The public demonstrations which culminated on January 14th in the departure of President Ben Ali of Tunisia put another African country in a state of political insecurity. Despite the seeming distance  in culture, geography and history between sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, any activity of this magnitude on the continent begs an examination of the lessons that other countries can draw.

The devil makes mischief for idle hands.

The revolution in Tunisia resulted from a single act of frustration by 26-year-old Mohamed Bouaziz on December 17th, 2010. Although he eventually died from his self-immolation injuries and did not get to enjoy the end of 23 years of autocracy, his experience incited thousands of other unemployed but well-educated youth to take to the streets and demand civil liberties and better economic conditions for the first time since the mid-1980s.

An estimated 50% of Ghana’s population is aged between 14 and 35 years old. Nearly 900 public and private senior secondary schools, 28 training colleges, 20 technical colleges and more than 50 active public and private universities imply that a lot of young people in Ghana are increasingly becoming formally educated. But, the private sector has a tendency to criticize graduates as being generally unprepared for the workplace.
Although the ‘reaspora’ movement is filling that knowledge gap, it is also exacerbating the local youth unemployment issue.

According to the online edition of the Ghanaian Chronicle, Ghana’s formal sector is only able to produce about 5,000 new jobs a year, absorbing just 2% of graduates annually.
However, it is likely that government sources will offer
significantly different and more positive data. Ghana’s National Youth Employment Programme (NYEP) has tried to address this issue since it was launched in 2006. Nearly 800,000 mostly young people have applied to participate in the programme to date and its 2011 budget allocation is GH¢16.79 million.

However, it has been marred with financial woes and its sustainability has been questioned. Within its first two years of operations, the NYEP owed the Agricultural Development Bank (ADB), GH¢17 million and had five months of unpaid allowances to beneficiaries. Its cumulative debt to ADB stood at GH¢23 million in 2009.

The newly proposed National Youth Employment Bill aims to counteract these funding challenges by providing an instrument to which funds due to the NYEP will be sequestered from accredited funding institutions and also by dedicating 60% of the Communication Service Tax to the programme.

Despite these efforts, the NYEP has been criticised for having modules that are too broad and not necessarily strategically aligned to the development agenda of the country. But the programme has responded already by eliminating certain modules in favour of those that promote entrepreneurism.
Ghana, so far, seems to have successfully avoided the kinds of socio-political tensions that could rise to the level of Tunisia partly because of its quite large informal sector, which accounts for an estimated 70% of all employment in Ghana
and has led to the establishment by government of a National Committee on the Informal Economy (NCIE), aimed at providing a policy and operational oversight of this inadequately understood sub-sector.
But Ghana is also likely to escape the Tunisian-style Jasmine revolution because of the high level of openness of the
media, freedom of association and speech, active political parties, and a relatively robust electoral system that is the envy of many other countries.

With the National Youth Policy just developed in August 2010, newly assigned Education Minister, Mrs. Betty Mould-Iddrissu, will have to work closely with the Minister of Youth and Employment, Mr. Enoch Tei Mensah to pay closer attention
to ensuring that the educational curriculum churns out graduates that are more employable. Additionally, the two ministries will also need to engage the private sector more effectively in creating more viable employment options for young
graduates. The main lesson from Tunisia is that youth with nothing to lose create an untenable economic environment. In particular, the two Ministries need to address the claims in the 2010 Education Sector Performance report, that “there is also no analysis of labour market and economic needs to make curriculum much more relevant. Consequently, most teachers interviewed are still not sure of the relevance of the curriculum and syllabus to labour market needs”. With a budget of just GH¢775,166 for the very vital Curriculum, Research and Development work of the Ghana Education Service for 2011, it is clear that private sector intervention in this aspect of youth development is critical.

“The only way even God dares to appear before a hungry man is in the form of food” - Mahatma Ghandi

The second biggest grievance of protesters in Tunis was the price of food, particularly bread. Despite the international food crisis of 2007, inflation when viewed holistically has not been higher than 10% for most of Ben Ali’s period as President. Inflation in Ghana averaged over the last 5 years is 16.47%. Even though the Finance Minister and the Central Bank must be lauded for their successes in reducing the inflation rate, one should not forget that inflation represents the rate at which general price levels increase. A reduction in inflation trends does not mean that prices are not still too high in relative terms. In September 2010, the advocacy group, Food Security Ghana, published an article which stated that “the issue of food insecurity and high cost of food has compelled people to spend about 70% of their income on food alone, rather than on education, health and miscellaneous things.” Given the state of rage that ensued over the high costs of rice imports into Ghana, this is a hot topic for most Ghanaians as well.

The FAO Food Outlook report of November 2010 reports that “following a series of unexpected downward revisions to crop forecasts in several major producing countries, world prices have risen alarmingly and at a much faster pace than in
2007/08. Food Security Ghana published comments from World Bank Senior Economist, Robert Townsend, which read “in West Africa, rice accounts for a much larger share of food consumption than in Eastern and Southern Africa.

The second biggest grievance of protesters in Tunis was the price of food, particularly bread. Despite the international food crisis of 2007, inflation when viewed holistically has not been higher than 10% for most of Ben Ali’s period as President. Inflation in Ghana averaged over the last 5 years is 16.47%.

As more rice than maize is imported, local food prices in West Africa will be more affected. Countries with local supply disruptions are also particularly vulnerable to global price increases, as experienced with the drought in Burkina Faso, the recent cyclone in Madagascar, and localised floods in Ghana have shown.”

The private sector is critical in ensuring food sufficiency in Ghana and can assist by investing in post-harvest technologies, including storage and refrigeration facilities.  The private sector has the opportunity to pair up with research institutions like the West African Rice Development Agency (WARDA) and the Rice Research Institute to promote research into better yielding rice varieties that will allow for more productive investments in the agricultural sector. Such investments, of course, will be aimed at helping to lower food prices, so as to make life tolerable for more people, especially the youth, and to prevent social tensions derived from high food prices from boiling over.

If Ghana and other African countries are to take further lessons from the Tunisian explosion, then their privates sectors should also consider forming sustainable private partnerships with small-scale farming cooperatives. The African Enterprise Challenge Fund (ACEF), for example, currently supports the Ghana Grain Partnership with a grant of $1,250,000 with the aim of improving the maize value chain. It behoves the private sector to engage in such programmes so as to have a secure link to the raw materials which can ultimately feed industrial productivity and manufacturing of everything from corn oil to cornflakes in the case of maize.

One AECF project, for example, has already allowed the SAB Miller brewery in Sudan to reduce its imports of barley by building and investing in a network of cereal farmers, so that they can supply the brewery with local produce.

It is such innovative investments aimed at reducing food imports, slashing food prices while also generating local employment that stand the best chance of helping countries like Ghana to avoid the Tunisian social Tsunami.

Social networking can promote both business and political revolutions

Beyond the issue of youth employment and food prices, another dimension of the Tunisian crisis that has lessons for countries like Ghana is in the area of ICT access, and specifically social networking uptake.

One of the very first concessions of President Ben Ali on the eve of his abandoning his post was the un-censoring of the social networking site YouTube, banned in 2007.
Although international media coverage was low prior to the imposition of a curfew on Tunisian residents on January 12, it ramped up following several uploads of protests to Twitter,
Facebook and YouTube.

Hailed as another “Wikileaks Revolution,” similar to that of Iran in 2009, Tunisians’ use of social media fuelled support all over the world, putting immediate pressure on the President to decrease the disproportionate use of force that reduced the potential number of deaths to an estimated 100 deaths to date.

Even powerful broadcasters, BBC and CNN, rely today on cyber-activism to give credibility to many of their breaking stories.
The Facebook (FB) statistics monitoring group, SocialBakers, estimates that there are 839,160 FB users in Ghana.
Although FB’s penetration of Ghana’s population is only 3.45%, according to its website, 83% of Facebook users in Ghana are between 18-34 years old, the same age group that most consumer companies target for marketing their products and services. Ghana is ranked 79th in terms of the number of FB users out of 213 countries and territories that use it.
Although Tunisia was ranked 39th in the world, its annual growth rate of users was only 20.5%, compared to Ghana’s 34.46%. Only 7 other African countries were ranked before Ghana as high users of FB, including Egypt (23rd), South
Africa (32nd), Nigeria (38th), and Kenya (70th).

Social media is becoming more and more popular and prevents countries from keeping their dirty laundry in-house, thus making governments and the private sector more accountable to their citizens and consumers, respectively. But more
importantly, social networking presents huge marketing opportunities for businesses to diversify their marketing strategies. With 1,297,000 internet subscribers and users in Ghana, as of June 2010, according to the International Telecommunication Union, the internet is a key economic force that cannot be ignored.

Dig deep

The Tunisian revolution reinforces the idea that business and politics can make strange bedfellows. Symbols of the corruption of Tunisia’s ruling family were targeted in the looting that followed President Ben Ali’s departure from the country.

In particular, the first lady’s family, the Trabelsis fuelled the fire. Fancy homes owned by the Trabelsis in tourist beach locations, including Gammarth, were destroyed. French grocery stores, Carrefour and Monoprix, in which the Trabelsi’s are believed to have a stake, were the target of much looting. Wikileaks cables from the State Department portray the regime as a “mafia-esque elite who have their hands in every cookie jar in the entire economy”. To date, 33 Trabelsi family members have been arrested and there is an international arrest warrant from Interpol out for still more. Although revolutions throughout history have always had their Imelda Marcos-esque femme fatale, first ladies who attempt to use their positions to profit from business are catching more and more flack.

Ghana’s 2011 Doing Business ranking is 67th but Tunisia’s, despite the perception of the population that its leaders were highly corrupt, was 55th (up 3 spots from the previous year). For many years, Tunisia, a quiet country, was hailed as an example of economic performance in Africa and its citizens were still displeased.

So, as Ghana also looks forward to better economic performance (projected double-digit GDP growth, possibly the highest in Africa for 2011), with its newly- discovered oil wealth, perhaps the best lesson to be drawn for Ghana is that it needs to be mindful that economic growth and performance do not necessarily equate with the satisfaction and happiness of citizens.

Finally, by virtue of Tunis being the Temporary Relocation Agency of the African Development Bank, and as a result, home to at least two hundred Ghanaians, the events of this small North African country should not be neglected. Ghanaians have actually lived through the Tunisian revolution, and will carry home someday some of the key lessons they have learnt.