Self-styled 'Apostle' seeks converts to 'Made in Ghana' goods
Apprentices work at the Apostle Safo Technology Research Centre in Gomoa Mpota, Ghana, on February 12, 2014 - by Chris Stein
The West African country has seen a rise of eager consumers on the back of strong economic growth, fuelling greater demand for cars, computers and mobile telephones.
Few -- if any -- of the products are made in Ghana or anywhere else in Africa but that could all change if Kwadwo Safo has his way.
For decades, Safo's company Kantanka has been producing prototype sport utility vehicles, televisions, switchboards and even robots, incorporating local woods and traditional patterns into their designs and showing them off at yearly exhibitions to much fanfare.
Experts are sceptical that locally made cars would be able to compete with the over 100,000 cheap used vehicles that are imported every year.
Yet to many Ghanaians, Kantanka offers a glimpse of a Ghana that relies on more than gold, cocoa and oil to bolster its economy, which is already the second largest in West Africa.
So confident is Safo in Ghana's ability to sustain heavy industry that he plans to open a car factory sometime this year and launch his "Made in Ghana" vehicles into commercial production.
His followers hope the "Apostle", as Safo is known, can put Ghana and Africa on the map as car manufacturers.
Once Safo has perfected his technology, "his dream is to extend to the whole of the continent," said Alfred Akutteh, a technical officer at the Apostle Safo Technology Research Centre.
"And that's why he's saying he's the 'Star of Africa'."
- SUVs, attack helicopters -
From the computers in offices to the cars on the roads, Ghana is dependent on imports for most of its vehicles and equipment.
That dependence, coupled with rising inflation and a downturn in world gold prices, contributed to the cedi currency losing nearly a quarter of its value last year, despite an economic growth rate of more than seven percent.
Ghana's President John Dramani Mahama made domestic production of staples such as poultry, rice and tomatoes a centrepiece of his State of the Nation address last month.
But Safo and his band of followers believe Ghana is capable of producing more than just its own foodstuffs -- and should think bigger.
The Apostle Safo Technology Research Centre is located near the village of Gomoa Mpota, some 60 kilometres (37 miles) west of the capital Accra.
About 250 apprentices spend their days working on everything from an attack helicopter to a sport utility vehicle that is started by pushing a button on a gold watch.
Most of the products are prototypes and few ever leave the centre.
Apprentices produce two to three car engines a year, Akutteh said, but the new factory will make three to four cars a day when finished.
- 'An African visionary' -
Safo spent much of his early career as a welder before getting into inventing, recalls Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, a long-time friend. Despite repeated attempts by AFP Safo himself was not available for an interview.
First came switchboards and voltage stabilisers, then cars, starting with a replica of a Mercedes Benz sedan which now lies covered in dust beneath a tree at the research centre.
Alongside Safo's invention work are his 137 churches -- and a carefully cultivated image as a man of God and a pan-African hero.
"He sees himself as the saviour of Africa. That is his style," said Frimpong-Boateng.
Portraits of a smiling Safo sporting sunglasses can be found in the places of worship as well as on the walls of his research facility and even on the side of his SUV prototypes.
Church members make up the bulk of his apprentices, who work without pay in exchange for room and board. Some get a scholarship to further their education at university.
"Working with the Apostle is actually an experience everyone would want to have," said Nyan Saba Safo Kantanka, a Safo godson who has worked at the factory for five years.
"Looking at the Apostle's vision, being the father of Africa, we all have a role to play, helping him and helping Ghana and Africa put its name on the world map."
- Tough market to crack -
Money from a stone quarry, clinics, schools and a bus company sustains Kantanka's operations, said Akutteh.
But industry experts say he faces an uphill battle to make gains in an auto sector which sees about 12,000 new and 100,000 second-hand cars imported into Ghana every year.
"The market will be a big challenge," said Abdul-Somad Alhsssan Musah, chairman of the Association of Ghana Industries automotive sector.
While many key components such as glass, tyres and brake callipers are imported, one way Kantanka distinguishes his products is by blending Ghanaian materials and culture into its goods.
Locally made wood is used to make the car dashboards while Akan -- a language widely used in Ghana -- is written alongside English on the electronics.
Akan is also spoken by a prototype robotic door guard.
"Apostle has been an inspiration to me," said Nana-Ama Safoa, an apprentice who works in the centre's foundry.
"(I see) him as an African doing what is not believed to be done by Africans."