling yearning for social activism to do something about what I saw as pervasive injustice especially against the African person.

 

TVM: That’s where the passion started from?

Dr. Botchwey: It started from my days in America and saw its maturation in my days at the University of Dar es Salaam in Nyerere’s Tanzania, and my association with a cluster of progressive academics including Walter Rodney of ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ fame, Clive Thomas, John Saul, Reginald Green, Forster Carter, Dan Nabudere, Mahmoud Mamdani, Horace Campbell, among others.

 

TVM: What is your fondest childhood memory?

Dr. Botchwey: Ah! you know? It had to be childhood liking for ‘boflot’, later to be replaced by koose and kurikuri! Going to school in Bawku, we would  walk past loads of it by the road side and far enough from the adjacent houses. We would slip one or two into our pockets and then call someone to come and sell us whatever our daily stipends (few pennies) could buy, and  I’ll tell myself, when I grew up, I would try to make lots of money so that I could eat all the boflot I wanted! Unknown to me, the lady boflot maker had noticed our pranks and reported me to doting mother who not only spared me the cane, but made boflot a steady part of my breakfast! To this day my food preferences if I can get them are Northern delicacies. I’ve long given up my craving for artery clogging Fante doughnuts!

 

TVM: Your journey from the young man who liked ‘boflot’, to a statesman and political economist today, was it born out of reading? Or was there a mentor?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes, it was born out of reading. At Yale, if you wanted to do a master’s degree in Law, you needed more than a passing acquaintance with political economy especially in the areas that I was interested in– Corporate Law Finance. But I acquired my revolutionary fervor, from reading Marx as we all did then.

 

TVM: So the Marxism was what drove you as a people’s person?

Dr. Botchwey: Absolutely!

 

TVM: Interesting. What struck you most about Karl Marx?

Dr. Botchwey: Well, his passion for fighting injustice in the work place for the downtrodden. It was right in the 19th century when injustice was at its worst; with child labor and dreadful working conditions in the mines, coal mines, and his determination to mobilize working people to participate in development and the fruits of development to change their lives. That really informed me and kept me reading mostly radical socialist literature.

 

TVM: In 1982, just fast forwarding to when President Jerry John Rawlings reached out to you to assist in stabilizing the Ghanaian economy. It is on record that you achieved some very strong results out there. What mechanisms do you remember deploying with your team to get the change that we saw?

Dr. Botchwey: Well, the most difficult one was to adjust the exchange rate. Let’s not forget, everybody who had tried it was overthrown. So we had to do it in mechanisms and language that people understood.

 

TVM: If you were in office today, and seeing what we’re seeing now in terms of cedi depreciation, the rise in public debt etc., would you have done the same? Or the antidote for now is different?

Dr. Botchwey: The situation now is different because we have a market determined exchange rate. We just need to make sure that our fiscal policies, our matching policies are sound so that we can have a stable macroeconomic environment.

 

TVM: You did talk about having a fiscal space but also having the political space. There are those who argue that you stormed out of the NDC in 1995 after you were overruled, so to speak on the plan for a spending splurge to win the 1996 election. Does that fall part of the political space that you were looking for? And what’s your take first on this allegation?

Dr. Botchwey: Idle speculation. Fake news, in today’s parlance.

 

TVM: There are those who argue that the Party needed you most during that period.

Dr. Botchwey: I didn’t think so. I had been in office for 13 years; I thought it was time to move on and return to the relative quietude and intellectual rigor of academic work.

 

TVM:  There is a quote attributed to you in the political window and it goes like this “If elected flagbearer, I would elaborate a clear plan to build on Ghana’s potential to take advantage of the global economy and the network of globally influential individuals and organization I have worked with to the benefit of the party and the people”. How could this have translated into the Ghana we wanted?

Dr. Botchwey: I had the good fortune of network on International Development when I was at Harvard and at the Fletcher School. I worked on the Millennium Development Goals, the UNDP’s Human Development Report  (HDR) and was a member of the UN Committee on Development Policy. So I had a good network and I was saying then when I was seeking flagbereship of the Party that I would reach out to people I knew in this network to help in fashioning the right policies if I were elected. In the event, I didn’t win.

 

TVM: There are those who say a strong team is important and I also believe that a strong leadership is important. So if you were the president, tell me two or three things that you will you do differently?

Dr. Botchwey: I am what you will call a yesterday’s man. My career reached its peak and has ended. I am humble enough to recognize that. I still have those networks. Hypothetically, if the good Lord should somehow change the laws of biology and return me to my 40s and I got elected as president, I would reach out to all talents and expertise of Ghanaians wherever they may be and whichever party they may belong to. I will end this bout of vengefulness and recrimination. I believe in inclusivity and ethicality in governance and temperance in the public discourse on matters that affect our common good. That is what would move the country forward. I think that is what presidents should do.

 

TVM: The 2020 flagbearership race of the NDC, did you intend to run for the flag-bearership?

Dr. Botchwey: No. If I did intend to, I would have run

 

TVM: The last flagbearership election and the aftermath of it, is it a reflection of what you saw going round?

Dr. Botchwey: To some extent, yes.

 

TVM: What does Kwesi do at his leisure time?

Dr. Botchwey: Reading and Jazz, especially smooth jazz.

 

TVM: Favorite sport and why?

Dr. Botchwey: Tennis, on clay courts when I can– they are gentler on the knees. Not golf. It is much too laid back for me. I reckon that what I can get from a game of tennis will take me two days of golf or something. My friends think the contrary.

 

TVM: If I put economic books aside, what others do you read?

Dr. Botchwey: Thrillers, crime and investigation– that’s series. It kind of tells me the working of the human mind. And cartoons.

 

TVM: Is it because you are inquisitive?

Dr. Botchwey: It is part but I like to understand how people’s minds work and the kind of mischief they are up to.

 

TVM: Will I be right in saying that the Dr. Kwesi Botchwey we are seeing today has been largely influenced by the Marxist theory or are there other books that may have influenced you?

Dr. Botchwey: Yes, it has defined my world outlook.  A lot of my friends laugh at me when I say that. They tell “You are Marxist but you wear nice clothes and nice things”. But I laugh it off. I have sort of gotten used to these taunts. But of course I have been influenced by philosophy generally, from the Greeks through the Enlightenment to E.O. Wilson’s work on Consilience, and, yes, the wisdom I learnt at my mother’s knee. Enough!

 

TVM: On Friday, if team Vaultz decides to organize an amazing meal for you, a delicacy, what should it be?

Dr. Botchwey: Interesting. For me, food is basically for restitution and livelihood so I don’t really have any favorite foods. No. That’s not true. I love French cuisine! But I’m a fish man. So if you decide to do any such thing, any old array, anything with fish would be just fine.

 

TVM: You have betrayed your ‘boflot’?

Dr. Botchwey: Haha. You forget it got displaced long ago by kurikuri and koose long ago!

 

TVM: If you had the opportunity to rewrite a wrong. What would it be?

Dr. Botchwey: I’m sure I committed some wrongs in my long period of public service. Can’t remember any that stand out like a sore thumb. But there must be some – I have been all too human all my life – I will enthusiastically correct them if I am duly reminded.

 

TVM: On the Vaultz interview, we try and always have guests speak to their peers. The current minister of finance, Ken Ofori-Atta, what advice would you give him as somebody who sat in his chair before?

Dr. Botchwey: That’s an interesting one. Nothing really comes to mind. But, it will be nice if he could bring us all former finance ministers who are around, together sometime and have a chat and share a bottle of Barolo or Amarone!

 

TVM: What is your advice to the youth?

Dr. Botchwey: The youth are for me both worry and a tremendous source of inspiration. My heart bleeds when I see throngs of them roaming the streets trying to make a living. As a nation they represent our greatest asset and yet our greatest challenge. Their increasing anger and desperation should remind us that we are sitting on a time bomb. Providing them with the skills and training for to cope and flourish in a fast changing world, with advances in technology robotry and Artificial Intelligence that portend unimaginable changes human employment opportunities must be our topmost priority.

To the youth and especially to our young graduates, my advice is: don’t put your faith in government or public sector jobs all the time. There will never be enough to go round. Entrepreneurship and self- employment, doing anything or providing any service the market needs or wants can be an alternative. And finally, I do hope that the younger generations don’t repeat the ‘sins’ of the older generation and that they spawn a political culture that is less polarizing and partisan, more unifying. I do hope that we don’t see another generation that is just like us in that regard. It will be a huge tragedy for Ghana.

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