West African leader keen to attract agricultural companies

While slated to meet with corporate heavyweights like Delta Air Lines Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta this week, Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama said his government is also making reforms that will open the door to smaller U.S. investors.

A nation of 24 million people, Ghana is aiming to build on its status as a gateway to West Africa, trading on its reputation for stability.

“We are operating on what we call a hub concept,” Mr. Mahama said at Kennesaw State University. “Ghana’s brand is peace and stability, so it makes it attractive for companies to put their regional offices there.”

Speaking of hubs, Atlanta-based Delta used to fly nonstop from Atlanta to Accra, Ghana’s capital. But last May, the airline suspended that flight while increasing the frequency of its service from New York.

Mr. Mahama told Global Atlanta that he would like to see the Atlanta route return, providing more options for business leaders on both sides.

Members of the president’s high-level delegation noted sectors ripe for more investment in an economy that has grown faster than 6 percent in recent years, bolstered by offshore oil and investment in infrastructure and related services.

But exports are still dependent largely on cocoa, cashews and other crops, which is why tax incentives have been introduced to attract “value-added agro-processing” investments, said Haruna Iddrisu, Ghana’s minister of trade and industry.

“What we are doing with the president’s vision is to create an enabling environment that attracts foreign direct investment to our country,” Mr. Iddrisu said during a press conference, adding that the government hopes to boost total exports by $2.5 billion to $5 billion by 2016.

The University of Georgia is already working on peanut projects with Ghana, but that program mostly focuses on helping small farmers.

Mr. Mahama said his government is looking to boost the size and efficiency of Ghanaian farms while giving small landholders a stake in ongoing agribusiness investments.

Funded by a $45 million USAID grant and a $100 million World Bank loan, the Ghana Commercial Agriculture Program launched in June to provide a framework for public-private partnerships with large companies.

“These large- to medium-scale farms are going to have smaller-holder farmers around them, and they’re going to share the technology with them,” Mr. Mahama told Global Atlanta, noting that tractors and other equipment can be used on smaller farms during off hours.

Indeed, in a speech at Kennesaw State, Mr. Mahama noted that the availability of arable land in Africa is part of the continent’s ongoing economic renaissance, but he added that Africa is more than the world’s last farming frontier.

An information technology and telecommunications revolution has also taken root on the continent, underscored by the fact that five out of six Ghanaians have mobile phones.

Mawuena Trebarh, CEO of the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre, worked withMTN, the largest mobile provider in the country, for nearly five years.

Also traveling with the delegation, she said that the government gives weight to investors that will partner with Ghanaian firms to build their capacity.

New legislation requires oil field investments to have a certain percentage of local content, while parliament recently passed a new investment promotion bill that attempts to make the country more hospitable to foreign investment while retaining some protections for domestic producers in certain industries. The president has yet to sign the bill into law.

“The Ghanaian domestic business community, particularly the small and medium-sized industries, are ready to do business and have the capacity to engage on that level,” she said.

Making History 

Though it came at the start of a new school year, the president’s visit punctuated Kennesaw’s Year of Ghana program, which officially ended last semester.

This year is the Year of Japan, which must’ve made the president feel right at home: Earlier in his career, Mr. Mahama served as Ghana’s ambassador to Japan after working in that country’s embassy in Accra.

In fact, becoming president was never on Mr. Mahama’s wish list. He majored in history because the business and law programs at his university were full. Though disappointed at the time, he saw that adversity can breed opportunity.

“That changed my life,” he said, adding that taking the long view has made him a more tolerant person and leader.

Mr. Mahama’s own historic moment came in 2012 when he was serving as vice president. With the death of President John Atta Mills in July, Mr. Mahama found himself thrust into the nation’s top leadership position.

“I was shocked to find myself president,” he said.

Five months later, he was elected, a testament to the healthy democracy he said is setting the tone for Africa, particularly in the area of female participation in government.

When asked what Ghana is doing to ensure that women have an equal say in the country’s future, he rattled off a list of more than 20 female officials in various branches of government. The crowd applauded.

Kennesaw State President Daniel Papp, who moderated the question-and-answer session, saw no reason to probe further.

“I guess the question is answered,” he said, smiling.


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