Nana Akufo-Addo, Ghana’s President, has repositioned the country in the global marketplace as one reliant on its own resources and strengths. He is redefining economic development and it’s resonating across Africa. In an exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA, he dwells on the new focus of the West African nation that has in recent years consistently been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
To find out more, FORBES AFRICA sat down for a face-to-face interview with President Akufo-Addo in early November in Accra to dwell on his government’s economic policies and reforms in a challenging global environment and about the country’s new business focus:
Q. CONGRATULATIONS ON BEING NAMED ‘AFRICAN OF THE YEAR’, WHICH EACH YEAR RECOGNIZES EXEMPLARY INDIVIDUALS ACROSS THE AFRICAN CONTINENT. WHAT DOES THIS RECOGNITION MEAN TO YOU AT A TIME WHEN NOT JUST GHANA BUT THE WORLD IS FACING UNPRECEDENTED CHALLENGES?
A: First of all, I’m overwhelmed, I have to thank you very much for recognizing the work we are doing here in Ghana. Your magazine is a global brand and everybody knows about it. It means the world is looking at the work we are doing here in Ghana and we are encouraged by it. We are a relatively small country and operating in one of the most challenging regions of the world as you know with major problems, security threats and going through the difficulties that have been imposed on our economy by the Covid pandemic.
So, to put all that together and yet make the effort to grow our country as a genuine democracy and as a country serious about economic growth and development, I think that is what those who are responsible for this decision have seen and I am very encouraged that the work we are doing so far has received this attention and acknowledgement. It’s an inspiration for us and an encouragement for us to continue on the path we have set for ourselves.
Q: GHANA IS NOW THE TRADE CAPITAL OF AFRICA UNDER THE AFCFTA, HOW DO YOU WANT TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS OPPORTUNITY?
A: The question itself, to some extent, is the answer. This project – building a common market– has been on the table for a very long time and has been talked about over and over again. But suddenly, we brought it to being and it is a very important first step. But look at what it means; it means we are now talking about the possibility of trade with each other. Yes, the rules are still being made as we are going along but trading has begun. We began on January 1  with the open market. A considerable amount of the rules and regulations to be able to function and make it equitable for all nations are now in place. And the implications are enormous.
Suddenly, traders, producers, manufacturers and exporters have a market of 1.2 billion people as a target. The projections are that the market will grow to a market of 2.5 billion people in 30 years’ time so we are talking about a major trading bloc which functions effectively.
So, what we have been trying to do in Ghana apart from struggling to have the [AfCFTA] Secretariat here with its obvious implications is also to prepare our business communities and institutions to be able to maximize the opportunities that this focus gives us. I think it is a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our manufacturing sector, improve the productivity of our agriculture and take great advantage of the digital revolution which is the fourth industrial revolution that all of us are talking about and which is now an important driving force in the making of policy and implementation of policy in Ghana.
So, yes, it presents an enormous opportunity for us; 16% of the collective GDP of the 54 states in Africa is derived from intra- Africa trade. It is the lowest of any regional trading group in the world. Compare it to the European Union for instance which has 27 nations with 75% of the collective GDP generated from intra- European trading and Asia accounts for 56% of the internal trading of the community.
We have not been focusing on trading amongst each other as a continent for trade and investment. But the market now exists for us. Our first priority is how to expand trade with our neighbors, within the continent and we see that as a more secure route to bring in prosperity to the continent. So, it is a major step forward and I am particularly happy that Ghana has been honored by her peers to be the secretariat for this.
Q. YOU MADE A POWERFUL SPEECH WITH FRENCH PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: “WE CAN NO LONGER CONTINUE TO MAKE POLICY FOR OURSELVES IN OUR CONTINENT ON THE BASIS OF WHATEVER SUPPORT THAT THE WESTERN WORLD CAN GIVE US. IT WILL NOT WORK, IT HAS NOT WORKED AND IT WILL NOT WORK.” THAT SPEECH WENT VIRAL, WHY DID YOU TAKE THAT STANCE AT THE TIME?
A: I am not quite sure timing had anything to do with it but much more the conviction. We have seen ourselves becoming increasingly dependent on foreign donors to support our budget and support the development of our infrastructure and it has become something like the central theme in the economic management of the continent.
But it hasn’t done a great deal for us in terms of transforming the life of our people and bringing prosperity. You don’t have to be that much of a profound analyst to see for yourself.
So, what does it do? It calls for a new paradigm. It calls for a new analysis of how we can be able to get out of where we are and move forward and I think that the first thing is the intellectual, the mindset and the vision that you have and how you work the vision.
There has to be a broad consensus that the path of depending on French, American or British tax payers will not resolve our problem. Then, secondly, 30% of the world’s remaining minerals are on our soil.
A huge percentage of the amount of arable land and water, all of these basic pillars of economic development are found here and they are here in abundance.
If that is the case, shouldn’t that be our focus?
How can we strengthen our capacity to exploit these things directly ourselves as a way of addressing the issue of poverty? If you put those two together, for me, it justifies the statement I made. The fact that it went viral indicates that perhaps it was a statement that people have been waiting for, for a long time. It is a very central figure of how I have been trying to carry out my obligation as the President of Ghana.
We are not talking about Ghana turning its back on the world or calling for Africa to isolate itself from global trade; far from it, the statement is clear. No man is an island and it is true of nations but the emphasis is the change of focus and the way we look at problems. If you accept the validity of the statement I made to the French president, it changes a lot of things and especially the dynamics of how we go about our development.
We have coined a phrase out of it calling it ‘Ghana Beyond Aid’ as a central feature of our public policy, not just in the management of our economy, but generally the way Ghana is positioning itself in the world today.
Q: AFTER CONSECUTIVE YEARS OF ECONOMIC GAINS THAT MADE GHANA ONE OF THE FASTEST-GROWING ECONOMIES IN THE WORLD, COVID HIT THE WORLD AND AFRICA, AND YOU WERE FAST TO RESPOND WITH MEASURES TO ALLEVIATE THE EFFECTS OF THE PANDEMIC ON THE PEOPLE AND THE ECONOMY. COULD YOU UNDERLINE THOSE HIGHLIGHTS AND WHAT IS NOW NEEDED TO BRING GHANA BACK TO ITS FULL ECONOMIC POTENTIAL AS THE ‘BLACK STAR OF AFRICA’?
A: I was in fact in Switzerland and woke up in the morning, and turned on the TV to hear the news and that was the first time there was this worldwide alarm about what had happened in China. And it struck me immediately when I heard it that we would have to act extremely quickly if this thing was to be contained. Already, at the time, we had statements being made by Bill and Melinda Gates who went on record to say we would be dying in the millions and there would be dead bodies on the streets of Africa.
For one, there is a lot of contact between China and Ghana. We have a significant population of citizens who are there and then we have a lot of our trading community where China is our first source of services. So, the [dealings] of people going in and out of Ghana was very highly developed and clearly if that was the source of the problem, then it is something that could impact us very negatively and so I thought this is going to be a big problem.
I have been very fortunate to have people around me who acted quickly and came up with a task force and we created a series of measures that were put in place to contain it and that appears to have worked. We have some thousand-plus deaths which is unfortunate but I think in relative terms, if we look at the data to others, both on the continent and outside, ours has been relatively mild.
But in the process, we had all these disruptions that we all know about, which has had a major impact on our economy and instead of growing at 7%, which is the average we have been growing at since 2017 up to 2020, suddenly, we had to scale it down to less than 1% growth.
The comforting thing is that we managed, unlike many of our neighbors, to stay out of recession. We didn’t go into negative growth and this is largely because the fundamentals that we had put in place during the period of rapid growth was sufficiently robust to withstand all the effects of the pandemic.
The Ghana Cares program has been about trying to reset the economy, trying to find the sources necessary to revive all the key sectors and then also to focus on the new sectors. We want to accelerate the enhancement of agricultural productivity, and hasten the industrial development of
our country as well as the digital revolution and these programs which amounts to the 100 billion Obaatan Pa program that has been put in place
addressing these fundamental concerns. We see that as a way of having the economy come back and returning to the high growth rates we had before the pandemic.
Q: GHANA BEYOND AID IS ONE OF YOUR MAIN GOALS; DO EXPLAIN THE VISION BEHIND IT AND THE ROLE OF GHANA’S YOUTH IN THIS PROCESS.
A: We have some 65% of our population below the age of 35 and everything you are doing must address this majority as your principle concern. That is what the people of Ghana are today, young, looking at the country, repositioning the country and there cannot be more positive energy in a population than the energy of young people. The creativity and sense of innovation are key. So yes, the Ghana Beyond Aid has the young people of Ghana at the center of what we are trying to do and the conditions we are trying to create to enable them to have a sense of hope.
We all know the horrendous stories of our people crossing the Sahara in a senseless way… So, to create a political, economic and social project and say that if we work together and look
at our resources, both human and material, we can put them together in a way that gives hope to all of our people so that they can make a good life for themselves here in Ghana and be part of a global community of prosperity and a sense of dignity. This is an agenda about the young people of our continent.
Q: ON THE HEALTHCARE SIDE, YOUR AIM IS TO VACCINATE 20 MILLION GHANAIANS; WILL THIS BE ACHIEVED WITHIN THE DIFFICULT AFRICAN CONTEXT REGARDING VACCINE AVAILABILITY? A: Access to vaccines has been growing. I think by the end of this year, projections are that we would have received some 15 million vaccines. That 20 million target we may not reach this year but we believe by the end of the first quarter next year, we would have attained.
And the significance of it is that in a population of 30 million people, if we are able to vaccinate 20 million, it means we are vaccinating the entire adult population of Ghana and that in itself gives us all the immunity we need so as a target, it is a really important target. We are also taking some long-term decisions.
We have been dependent on other people to provide us with vaccines and that is an intolerable position.
The pandemic is affecting your population and you are not in a position to assist your population because you are having to beg other people to give you what they have, is not a situation that we can live with. We should have learned our lessons from the Ebola crisis but out of this crisis, we have to recognize the need to have our own domestic capabilities to produce our own vaccine.
That is one of the important decisions we have taken. We are in the process of creating a national vaccine institute led by very capable and world-class Ghanaian scientists and we are hoping that by next year it will be up and running so we can find strong capabilities to find vaccines for our people.