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Accelerating growth through a vibrant telecom sector

Interview - June 22, 2017

In this interview with The Worldfolio, Ghana’s Minister of Communications, Ursula G. Owusu-Ekuful, discusses the outstanding performance of the telecommunication sector in Ghana and the role of the government in enabling the private sector to lead the drive


There is a global trend towards regional integration and West African countries are experiencing this through the ECOWAS. In this regard, the West Africa Telecommunication Regulators Assembly (WATRA) was established in 2004 to harmonize regulations in the sector across the region. How can regional integration serve as a tool for further developing the telecom sector in the region and boost investor confidence?

Like you said, we can’t develop in isolation. We’re not an island. And we do need to be mindful of what’s happening in our sub-region as we chart our own path forward. Regional integration is something that we’re particularly keen on, not least because our current President used to be the Foreign Minister, and he was very keen on regional integration. He has been hammering the fact that we cannot develop if our sub-region is also lagging behind. So we need to learn from each other’s experiences and help one another, or lift each other up from our bootstraps in the field of telecommunications.

Previously, if we needed to do a transatlantic phone call, or even if we needed to make a phone call to Nigeria, it would have to go to Europe before it was transmitted back to the region, increasing the cost of communicating amongst ourselves. But currently we have sub-sea fibre cables all along the coast and so it facilitates communications. And we’ve developed significant fibre-optic networks around the country, which is also assisting us.

We are keenly working on linking our neighbouring countries with fibre-optic cables; and with the Eastern Corridor line, which we have built all the way to the border. We’re waiting for Burkina to also connect. We are going to have conversations with them about using our Eastern Corridor line – because they’re landlocked – to get access to the sub-sea fibre cables, MainOne, SAT-3, GLO-1, and all the others, so that it will also facilitate communications in the landlocked countries in the South sub-region.

If they prosper, we also prosper. And this can be a win-win situation for all of us because as they are using our infrastructure – they’re paying for it and we’re getting the revenues that we can also invest in further improvement of our telecommunications infrastructure, while they are also getting the connectivity that they need to be able to drive down prices to enable their citizens to also communicate and work and live more affordably, more conveniently and better. We’re working on linking the fibre-optic network to our neighbouring countries as well, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo on the other side, and that will make us fully connected. We are going to build up our Western Corridor links.

For me, access to the Internet should be a human right and be treated the same way. Just as we think about food, shelter and clothing, communications should also be accorded that same level.

The world out there is talking about 5G, we’re having issues making 3G work. And so it’s imperative that we fix the issues that are plaguing the sector, link up with our neighbours, deliver a better quality of service to our citizens, and just watch the revolution unfold, because that’s the way I see it.


Over the last decade Ghana has been one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, and even though the economic growth has slowed sizably over the last few years, Ghana’s ICT sector has seen high double-digit growth over the past 12 months. What have been the key elements behind this outstanding performance?

It is the hunger of the people themselves to take up as much technology as they’re offered. And their demand for better and improved services. Our sector is led by the private sector, the government has facilitated a lot of the interventions but has sat back and let the private sector drive the growth. We have opened up the space and regulated it, but we’re talking about soft regulations, just guiding and telling them that yes you can look at profits but you also need to look at access for the rural folk as well. So there’s a lot of collaboration between the telecommunications network operators and an organization under this ministry like GIFFEC, the Ghana Investment Fund for Electronic Communications, which has been set up to drive growth in the rural areas and in the un-served areas or under-served areas. It maybe not be commercially viable in the estimation of the network operators, but if GIFFEC takes up the capex costs, so that they’ll provide their service over the GIFFEC infrastructure. It lowers the cost for them, it makes it a break-even kind of scenario. And when they go into those rural areas, they realize that, there is a lot of demand here for their services. So it’s been a win-win situation and a classic case of public-private partnerships wherever we can have those collaborations.

There is are also quite a substantial amount of talent in terms of development of applications and software locally. In my interactions with them they are telling me that they’re using a lot more software developed for the Ghanaian market by Ghanaian applications developers themselves locally. They’re doing a lot more, that’s why they’re stimulating growth in that area as well without being taught more or less. But the government has also seen the need to develop the talent in those areas as well, so we have an Accra Digital Centre, we have a Multimedia Incubation centre where we also assist developing talent in this area to also showcase what they can do.

And so those synergies I believe are what are playing out and stimulating all this vibrancy in the Ghanaian telecommunication sector. It can only get better. And I’m looking forward to even greater collaboration in the sector, consolidation, infrastructure sharing to drive down the cost. Currently the cost of data is about 7% of the average income, they’re spending about 7% on data. We want to drive it down to 2% so that at least with just about 2% of the average income you can browse freely. And we’re hoping that the more they enjoy the experience, the more they will do it, and they would stay online. And so economies of scale would enable the companies to not only breakeven but make more profit, even though they are driving the prices down.


How is the government seeking to keep up with infrastructure development in the sector?

We have a fair bit of infrastructure, but we want to do even more. And we’re encouraging other people to also consider investment in this sector in terms of the infrastructure. They can set up infrastructure companies, for example, just do the backbone and lease those services to any operator who wants to use it. It’s like building a road and tolling it, so anybody who wants to use it, you’re free to use it, but you pay a small toll and then drive on the road.


And what about capacity building?

We also want to build local talent. A lot of expertise is available locally. We have the Ghana Telecom University College which has trained a lot of telecoms engineers over the years and they're working in many of the companies currently. We have our University of Science and Technology as well, it has also done a great deal of work in training local talent. Our own Kofi Annan IT Training Centre, has also trained quite a lot of talent in this area.

And so companies come in here and they’re surprised that Ghana has a world-class quality of personnel who can actually work in their companies and assist them to deploy whatever systems they want to deploy. They want Ghanaian companies to partner with other investors to see what we can do together to grow the talent locally. And maybe before long we will have our own local Silicon Valley somewhere in Accra or in Ghana and people can also export the wonderful things that they create.


Financial inclusion is something which is in the global agenda and ICT plays a very important role. How from the Ministry are you aiming to promote financial services through technology?

I’m very excited about the prospects of the industry in this regard because we also want to move a away from the cash society that we have and do more digital financial services. We are promoting partnerships in that area as well and encouraging people to come up and set up whichever payment systems and platforms they want. It will not just mop up the liquidity in the system, it will also create jobs and enable us to also reduce the corruption in the system. If a lot more of these services are being paid for electronically it reduces the human interface and makes sure that the money will go exactly where it’s intended. Yes, we can prosecute and imprison those who are corrupt, but let us reduce the avenues which would enable them to corrupt the system, and I think that technology can help do that.

But thinking even of e-payments solutions for the police service so that once the national ID project is completed, we’re doing the digital addresses system linked to post codes so that we can digitally identify every piece of property in this country, and then zone it into post codes. And that basic information would also be linked to your national ID card, that will be the platform on which the national ID would ride. The law says without a national ID you can’t enjoy many services of this country, you can’t open a bank account, you can’t have a SIM card, all that. Once we have a proper functioning national ID we will enforce the law.

And so we’re working with the post offices which are spread out all over the place, we’re encouraging people to set up payment systems all over the country, we have community information centres in every district which have been built by the ministry and its agencies. We will active them and make them the e-services centres across the country. So anybody can walk to those centres, even if they’re not technologically literate, there will be somebody there that will guide and assist them to apply for whatever service they want, passport, driving license, payment of taxes, birth registration, death registration, any service at all.


In 2016 Ghana was ranked as the most preferred business destination in sub-Saharan Africa for the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) business in the AT Kearney Global Services Location Index. Could you share with us more about BPO opportunities in the country?

We have a relatively literate population and we speak good clear English. Our telecoms infrastructure is relatively good and is only going to get better. And we’re very hospitable too when it comes to it. I think we need to work a little bit on our attitude to work, which for me personally we could improve upon. But we’re not bad as we think, so it’s a combination of all those factors. And I think that’s an advantage that Ghanaians have. English is the language of the internet, and so I think that positions us to do even more BPO services. We are really keen to promote that aspect of business in this country as well.

We have built the Accra Digital Centre, which is a plug-and-lay BPO Centre and we have about 50 units that are ready for anyone to go and rent and start operations. There’s broadband there at the centre, good electricity connectivity and backup power. A training component has been built into the activities of the BPO centre and it’s mandatory that any company which sets up business there should hire 5% of its workforce from the locality, so that while they’re trained as call centre operatives and given basic skills in computer literacy in preparation for working in the digital centre, they will also be getting a good job to lift themselves out of poverty. We need to create the jobs that would help drive the economic growth of this country. And I think through technology we can create even more jobs than agriculture.


Ghana is one of the UK’s longest-standing and strongest partners in Africa. In recent official visits from the UK to Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo has welcomed more UK investment into the country. Why would you encourage the UK investors to invest in the communications sector in Ghana, and what investment opportunities would you highlight?

There are a lot of investment opportunities in this sector. Just a couple of months ago there was a Tech in Ghana conference held in London. Honourable Adam Afriyie was the one who opened the conference and our own Yofi Grant from GIPC was also there as well. UK companies who were at that conference were excited at the possibilities in this space that some of them had not even contemplated in their minds. Vodafone is here, that’s a UK company, but they are also doing very, very well in terms of technology, either through software development, applications, infrastructure development, building of Wi-Fi systems, the broadband infrastructure itself, it’s endless.

We’re doing this digital switchover, and we’re talking to Inview, which is a UK company which did the Freeview system for the UK when they did their switchover, we’re looking for ways in which they can also assist us in this process. And I think that when it comes to this tech space there is probably even a lot more that we haven’t thought about, but the opportunities for collaboration are there. So we’ve asked the organizers to come and do a Tech in Ghana conference here and to invite the UK companies which expressed an interest to come and see what opportunities there are to collaborate in education, in the devices sector, in the infrastructure sector, in the applications sector, you name it. We can learn from the experience of the UK in transportation, the way technological applications facilitate the utilities, British Gas and the others – how they have used technology to improve their services. They can come and teach our utility companies here.

We don’t want aid, we want to trade. We want to work with the UK companies in a mutually beneficial manner to grow both economies. We don’t want hand-outs, we want a hand up – help us to get where you are and you will realize that if you have prosperous friends, you can only prosper more.


How can a post-Brexit scenario impact this relation?

I think the Commonwealth also has to take centre stage now because of Brexit. So you need better collaboration with your Commonwealth countries, we were your colonies, but now we’ll be your partners, and in a mutually beneficial manner help grow the volumes of trade between our two countries across sectors. So whether it’s agriculture, whether it’s utilities, whether it’s transportation, whether it is oil and gas, and quite a number of our students have been to Scottish universities to study what the British petroleum industry has been doing, and so for me the possibilities are endless. And technology is there to assist every sector to improve upon their efficiencies. So I’m looking forward to greater collaboration with UK companies to see what we can do together to help them to also improve their bottom-line.


When I was researching about the sector here in Ghana, I realized that many of the leaders of the most important institutions are women. What advice would you give to the young entrepreneur girls or women in Ghana that are aiming to become the leaders of the future?

Thanks for this question. In 2005, I managed the company which is now Airtel, it was called Westel at the time, and I sat in the boardrooms and at meetings and I was the only female in the room. From 2005 to 2008, I was largely the only woman at CEO level, relating to my colleagues in the telecommunications sector. Today there is only one man at that level in Ghana, and it makes me extremely excited at how the industry has evolved. You meet CTOs, in many counties who are women. So, increasingly, this all-male preserve is being broken down and the women are also becoming more visible and holding their own. So I would encourage more young women to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics as a vocation and as a career, because there are opportunities there for women and the barriers are breaking down. I’m very, very excited that at this particular point in time the Minister for Communications is also a woman. And so we’re encouraging even more young girls to get into this space.

We have girls in an ICT program every year. This year we go to the various rural areas, and for one week it’s like a boot camp – we teach them coding, we teach them how to use the internet, we teach them social networking skills, we demystify technology for them and hope that we will plant a little seed in them which will encourage them to also take up a career in ICT in the future. This year we’ll have about 1,000 girls in this boot camp – just exposing them to technology. And I am hopeful that a few of them will end up maybe sitting in my chair in ten or twenty years from now. That will make me very, very excited that I helped plant the seed and the interest in ICT in the young people.