After 60 years, it’s time for Ghana to modernize and find its role in the world

This time, celebrating 60 years.
This time, celebrating 60 years.
Image: Reuters/Luc Gnago
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Today marks Ghana’s 60th year as an independent nation. The day is bittersweet.

On one hand, I’m deeply proud of our relatively small nation that continues to punch far above our weight. I am proud of last December’s election which, despite its tensions and nail-biting conclusion, was handled with poise and dignity, and which some consider as a reference point for the rest of the continent.

Yet, I can’t help but feel that over half a century after independence, we should be so much further along in our national project. I can’t help but feel that we’ve not been good stewards of our many blessings.

As we look forward, I hope that another 20-something year old Ghanaian, 60 years from now, will marvel at how much was accomplished within a generation, but I suspect that a pre-requisite for this is an urgent national conversation about what we want our role to be in the world.

Beyond economic growth, and beyond political stability, what is our larger national project? Every year, we lose many of our best minds to other shores where they find more interesting, purposeful, and rewarding work. If we want them to stay, we’re going to need to craft a narrative that appeals to their sense of wanting to belong to something larger than themselves.

What is the big idea around which young Ghanaians should aspire to? What is Ghanaian excellence, and who are the individuals who embody it?

We severely underestimate the extent to which young Ghanaians are compelled by the idea of a motivating national project. The allure of that narrative is one reason why some Ghanaians look wistfully at Rwanda (and some even wonder out loud about the benefits of having our own “strong man”), despite Kigali’s checkered record in the areas of human rights and civil liberties.

Luckily, Ghana’s history provides ample fodder for myth-making. Kwame Nkrumah is still remembered fondly across the continent for his leading role in emancipation struggles across the continent, and Ghanaians still hold in high esteem Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations and winner of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.

In our 60th year, I am hopeful for the political and civil willingness to begin to articulate an idea of Ghanaian excellence that young Ghanaians can rally around and aspire to.

A few places to restart

Ghana’s 60th Independence Day celebrations will be led by a popular new government headed by president Nana Akufo-Addo. While president Akufo-Addo’s to-do list is almost certainly extremely long, here’re a list of issues this millennial would like to see his administration make progress on.

Support startups by revising the GIPCA act. The Ghana Investment Promotion Centre Act (GIPCA) was passed in 2013 with the aim of encouraging investment in Ghana. Coming on the heels of Ghana becoming an oil-producing country, however, it appears that the law was drafted primarily with companies in the extractive industries in mind. How else does one account for the fact that the Act raised the minimum capital requirement of foreign investors to a whopping $200,000?  Cross-border transactional attorney Auria Styles says the minimum capital requirements of the GIPCA make it virtually impossible for international tech investors to back Ghana’s promising tech start-ups. The law states that non-Ghanaian citizens can invest in a Ghanaian company only if they invest: 1) in the case of a joint venture, more than US$200,000; or 2) in the case of a wholly-owned subsidiary, more than US$500,000.

Address the energy crises, ideally with renewables: In 2015 Ghana experienced the worst power crisis in decades, with rolling blackouts affecting parts of the country for days at a time. Businesses struggled to keep up with the ever rising cost of the fuel needed to power generators, as well as the associated skyrocketing costs of servicing those machines.

While the crisis was bad enough, the proposed remedies seemed wildly desperate, including a bizarre plan to purchase a coal-powered plant, made with technology so toxic it was banned in China, and then situate it on the water next to a fishing village and feed it with imported coal. Thankfully, that plan appears to have been shelved, but it speaks to the urgent need to come up with a long term solution to Ghana’s ballooning energy needs. Ideally, that solution will be heavily based on renewable energy. Hopefully, this will be one way, too, in which we leapfrog the rest of the world.

Engage the local tech startup community. Ghana enjoys a vibrant tech startup community building tools and services for customers all over the world, nurtured in communities of learning and practice such as Impact Hub Accra, the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, iSpace, DevCongress, and many others. It’s a shame that we have some of the most skilled technologists in the region right in our backyards, and yet fail to properly tap into their insights and skill set. The community’s feedback could prove invaluable, for example, in implementing the landmark Digital Property Addressing System. DevCongress is a community of arguably some of the best software developers in the country. Why, then, must this incredibly skilled group need to tweet plaintively at the Vice President, seeking audience?

Reduce the cost of computers and internet access. The internet is an unprecedented tool for learning and wealth creation, and any wealth creation agenda will be incomplete without a plan for dramatically increasing the access that average Ghanaians have to these tools. WhatsApp, for example, has emerged as a powerful medium of connection between merchants and their customers—one Accra restaurant uses the simple messaging platform to communicate with 6,000 of its best customers.

It’s been comforting to see Ghana’s telecoms regulator resist appeals from the telecoms industry to ban calls over apps like WhatsApp and Skype. Likewise, many were relieved to hear former president Mahama publicly resist pressure from Ghana’s Inspector General of Police to shut down access to social media sites during the 2016 Presidential Election. Beyond simply defending the internet we have now, we need to increase access to these tools exponentially for everyone.

Recruit the best technology talent into a new “Ghana Government Digital Service”. In the United Kingdom, the delivery of government services has been improved thanks to the work of the Government Digital Service, which is an in-house brain trust of some of the best designers, developers, and product managers in the country, brought together in a “centre of excellence [in order to] build platforms, standards, and digital services” for various government departments. The American equivalent is the United States Digital Service, “a startup at The White House, using design and technology to deliver better services to the American people.”

Critically, many of the people who work at those organizations are young. They were recruited away from high-skilled jobs at places like Google and Facebook to use their talents to solve urgent national issues. Additionally, they’re shielded from the vagaries of the politics of the day and allowed to champion a cultural transformation within government towards being user-centered and data-driven.

The influence of an empowered Ghana Government Digital Service would be transformative. It would bring technology expertise and efficiency to government, and improve the delivery of critical services that government provides to Ghanaians. Instead of needing to fend for themselves when seeking technology solutions, government agencies could go into an internal team of experts who could help them design, set up, and maintain simple websites, advise on the selection and installation of productivity-enhancing tools, and provide routine training to civil servants on how to make the most of those tools.

“Forward ever, backward never.”

I am more hopeful for Ghana than I have been in a long time.

The surge of engagement in the lead-up to the 2016 election hasn’t abated. Instead, the new government is being held to high standards, there’s a palpable sense of excitement in the air, and young Ghanaians are stepping up in a huge way.

Whether it’s Leonie Badger being featured in The Financial Times for her lighting and furniture studio,  Kwami Williams making the Forbes 30 Under 30 List for Social Entrepreneurs, or the team at Tress making it into Y Combinator, young Ghanaians are leading and innovating on a world stage.

What is Ghanaian excellence? Young Ghanaian innovators will show us.