Chris Koney’s column: A conversation with the Australia High Commissioner, Berenice Owen-Jones

High Commissioner Bernice Owen Jones with Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts and some members of Ghana's Australia Alumni Awards

Australia, the sixth largest country and a continent in its own right, stands out as a unique nation. Being among the 17 countries that account for over 70 percent of the world’s species, Australia boasts almost 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity, spanning from tropical rainforests up north to the red deserts in the central region and the snowfields in the southeast.

As a thriving nation, Australia is a member of the G20 and has the 12th largest economy in the world. It holds significant influence in its own region, the Indo-Pacific, and has established global partnerships and interests, including an incredible relationship with Ghana.

Berenice Owen-Jones, Australian High Commissioner to Ghana

Berenice Owen-Jones, Australian High Commissioner to Ghana

Australia and Ghana have a longstanding and fruitful relationship, spanning over several decades. The Australian Government has been committed to supporting Ghana’s development in various sectors, including mining, agriculture, education and health. As a result of these efforts, Ghana has emerged as a key partner for Australia in Africa, and the two countries have collaborated on numerous successful projects over the years.

Since 2004, in Ghana and across West Africa, the Australian High Commission has delivered over 200 projects through its Direct Aid Programme, bringing tangible benefits to local communities in the areas of health and sanitation, education and skills training, human rights, income-generation, renewable energy, and women’s economic empowerment.

In September 2022, Berenice Owen-Jones presented her credentials to President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, taking over from Gregory Andrews who ended his work in 2021.

In her rather short period as High Commissioner, Berenice Owen-Jones (BOJ) has been very busy with one event after the other, including hosting the Cricket World Cup during its world tour, organising a West Africa Mining security conference as well as playing host to Australia’s Assistant Foreign Minister who was in Ghana last December as part of a three-nation tour in Africa. Despite these and many others being done under her watch, she has kept a relatively low profile in contrast to her predecessor.

To discuss these successes and Australia’s major investments and development projects in Ghana, we have the pleasure of interviewing the Australian Ambassador to Ghana, Berenice Owen-Jones. H.E. Owen-Jones has a wealth of experience in diplomatic relations and has been instrumental in strengthening the bilateral ties between Australia and Ghana.

B&FT: Your Excellency, how has it been for you since arriving in Ghana?

BOJ: Since arriving in Ghana last July, it has been a voyage of discovery for me. I had never been to sub-Saharan Africa, and I am still navigating the ways of Ghana, which can be tricky for a newcomer to understand. Luckily, I have been helped on this voyage by warm and friendly Ghanaians and a fantastic team at the High Commission. I am learning valuable lessons – like it never pays to underestimate Accra traffic!

Since arriving, I have had to hit the ground running professionally – there was no easing into the job. I had a busy agenda, including courtesy calls on various members of the Ghanaian Government, colleagues and representatives of international bodies; presenting credentials not just to the President here In Ghana, but also in some of the eight other countries in the region that I cover from Ghana – Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Mali, Togo, Liberia, Burkina Faso and Senegal. We also organised an international conference on West Africa Mining Security (WAMS), a ministerial visit, and launched Australian Aid projects around Ghana.

The High Commission is also very pleased to be holding high profile social events, such as our Charity Gala Melbourne Cup and regular happy hours, after a hiatus imposed by COVID. Readers should follow us on social media to keep abreast with what is going on at the High Commission ( These events contribute to our public diplomacy and boost people-people links – they are very important to us.

B&FT: How will you describe yourself – your upbringing and career journey?

BOJ: I grew up in Paris (long story) and Canberra. I am a career diplomat married to someone who also had a career in the foreign service. Between the two of us, we had posting to Manila, Moscow, Paris, Washington, Rabat, and now Accra. For most of my career, I was a working mother juggling three children and work deadlines. It is the first time we are on posting without them as they are now young adults with their own lives in Australia.

Unfortunately, I don’t see them as often as I would want; unlike most of my diplomatic colleagues, I go home infrequently because Australia is so far away – about as far away as you get from West Africa. But my children will visit Ghana – my son already has and loved it.

B&FT: Becoming a diplomat, was it a childhood dream or by accident? What has been your experience being a diplomat? 

BOJ: It was neither a childhood dream nor an accident. I worked in other areas of the government after graduating and then realised that I would be a suitable candidate for the foreign service. I had languages and an interest in foreign policy and liked the idea of dedicating my professional life to representing Australian interests around the world.

My career as a diplomat has been very rewarding and varied; and it is the variety that I particularly enjoy. As a foreign service officer, you can work on peace and security, aid and development, trade or any one of the innumerable transnational policy issues – from climate change to people trafficking, to managing health pandemics – which your compatriot and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan once described as “problems without passports”.

Over the years, I have seen how the job has changed. In the new electronic and social media age, we have all had to become digital diplomats. But formal communication remains important: you are serious about a diplomatic or foreign policy career. Words and the capacity to use them persuasively remain your daily currency.

B&FT: You are not new to the African continent, you previously served in Morocco, what does the Ghanaian assignment mean to you? 

BOJ: That’s right. I was Australia’s first Ambassador to Morocco from 2017 to 2020, where I opened our embassy. I later applied for Ghana because I wanted to return to the continent which continued to draw me back. I knew West Africa would be fascinating because of its varied cultures and landscapes, the anglophone and francophone cultural divide, and the geopolitics of the region.

In taking up my new role in Ghana, I was conscious of the long and friendly relationship between our two nations. Australia was one of the first countries in the world to recognise the newly independent Ghana in 1957, and on 21st February, 1958, we opened our High Commission in Accra.

This warm relationship with Ghana is underpinned by longstanding links through the Commonwealth, close people-to-people connections, and shared values and interests – including important core values of democracy, human rights, and good governance.

B&FT: Can you briefly describe the current state of bilateral relations between Ghana and Australia? As the Head of Mission, what has been the direction of the mission under your leadership? Any specific areas or sectors of keen interest as part of Ghana–Australia bilateral relations?  

BOJ: This is an exciting time for me to be in Ghana as the Australian Government reinvigorates Australia’s ties with the countries of Africa. As the Head of Mission, I am building on our mutually beneficial links through social connections, trade and investment and security collaboration; and I want to engage meaningfully with the Ghanaian Government so we can work together on the issues that matter to all of us.

Ghana’s enduring democracy, stability, and active role on the international stage, including through its current membership on the United Nations Security Council, make it an important partner for Australia in multilateral fora. We recognise Ghana as an important global and regional voice, including as a democracy and pillar of stability in the region.

Australia is committed to working with Ghana to create a world that is stable, peaceful, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty. We welcome Ghana’s current role on the UN Security Council (UNSC). Our own 2029-30 UNSC candidacy reflects our continued commitment to international peace and security and to the multilateral system. With the UN at its heart, Australia is committed to UNSC reform and permanent membership for Africa, Asia and Latin America.

We share Ghana’s concerns over the growing threat of terrorist activity in Burkina Faso and the Sahel and the challenge this is presenting for littoral states. In this regard, Australia is supporting counter-terrorism capacity-building efforts in West Africa through substantial funding to the International Counter-Terrorism Academy in Côte d’Ivoire and the United Nations Office of Counter-Terrorism training.

Climate change – another problem without passports – is also a focus for us. That is why our development programmes in Africa focus on addressing the impacts of climate change, including through capacity-building and short courses. We have also made Geoscience Australia’s earth observation platform, Digital Earth Africa, free to use for decision-makers – from farmers to government officials.

B&FT: There is a general drive toward commercial cooperation; are there key sectors of interest for Australia or the Australian private sector? 

BOJ: The Ghanaian Government is creating an industrialised and resilient economy. It is achieving this by optimising key sources of growth – including agriculture and manufacturing – and creating a more competitive and enabling business environment capable of fostering large-scale job creation. Australia and Ghana share mutually beneficial trade and significant investment links, particularly in the mining sector.

The Australian Government recognises the significant investment and trade that we have with the countries of Africa through the mining and METS sectors. In total, these are valued at more than A$40billion, much of which is concentrated here in West Africa.

Australian companies in Ghana have been most active in the mining sector, where they are involved in every aspect of the industry – from surveying and exploration, mine design and construction, contract drilling and excavation. These companies play a significant role in the development of Ghana’s extractives sector. For example, Australian mining exploration company Atlantic Lithium is developing what will be Ghana’s first lithium mine.

B&FT: In the area of trade and investment, are there key initiatives or programmes geared toward enhancing the trade volume between the two countries as well as Australian investments in Ghana? 

BOJ: While mining will continue to play a significant role in our commercial relationship, there are opportunities for our commercial ties to expand further and be of a more diverse character. Australia has cutting-edge expertise in a range of sectors, such as education, environmental technologies, energy, construction, agriculture – including dry land and tropical agriculture – and processed food and beverages.

To that end, the Australian High Commission is working closely with our trade promotion agency, Austrade – which has an office in the High Commission. Education services are a good example: Austrade-led events are increasing knowledge of Australia as an education destination, and encouraging Australian education institutions to visit Ghana.

As the world’s third most popular destination for international students, Australia is setting international standards for excellence in education. If you are looking for unbiased proof that Australian universities truly are world-class, look at independent global rankings such as Times Higher Education, QS and Shanghai Rankings. These organisations consistently rank Australian institutions in the world’s top 100.

There has been a significant increase in interest in Australia as an education destination for Ghanaians, and we look forward to welcoming more Ghanaian students to study with Australian institutions.

B&FT: Australia has one of the biggest mining industries globally; any special projects to assist Ghana address its challenges in the mining sector?  

BOJ: I am pleased that Australian mining expertise continues to make a positive contribution to Ghana’s development, including the implementation of the highest social and environmentally responsible mining practices and in developing the skills of the local workforce. Australian mining companies have a history of developmental initiatives to better the infrastructure and social welfare of staff and local communities.

I was also very pleased by recent engagement of the Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, Hon. Samuel Jinapor, in the Africa Down Under conference in Perth – the key forum for us to strengthen economic ties with African nations and to build on the ever-growing success story in mining, resources and energy.

Working with Minerals Commission in Ghana, we are developing short courses on mining that have practical applications for the Ghanaian extractive industry. I note the important role that critical minerals will play in helping us achieve a transition to low carbon sources of energy. There is scope for Ghana and Australia to work together in this area.

B&FT: Knowing the vital role the media plays in national development and enhancing democracy, are there opportunities for collaboration for capacity-building programmes and exchanges for Ghanaian media practitioners? 

BOJ: The Australian Government supports a diverse and sustainable media sector. It also recognises that quality news and public interest journalism play an important role in the functioning of Australian society and democracy and is essential to keeping communities informed. I think there is scope for Ghana to find out more about the type of programmes we have in place to support a diverse and sustainable media broadcasting industry.

B&FT: Are there new key programmes of the High Commission and the Australian Government with Ghana you will want to share?   

BOJ: We have programmes which we seek applications for every year. The Australian High Commission’s Direct Aid Program (DAP) provides funding and works with local implementing partners to support grass-roots programmes in Ghanaian communities. Over the last two decades, the Australian High Commission has worked with communities to develop over 250 projects which deliver strong, tangible benefits at the community level.

Australia will continue to assist community-based development in urban and rural areas of Ghana through our growing Direct Aid small grants programme, which has provided support to projects in all the regions of Ghana, covering diverse sectors – such as health and sanitation, education and skills training, human rights, income-generation, renewable energy, and the economic empowerment of women.

The economic empowerment of women is a particular focus for us – to give you an example, over the last few months, we have supported 235 women to undertake vocational training in shea butter and dairy processing, financial skills, agribusiness and plastic waste recycling. Our DAP programme is supporting 13 projects across Ghana this year.

Australia Awards Scholarships are long-term awards administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Over the last two decades, our Australia Awards programme has supported close to 500 Ghanaians to study in Australia, including 159 students who have undertaken master’s degrees in Australia. I am very proud of our alumni group here in Ghana – return students who are using the skills gained through their studies in Australia to make valuable contributions to your communities and to your country.

High Commissioner Bernice Owen Jones with Assistant Foreign Minister Tim Watts and some members of Ghana’s Australia Alumni Awards

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