Acceptance speech by Sir Sam Jonah for Honorary Doctorate conferred on him by Ashesi University

President Awuah, Distinguished faculty and staff, Guests of honor, Members of the Class of 2005

I am truly touched to be the first recipient of an honorary degree from Ashesi University, a university that I hold in such high esteem. Indeed, I am humbled and eternally grateful for this honor.

I distinctly recall my first meeting with Dr. Awuah in 2002. I was struck by the sheer boldness and ingenuity of his vision to create a world-class university in Africa. Since that time, I have watched in awe as Ashesi has grown to become one of the most respected institutions of higher learning not only in Ghana, but in Africa, in a very short period of time. I therefore view this honor not necessarily as acknowledgement of my personal contributions and achievements, but as recognition of the importance of tertiary education to Africa’s future, and as a testimony to the maturity of Ashesi University.

Being a part of your graduation ceremony today brings back very fond memories for me. I was part of the first generation in my family to attend university. I joined Ashanti Goldfields at the age of 18 as a Shovel Boy. Ashanti then sponsored my education at the Camborne School of Mines in Cornwall, England, where I earned an Associateship in Mining Engineering. I subsequently completed an MSc in Mine Management at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. The time I spent at these institutions of higher learning gave me the critical skills I needed to rise up the ranks and become CEO of Ashanti at the age of 36. I proceeded to lead Ashanti to become one of the most profitable gold mining companies in the world, providing employment to over 8,000 people in Ghana, Tanzania, and Mali, increasing gold production from 240,000 ounces per annum to over 1.6 million ounces in over ten years and overseeing the Company’s listing as the first operating African company on the New York Stock Exchange. Throughout my career, the core skills I developed at university—the ability to think critically, the constant thirst for knowledge—are what enabled me to lead successfully at Ashanti, and to become a global business leader. I truly believe I could not have achieved my success at Ashanti and in the international business community without a good tertiary education. Your Ashesi education will similarly empower you to achieve your dreams. We need more African success stories like Ashanti. This is why I view this honor as recognition of the importance of tertiary education to Africa’s future.

This award is also testimony to Ashesi’s maturity because only six years ago, Ashesi was merely a dream in one visionary individual’s mind. Today it is a fully-fledged academic institution that is graduating its first class of students, and is also awarding its first honorary degree! These are both hallmarks of Ashesi’s maturity, and I salute Dr. Awuah and the rest of the team for their tireless work over the past six years to develop Ashesi into what it is today.

I hope this recognition of Ashesi’s maturity and success will spur the establishment of other private institutions of higher learning on the continent, because to succeed in the 21st century and reach its true potential, Africa must develop into a knowledge economy. This will not be possible unless more of our citizens can engage in higher education. Public universities must grow to accommodate our children, and private institutions like Ashesi must arise to provide competition and spur innovation.

By looking across the world at South Korea we can see the importance of institutions like Ashesi to Africa’s development. In 1957, South Korea was slightly poorer than Ghana, and today its per-capita GDP is over nine times ours. Numerous studies have shown that over half of this difference in economic growth was due to differences in knowledge acquisition and use by the two countries. Where did South Koreans get their knowledge? At private Universities like Ashesi. In South Korea today, 85% of tertiary education occurs at private universities. And these institutions are responsible for the nation’s rapid economic growth.

Not just do we need more institutions of higher learning, but I firmly believe in the specific liberal arts education that is being offered at Ashesi today. The ability to develop a core base of knowledge across a broad spectrum of disciplines is crucial in today’s world, and is especially so in Africa where our most difficult problems can only be solved by applying knowledge from the intersection between various disciplines.

I have been privileged to know three individuals who crystallized the importance of liberal arts education for me. The first individual who demonstrated the power of the liberal arts education to me is our esteemed Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN. I have been fortunate enough to serve on the Advisory Council of the Secretary General’s Global Compact for several years, and in this position I have watched this skilful leader tackle many of the world’s problems. As some of you may know, Kofi Annan received his undergraduate degree at a small liberal arts college called Macalester College in Minnesota. He has often spoken about how the education he received at Macalester was the foundation for the critical thinking and multi-disciplinary approach he has needed to tackle the world’s most complex problems.

The second individual who demonstrated the power of the liberal arts education is on a more personal level-my own son Richard spent four very rewarding years as a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, USA, and I continue to be amazed by how this helped to shape his thinking into the fine emerging business leader that he is today.

Finally, as we all know, Dr. Awuah himself is a product of the liberal arts education he received at Swarthmore. Without the broad-minded thinking and thirst for knowledge he nurtured at Swarthmore, he would not have acquired the vision and leadership qualities that have enabled him to so skillfully lead the establishment of Ashesi into the fine institution it is today. His liberal arts education also enabled him to achieve great successes at Microsoft and at the Haas Business School at Berkeley. Indeed Dr. Awuah is a great engineer, businessman, entrepreneur, scholar, and educator. Only a liberal arts education could have developed him to succeed in such a broad range of spheres.

Now I would like to specifically address you, the graduating class. Today marks the end of a key phase in your lives, but it is also the beginning of another phase: a much more important phase. After today, you have the opportunity to make the years you have spent at Ashesi really count for something and impact your world.

Let me now welcome you to the University of Life. In this University, you will have to grapple with several and varied challenges but you would also discover many vistas of opportunities. The skills you have acquired here and the attitude and discipline which you have developed in the course of your education at Ashesi, would stand you in good stead as you move forward to manage these challenges.

In the course of your training at Ashesi, you had to work in groups and no doubt, you came to appreciate that the best results are obtained through team effort. It is possible that there were some of your colleagues in your group you were not particularly comfortable with but nevertheless, you had to learn to work with them to get the best results.

In the University of Life, team spirit will be needed in even greater measure if you are to succeed. You will come across all sorts; you will walk into a world of prejudice, jealousy, betrayal, viciousness etc; but in this world, you will also come across people who appreciate scholarship, discipline and hard work and would do whatever is required to facilitate your success. It is up to you to learn how to get the best of this new world of seeming contradiction.

Ashesi has prepared you well and I therefore do not expect you to fail.

You are pioneers, indeed you are Ashesi’s pathfinders and arguably, there is no role more onerous than being a pioneer. You will carry the responsibility for how the world defines Ashesi.

Ashesi’s three core values of Scholarship, Leadership, and Citizenship are crucial ingredients in transforming Ghana, and indeed Africa.

  • First, Scholarship: My father had a saying “you must be ignorant only once.” What he meant by this was that life is all about acquisition of knowledge. Once you find your life’s calling, then you must seek to know everything about that discipline. While you might start out ignorant about certain things in your area, you must not remain ignorant forever about those things. This has been my guiding philosophy throughout my life. Class of 2005, I hope you will leave here with a sense of humility and modesty, and a recognition that Ashesi was just the beginning of life-long process of learning. In fact, I think it is apt that the name “Ashesi” means “Beginnings”. My wish is that the Class of 2005 views this as the beginning of a lifelong search for knowledge.
  • Second, Leadership. I believe that an undersupply of strong leaders across all disciplines has greatly hindered Africa’s development. Strong, home-grown leaders are also the key to our future. Some of these well-educated, ethical, principled and entrepreneurial leaders are sitting in front of me today in the Class of 2005. By becoming agents of positive change in your chosen disciplines, you can lead Africa to a future with widespread political stability, rapid economic growth, and meaningful cooperation among nations.
  • Finally, Citizenship. I truly believe that a fulfilling life is one that is not solely centered on oneself. A good and fulfilling life should also revolve around what you can do for your country & continent. You have been endowed with your skills and are fortunate enough to have received an Ashesi education. You must therefore always ask the question—how can I use this endowment to uplift the situation of my fellow citizens? That, to me, is what it means to be a good citizen, and it pleases me to know you are leaving here imbued with this mindset.

Before I conclude, class of 2005, I would like to leave you with a challenge: You form part of a privileged group. According to the World Bank, only 3% of students of university-going age in Ghana and only 4% in Africa are actually enrolled in tertiary education This compares to 81% in the USA and 85% in South Korea. With this enormous privilege comes responsibility. One of my favorite expressions, which comes from the Bible is “To whom much is given, much is expected.” You are part of an elite group. Ashesi has helped you to develop great knowledge and critical thinking skills and positioned you to have a major impact on the continent. With this privilege, you have the responsibility to play a leadership role in changing Africa. Will you rise to the challenge and accept this responsibility?

Ghana, our dear country is undergoing a renaissance. We have been through two terms of peaceful democratic government, we have peace while our neighbors are experiencing turmoil, our economy is performing well, and last, but not least, we as a nation can boast of Ashesi, a world-class educational institution that has produced its first crop of graduates.

Members of the class of 2005, I salute you, and dedicate this doctorate to you. May you go forth and change Africa!