“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” – J.F. Kennedy

On my way home this evening, I drove by the Sarlinesta Supermarket opposite the Neoplan Assembly Plant in Achimota. Something immediately caught my attention.

Some fifteen years ago when I moved residence towards the north-eastern end of Accra, the Neoplan Bus Assembling Plant was at the time grinding slowly to a stop, as though it were a machine that had been affected by sudden power cut. Indeed, the plant had been starved of the much needed injection of business and the company was grinding slowly on its knees.

Almost across that highway on the Accra-bound side at the same time had sprung a new supermarket called Sarlinesta. It was a very busy supermarket with its peak sales period being after work. You walked in and typically struggled to even secure a parking space, queue to make up payments, etc. I have no idea who the owner is but it’s pretty certain that business was booming then. On the Accra-bound side at the Ofankor end of the highway in those times was a reasonably sized shop close to the Silicon Valley International School. That shop received a lot of patronage as well.

Over the last weekend however, I drove by this shop and was saddened by the level of decline in business over the period leading to the shop gravitating into a pale shadow of its former self. I then decided to check out Sarlinesta this evening. The supermarket is still open though but a quick look would give any discerning person a clear indication of how slow its current rate of growth is, if any.

The story of Neoplan and Sarlinesta are only an epitome of the lots of many of our indigenous shops and industries that continue to spring up in our towns and cities.

In the early 2000s, when my family moved in to the North Cantonments area of Accra, we had along the Oxford Street in Osu, very well established eateries and restaurants that enjoyed huge patronage – Steers Drive-Thru, Chic’n-Lick-n, Papaye, Osu Food Court, Southern Fried Chicken, etc. They were mostly the toast of the city and to all intent of purposes they held a promise into the future but was it going to happen? In a few years, Asanka Locals and the popular McKeown’s Restaurant in Kumasi all appeared in opposite sides of Osu. Within ten years, all of these restaurants had vanished from the skyline of Accra except Papaye. Even recent additions, Rinas Restaurant, Chez and Atlantic Tulip Restaurant which adorned the Oxford Street from the Osu Mall have all been extinguished.

Going beyond the realms of eateries into the industrial sector, my dear friend, one only need to drive through the North Industrial Area where huge industries established in the 1950s through to the 70s were all supervised along the path into oblivion not only because the owners may not have applied themselves to good business operating practices but largely because the State refused to establish clear policies to provide safeguards and ensure that they were protected from unnecessary competition that could easily strangle them. Our governments have over the decades screamed themselves hoarse with slogans such as, ‘We are business-friendly destination’, ‘Gateway to West Africa’, ‘Industrial hub of Africa’ etc. From the little I’ve read, most countries such as China, Japan, India, Malaysia all offered good protection for their local industries as a way of ensuring that they were cushioned for growth. In May 2018, Ghana’s Minister for Trade and Industry Minister, Alan John Kyerematen indicated that plans were underway to make Ghana the new industrial hub of Africa. According to the Minister, ‘One of the strategic goals of this government is to make Ghana the new industrial hub for Africa’. Two years on, we still wait patiently for that promise to be unveiled.

I have read newspaper clippings and government reports from the 1960s and 70s that have indicated how local industries and business were thriving back then and yet had all collapsed by the 1980s. We were almost a self-sufficient country producing everything including television sets, radios, irons, ovens, furniture. We had over ten State-owned hotels that could favourably compare with any international brand of the time, yet we collapsed them all. A handful of these have subsequently been resuscitated, thanks to public- private partnerships. We assembled four international vehicle models – Nissan, Toyota, Neoplan and Volkswagen right here and yet we gleefully watched them collapse. We produced vehicle tyres in the countryside and exported them to the USA but we chose to watch it go under. We run the biggest and only dry-dock for the shipping industry yet we failed to sustain it. We run an international airline for decades obtaining the enviable USA FAA Category One in the 1990s only to collapse it by the 2000s. Those were the days Ghanaians could excitedly sing with E.T. Mensah and his Tempos Band, ‘Work and Happiness’, because they felt it collectively as a people.

In the midst of all this, many well-meaning individuals, in their quest to assist the industrialization of the Ghanaian economy invested. J.K. Siaw established Tata Brewery but we succeeded in killing it in its prime. Rev. Kwabena Darko’s ‘Darko Farms’ was about the biggest hatchery in Africa but we suffocated it until it is now on its knees. For largely political reasons, we snuffed out the life out of Apino Soap belonging to Mr. Appiah Menkah in the 1990s. As if we had not learnt any lesson, we are still doing same subtly to perceived political adversaries even in this new decade. Certainly, when business moguls take wrong investment and business policy decisions, they ought to be dealt with according to the Law. But when purported decisions are made on the sublime altar of partisan politics, we end up cutting our noses to spite our faces. My dear friend, where did we go wrong? Is this the Ghana that our forebears (Dr. James H. Aggrey, Paa Grant, Dr. J.B. Danquah, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Nii Kwabena Bonnie, Dr. Ephraim Amu, etc) toiled for with their blood?

For every business venture or industry that goes down, families get affected with job cuts while the State loses much needed revenue through taxes. We end up using our currency to buy unavailable foreign currency to trade thereby depreciating ours. Above all, we tend to send a signal to our younger people that it does not pay to go that path. Is it not any wonder then that today, the most lucrative avenues of productivity is ‘buying and selling’? We sell everything including second-hand panties and handkerchiefs without any shame to our national psyche. For young people, all they think about is life in partisan politics which has now had its crèches firmly established in the name of student chapters on our university campuses. The rate of returns from that avenue makes that of Menzgold pale into insignificance. The shift of young people straying into lotteries, betting, scamming schemes, ‘sakawa’ and such other businesses will only begin to slow off if we all begin to offer better alternatives and offer hope by showing good leadership.

Today, the focus of a young student graduating from university is securing a European or American Visa for a one-way flight, never to return. Much as the ‘Year of Return’ programme was a great success, it will be important for our State to spend much more of its energies towards making our country a great investment and business destination rather than dissipate resources into baiting them back after we’ve hounded them out.

Our governments may decide to shout from the rooftops their supposed economic gains and achievements but just as Flt. Lt. Jerry John Rawlings said at Burma Hall-Accra in 1979, ‘I am not an expert in Economics and I am not an expert in Law, but I am an expert in working on an empty stomach while wondering when and where the next meal will come from, I know what it feels like going to bed with a headache, for want of food in the stomach’. Truth is that, we all know the reality of the country’s state of affairs when we look at it and the truth is there for all of us to see. Interestingly, I have noticed in recent years that our political actors and their apparatchiks are always quick at pointing to some infrastructure activities as basis of our development. There are however two truths here. One is that no society develops on the altar of infrastructure provision alone and the second is that most of the so-called infrastructural provision are motivated by procurement corruption rather than a genuine desire to provide basic amenities for the people. Since Adam, man’s basic needs have been food, clothing and shelter. If a society entrusted with the power and authority to provide same cannot do this basic thing, then that society is not fit to be one.

What became of the words from our National Anthem? That inspiration that spurred our founding fathers to labour and sweat for the good of our country! With little or no education, they worked and toiled to lay a solid foundation for the growth of this country. Yet, with the chains of academic qualifications that most of our State actors boast of, we are rather working in concert to decimate our nation. If today, we struggle to deal with the very basic problems of our society – erratic power supply, quality portable water, motorable roads, security and quality education, how then can we guarantee the future success of our children who form the succeeding generations? How!

It is time for all of us, especially as we profess belief in God to remember that He created the earth, placed us here and tasked us to tend and care for it. How shall we account for our stewardship here, if we are unable do this very basic thing.

For now my dear friend, I wish to challenge you with the lyrics of E.T. Mensah’s ‘Work and Happiness’ song:

‘I will give my best; You will give your best;
We’d give our best, to beautiful Ghana.
Work and happiness! Yes, I must confess;
It will bring success for beautiful Ghana.

United farmers and workers of Africa!
God will bless you, wherever you are.
Work and happiness! Yes, I must confess;
All must give their best, for beautiful Ghana.

I will give my best, you will give your best.
We’d give our best, for beautiful Ghana.’

My dear friend, God is indeed counting on you!