By Gilles Ametepe
It will not be overrated to state that the “Year of Return” was one of the most trending topics globally in 2019 in Ghana and to a certain extent in all African and “Black” quarters across the globe. Backed by a strong political will, Ghana was able to proudly host thousands of returnees from all over the World. I had the opportunity to finally meet with one of the “gurus” I look up to in the global startup ecosystem, Izzy Obeng, Founder of UK-based Foundervine and a good number of other afro-optimists; so I got to say, “Akpe* Year of Return”.
While in the mood of the Year of return and beyond it, I realized one key ingredient was missing: our failure to market the new Ghana; the Ghana of Asoriba, the Ghana of mPharma, the Ghana of Farmerline as we maintained our focus on the Ghana of Elmina Castle, the Ghana of Kakum Walkway and the Ghana of Mount Afadzato.
Ghana is arguably one of the best tourist destinations in the sub-region, thanks to our welcoming nature as a people combined with the prowess of the Osagyeefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and the peace and political stability we are enjoying since 1992. It is worth celebrating and the role of the tourism sector in our economy cannot be underestimated.
It is however equally important for us to project ourselves in the future or in the least, project our new identity – Ghana, the African tech-nation.
Many Ghanaians like myself and foreigners know of the Big Six, the fight for independence, Tetteh Kwashie and our journey to the Cocoa world domination but how many of us know of Gregory Rockson of mPharma, Alex Bram of Hubtel and of Herman Chinery-Hesse of The SOFTtribe?
Herman Chinery-Hesse founded The SoftTribe in 1991 when Markus Villig, the founder of Bolt was not even born. Today Bolt is a more relatable brand in Ghana than the SOFTtribe has ever been.
I am pointing this out because the Year of return demonstrated that in Ghana, it is when there is a political will that there is a way, and unfortunately, beyond the digitization agenda led by Vice-President Bawumia, little is being done to lead us towards our dream of becoming a tech-nation. One may even ask, is this our common vision or it is that of fellows at Ghana For Startups. This is no news as we have seen that our ecosystem growth is shaped, powered and led by non-governmental institutions.
Entrepreneurship and tech-wise, where do we see ourselves at in the next decade? To that question, the answers you are likely to get from stakeholders are wishes rather than projections and roadmaps.
All these make it obvious that the political establishment could do more with regards to our national startup ecosystem.
Ghana has a vibrant startup ecosystem, with thousands of startups and more in the offing, a dozen co-working spaces and incubators, no unicorn – yet – but we are one of the leading startup-nations in Africa.
In the face of that and with the realization that more should be done, we need to strategize and redirect our focus as a Nation towards what will be relevant in the next century – and most of the ways to do it demand consistent political will.
I have outlined a couple of interventions I believe could drastically reshape our ecosystem and make “starting up in Ghana” a more attractive venture.
Building our Silicon Valleys:
Building a startup-Nation is not an easy task; just like Rome, Silicon Valley was not built in a day. According to the Brookings Institute, today, the San Jose Metropolitan Area (which hosts Silicon Valley) has the third-highest GDP per capita in the world (after Zurich in Switzerland and Oslo in Norway). This says a lot about the value a country/region can drive from intentionally supporting the growth of its own Silicon Valley. Ghana does not have a specific area that could be tagged as its Silicon Valley. The sixty (60) acre Silicon Accra Technology City being built at East Legon Hills and expected to be completed next year is the closest we have to a Valley.
Many will also recall the Valley that never was – Hope City, which was launched by private consortium RLG in 2013 and was projected to be completed by end of 2016. A better alternative to building a single area into a tech city will be to develop technopoles in all the sixteen region of the country or at least around vibrant startup communities like Accra, Tema, Kumasi, Takoradi, Tamale and Ho. The technopoles could be public-private partnership-led and provide the needed structural support to develop local ecosystems and expand our national ecosystem support net.
Powering our National Tech Champions:
The United States has GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft), Germany has SAP, China has Transsion (Tecno phones), Bytedance (TikTok) and Huawei, South Korea has LG and Samsung, Estonia has Bolt and Sweden, Spotify. We can go on and on with this list but some things these tech companies have in common are that, they are global giants that thrived on their countries economic growth and with the cushion of enterprise-friendly policies and on governmental contracts and support.
It is imperative that Ghana designs a strategy to protect and power its tech startups that have the potential of becoming great market players within and outside our borders. If in past decades the Armed Forces have been at the forefront of technology advancement in Western countries, our Ghanaian setting does not permit us to hope for same. It is private ventures that are leading our efforts to become a leading tech nation in Africa and we need to be intentional about setting aside the leading indigenous tech firms and powering them into becoming global champions.
Designing a National Startup Strategy:
There is currently a draft National Entrepreneurship Policy and it is hoped that it gets through to Parliament soon. That is good news but Ghana seems not to have a global strategy for its startup ecosystem. Startups are still treated as SMEs, which they are not, funding through the banking sector is not regulated to encourage banks to step in more for startups, and universities lack the needed support to develop their entrepreneurship curriculum beyond the classroom.
The University of Ghana for example which saw the foundation of Ghana For Startups (recently launched its own makerspace) and others has joined fellow universities (Ashesi, KNUST etc) in redefining the role of Academia in the startup world. Doing more of such and finding solutions to many other challenges faced by the ecosystem can be the backbone of our national startup strategy.
Setting up a Ghana Startup Bank:
“L’argent est le nerf de la guerre”; this statement in French suits very well what drives ecosystem and startup business growth. We obviously cannot set ourselves ready for this venture without funding. A Ghana Startup Bank could either operate in the form of an investment arm of any State-owned Bank or as a separate entity. Its main purpose will be to invest in startups operating in strategic sectors of the economy and provide the necessary funding for projects aligned with our national startup strategy, which may cover building of regional technopoles, leading on merger & acquisition et al.
The government could as another option make loan or guarantee facilities available for private banks that have a special offering for startups and entrepreneurs. One key example of the success of such a bank is BPI France, which has been instrumental in rolling out the French government financial support for startups before and at the peak of the corona pandemic. We may even suggest that the National Board for Small Scale Industries (NBSSI) be positioned to play such a role; inferring from how instrumental it was in the management of the Covid-19 Alleviation Programme funds. This could avoid us the stress of setting up a new organization but that will demand a thorough reform of the NBSSI as in its current form, is not an investment or financial institution.
Supporting Corporate Innovation:
I am a fan of Stanbic Bank Ghana and my softspot for the institution has everything to do with its establishment of SB Incubator. The bank was one of the very first corporate giants in the country to put up a plan and a structure to support startups in Ghana. While it is encouraging to see other institutions following suite, we should start thinking of ways to encourage more corporate innovation and power it through governmental support. Such support could come in various form like facilitating academia-industry partnerships, involve corporate Ghana in the drafting of national innovation and startup-focused policies and giving tax exemptions to such institutions that will be productively involved in building our ecosystem.
Restructuring the National Entrepreneurship & Innovation Plan:
The NEIP is underutilized – I know this may not be the point of view of many but I hold that the Plan can serve a more strategic purpose – rallying State institutions and catalyzing government efforts in the ecosystem. Since its inception, the Plan has done great at engaging stakeholders in the ecosystem and bringing government to the table; but it did not stand out as having interest in policy and regulation of the ecosystem. The plan could have a “compliance” department that vets the curriculum of incubators or the state of co-working spaces; a research department that partners with other ecosystem stakeholders to regularly map the ecosystem and provide the much needed insight for policy-making among others. Those are very much needed and having the NEIP turn its attention to that angle will go a long way in making it more strategic as a tool for ecosystem growth.
Establishing the Startup Visa:
A startup visa is a special visa given to entrepreneurs coming into a country to build a startup, work for a startup or join any active ecosystem support organization (my own definition). The idea underlining the startup visa is to give a special treatment to individuals coming to Ghana to help the ecosystem grow. This will mean changing some aspects of Ghana’s immigration laws, but if operationalized, will enable us attract foreign skills and investment into our ecosystem and position our country as the prime startup destination on the continent. This will go quite well along our plans for “Beyond the return” as it will also contribute to growing the number of visitors we receive in Ghana, people should not just come to “chill” but also to build.
Setting up a Guichet Unique:
“Guichet Unique” is French for “One-Stop Shop”. The idea is to have a one stop shop office where all administrative processes are completed in the shortest possible time to set up a startup venture in Ghana. The processes could be uniformized for Nationals and Foreigners. This special institution will combine the workings of the Registrar General, Ghana Revenue Authority, the Food & Drugs Authority and other relevant regulatory bodies. We could also have a selected bank to provide the necessary financial services. This draws us back to our wish to have a Ghana Startup Bank.
Many other things could be done, but as we all know, the journey to make Ghana, the leading startup-Nation in Africa got to start from somewhere – but got to start anyway and NOW.
(*Akpe translates as “Thank you” in the Ewe dialect spoken across the Southern part of Ghana, Togo and Benin.)
Gilles Ametepe is a communications and partnerships’ strategist and co-founder of Ghana For Startups where he leads the policy and institutional relations team.