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Creating an African brand

Interview - February 29, 2012
In a market dominated by established foreign names, The African Regent stands out as a Ghanaian-owned quality hotel. CEO John Kuffuor discusses the advantages and challenges of being the only African player in the sector

What is your view on the business and leisure tourism industry in Ghana and where do you see this going?

It has great potential. The numbers are not what they should be; we could do better. We are mainly into business tourism at the moment. People come here for business opportunities and they are looking at Ghana first and foremost as a gateway to the sub-region. Most of the hotels and facilities you find here really cater for business tourists. That is what we are; we are a business hotel. We try to give you a little bit of a flavor of Africa in terms of what you see, the colors and the food. That is how we set out to differentiate ourselves.

The German tourism market was worth €80 billion last year, which is the highest in the world. Do you have any initiatives as business ties increase between the two countries in order to target this market?

Yes. We have trade shows and we try to visit them to build links. We usually go as part of the Ghana team. Germany is definitely one of the desirable markets for us.

As business tourism will inevitably increase here, do you have any plans to expand or start new ventures somewhere?

The business at the moment is mainly in the south of the country such as Accra. If things go well, we would like to be part of that story. Unfortunately Accra is built looking inwards, rather than looking out to the sea. We have a couple of good hotels on the coast, but there is potential all the way from the east to the west to do something fantastic. That is where leisure tourism may come in. I think there is a lot of potential and we would like to be part of that.

You are a local businessman and I can imagine that you have an advantage over your competitors because you know the market. Do you work with the tourism authority or areas of the government in order to create a better service sector and better experiences for tourists?

We are different to other hotels insofar as we are Ghanaian, and we are trying to build a brand. That is an advantage in itself, and we compete for market share. Foreign tourists however are attracted to global brands because they are comfortable with them and they know what they are getting. So we have the challenge of creating an African brand, but I think this is a good challenge to have. So far, we are succeeding in doing this.
There are not enough Ghanaian enterprises in the industry that are delivering world-class products. So there is now clearly a need and an opportunity for locals to come up, and that is what we are trying to do here. We are trying to create a local brand with world-class services. We want you to get everything you can get elsewhere here, if not more. I think that is a challenge for a local entrepreneur. We could do with a few more incentives from government. We are doing our best to present our views as to how best government could help. But we are slightly at a disadvantage compared to foreign investors, and we could do with a push.

Your location is an advantage. As we all know, the traffic in the city is terrible.

Yes. That is linked to infrastructure. Believe you and me, the infrastructure has improved over the past few years, so you can imagine what it would be like if it had not improved. Everybody owns a car and these are some of the challenges that we have.

But it is a good challenge to have. As a lot of people have cars now, this indicates that it is becoming a middle income nation. Real progress is being made.

Yes, it is happening. I am not sure what the statistics are, but I think in 2007 the number of registered cars increased by something like 60%. But the infrastructure is not growing as quickly as the wealth in people’s pockets, and that is a challenge. We are lucky enough to be in an area which is a counter to the old district, and that comes with its own challenges. The other day a project was launched to build a very modern and efficient office building in the airport. We are going to get more of these types of initiatives, and it is going to become a hub. So you can imagine the traffic and the demands for power, water and accommodation. I am glad that we have been able to make something out of this opportunity.

The inflation rate remains relatively stable.

Yes, depending on who you speak to. I think if you talk to any ordinary person, they would tell you that there are challenges, especially when it comes to things like accommodation and water and electricity. But there are opportunities and some people are making some money. I do not know if everyone is making money.

We have heard that the number of flights between Accra and Frankfurt is being increased to seven times a week. This shows that business people are doing something here. Would you be open to working with investors that were interested in the industry?

Yes, why not? Many airlines are coming over.

I also hear that there will be a direct flight to Brazil next year.

Yes. It is an opportunity, if we can manage it. It has got to be nurtured. We are the chosen ones if you like, but we have got to nurture it and grow it over the next 10 to 20 years to actually reap the benefits. I think that is a challenge for the country as a whole. Is the airport going to be big enough to cater for this? Is it in the right place? How many billions is it going to cost? What about the power situation? Are we going thermal or what, because we have gas now. What about water, hospitals and schools? There is talk of 30,000 more expats coming to live here because of the oil. Where are they going to live? Are they coming with their families? I think as a country we should focus more on getting the best out of these opportunities. We have to see if we can do something with the ECOWAS region to see if we can deal with these opportunities as they come through. There must be something in it for the locals. 

Another challenge is keeping the money in Ghana.

Yes. How many Ghanaian owned hotels are in the group? If a European business with a big brand comes in with tens of millions and invests in a 5-star hotel, that money has to be paid back to justify the investment. So that money has to go back, so Ghanaian entrepreneurs need Ghanaian funding and backing and they need to replicate themselves. We need Ghanaian role models, mentors and so on. That is an opportunity, but as a country we need to see that opportunity and take it.

There are approximately 25,000 Ghanaians living in Germany. Are you proud of the fact that you are one of the few Ghanaians in the game with all these international competitors? Do you feel like you are representing the Ghanaian flag?

We could have gone and brought in a management company like many others have, but we decided that we were capable and we could do it. Effectively, we have done it. For now we have proven that it can be done at least. I am happy that I am a part of this. The Ghanaian diaspora are a valuable asset, whether they are in Europe, Asia, America or wherever. They have been exposed, so they know what is expected and what international standards are. We need a critical mass of the Ghanaian diaspora doing things differently, or taking the Ghanaian way to the next level, so that they mentor the rest of the Ghanaians. If you have the right people in the right places doing the right thing, I have no doubt that we can do great things in Ghana.

African Regent Hotel