On December 29, 2015, CNN ran a story on the Kantanka car, the product of a Ghanaian company that seeks to manufacture cars in Ghana, for Ghanaians. “‘Made in Ghana’ cars are built to survive anything” the story proclaimed. The story–and the Kantanka company itself–claims that the cars are the first to carry the “made in Ghana” seal as they “prepare to enter the marketplace and take on the major international brands.”
Kantanka has certainly received a lot of attention. It was trumpeted in the Ghanaian media long before CNN ran their story. Some of the fascination with Kantanka comes from the founder, Kwadwo Safo, who is widely known as “the Apostle” because he also founded a number of churches in Ghana, and his son and company CEO, Kwadwo Safo, Jr., who has a strong sense of marketing and connections with Ghana’s growing community of elite and middle-class people. Safo the elder is described as a 67-year-old genius, whose innate engineering, technical, and oratory abilities established his early reputation as a child prodigy in a number of fields. Over the years, he has translated these skills into profitable businesses, building several companies that fall under the larger “Kantanka Holdings”, based in Gomoa Mpota, near Winneba in Ghana’s Central Region. Safo’s companies build everything from TVs to cars “from scratch”, and the campus also supports a technical college. But the “made in Ghana” label is appealing in a country increasingly buoyed by the interests of young Ghanaians returning from abroad who are motivated both by a desire for prosperity: both individual in the form of Western comforts and and collective in the form of national economic development.
For these young men and women who have “turned their backs on the US and Europe” in favor of the promise of a better future in the homeland of their parents and grandparents, Kantanka represents future possibility, rooted in the promise of entrepreneurialism and upward mobility of a new generation of aspirational “change-makers” (in the words of “An African City”‘s Nicole Amarteifio). In doing so, Kantanka’s success plays into the broader rhetoric of Africa as the “incubator of tomorrow”–young, creative, entrepreneurial, experimental.
But these kinds of success stories also seem to resonate with Kwame Nkrumah’s dream of building Ghana’s industrial manufacturing base in a way that could not just compensate for but also compete with the West. In a speech made at the launching of Ghana’s Seven Year Development Plan in 1964, Nkrumah identified the development of large-scale companies and the expansion of industrial manufacturing as the key to national economic development:
“The initiative of Ghanaian businessmen will not be cramped, but we must take steps to see that it is channeled towards desirable social ends and is not expended in the exploitation of the community. The Government will encourage Ghanaian businessmen to join with each other in co-operative forms of organization. In this way Ghanaian businessmen will be able to contribute actively in broadening the vitality of our economy and cooperation, and will provide a stronger form of organization than can be achieved through individual small businesses.”
Kantanka not only assembles cars–something that the government has supported at various times since independence–but it also manufactures parts, “from foundation to finishing.” In doing so, it speaks directly to Nkrumahist concerns about neocolonialism, underdevelopment, and global inequality which continue to pervade debates about Ghanaian (and African) economic futures.
Kantanka has engaged in a marketing campaign that has attracted both national and international attention. Marketing and promotions regularly make use of celebrities and politicians from all parts of the political and cultural spectrum. Pres. Mahama commissioned production of Kantanka vehicles at the Automobile Manufacturing Plant at Gomoa Mpota on November 25, 2015, and the current government has encouraged the purchase of Kantanka vehicles as part of Mahama’s “buy made in Ghana” initiative. More recently, rival President candidate and long-time NPP standard-bearer Nana Akuffo-Addo was seen test-driving a Kantanka truck and pledged both to purchase several vehicles for use during his campaign and to further support Kantanka were he to be elected the country’s next President. Photo shoots and ad campaigns are frequently set at sites like the West Hills Mall, which figure large in the social, cultural, and economic experiences of elite and middle class prosperity and aspiration.
In trumpeting that these vehicles are “made in Ghana”, Kantanka vehicles raise interesting questions about the realities of local production and consumption in an era of intense globalization. Kantanka clearly plays on its “made in Ghana” label, with a public “outdooring” of early models, model names that are drawn from the Twi language, and interiors that feature kente cloth accents. And, the CEO argues, the vehicles are built to withstand the worst that Ghanaian roads and weather can offer. The broader aesthetics of the vehicle, however, play into the “cosmopolitan” aesthetics of the Ghanaian middle class. Ghana goes global? Or the West comes to Ghana? Those sorts of questions obscure the complicated goals of the company and the aspirations of its target consumers. Kantanka ultimately seeks to compete on a global scale with the likes of Toyota or Hyundai (popular brands in Ghana). As one report notes, all of these companies started from scratch…why can’t the same thing be possible in Ghana?
In evoking these transnational or global aims, however, the company also raises questions about the inherent inequalities of the global economic system and the possibilities for significant “development” or large-scale industrialization within the frameworks of this system. The current assembly plant at Gomoa Mpota can only produce 100 cars per month. Increasing output requires not only capital to invest in larger factors and workers to assemble vehicles, but also a customer base who can absorb the increased production, which will necessarily require looking outside of Ghana. That is not to say that there are any shortage of interested car owners in Ghana. The streets of Accra are filled with cars. But the high price point of the vehicles marks them as luxury objects–the cheapest option is $20,000, well above what all but the richest Ghanaians could afford.
To some degree, affordability would improve with increased capacity and more efficient manufacturing. But this high price point also highlights the degree to which these projects, which receive significant public attention from both national and international audiences, are not addressing the significant gap between this still-small cosmopolitan elite and middle class population and the vast majority of Ghana’s residents who survive and sometimes thrive through their work in the country’s vast “informal economy”. If African is an “an incubator of tomorrow”, many have suggested that the “informal economy” is where much of the innovation takes place, as the primary mechanism through which the continent has addressed poverty.
Calls to take the “informal economy” seriously in prominent Western news outlets, economics journals, and development conferences suggest that we might be at the beginning of a new conversation about these categories of work and profitability in ways that look beyond the relatively vacuous distinctions of formal and informal. Instead, it suggests that local and foreign observers alike think about Ghanaian solutions to Ghanaian problems, building on preexisting Ghanaian systems and trumpeting that local ingenuity as solutions that not only provide alternatives to the West but fundamentally challenge structures, systems, assumptions that inscribe and reinforce global inequality, underdevelopment, and neocolonialism.