It is said that time seems to fly when one is having fun. The truth is that time also flies when you are in pain, only seems longer. It was more than ten years ago, in 1992, that then Deputy Editor of West Africa magazine, K. Gyan-Apenteng, called to interview me on an article I had written to justify the need for improvement of telecommunication systems in Ghana.
This morning, I find myself writing a long essay that I had intended as a short letter for my project manager in Ghana. I hope my piece today will help effect any changes in policies planned or underway, to help open up the business climate in Ghana, especially the communication policies. It is long since we heard of the brilliant IT policy paper written by Presidential advisor, our friend Dr. Somuah. Let us all review this in a wider audience and context, among those who care about Ghana.
Are Phone Calls to Ghana slowing down?A man who is working for me as my project manager informs me that it took him about two hours to get an email sent last week at an Internet Caf?. Within the last year, 2001 to 2002, one may have noticed that phone calls to Ghana are becoming more and more difficult, requiring several attempts, especially during the day time. A five minute call may end up taking an hour of one?s precious time. Many of my friends I talk to in the US and even Europe are complaining. ?Ghana?s phone lines are hard to get through?, is the common discussion. As population increases, one expects an increase in business transactions, an increase in buildings, and hence traffic flow of vehicles and of information along communication lines. It does not take a genius to figure this out. Planning these is part of what government is created for by a citizenry, people are elected, and hired to work for government.
A sister of mine likes to remind me of how worse things used to be. However, it is my personal philosophy that we should measure our progress by what and how things ought to be, and what we are capable of doing. Today?s world requires certain acceptable Quality standards, in manufacturing and services, and the old excuses, and self praising by comparing ourselves to some poorer African nation, will not do. When we Africans go overseas to study in International Western or Eastern Universities, we are not given any preferential treatment in examinations. We should thus discard thinking that depicts mediocrity, and embrace worldwide quality standards in the products we buy or produce, and services we provide also. We do not expect products like sardines, flour, medicines, or cars and trucks we import from outside to give us diseases or cause us harm in use. Similarly a travel on Ghana Airways should not excuse us for poor service compared to say United Airlines or KLM.
In the last few years, a number of articles have been published in the The Wall Street Journal, America?s daily Bible for business executives, on the problems and adventures of doing business in Ghana. One of tem I recall was on modern computer businesses in Ghana that had struggled for over a year in order to get phone lines, and their overall experience. It wasn?t flattering and depicted indecision on the part of government Ministers to open the atmosphere and of course stipulate the business guidelines. Another article on personal foreign business experiences have appeared in other journals and even San Jose Mercury News, the main paper for the high technology capital of America. One doubts if any Embassy official has taken the time to study such reports and advice the government. Even if they did, one doubts if the government understands the net propaganda and deleterious impact of such reports on Ghana?s overall business atmosphere. The question is, could these reports not have been a major positive advertisement for us also, if we had the priorities right?
I called my project manager at 1:30am in the morning today, Saturday ? I was working late. But how can I do this all the time? I even called my friend Dr. Kofi Apraku, Minister of Trade and Industries in the current government, and reached his wife last week. Since then I have tried 5 times at different times and not reached him or got circuit access. He had tried last month or so and left a message on my answering machine. It is not necessary to bring in such personal episodes when one is writing an article. However, without us making our problems in Ghana personal, without our leaders, our Ministers, our Assemblymen, our DCEs, putting themselves in the heart of the problems we have in Ghana, we cannot solve them. Every problem, every pain the people suffer, must be personal! If not, it may be likened to the proverbial Minister in Ghana in the 1960s when Mercedes Benz were the unofficial cars of government Ministers, who described the need for a Mercedes Benz. He said that Ghana?s roads were full of potholes, and thus he needed the proverbially good shock absorbers on the Mercedes to feel comfortable on Ghana?s roads.
The Empty Pride, Lost Opportunities:Such egotistical and selfish ?big-man? syndrome of a mind-set, of empty-chested palm-wine-drinking African braggadocio of the old village champions, seems to exist today among many in government top positions. What the Minister did not realize was that he had been appointed by the President and entrusted with the responsibility, with other Ministers, of using his brains to solve the pothole problems, and not to use the public funds to elevate and isolate himself in some unreal world of utopian comfort. One may ask if our honorable hard working Speaker of Ghana?s Parliament who ordered that $90,000 Mercedes Benz has been able to enact more legislation that will bring more governmental revenue. Is his newly acquired comfortable joy ride, at the expense of the sweating taxpayer of Ghana and us overseas, paying off for us? It does not take geniuses these days to establish communication infrastructure and to build roads. The technology has been done and perfected, for over 100 years for phones, and 500 to 1,000 years for roads. So what is our excuse? It?s simply Management and Leadership!! Period!
Every leader in Ghana and most Africa, in the post Cold War era rhetoric, seems to realize the value of investment capital to Ghana. Socialism seems to have died a natural death now, and we accept outside investment capital. We travel all around the world to seek capital. What we lack are: an understanding of how to use capital to make our developmental plans work, and how to disentangle ourselves from the potential to be economically re-colonized if we let our guards down. The processes and tools of the global business do not stand still, especially in a competitive world and market.
It?s almost impossible to do any modern business where day-time calls cannot get through. Even on a Saturday, I have tried 9 times and can?t get circuits through to anyone. Ghana still has not completed negotiations with the major global telecommunication carriers to open up more lines for our use. Ghanaian Ministers and leaders can have more than ten meetings and conferences, and write hundreds of pages of policy papers, and yet there seem to be no decisions made. There is currently no shortage of capacity on undersea communication cable networks which have been laid under the ocean close to Ghana by AT&T, or the satellites deployed over the skies of all of us. Ghanaians overseas and at home are paying at least 30% to 50% more by using phone cards to reach mostly cellular phones in Ghana, i.e. if one can get through at all. An extra $25 per month, multiplied by say two million calls, is a lot of money wasted. This 50% additional cost could have been avoided and put to better use if government had made wired communication lines available in all parts of Ghana, by merely improving on the plan the Colonial government had in Ghana and Nkrumah?s government did. VRA created the fiber optic network before year 2,000. Has the government even looked at it seriously? In addition this lost opportunities created by poor communications creates very costly developmental deficits. We are behind, and we are getting further behind! In marketing terms, products or services purchased may lose their strategic cost competitive advantage, due to lack of options to communicate and search for alternative markets.
Cellular Phones:Cellular phones have made a difference in Ghana. Even our mothers know their use. Many people are gun-ho on cellular phones. I know better. In general it depends on what you need it for. I was one of the first to buy one for my car in the late 1980s. However, I have realized they are not meant for serious business use, but for luxury personal and emergency use. They are also disposable after one or more years as new technologies enter the market. This is not to say we should avoid them. However, is that the way to communicate for a nation? Don?t let us be deceived by technologies of the future if even developed nations like America use today?s technology. Wired lines for television and cable lines are now used for voice and data communications such as high speed Internet, which gives further competitive advantage for businesses and students who have access.
Sometimes we have to look at life from the fundamentals first. As a friend told me, the main greeting when you meet a person in China translates into ?Have you eaten today?? (Instead of simple Hello). Fundamentals! To exemplify the sad deterioration in leadership fundamental mindset in post-Nkrumah Ghana, let?s examine Ghana. In 1952, there were phone lines to my hometown of Abetifi, as well as other small and large towns like Apemaase, Bodomase, Sunyani, Tamale, Winneba and Zualarigu. I am one person for modernization. I do not believe in the traditionalist theory espoused by a few of our colleagues on our Internet discussion forums, who believe our salvation lies in the cutlass and Chieftaincy. Most of us in our generation know that we cannot feed our people on this cutlass mentality. However, as thieves stole the copper wires in the 1970s, all we had to do was improve on these concepts of communication lines with higher capacity and newer cables made of glass (called fiber optic cables) and newer switches! My own research has shown that $25,000 to $250,000 will buy a new switch to serve a town or whole district, which can be paid for in a year by subscribers. This is not beyond many of us if government will allow sincere private entrepreneurship in the telecommunication business without years of bribe-seeking negotiations.
Strategic Decisions:To achieve progress in life, and one may call technically as sustainable competitive advantage in life, one has to make strategic decisions. Why is it that our Ministers cannot make such decisions? I advise against letting foreigners operate our local phone systems, but why not open the door and allow private Ghanaian businessmen to venture, to purchase and install such switches, and operate them in their local areas?
Today where are the remnants of our old systems? The copper wires are hanging on trees that are still durably standing along our roads. And all our so-called educated Ministers can do is call on foreigners to come and invest their money to build phone system for us? When we are cheated in these transactions, we fail to understand that that is the nature of foreign multinational business, and investments ? what they can get from us not what they can give!! Simple ABC of business seems to elude our Ministers and leaders, who sit on decisions when they are not sure, whiles Ghana lags further and further behind in debts and lack of opportunities!
These are some of the frustrations of us overseas, and I am not sorry to vent it again. I wrote my first article on this in 1972 to the Acheampong regime of Ghana, some 30 years ago. We have made progress since then, but our leaders in the last decade are not pushing our destiny hard enough. We should, if we want to catch up! The status quo does not work in this age, where we find ourselves so far behind that we are being swallowed by competition in even food production. Does it not seem silly to you all that we have to import rice and other food into Africa!
Despite the bad news, there is hope. We now have experts in all fields at home and overseas. One day we may wake up and select better leaders and force our constitution to change to allow people overseas who have the know-how, to become Ministers and leaders in Ghana. As of now the ?Ahooya? (envy) policies and politics will not allow that. A President like J.A. Kufuor can only appoint people who may have no practical knowledge or skills to manage certain major projects for Ghana. We have an estimated two or more million Ghanaian overseas. If only 1 out of ten went for education, we have at least 200,000 well educated men and women experienced in many fields to help, but prevented by current legal paperwork. How sad as a nation!
Need for Leadership:As much as we need managers, these are some of the issues that convince me that Ghana cannot make any progress without the RIGHT LEADERSHIP ? i.e. our Leaders who are sincere, understand, have the vision and are savvy, and are capable of prioritizing certain issues and taking action. Business may be picking up after the end of Ghana?s dictatorial era. However, it takes the right leaders to make the right priorities for a nation, and to effect and implement necessary changes which are beyond individuals? private capabilities, e.g. Power, and telecommunication infrastructure. Let?s examine this simple logic.
- 1. To create jobs for our people, and to create revenue for government, you need businesses to flourish.
2. Almost all businesses rely on modern communications to be effective. Those who don?t are left in the rural areas, and are a vanishing breed, as foreign cheaper foods are imported to replace them.
3. Communications is no more magic. It can be purchased and installed easily because the technology is available now, is cheap and well established. It can be purchased or even manufactured locally with license from the original manufacturers in the West (my preferred option).
4. Purchasing and installing communications systems is an INVESTMENT since it can pay for itself quickly.
In the rural areas some areas and even in Accra, some are able to do without electricity. However, one cannot transact business without communication between seller and buyer, producers, manufacturers and distributors, retailers and distributors, customers and retailers, between citizens and legislators, government and the governed, students and their instructors, people and police /law enforcement. Since the 1950s, government offices still have only one or two phone lines, if any, for a whole Ministry, School, or even our Universities. It is thus impossible to get through but a few calls per day. Leaders do not seem to realize the importance of communications and how much time is saved if people don?t have to take transportation to make mostly empty trips around the city or nation! TRAFFIC CONGESTION is another result of such lack of communication. Our culture does not seem to value time. Strategic leadership have been shown in many instances in Western and Asian societies to influence and change culture and the destiny of even a nation. We must change in order to survive.
The correlation between time and communication is obvious. Time seems to have little value to Ghanaian employees or partners. As society gets more sophisticated, our people have no choice but to learn the value of time. One man at the Lands Department has given my project managers in Ghana about six appointments since November 2002 to come to his office only to make appointments for the next appointment. The land that I purchased some ten years ago still lacks land registration! There is a breakdown of the government Lands Registration system, as well as communication. Everybody is in the dark!! What kind of people on earth do not realized the value of time, and the value of land or real estate! We have to, and I believe we will!
Conclusions:- No nation has infinite resources. However, every nation has to tap their assets and competencies to survive and compete in today?s global economy.
- We in Ghana, like every nation, rely on our leaders, our Ministers, to make policies that will not only make the lives of our people better, but can be done without encumbering our future generations with unnecessary loans.
- Telecommunication is one of the most profitable investments any nation can make. It promotes business, enhances the quality of life, saves lives through quicker reporting when there is emergency illness, armed robbery or security issues. It can pay for itself in a short time if managed. Ghana inherited a telecommunication infrastructure and network in 1957. The lines may be cut but the idea is not all lost. We must build on the idea. In 2000, the Volta River Authority, working with the taxpayer?s money, created the Volta Telecommunications Company Ltd. The 25 page presentation document, which I downloaded, dated March 21, 2000, was entitled: ?Building a high Capacity Fiber Optic Broadband Network ? the VoltaCom Experience?, by Nimako Boateng and Nana Twum. We are in 2003, and the question may be asked: What are we waiting for to launch and deploy our Local Area Networks (LAN) and Wide Area Networks (WAN)? Can we do without communications? Can we use the talking drums in 2003? Do we need foreigners also to come and launch this, and sell to Ghanaians?
My evaluation showed that this fiber optic network developed by Voltacom Ltd. around the electricity grid in Ghana is as good as that obtainable anywhere in the USA, where even ordinary phone lines are being superseded by regular TV cable and fiber optic lines for high speed Internet communication. This is a first class technology that we must congratulate the engineers and managers of VRA for pioneering. It should be exploited by government to set up a backbone communication network. It is ready for deployment throughout Ghana today, not tomorrow.
- It appears all we need is the right leadership. Leadership is sorely needed. The challenge is on the educated Ministers and our President, J.A. Kufuor, to seize the moment, show the leadership, and capitalize on the current assets and technologies. Our leadership should tap into Ghana?s ready and willing human assets and competencies overseas and at home, to serve our people, our nation. This should not be too much to expect of a government that preaches a Golden Age of Business.