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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

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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