Interview: Penny Pritzker

What potential do you see for the growth of nontraditional exports from Ghana to the US?

PENNY PRITZKER: This administration supports the seamless extension of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Exports from Ghana to the US are at about $366m and continuing to grow, but are not where they need to be. What we need to do is continue the AGOA so that more and more small and medium-sized businesses can take advantage of the programme, and also so that they can benefit from the kind of connectivity that is being created for retailers or product suppliers to get goods to the US and around the world. Our administration is committed to that.

What role can the US play in helping to encourage its own domestic firms to participate in public-private partnerships in Ghana?

PRITZKER: Africa is home to seven of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. In Ghana, with its current emphasis on prudent fiscal management, there is a terrific opportunity for US businesses to come in and partner with the Ghanaian private and public sector to address some of the larger infrastructure challenges.

This is what the “Power Africa” initiative – launched in 2013 to boost electricty access in sub-Saharan Africa – is all about. The companies in the 2014 US delegation to Ghana and Nigeria are in the power generation, transmission and distribution businesses. They’re also in the software businesses, and in high-tech industries. They know how to work in all types of situations. What they are trying to do is help Africa at large, and Ghana specifically, to achieve its goal of increasing the availability of power, which is essential for economic growth. We have brought in all companies that want to do business in Ghana and are looking for opportunity. They had one-on-one meetings with hundreds of local companies who are potential partners. We also brought our partners from the Department of State, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Ex-Im Bank and the Trade and Development Agency to learn how to get these projects financed. This is not just a meet and greet. On this trip, we intended to actually do business.

How big of a constraint is the low data availability in West African markets?

PRITZKER: Limited availability of data is a global challenge. For example, the US Department of Commerce needs to do a better job of making our own data available and also making it user-friendly. Even in the US, we are at the beginning of figuring out what data ought to be available and what data ought to remain private.

In the meantime, it is important to remember that entrepreneurs find a way to overcome all challenges. They look at challenges as opportunities. For instance, we met with a Ghanaian company that is taking data from the oil ministry and trying to make it more available to the average Ghanaian to help them understand where that revenue is going. The challenge of limited data availability is not so large as to impede success.

In your view, how attractive is the environment for start-ups in Ghana?

PRITZKER: Ghana is doing a lot to encourage new start-ups, and has favourable rankings when it comes to entrepreneurship. The number of days it takes to complete the procedures to legally open a business in Ghana is 12, compared to a world average of 34. The percentage of formal firms owned by women is higher in Ghana than anywhere else in Africa, at 49%. Ghana is showing very promising statistics. In the US, 20% of job creation comes from start-ups. If we can help encourage start-ups around the world, we know that this will help with job creation globally. In many parts of the world, failure is not accepted. Yet entrepreneurship flourishes when it is okay to fail. In some societies people do not want to take a risk or move outside their comfort zone, because the downside is too great. We in the US government are working with foreign governments to modify their laws in order to make it easier to file for bankruptcy and easier to fail with no risk of retribution.