Hanna Tetteh, Ghana's minister for trade and industry, says the economic partnership between China and Africa is important, but the relationship between African countries is more vital for the continent's development.
Ghana minister says chinese firms have to raise their game to compete with western brands
Hanna Tetteh, Ghana's minister for trade and industry, says China is an important partner for Africa's development but not the most vital one.
She says that building a big African trading bloc and increasing trade among nations on the continent will prove the essential long-term driver of economic growth.
"The China-Africa relationship is a very important one. There is no doubt about that. But from where I sit, the relationship that we need to give prominence to is the African relationship," she says.
"One of the reasons why China and (the rest of) Asia are successful is that they do so much trade with each other. By comparison the trade African countries do with each other is much smaller. For Ghana, 12 percent of our trade is with the rest of Africa whereas the average for the continent is 10 percent."
Tetteh, 45 and half Hungarian, was speaking during a break in the recent Africa Investment Forum in the International Conference Centre in Accra, Ghana.
She insists China is a role model for African countries when it comes to its economic transformation and speed of development but she expects countries like Ghana to follow a different path.
The country had one of the fastest GDP growth rates in the world of more than 20 percent in 2011, according to the IMF but this has been built partly by moving from agriculture to services and unlike China, is less dependent on manufactured exports. Accra itself has emerged as the financial services hub of western Africa.
"We have moved from agrarian to mixed. Manufacturing is not out of the equation but it is only part of the economy," she says.
Tetteh, attractive, vivacious and a commanding presence and who is seen as a future leader of Ghana, says China investment has had a transformative impact on Ghana. The country's vice-president, John Dramani Mahama, signed up to a $3 billion (2.4 billion euros) loan from the China Development Bank in Beijing in April - the largest loan in the country's history.
The money is to be used for major infrastructure projects, including a new gas pipeline and investment in roads, railways and fishing harbors.
"We are using this finance to fund what we see as our most critical infrastructure needs and as far as we are concerned that assistance can help us overcome our deficit in infrastructure. We think it is very important," she says.
Tetteh says that while Chinese investment has been welcome some Chinese companies should not see Africa as an easy dumping ground for unsophisticated products.
She believes there is a tendency for some Chinese commercial concerns to view the continent and other developing export markets like Latin America as less of a challenge than those of either Europe or the United States.
"They have got to raise their game to compete in Africa because they will also be competing against major Western brands here," she says.
She says that, in particular, there have been a number of recent concerns about sub-standard and potentially dangerous products, particularly cheap electrical goods.
"It is about the quality of the products, the cables, the switches and the wires. You know all of these things are supposed to have certain minimum standards, otherwise they become dangerous," she says.
"I don't think it is deliberate policy, don't get me wrong, but I do believe some people try and take advantage of our market and try and dump sub-standard products."
She concedes some lower-cost, less high-tech products might suit the African market since they are easier to repair locally without the need for expensive technical back-up systems.
China's exports to Ghana amounted to $3.11 billion last year out of a total trade relationship of $3.47 billion. Ghana's exports to China were just $363 million.
She says African consumers are now very brand-conscious, even when it comes to industrial goods.
"In Ghana people are very hot on brands. The Ministry of Commerce was involved in a project recently that involved providing tractors to our farmers' association. They told us that they wanted us to get Massey Ferguson tractors because they were the best," she says.
Tetteh believes that Chinese companies need to be wary of setting up their own little colonies of Chinese employees in Africa and not integrating their businesses with the community.
"Anyone who does this, does so at their peril. You need to try as much as possible to be part of the community so that it sees you as one of them. If you stand alone you are vulnerable," she says.
She argues a number of Chinese companies need to employ more African workers and provide better training so they can move into managerial and senior positions.
"Is there an issue about it? Yes, there is. We have a very large youth population and they all want jobs. So I do think there is more room for giving opportunities to Ghanaians. Of course, I am minister of trade for Ghana. You would expect me to say that," she says.
Tetteh, who was born in Szged, Hungary to a Hungarian mother and a Ghanaian father, began her career as a lawyer before moving into politics, winning her first parliamentary seat in 2000. It was her late father's wish that she go into public life.
"He wanted me to go into politics. I was thinking about it. Then he died very suddenly and I thought I would try it out because it is the last thing he wished for," she says.
She concedes being an African politician, in particular, is a tough life, she herself being held up at gunpoint during the 2008 presidential campaign when she was communications director for the eventual winner John Atta Mills, the current president.
"It is. It certainly is," she says, laughing.
A former legal officer with the International Federation of Women Lawyers, she welcomes women entrepreneur programs such as those run by the China Europe International Business School in Accra that promote the advancement of women in business.
"There are a huge number of women entrepreneurs in Ghana. The challenge for them is not that they don't want to do business but how to improve their skills. These kinds of initiatives are very useful. They give people a better idea of how to plan and manage their business," she says.
Tetteh says Africa is still dogged by the negative image of famines and disasters and that the recent Asian-tiger scale of growth seen in some countries in recent years never gets reported.
"You don't get the kind of economic growth that we have had over the past 10 years because of famine, war and disaster. You get it because people are now planning to make things happen," she says.
Tetteh also believes people in the world need to prepare for Africa on its current growth trajectory being a very different continent in the not-too-distant future and one of the success stories of the 21st century.