three men in a conference room
Ato on the left together with representatives from the European Union at a World Bank meeting in Sierra Leone
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Ebenezer Ato Simpson: Building the case for investing in skills development across Ghana

The Fund Manager of a multi-year Challenge Fund aiming to improve productivity and market competitiveness explains the importance of showcasing good business practices

Over the years, policy-makers and private enterprises in general have doubted that investment in skills development could achieve any significant returns in Ghana. But Ato Simpson and his team at the Danida-financed Skills Development Fund (SDF) have proven them wrong. While most skills development activities are supply driven, the SDF takes the opposite approach, offering funding to businesses looking to train their employees to improve their skills and productivity. 

The approach has clearly paid off.

“The SDF has demonstrated that indeed such investments can, and in fact do, generate high returns when well managed. A case can now be made to develop a permanent path toward sustainable financing of skills development in Ghana,” Ato says.

“Observing the labour productivity and revenue of hundreds of enterprises grow by leaps and bounds makes all the hard work worthwhile. Our goal is to create opportunities for companies to develop internal capacity so the Fund does not need to continue providing grant support. We have been especially effective in helping public training institutions change their orientation and approach their target market with a business offering, thus helping establish a market where opportunities for skills development can thrive.”

More than 20 years of development cooperation and support to SMEs

Ato (a Fante name for males born on Saturday) hails from Gomoa Fetteh, a small town along the golden shoreline of southern Ghana. Following a Bachelors from the University of Ghana in accounting and economics, he got his start in development consulting as a financial analyst with EMPRETEC Ghana Foundation, a project designed to develop the management base of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the country. The experience laid the groundwork for a shift into business development, which he specialised in for several years before returning to university to earn a Master of Science in Finance and Management from Exeter in the UK as a British Chevening Scholar.

Although he was fascinated with finance and the role of banking in how life works, a stint in the banking sector afterwards was short-lived. “I could not survive the capitalist focus,” Ato confesses with a laugh. “I returned to development consulting and worked with Landell Mills, as West Africa Project Executive, and spent a few years lecturing on Entrepreneurship, Corporate Finance and Investments at Ashesi University. Before joining NIRAS, Ato was Skills Development Fund Manager at the Ghanian Council for Technical and Vocational Education and Training, the organisation with which Danida piloted the SDF first back in 2011.

Ato, his boys and his wife, Naa.

 

Sending a strong signal on good governance to the market

As Fund Manager at SDF Ghana, Ato manages a team of 12 staff and over 80 individual consultants. He’s responsible for the overall execution of the Fund which aims, on the one hand, to enhance the competitiveness of the private sector through skills development training and, on the other hand, to build the capacity of both public and private training institutions to better understand and develop innovative training content primarily for private businesses.

It seems that Exeter University was not overstating when it featured Ato in its magazine all those years ago as one of the most promising students with the potential to change the private sector in Africa. The SDF’s impact has been felt far beyond its target market and is being replicated in other countries including Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Managing a fund like SDF with a high level of integrity and transparency in a country like Ghana has worked to attract the interest and support of private sector stakeholders in the skills sector. Knowing that a company’s good effort and diligence could win a grant does a lot of good and sends a strong signal to the market. Many other private and quasi-public operations are taking a cue from the successes that such commitment to transparency and integrity engenders. This is informing public discussions and may well lead to changes in programme design to take into account such development enablers,” Ato explains.

Over the past three years of working with colleagues at NIRAS, I have appreciated their high level of professionalism and commitment to high ethical values. The people that I have come to know are excellent human beings, professionals who do not hesitate to offer advice to help achieve results for the client and a good reputation for the organisation.

Ato’s job is challenging in many ways. He deals with government officials, the Embassy of Denmark, public and private sector training institutions, and private SMEs. As he explains, “All these stakeholders come with unique needs that require a different set of skills to manage satisfactorily. The constant switches needed to carry out the tasks create daily learning opportunities for me. Of course the job has enabled me to get into many professional networks – where I’ve made a number friends and more than a few enemies.”

A man of many talents

To recover from the rigours of work, Ato enjoys football. “I used to be a very good player in the 1980s but didn’t pursue that passion as there wasn’t as much prospect in the game in those days.” Otherwise, the speaker of English, Twi, Fante “and a bit of Ga and Ewe” does not consider himself particularly talented with one exception.

“I recently started training my voice to sing – many people are pleased with what they hear, but my children are not as impressed. I’ve yet to figure out why,” he says with a deadpan face.