AfricaLive: Please tell readers a bit about the DNA of Oswal Investments Ltd and your motivation for starting the enterprise.
Humphrey A-Williams: My story started back in the 90’s when I was working with a local construction firm where I cut my teeth in the industry, and that ignited my interest in the sector. At that time, most of the companies doing the big jobs were foreign-owned, and the most prominent one was known as Construction Pioneers from Germany.
The company was involved in most of the major infrastructure projects in Ghana at the time, and I took a lot of inspiration from them and went there to try and learn something new from them. I would `pass by their construction sites on weekends and observe their work keenly. What struck me was the fact that they never seemed too interested in passing on knowledge and knowhow to the locals. The engineers would give instructions, and it was up to the local artisans and technocrats to research and find ways to get it done right. Local practitioners had to struggle to find their feet and their way around complex issues.
Fast forward to 2002, I decided to join the field to contribute my quota and change the narrative around the dominance of foreign companies who were doing all the major projects and to build local capacity. I set up my own company in 2002 after leaving my job with the sole aim of competing with the multinationals that were present on the scene.
We have seen rapid growth in our operations from a humble beginning of a small road maintenance firm into a blue-chip construction firm offering integrated civil engineering services. We can now boast of being a reputable firm that can measure up to any challenge or major project that’s out there to be done. Our focus has been and still is, to beat the foreign companies that operate in Ghana.
We have acquired a wealth of experience over the years and our name is synonymous with quality work, delivery on time, efficiency, and positioned ourselves as a trustworthy partner in Ghana’s development agenda. These values underpin the OSWAL brand.
AfricaLive: You are currently involved in a traffic decongestion project in Accra, what exactly is your role in that initiative?
Humphrey A-Williams: Roads do not only provide access but also contribute to the cost of doing business. For example, can you imagine the hours one spends in traffic to get to work daily, and how this translates into man-hour costs? How can we save on this and be more productive with access to multiple and quality road network options?
Our current project, right at the heart of the city within the sprawling and affluent East Legon suburb of Accra is a major road linking East Legon to Adjiringanor. This includes a flyover in Adjiringanor that will not only provide access options but will contribute significantly to reducing rush hour traffic.
My challenge as always is to complete this project ahead of schedule, and we are on course working with a team of committed engineers who are always ready to go, especially when it comes to complex projects of this scope.
AfricaLive: The launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area will be going ahead in early 2021, hopefully acting as a catalyst for driving Intra-African trade. What are your ambitions, both in the short term and long term, when it comes to trading internationally?
Humphrey A-Williams: Our immediate focus is on Ghana for now. There is so much work to be done in our country and the passion is to discharge this fully to the best of our abilities before we think of expanding to other markets. Our nation’s infrastructure agenda is keeping practitioners like us quite engaged and busy. This is a highly capital intensive industry and you have to have the muscle to be able to play in the big league. It accounts for the competitive edge of the foreign-owned firms but we are changing the narrative.
AfricaLive: Ghana’s indigenous private sector wants the local content policy enforced more strictly. How can the perfect balance be struck between a robust local content policy and a friendly environment for foreign investors?
Humphrey A-Williams: Some indigenous firms play in the lower category because they have not built on their capacity – i.e. human, tools etc. to be able to manage big projects. This makes them play second fiddle and undermines their capacity and confidence. This presents a big challenge in our industry because most projects must be pre-financed, and only strong brands with a proven track record can raise the equity to do this. We have lived up to this because of our track record of executing quality roads on time and honouring our commitments to our value chain.
In the past, foreign players almost had a monopoly in this space. Things are vastly different today because we have very strong local companies like ours staking our claim. There is room for co-existence through partnerships that will help develop and build capacity of local players, and this is what the world is looking up to in the 21st century.
AfricaLive: What strengths do you have that keep you up there at the top with some of the best international firms operating in your country?
Humphrey A-Williams: We are an indigenous Ghanaian civil engineering and construction company that is focused on delivering quality work with an eye on continuous improvement. At the heart of our operations is our workforce without whom we would not be able to deliver on our promises. We have maintained a diligent team and built their capacity over the years. This accounts for our consistency and ability to currently compete with foreign construction companies in taking on major road infrastructure projects in Ghana.
The vision is not to be just a viable alternative to foreign companies, but the preferred choice. This is a highly capital-intensive industry and to succeed, one must have the financial muscle to be able to play in the ‘big league’. This accounts for the competitive edge the foreign-owned companies have over the local firms. Based on this, we have put in place a 2-year strategic plan, which involves considerable investment in our workforce and equipment to build on our current capacity to help us take on bigger projects in line with our vision.
AfricaLive: Within Ghana and West Africa, what do you consider to be the primary opportunities and threats facing your sector?
Humphrey A-Williams: The big threat is competition from multinationals and project pre-financing. You have to keep up with them through huge capital investment in technology and human capital. Thankfully, we have both on our side – we have a committed team that’s focused on continuous improvement and delivering excellence at all times, and a network of industry partners. West Africa, including Ghana, has a huge infrastructure deficit, and the only way we can make ourselves attractive to investors is to address this.
I have seen a conscious effort over the years aimed at addressing this because, we cannot afford to be left behind by the world, and this presents huge opportunities in Ghana. We are well-positioned to participate in a lot of upcoming projects that present growth opportunities.
AfricaLive: How do you see your company influencing what the future cities of Ghana will look like?
Humphrey A-Williams: The future is bright, and we are very optimistic about this as opportunities abound massively in Ghana. For the purpose of visibility, we prefer to work within the urban environment because it helps with our growth agenda. Urban roads development has given us much-needed exposure and experience. It comes as a full package, which includes heavy traffic management for both vehicles and humans.
Our work in building urban roads and other amenities puts us squarely in the picture when conversations about future cities are had. Urban roads provide a thrilling challenge that helps our young engineers learn. We have innovated new processes when it comes to traffic management, which is an improvement on what foreign companies like Construction Pioneers used to do. There are other local companies in Ghana who are also doing very well. Therefore, collectively we shall change the narrative because no country can attain its optimal development without local content.
AfricaLive: Ghana faces a significant long term challenge to create jobs for its growing population. What steps do you believe need to be taken to empower Ghana’s private sector to succeed in driving economic growth and job creation on this scale?
Humphrey A-Williams: Private companies need to be supported in a variety of ways so that they can compete favourably and grow along with other players. And by so doing, they will be in a position to create employment opportunities for the teeming youth and reduce the dependency on Government. We have hired quite a number of young engineers because we believe they are the future and have a role to play in our success story. Thus, playing our part to solve this problem.
AfricaLive: If you were to bring together Ghana’s leaders from government, higher education, and business to a roundtable meeting held at your HQ – what would be the main item on your agenda?
Humphrey A-Williams: I would highlight the need for local empowerment over foreign players and the creation of a level playing field that build local capacity through partnerships. We need to develop capacities and support our own. A pro-local approach will help us develop this country more rapidly.
AfricaLive: What is your outlook for the company in the next ten years?
Humphrey A-Williams: When I look back at this industry over the last two decades, a lot has changed, and more is yet to come. Technology has changed, people have changed, direction has changed, but the passion and vision to transform and modernize has never been this greater. We have just started the construction of our first flyover, and we look forward to doing interchanges, etc. This is a mark of maturity and underpins the resilient character of the Oswal Investment brand. It is one of our underlying pillars as we challenge ourselves every day with complex projects. Technology will be a huge part in our growth and any future expansion agenda, and that’s why I have employed fresh graduates from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi who are currently involved in our projects and the plan is to give them enough practical exposure that will build their capabilities for the future.
Our long-term plan is to have these young graduates learn engineering at the highest levels while incorporating state of the art technology that serves our sector. We are doing our part in ensuring that there is a vibrant next generation of engineering talent that can spearhead our infrastructure goals far into the future.
We are doing the work required to position ourselves as the top local name in our industry starting with our 2-year strategic development plan, which includes a huge investment in technology, human capital and what I call multigenerational planning that will ensure that the company will be passed down from generation to generation successfully.