Atlanta’s status as the “African American capital of the world” gives the city a unique platform to promote trade and investment with the continent, Ghana’s minister of trade and industry told Global Atlanta Tuesday.
“New York can’t make that claim. Chicago can’t make that claim. Los Angeles can’t make that claim. They may be bigger cities with bigger economies, but Atlanta can use that historical bond with Africa and the blood that links African Americans with Africa to be the launchpad for strong Atlanta-led U.S. engagement with Africa,” said Ekwow Spio-Garbrah, a former Ghanaian ambassador to the United States. “It’s up to the leaders of Atlanta and the African American community to decide to do that.”
Ghana has more than 30 historic slave castles that prove its connections to the American South throughout this dark past. But new ties can help Atlanta, known as the cradle of the U.S. civil rights movement, capitalize on the continent’s future, he said.
“There are lot of very successful African Americans here who we believe can lead Atlanta in that quest to connect with the African continent,” Dr. Spio-Garbrah said.
The city is also home to a variety of large Atlanta-based companies like Coca-Cola Co. and United Parcel Service Inc., whose executives he met met while visiting Atlanta on a weeklong tour of the U.S. that also includes stops in Washington and Houston.
These Fortune 500 giants are availing themselves of the political stability and solid growth rates that have become hallmarks of the English-speaking democracy positioning itself as a gateway to West Africa and beyond.
But recently, Ghana has gone from unbridled confidence into more uncertain territory. The International Monetary Fund projects growth of just 3.5 percent this year after averaging about 8 percent over the last five years. Downward pressure on cocoa and gold prices cut government revenues, and inflation jumped 17 percent, both driving and suffering from the precipitous depreciation of the cedi, Ghana’s currency, over the past year. At the same time, the country has faced power shortages that have dampened business confidence and left citizens upset.
In late February, Ghana agreed to a nearly $1 billion IMF loan facility aimed at restoring the country to fiscal discipline by cutting the government’s wage bill, improving budgeting processes and enhancing tax collection. Read the IMF report
Dr. Spio-Garbrah said the bumpy period is due to the commitment by the government of President John Dramani Mahama to invest in infrastructure and growth, combined with the fact that Ghana was a magnet for easy money due to its strong fundamentals. He compared the country to a consumer who got too many credit cards and ran up a big bill.
“All the IMF does is to help you cut your credit cards up,” he said.
He’s looking for investors who believe the IMF package will put the country on even more solid footing in the years to come as its economy diversifies and comes to rely more on the private sector, he said.
“The fact that you cannot grow as much as you used to means that you must now swing over to private investors, so that’s why I’m here,” Dr. Spio-Garbrah said.
Opportunities abound in a variety of sectors. Ghana seeks investments in the processing of fruits, nuts and commodities like cassava, cocoa, rubber and palm oil. It’s also looking to Georgia for expertise in poultry processing.
“The entire poultry value chain, from poultry feed to hatcheries and machinery for establishing poultry farms for processing chickens and the dressing of it, plucking them up, freezing them, shipping them to supermarkets — that’s a huge, huge industry and we’d like some Georgians to get on board before some Chinese or Indians come in to do the same thing,” he said.
Ghana is also improving air service and logistical connections with the rest of Africa to move more of these goods. This would enhance its status as a gateway to the continent should African leaders reach their goal of setting up a continent-wide free-trade area, an ambition Dr. Spio-Garbrah believes could be realized by 2017.
Investments in telecommunications underpin Ghana’s moves to modernize its economy, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry is working on a variety of fronts to foster entrepreneurship at all levels, he said.
On the technology front, Africa has led the world in the adoption of mobile payments, and Ghana has more than 100 percent penetration rate on cell-phone subscriptions. E-commerce is growing as Internet connectivity and security improves, with locally developed solutions like Tonaton.com on the rise. App and software developers in Accra are finding support from American and European investors, and a network of angel investors has sprouted in the capital city, he said.
The former minister for telecommunications, Dr. Spio-Garbrah himself in November helped put on a Startup Weekend as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. In Accra, entrepreneurs gather to form teams and pitch ideas with the goal of starting a company before the weekend is over.
But the ministry is also putting its focus on small-scale entrepreneurs, especially in agribusiness. Last year, Mr. Mahama’s government put 10 million cedis (about $2.8 million) into the Youth Enterprise Support (YES) initiative, which is aimed at funding business plans submitted by 18- to 35-year-old entrepreneurs.
The trade ministry is also providing micro loans and business training to help small-scale rural entrepreneurs move up the value chain, with hot-sauce, juice and shea-butter producers among the enterprises taking advantage.
“We’ve had hundreds of years and decades of trading experience, but of course there is the formal economy that western civilization has brought about,” he said. “Traders in the marketplace still need to graduate to become entrepreneurs and to become industrialists” and employ more people.
He added that while West Africa has suffered in the past year the twin scourges of Ebola and extremism, Ghana has remained unscathed from both.
On extremism, he pointed to one of the country’s more intangible attributes — tolerance — which at once provides common ground with Atlanta and helps the country maintain democratic ideals in a region racked by electoral upheaval.
Dr. Spio-Garbrah outlined opportunities and more at the World Trade Center Atlanta, which hosted him along with the Ghana International Chamber of Commerce and the Bilateral U.S. Arab Chamber of Commerce.
For more information, contact Matilda Arhin, president of the Ghana International chamber at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more on Ghana’s software scene from Global Atlanta’s 2012 report on the country: https://www.globalatlanta.com/ghanareport/