There is, obviously, one definite thing to be said about Mr Charles Ampofo, Chairman of Kampac Group: he dreams, talks and pursues development in ways that only a handful of people do; like the current US$7 billion Energy City project his group is undertaking in the Philippines, scheduled to commence in March, this year.
The knowledgeable, easy-to-chat-with gentleman says his motivation has always been an uncanny desire to run a global company – never mind his humble beginnings, in Ghana, which he unpretentiously claims were very normal– deriving from his personal philosophy that if others have done it, whose biological entry into this world was no different from his, why couldn’t he do same too? And about his successes he says; “when I started business, the idea was not to be just a local champion, but to build a global company and I knew that, to achieve that, I had to be out there competing with the best.”
To him, Africa’s economic future lies in reimagining the role of the domestic entrepreneur.
Now, Ampofo is a global champion by all standards. His journey to the top is not only instructive but intriguing. Born to a goldsmith father and a housewife mother, in rural Juaso, in the Asante Akyem District of Ghana, he lost his father when he was about only six or seven and life obviously became tough for the mother with seven children. But he says of the experience; “we had to go through the normal struggles of life like everyone else, who was born in Africa in those days, in the 1960s,” downplaying his early childhood difficulties. Nevertheless, the seeds of his entrepreneurial drive were sown in those times.
“I was always doing business when I was young. In my upbringing, there was always the need to find extra funds to support the family and so the thinking started from there,” he reveals.
Never the one given to self-pity, he says of his education; “thank God we had secondary schools then and one could get scholarship through Cocobod. So all those things happened here and there, and I went to Abuakwa State College for my “O” Level and to Ahmadiyya College for my “A” Level, but all subsequent education was abroad, in the UK and the US.
“I wouldn’t say it was a poor childhood; of course it was tough but even today people still find it tough. In those days, however, though we didn’t have much, we had a sense of purpose of getting educated. We were all just focused on going to school, with the little we had; sometimes with no shoes, we just walked, who cared?”
Later on, with entrepreneurial curiosity deeply ingrained in his psyche, Ampofo would ask college colleagues in the US, who had been with Exxon (now ExxonMobil), “what all this oil thing was about.”
Excited about what he heard, he dreamt of creating an oil empire, in Africa, one day. And 35 years ago, he started his flagship oil enterprise that grew to become a regional company, albeit not in his native Ghana but in neighbouring Ivory Coast; “because, at the time, the misconception was rife in Ghana that every businessman was a crook.
“So I started off in Ivory Coast, doing business to Nigeria and I’m proud to say that I was the first independent company to be licensed to sell oil in Nigeria, so most of the independent private oil companies in Nigeria today learnt the business from me. My whole real business life took off from there,” Ampofo reveals.
One easily senses that Ampofo feels insecure with a life of sluggishness and mediocrity and is always striving to be the best; either the first, or with the first in all his business ventures.
“That was constantly my conversation. My classmates at school knew I had big ambitions and most thought I was simply an overambitious dreamer, but I always had this notion that you could go as far as one wants, if one is determined enough.
“I always had it in me that whatever I had achieved was not enough. I always thought I could do better. It wasn’t really about the money; it was more about scaling the heights to as far as I could go.
“Some of my projects around the world, today, is just to bear testimony that you can do whatever you want to do, only if you believe in yourself,” Ampofo says.
He chalked another first in another of his early projects; being the first to introduce multi networking banking into the Ivory Coast
“When I went to Ivory Coast, there was no ATM, there was no point of sale and if you had to go to bank on Fridays, you did it early because if by 11:30 you hadn’t taken your money, you went on weekend without money.
“So I decided to come with up this concept of multi networking banking and it took me almost four years to break the deadlock; but I learnt a lot from that,” Ampofo reveals.
An important and intriguing lesson it was to him. On the surface Africa was independent; “but we’re not calling the shots. When it comes to development, Africans are ruled by external forces; because I couldn’t get that deal until I caught a plane to France to go form an alliance with a foreign company.
“And so you learn a few things about your country and your continent; how it functions. There are those who think, oh, we’re an independent country and we can do just anything. It doesn’t work that way.
“You should understand that whoever substantially supplements your national budget, every year, will have some control over you. Such a one will be interested in certain critical decisions you make. If you don’t allow him to be part of your decisions and he cuts off that allowance, you are as good as dead.
“So I learnt early that all the big talk about independence is largely only rhetoric. Saying that we can do things independently of the powers that be is ignorant talk; people believe in it but I don’t. I really learnt a lot of lessons from my first project but then my next project took me outside the country,” Ampofo discloses.
Those lessons certainly underlie Ampofo’s apprehensions with African governments’ attitude towards indigenous entrepreneurs.
“They think they’re doing the investor a favour without realising that they need the investor more than the investor needs them,” he quips.
He cites the Accra Airport City project as one example of sluggish development that characterises government’s insensitivity to the needs of entrepreneurs and investors.
“I was hearing now about Ghana’s development of the Accra Airport City. After all of seven years, we still have four buildings under construction and we say there’s development?
Ampofo’s main argument on development in Africa has been that the only way to get development going is to invest massively in critical infrastructure.
“Unfortunately, with my businesses, I have no footprints in Ghana,” he admits forlornly, saying that the only thing he wanted to do was the railway project; “the reason being that the market here in Ghana is too small for our oil business; but then I had the desire to do something that could also have an impact on the livelihood of the ordinary people in the country.
“That’s why the railway project was dear to my heart. So I spent US$11million of my private money to do the feasibility studies, the engineering design and all, by myself. Unfortunately, people in government thought otherwise. I get criticised for not doing the railway but people do not know the reason why.
“People here don’t realise that an investor needs support from the government. But an investor certainly does, no matter what it is. Paradoxically, our governments bend over backwards to provide all necessary support to foreign investors, who come in purposely to make their money and repatriate as much as they can; as against little or no such support for a local investor, who even if he invests purposely for the profit, still retains his money in the domestic economy. So indeed, it is the local investor who must drive the growth of the economy, with foreign investors complementing their effort,” Ampofo argues.
He notes that all other developed nations started by developing their railway network because that is the only way we can move goods and services cheaply.
“Once you did that, you opened up the economy; because you don’t expect someone to set up an industry in say the Ashanti Region and then after he produces, he carts the goods by road. It doesn’t make sense. If we have railway leading everywhere, people can go to say Tamale and set up a manufacturing unit there to take advantage of relatively cheaper land and labour, because there’s a cheap means of transport to the ports,” he reasons.
“My concern today is about how African governments will change their mentality and their approach to helping local entrepreneurs” Ampofo says.
Another challenge with African politicians is that they are always panicky because of elections: “So if you come to do any project, they expect that within their tenure you’re done, but it doesn’t work that way. Major infrastructure projects require long term planning to do studies, to do proper engineering, to raise financing and to put a consortium together to do the project. All that take time.
“That is what happened with my intended railway project here. In my contract, I recall, they put in a condition that within four months I should raise US$2 billion,” Ampofo disclosed, adding that it was practically impossible to raise that kind of money within that period of time.
He believes politicians should think over the long term, and stop looking for quick fixes because there’s nothing like that when it comes to infrastructure development and other such major projects.
Obviously, he must know what he’s talking about: “I’m building one of the largest energy cities in the world, in the Philippines, the largest ever in the world and we’re starting this March.”
Energy security, Ampofo observes, is the biggest threat to every economy in the world today and that, in the next 10 years, most of Africa could be in darkness. He estimates that up to 50% of countries on the continent will be in darkness because their energy supply situation will be worse than their current precarious state.
The energy city, purportedly, will consist of three big refineries with total production capacity of one million barrels a day, complemented by one of the largest petrochemical plants with a production capacity of 1.5 million metric tonnes a year. It also has one of the largest LNG regasification plants and 50 million barrels of oil storage tanks, which also is the largest in the world.
It will have a water company, hospital, training school and other ancillary support services.
“We now have added a commercial port with the capacity to service over 2,400 vessels calling at the port every year, plus a residential city development, all on land totalling about 14,000 hectares,” Ampofo explains adding that the location is only a day’s travel from China, half a day from Hong Kong, a day from both Brunei and Vietnam, two days from Indonesia, two days from Korea and three days from Japan.
That enclave is the manufacturing hub of the world, containing more than half of the world’s population of about 3.2 billion and the idea is to serve those countries with processed fuel, petrochemicals while also providing a strategic storage facility for some of those countries.
He observes that a concept of that magnitude will simply not work in Ghana, or the West African sub region, because of its market constraints, in terms of size and political differences in the region because, in such matters, an entrepreneur will have to justify to investors the size of the market and the production base.
A smaller version, Ampofo posits, however could be done in Ghana; “but only if government could muster the political will to rein in smaller traders whose interests will be threatened by the concept. Ironically, government needs to ensure energy security and thus it should support an entrepreneur prepared to undertake such a project. Support in terms of facilitating land and license acquisition and all other bottlenecks that could hamper progress in executing the project.”
The Philippines government is doing that, he explains, because they know that in the worst case scenario of a crisis, they will have their supply of energy unhindered.
To Ampofo, African governments have a critical role to play in priming the continent up for the sort of huge investments that will transform the continent.
“My hope and wish is that our governments will start seriously considering supporting the local entrepreneurs in Africa, instead of having the mind that such people just want to make money. Somewhere along the line, someone has to trust somebody. For as long as there is so much distrust between industry, entrepreneurs and government, we’ll be sitting where we are,” he says.
Most profoundly, to Ampofo, it is the country that gives so much to its domestic entrepreneurs that creates an industrial upheaval important to the long-term strength and growth of the economy. It suggests an economy that is alive and reinventing itself, that is mutating from within, and that is engaged in the never-ending process of creative dynamism.