The new UK High Commissioner to Ghana, Iain Walker, has expressed his country’s readiness to partner the government of Ghana in its quest to grow the economy beyond aid, through improved trade and support for the SME sector.
Speaking in an interview with the B&FT last week, Mr. Walker said no greater partnership can exist between the two countries than one that is built on fair trade, which is one of his preoccupations coming into the new role.
“As Ghana looks beyond aid and the UK looks beyond EU, clearly, what unites these countries is trade. But seeing trade go down is a marker that we should be doing something about, because trade is the best example you can have of partnerships – and this happens when you get trade on fair terms.
“I think it is in Ghana’s interest and that of the UK to have some of the best British companies working with Ghana. That’s why I want to see trade increasing – and not simply about volumes,” the High Commissioner said.
The volume of trade between Ghana and the UK as at 2015 was about £1.1billion, down by at least 30 percent from the 2012 figure – due largely to a slump in commodity prices.
According to the UK High Commissioner, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union presents further exciting opportunities not only for the UK but also countries such as Ghana to rework a new bilateral trade relationship.
“For instance, if I were Ghanaian I would be thinking about the opportunity Brexit brings; an opportunity to think about our future trade relationships and what we can see coming through that.
“But until the UK leaves the EU, it is still fully a member of the union; thus, we are not negotiating deals at the moment but rather trying to avoid any unintended consequences of a sharp exit. We are basically trying to ensure that we continue trading relations on a commonly understood basis,” he stated.
Reworking Priorities Beyond Aid
On the question of what the UK’s priorities are for Ghana, Mr. Walker stated that having a history of stability, democracy and developing institutions, it is appropriate that Ghana looks into the future and builds on these strong foundations to achieve its vision of moving beyond aid.
“As a lower middle-income country, Ghana’s aspirations to develop beyond aid is in the right direction.
“I think a Ghana beyond aid is very feasible, but it will require a lot of hard work and sustained effort…,” he added.
Mr. Walker, who takes over from plain-spoken Jon Benjamin, maintained that one of his priorities will be to have deeper conversations with the Ghanaian government to understand what the priority sectors are and what role the UK can play in meeting those priorities.
The UK, he said, possesses diverse expertise and could offer an impactful support when the priorities are determined.
“We know this government has big plans around infrastructure, and we are looking at how we can support some of those ambitions. Moreover, what we are really keen on is understanding better what the government’s priorities are, and in what particular areas, so that we can bring in British businesses to match in some of these areas.”
Mr. Walker said much as the High Commission is focused on promoting Ghana to UK investors, it is equally important the government of Ghana takes certain measures that will endear the country to investors in the UK.
“At the moment, we have not got enough British companies at the table competing for those priority areas [of Ghana’s economy], and that’s a strong priority for me coming into this role.
“There are a number of things that we take as real confidence-building measures for the government here – getting the macro economy picture right, dealing with the fiscal challenges, and implementing the special prosecutor to show that bad business behaviour will not be tolerated.
“Those kinds of confidence-building measures would go a long way to attract British businesses into the market here.”
Support for SMEs
The High Commissioner mentioned that the relationship between the two countries is not entirely limited to trade and setting up big companies, but includes development of the Small and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs) space – notably through its ENGINE initiative.
ENGINE is a multiyear project implemented by TechnoServe, with funding from the UK Government through the Department for International Development (DfID).
It seeks to equip Micro and Small Enterprises (MSEs) with the necessary skills and resources to improve their business plans and internal operations, while creating a thriving community of entrepreneurs through increased access to business development services and to financing.
According to Mr. Walker: “We are spending a significant of amount to help small companies make that next step and go into production and grow in the way they want. About 421 SMEs have come through the ENGINE programme, and we have recognised 250 percent of revenue growth of firms as well as with over 1,203 new jobs created.
“This is an incubator programme that works to bring together entrepreneurs as a group to talk to each other, and learn from each other to bring some external expertise. It is a good model and interesting.
“The UK government is also working with the government of Ghana to improve the business environment through the Business Enabling Environment Programme (BEEP), and we are developing a new Economic Development programme to support job-creation in line with Ghana government’s ambitious strategy.”
No Unfair Visa Treatment
Responding to media reports of unfair treatment meted out to Ghanaian UK visa applicants in recent times, the High Commissioner denied the allegation…although he admitted there is, indeed, a backlog of visa applications that are being sorted.
“We are aware of some backlog in the summer with our UK Visa and Immigration. We have been working with colleagues in London to expedite and accelerate this backlog. We have also been assured that anyone that has been part of this backlog has been contacted by the UKVI, so they are updated about the stages of their visas.
“I can say that there has not been any unfair treatment of Ghanaians as compared to any other country. The problem is purely about visa application volumes,” the High Commissioner explained.
In terms of advice, Mr. Walker said applicants must endeavour to apply early. According to him, it has been established that, usually, when there are problems with visas, there are generally a number of people who applied late or have submitted incomplete documentation – and all becomes part of the narratives about visa delays.
Regarding the backlog, he stated it is very difficult to estimate a timeline as to when it will be cleared.
“It all depends on the quality of applications that we have received. The best way to deal with this is to apply early and meet the criteria that have been stated.
“We process over 30,000 applications per annum for Ghanaians, and well over half are approved. We are keen on seeing Ghanaians travel to the UK when they meet the requirements,” he said.