World-class indigenous consultancy firms — No paradox

BY: Phyllis M. Christian

Consulting services presuppose that a service provider has a professional attribute or technical skill that clients are willing to pay for.

Consulting may entail the provision of advisory or technical assistance in one or more specialist fields, such as engineering, medical, procurement, scientific, legal, HR, finance, accounting, organisational development, marketing, translation, research, and other professional services. It is not unusual for a consultancy firm to offer several such services under one roof.

Historical account

With the emergence of Ghana’s economic reform programmes in the late 1980s, came an influx of donor-funded support into the country. In responding to this trend, international audit firms based in Ghana – among them Price Waterhouse Associates, Coopers & Lybrand, and KPMG - were transmuted into hybrid entities by offering a mix of consulting services alongside their core audit and accounting work. Deloitte & Touche West Africa Consulting also emerged to feature in this arena.  

By now, traditional training institutions such as GIMPA and MDPI were in dire need of restructuring. Seizing the opportunity created by this gap, a new breed of firms began to provide short-term executive training courses in Ghana, at top-dollar fees. As key participants in the new wave of “capacity building” reforms, many public institutions enrolled staff by the dozen for these training courses.

The law firms of Bentsi-Enchill & Letsa, Sey & Co, Akufo-Addo, Prempeh & Co, Laryea, Laryea & Co, Kudjawu & Co, Sam Okudzeto & Associates, Fugar and Co, dominated the investor-serving landscape and were decidedly indigenous.  

However, their counterparts in the local consulting arena remained rare.

At the core of Ghana’s economic restructuring programme was the focus on extensive infrastructural development. Aside from some local greats such as Asafo-Boakye & Partners, and Twum-Boafo & Partners, foreign firms including Sonitra, Carl Ploetner/CP, ABB and other international contractors cornered the roads construction sector.

Through the Bretton Woods-backed reform programmes, government’s goal was to transform entities such as the Environmental Protection Council into more robust regulatory bodies. With legislative and other regulatory reforms underway, business was becoming more streamlined and the investor population more confident to do business in Ghana. The financial sector was restructured and some non-performing financial institutions liquidated under the FINSAP and other adjustment programmes.

Here, too, the indigenous consulting firms were dwarfed by the global giants, and competent local firms were left jostling for attention within the economic development space.

Come the mid-1990s, a group of local professionals, featuring personalities such as the late Professor Mawuse Dake, rallied together to form the Ghana Association of Consultants (GAC). In time, the local players became more confident, and indigenous firms increasingly carved their own niches within the decentralisation, health and education sectors. However, those operating in the tradition of the international groups, were still few and far between.

Towards the end of the 1990s, major shifts occurred on the international firm front which curiously seemed to coincide. As if by design, some firms either broke up or suffered takeovers in close succession: EY (as we know it now) was formed out of the larger piece of a fragmented Price Waterhouse Associates joining with a local representative agency of Ernst and Young, to become Ernst and Young Ghana. Coopers & Lybrand joined the breakaway faction of Price Waterhouse to become the new firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, now PWC. Deloitte Consulting and the traditional firm of Deloitte and Touche had their own share of the adjustments, while KPMG took the opportunity to secure itself more regionally.

While the global firms recovered and grew bigger, the growing local class still struggled to find their feet. A new procurement law intended to provide a level playing field was passed. For local players with limited resources and little or no financial backing, however, the stakes were raised even higher if they had to sit through tedious procurement processes. Consequently, many well-meaning local service providers either opted out of the industry, or were compelled to associate with crafty foreign firms that would shortchange or even abandon them altogether as soon as a project was secured.

Current state: From Aid to Trade

Ghana’s development partners continue to support some developmental programmes, but government aims to partner local stakeholders in advancing the commercial sectors of the economy, such as power, oil and gas, ports, railways, cocoa, telecoms, bauxite, agriculture, infrastructure, gold, and even lithium. Business policy and legislation, tax, judicial system, data protection, anti-corruption, infrastructure, are all key reform areas in which consultants are involved.

What attributes do the international firms purport to have which the powers-that-be consider lacking in Ghanaian firms? Well-trained staff? Deep knowledge of subject matter? High professional standards? International backstopping and global recognition? Well, the good news is that Ghana’s consultancy landscape features some formidable Ghanaian-owned firms that have stood the test of time, and are forces to be reckoned with. To this end, it would be remiss of me not to name firms such as Continental Consultants, L’aine Services, AB and David, Plan Consult, and, indeed, my own firm of Shawbell Consulting, as being among the indigenous firms working to world-class standards. Yet, it continues to be an uphill battle to demonstrate that it is no paradox that local firms can indeed be world class; that they are worthy of regard within the consultancy space.

Governments over the years have increasingly shown sensitivity to the local lobby through the local content law, as well as procurement policies aimed at favouring women and the disabled. The key charge on government in this current dispensation would be to ensure that local professional service providers that are worth their salt are sufficiently supported to enjoy a good share of the consultancy market.

I am inspired by the words of the mathematical genius, John Forbes Nash, Jr, that, “The best result will come from everyone in the group doing what’s best for himself… and the group.” Perhaps, just as the international firms did twenty years ago, though, in ways less hostile, indigenous firms - whether individually or through the GAC - must also join forces to form productive partnerships with one another.