Unlocking the north’s economic renaissance through youth entrepreneurship 

Young entrepreneurs receiving cash prizes during the 2023 Igniting Dreams programme to scale their business ventures

The first time I entered a shopping mall was on 25th August 2015. I was 16 years old and had just been admitted to the University of Ghana to undertake my undergraduate studies. The mall looked gigantic. It was beautiful and surreal, and I couldn’t hide my amusement at how one building could contain several stores, restaurants and service providers. The fleet of cars in the parking area especially blew me away. Given that I had spent the last 16 years of my life exclusively in the Upper West Region, I was quite thrilled to behold such a magnificent building and flurry of activity.

In the seven years since I first saw the mall, numerous economic activities have proliferated in northern Ghana, including the emergence of mini shopping malls across the three principal cities of the north (Tamale, Bolgatanga and Wa), the renovation of the Wa Airport which is currently the 5th busiest commercial airport in Ghana with over 25,000 passengers in 2022, the expansion of the Tamale Airport to an international airport, increase in various commercial activities and influx of several foreign merchants. These improvements have driven growth in economic activities in the area and created numerous job opportunities for the people.

Hamzu Mabruka, Founder & CEO – Influx Groundnuts Products

Prior to colonial rule, Ghana’s economy was oriented toward trade. Commodities from the forest belt were traded along routes through the north of present-day Ghana onward to the Sudanese Kingdoms and North Africa. Consequently, cities and states formed in the country’s north. At this time, trade flowed from south to north; Ghana’s northern part was relatively more prosperous and populated than the south (Geier et al., 2015, p.105).

Various colonial practices acted to change the future development trajectories of the north. Principally, the Colonial State administered the north and the south as a “periphery” and a “core” whereby northern interest and development were sidelined (Brukum, 1998; Grischow, 1999; Plange, 1979b, 1979a,1984; Songsore, 2003).

Interventions by successive post-independence governments have also largely failed to adequately address the development gaps. This is despite multiple interventions, particularly in northern Ghana, to reverse such embedded problems. These programmes include the Savannah Accelerated Development Authority (SADA), now the Northern Development Authority (NDA), which sought to help bridge the gap between the north and the south; and the Savannah Agricultural Value Chain Development Project (SADP). These initiatives, which aim to address youth unemployment are largely political schemes and hardly ‘survive’ beyond a change of government (Aning K. et al., Feb 2023, vulnerability assessment on the threats of violent extremism and radicalization…).

In addition to these initiatives, over 50 percent of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Ghana operate or operated in its north. Tamale alone houses more than 200 local and international NGOs. All these organisations seek to address poverty and create economic opportunities in the area. Yet, it continues to be the country’s most impoverished. It, therefore, goes without saying that the charity aid model has not been effective in addressing the development challenges of the area. Northern Ghana must not been viewed as a dumping site for charity aid from local and international organisations but rather as a best choice trade and business location.

Kipo Olivia, Founder & CEO – Kobaa O.K. Limited

It bears emphasising that the economic transformation of northern Ghana is achievable through the promotion of entrepreneurship, trade and other economic activities in the area. Thus, there needs to be a paradigm shift from the aid agenda to an aggressive support for the establishment of more businesses/promotion of business activities in northern Ghana to create jobs and provide sustainable sources of livelihood for the people. An emphasis on entrepreneurship and trade, not aid, is the panacea to the development challenges of northern Ghana.

According to the Ghana Statistical Services 2021 Population and Housing Census Report, 1 out of 4 young people in northern Ghana is presently unemployed and over 50 percent of the population is living in abject poverty. The situation isn’t getting better. The World Bank 7th Ghana Economic Update Report noted that 850,000 more Ghanaians have been pushed into poverty in 2022; further propelling the nation’s poor into ultra-poverty. Now more than ever, there is the need to support the establishment of businesses that will create decent economic opportunities for the youth of northern Ghana. And who better to create these economic opportunities than the youth themselves!

Youth entrepreneurship has proven to be a leading contributor to job creation for the poor and underserved. According to a UN 2020 report, youth social entrepreneurship can create jobs and help the most underserved communities.

Despite the enormous potential for youth entrepreneurship in northern Ghana, these youths lack the needed leadership and business skills, mentorship and capital required to establish, sustain and scale their own business ventures. The World Bank highlights Ghana’s substantial SME financing gap, estimated at US$4.8billion (World Bank Group, 2017, MSME Finance Gap: Assessment of the Shortfalls and Opportunities in Financing Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises in Emerging Markets). According to Impact Investing Ghana, this deficit is most pronounced in regions outside Accra, particularly the northern regions, which experience the highest incidence of multidimensional poverty and high youth unemployment rates.

Hamid Adams, Founder & CEO – Tondaar Ventures

Enters the Coalition for Positive Impact (CPI), a youth-led social enterprise leading the economic transformation of northern Ghana through youth entrepreneurship. CPI nurtures and develops northern Ghana’s youth into transformational leaders and entrepreneurs through entrepreneurial innovation, mentorship and technology. The organisation was established in November 2018 and headquartered in Wa, the capital of Ghana’s poorest region, where over 70 percent of the people are presently living below the poverty line (Ghana Statistical Services). Since its launch, CPI’s programmes have impacted over 5,000 youths across northern Ghana and inspired a community of young leaders and entrepreneurs to address pressing community issues.

Its annual flagship programme, Igniting Dreams, is an entrepreneurship development initiative that promotes youth entrepreneurship in underserved northern Ghana by enabling them to access essential capacity-building and business development services to build thriving businesses and create jobs. The programme also provides start-up capital for these entrepreneurs to grow and scale their businesses. To date, Igniting Dreams has delivered essential capacity-building and business development training to over 3,000 underserved northern Ghana’s youth to help them develop their entrepreneurial potential. It has also connected these underserved youths, who lack valuable networking opportunities, with some of Ghana’s most influential leaders and entrepreneurs for mentorship. Additionally, CPI has partnered with development partners to invest over GH₵100,000 capital in 30 underserved youths to launch and scale their businesses, while paying attention to environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) practices, with 62 percent of its brilliant founders being young women; collectively creating 300+ jobs for the youths of northern Ghana.

Meet Hamza Mabruka (24 years), the first winner of the Igniting Dreams Prize. CPI supported her with GH₵1,500 in January 2019 and business development training to help her develop essential business skills. This prize money helped her register her business venture. Mabruka eventually raised follow-up funding exceeding GH₵200,000. She currently farms on 32 acres, engaging 52 farm workers in various farming activities and 16 full-time employees. Her current project, which is at the completion stage, will create economic opportunities for 345 women shea collectors who will be processing their shea nuts at her shea processing company. Prior to winning the Igniting Dreams Prize, Mabruka had not launched her business and knew little about entrepreneurship. All she had was an idea and a prototype, but CPI identified her potential and helped her make her dream a reality.

Kipo Olivia also received business development training and GH¢5,000 from the programme in January 2020 to fence her farm and purchase an irrigation machine. Following this support, Olivia has gone on to raise an additional GH₵200,000 for her business, Kobaa O.K, and created over 30 job opportunities for her community members. Currently, she farms on 15 acres and has installed a borehole with a solar irrigation system which will allow her to farm all-year round in the Savannah regions of northern Ghana.

Finally, Hamid Adams, who received business development support for his shea processing company, Tondaar Ventures, has created over 100 job opportunities for women shea collectors in the Upper West Region and empowered them to increase their production and profits. His business has also recently attracted a remarkable GH₵100,000 financing from Leverage Microfinance Limited. This fund is propelling him to meet booming domestic demand and enabling him to tap into the international market, especially UK, Canada and Germany.

The Igniting Dreams programme’s remarkable impact on young entrepreneurs and their communities showcases its transformative ability to support underserved entrepreneurs in achieving their dreams.

CPI’s 10-year goal is to raise US$10million from development partners, financial institutions and impact investors to help 10,000 youths with similar testimonies like Mabruka, Olivia and Hamid. The aim is to enable them to launch and grow businesses and create one million decent jobs to address poverty, youth unemployment and inequality in northern Ghana. Its long-term goal is to transform northern Ghana into the Silicon Valley of Africa, focused on promoting booming entrepreneurship, investment and economic activities in the area, specifically in agriculture, technology and fashion.     

The writer is Founder and President of Coalition for Positive Impact.


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