Takoradi: The BBC and me…


Takoradi, "Oil City", Ghana. Photo by Christiane Badgley

Driving around Takoradi we noticed BBC banners up at busy intersections and roundabouts. “Oil: a blessing or a curse?” the banners asked. Funny, isn’t it, how we keep asking this question, when time after time oil production follows the same cue cards.

A new country gears up to join the petroleum producers’ club and the president along with a few top ministers loudly proclaim that this time, here, oil will be a blessing and not a curse. Promises are made, speeches are broadcast and then the oil ends up being a curse – at least for those at the bottom rungs of society, the people who desperately need jobs and pin all their hopes on the elusive black gold.

Oil isn’t a blessing, but it doesn’t need to be a curse, either. Seems like we need to move beyond this supernatural, good v. evil framework that really doesn’t move anything forward.

But I digress…

It turns out that we arrived shortly after a BBC crew had been in town to do the first of several reports on Takoradi.

A radio documentary, Ghana oil boom: Everything is changing in Takoradi was broadcast March 10th and is now available online.

There’s also a multimedia feature on the BBC website: What happens when your town strikes oil?

Correspondent Rob Walker is engaging and brings Takoradi to life, but listening to the radio documentary, I was struck with an odd feeling that we were not in the same town.

The BBC presented a far rosier picture of Takoradi than what I see.  Understandably the show producer wanted to present a balanced portrait of the town and the team went looking for positive stories. We hear from a real estate agent, a hair salon owner and an oil services company director who believe their town is on the brink of a major boom.

Alfred Fafali Adagbedu, the owner of Seaweld Ghana has grown his company from four to 150 employees in three years (I assume he is talking about the local office as the company website indicates that Seaweld Engineering was established in 1979). That’s impressive and hopefully this company, along with other Ghanaian oil and gas service providers, will be well positioned to take advantage of any upcoming local content legislation.

But from the information presented in the radio report it is unclear just how the oil industry is boosting business at hair salons and, as for the real estate agent, honestly it’s hard to understand how housing speculation helps a local economy (construction jobs notwithstanding). As the reporter points out later, real estate prices across Takoradi have skyrocketed and anyone here will tell you this price hike is due less to heightened demand than to wild speculation.

I met people in Takoradi who have had to move several times in the past year because of rising rents and this in neighborhoods where there’s not an expat or oil worker anywhere to be seen. The upscale construction on the Westside of town (where you can see new houses and luxury condominiums, most of them empty with “for sale” or “for rent” signs posted out front) has provoked landlords across Takoradi to jack up rents. One union representative we met told us that he may soon have to move outside Takoradi to find something affordable.

Of course some people will benefit from oil, that’s a given, but the important question is how many people and who? It is the impact that oil production will have on the daily lives of the majority of people, the ordinary, poor citizens in the frontline communities, that will determine whether oil will be “blessing” or a “curse” for Sekondi-Takoradi and Ghana.

People here need three things: jobs, affordable housing and a clean environment. Right now my impression is that none of those things is a certainty.

The BBC report did not gloss over all the problems; the rising rents and traffic jams are mentioned, as is the likelihood that there won’t be many jobs for local youth. But in its attempt to present both sides of the Takoradi story as somehow equal, the reporting gave too much weight to a few individuals (in a city of several hundred thousand) who are hardly indicators of real economic growth.

And as much as anecdotes may make for good stories, they don’t necessarily advance understanding of an issue.

When someone says that in five years time Takoradi will become one of the modern cities of the world, you can’t just include that in a radio piece without providing any context.  Look around Takoradi and ask yourself how this change will actually happen in five years. We also hear that the government wants to tear down a neighborhood, replace it with new apartments, offices and shops, while relocating (low income) residents to a housing development to be built on the outskirts of the city. All that’s needed is private investment and community approval. How likely is this project? How controversial? We have no idea as this isn’t explored.

The Western Region wanted 10% of oil revenues earmarked for the region. The regional proposal was rejected and was not part of the recently passed landmark Petroleum Revenue Management Bill. Although there were good arguments for rejecting the Western Region’s demand as it was presented, no one can argue that this region does not need significant investment in order to grow in any meaningful sense.

The region’s infrastructure as well as its educational, training and health services need to improve so that Ghanaian companies can function efficiently, win contracts and create jobs for local residents.

So let’s be positive, but at the same time let’s not downplay the multiple challenges facing Takoradi and the Western Region.


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