Independence Day was celebrated in Kumasi for the first time at the Baba Yara Stadium.

“When I was young,” says my father in answer to my question about how he managed to create a better life for himself, “I lost my father very early in the Biafran War and my mother had to take care of six children. It wasn’t pretty and I knew that if I didn’t make bold moves to change the cause of my life, I would be stuck in what would become an awful cycle of disenfranchisement. I wanted to become a military officer; a reputable profession, but more so born out of some personal strife. But, instead,” he grins, “I went to school and had the benefit of being offered scholarships to other countries. Through the necessity of hustling, I found respite catering to the needs, and wants, of the often overlooked in society. There was a lot of need there and I simply acted as an intermediary to make certain goods accessible to them.  The rest, as they say, is history.”

Familiar? Perhaps! For many of today’s youth in Sub-Saharan Africa, this narrative or worse – remember the “no shoes for the 5km walk to school” or “early morning treks to the river for the day’s water at 4am,” etc – characterizes the narrative of our parents. It is for this reason, among others, that the commitment to being educated and living a better life is a core priority – sometimes to the detriment of their wards’ own development – but that’s a story for another day.

Ghana today is not the same as in 1957. It’s history and divisions at independence continue to weigh on the country. It is tempting to want a clean slate to start over again; but even the postcolonial “born-free” generation has struggled to shed the burden of the past and unleash the country’s entrepreneurial energy, as others elsewhere have been able to do. As we look to look to define a different Ghana, the record of the last six decades should serve as a caution of just how little economic gains will be realized if the status quo is left to tarry.

Ghana is now 63 years old. For its income level and comparatively less-abrasive historical path, there is a justified sense of exasperation with the country’s pace of development and future. The burgeoning population of more educated and an urbanized youth in the absence of adequate jobs is a crisis in the making should all else remain same. Six decades is, after all, adequate time for some countries to have experienced significant changes in their economy.

Reflecting on Ghana’s development: Lessons for today

Source:  World Development Indicators. *1960 is the first year for which data is available for both Ghana and South Korea, after independence, hence the different starting points

Reflecting on Ghana’s development: Lessons for today

 GDP per capita using constant 2010 prices from World Development Indicators. 1960 is the first year for which data is available for both Ghana and South Korea, after independence, hence the different starting points. 

The diagram above shows what some countries have achieved in 32 years after independence for – half the time of Ghana odd years post Kwame Nkrumah ever so gloriously taking the mantle and setting the British well on their way. Here we see that Ghana has had sub-par results in terms of growing its economy since 1960. After roughly 32 years, it only managed to increase its economy per person by -23%, which means that in 1989, Ghana was actually faring worse than at its start. Granted, the late 1980s were a difficult time for Ghana; but perhaps that speaks to our (in)ability to generate policies that could have led to a more positive economic reality. Today, Ghana is doing moderately well, as GDP per capita has improved by 71% from its starting point but there is room for so much more.

Neighbouring Cote D’Ivoire, a regional competitor and also cocoa producer, managed to do much better by increasing its GDP per capita by 13% since independence in 32 years – not spectacular, but better than Ghana for sure. Mauritius also managed to double its economy at independence and even significantly more today. Similarly, Rwanda, despite its disastrous civil war, has managed, in just about the same time as Ghana has been “free”, to grow its economy by 143%; Ghana on the other hand by 71%.

Southeast Asia on the other hand tells an even more captivating narrative. Despite Singapore’s poor start at independence, it managed to grow its economy more than seven-fold from being a poor backwater and recently expelled territory from Malaysia in 1965. South Korea as well managed to overcome poverty and low standards of living after separating from the North and today boost enviable success. Its current accomplishment is evidence of not only a good policy environment, but more also a continued commitment to innovation with cutting-edge corporations like Samsung buttressing its economic prosperity. Perhaps the success of the East Asian Tigers compared to the Sub-Saharan African counterparts is telling of viable paths to prosperity that Ghana, and others, could learn from.

To tackle the challenges of poverty alleviation, job creation and economic prosperity, what Ghana needs to do in the future is therefore an extremely relevant question to ask. For one, the lessons from East Asian are instructive. They  teach, among several others, that openness to private sector participation and the critical role played by market-creating innovations is an absolute necessity.

What could this mean for Ghana? Businesses must be more responsive to the economic challenges facing the country by investing and creating enterprises that can become competitive not just in the Ghanaian market but on the continent and globally as well. Singapore became the regional service headquarters for hundreds of global companies operating in the Asian region; South Korea developed efficiency-enhancing equipment that had a global reach; Japan developed cars that throng the streets of Accra and beyond, and the list goes on. These 20th century successes stemmed largely from innovation by entrepreneurs that created a solution to the everyday problem not just in their domestic markets but regional and more globally. It has happened before and it can happen again – good for us.

One of the biggest lessons from the Asian Aspiration book is to not be a prisoner of the past. The past offers insights on how to do things and how not to do others. These insights are guiding posts for experimenting and developing new ways of thinking, and being, and it is this character that we perhaps need to embrace. Yes, Ghana does have a colonial past; Ghana is heavily invested in commodities; and ethnic differences are rife, but we can – and should – rise past those. The past is only predictive of the future if everything remains unchanged. Learning from the past, as is well known, is not the same as being a prisoner of your past.

Coming back to my father’s narrative, I am reminded of the importance of being more open and attentive to the world around me. More often than not, great opportunity lies in identifying and providing solutions to the basic needs of fellow men – whether it be developing a solution to an unaddressed challenge, or simply filling in the gap and making existing a product, or service, more accessible and affordable. That perhaps is the lesson.

For years, many scholars and development enthusiasts have pointed Ghana out as potential key player in Africa – “the hope of Africa” – but for six decades, it’s been stuck there. Hoping to diversify its economy; hoping to alleviate poverty; hoping to move beyond aid… Ghana does, indeed, have the potential to become one of the continent’s greatest success stories in creating prosperity, and the efforts of companies like SOFTtribe, Polytank, Neat Fufu and Fan Milk give us hope that the country can disrupt the cycle of nearly, but never completely, getting there. This however is not likely to happen until Ghana recognizes the need to invest in innovations that create new markets from the underserved and overlooked, or those that reach far beyond its borders – it is surely one of many answers to sustainably generating jobs, upskilling productive capacities and creating prosperity.

Times have changed. Ghana’s lesson, much like Asia teaches, is to make tough choices, be a bit bolder, and more iterative with the development process. To improve the lives of the many, we must be willing to end business as usual.

Marie-Noelle Nwokolo is a researcher at the Johannesburg-based think tank, The Brenthurst Foundation, where she hosts the novel Asian Aspiration: The Podcast, among other things.

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