Special economic zones key to  industrialisation drive – experts


Ghana is betting big on special economic zones (SEZs) to drive industrialisation, boost exports and create jobs, even as experts call for ensuring the benefits are widely shared and integrated with local economies.

Findings from studies by the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER) of the University of Ghana and Kiel Institute for World Economy (IfW) highlighted at the National Policy Forum on ‘Special Economic Zones: A Force for Industrialisation?’ point to the vital role SEZs can play in economic transformation, if implemented with supporting policies.

“Special economic zones epitomise the convergence of strategic planning, policy initiatives, entrepreneurial spirit and more. They offer a haven where businesses can thrive, unbound by constraints of conventional regulations,” said Dr. Humphrey Ayim-Darke, President-Association of Ghana Industries (AGI).

However, he cautioned that while SEZs offer “immense potential, they are not without challenges and controversies”. Fostering sustainable, inclusive growth requires addressing inherent issues, Dr. Ayim-Darke stated.

The studies underscored the need for investing in infrastructure within and around SEZs to facilitate business operations and attract investment. This can increase per capita consumption and reduce poverty levels for local communities.

Implementing inclusive policies to support small enterprises and promote gender equality in SEZ employment is also crucial for shared prosperity, the findings indicated.

Michael Oquaye Jr., CEO-Ghana Free Zones Authority, highlighted the tangible impacts SEZs are already having on industrialisation and job creation.

“In 2020, enterprises in Ghana’s free zones directly employed about 29,567 people. This number has risen to 35,399 by 2023 – a remarkable 19.7 percent increase, illustrating the zones’ significant contribution to employment,” Mr. Oquaye said.

He added that SEZ companies generate nearly 500,000 indirect jobs while capital investments in the zones increased from US$140million in 2020 to US$143million in 2023 after a pandemic-related dip. Export revenues from SEZs also grew from US$1.5billion to US$1.7billion over the same period.

To further drive SEZ growth and local integration, the Authority is promoting Ghanaian firms’ participation – with 36 percent of 258 licenced SEZ companies now wholly local-owned.

“The Authority has witnessed a surge in applications by companies in the service sector, employing digitalisation to export services and earn foreign exchange,” Mr. Oquaye noted.

Ghana has over 7,000 acres designated as SEZs, including the Tema Export Processing Zone and new sites like Adhenia. However, with Tema at full capacity, government is pushing Adhenia as its new industrial anchor.

Highlighting safeguards, Mr. Oquaye said the Authority is cracking down on abuse of SEZ incentives, with only two plastic raw material companies approved last year after allegations of violations.

“All free zone enterprises must comply strictly with regulations prohibiting unauthorized goods removal for use outside zones,” he warned, citing legal provisions for sanctions.

Looking ahead, improving data monitoring and enhancing educational opportunities are key to better evaluate SEZ impacts and equip workers for higher-paying SEZ jobs to improve wage equity.

Dr. Ayim-Darke emphasised the urgency of capitalising on SEZ opportunities, especially with the Continental Free Trade Area creating an integrated African market.

“We are at the crossroads of this era. One wonders how Africa will benefit if we do not take this opportunity seriously,” he stated. “I hope in the next era industrialisation will be actualised based on such research.”

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