Ghana’s World-Class Engineering Company: The Success Story of Wilkins Engineering

Wilkins Engineering is a world-class engineering company of Ghanaian origin. Over the years, Wilkins has leveraged on its international expertise acquired through subcontracting to execute world class projects in the country.

Ghana's World-Class Engineering Company: The Success Story of Wilkins Engineering

Accra: In 1993, when Eng. Omane Frimpong, then an employee of Ghana’s Ministry of Energy, told his peers that he was quitting the job to start a private business, not many people bought into the idea. And that was understandable.

In a country where business survival rates are very discouraging, not so many Ghanaians muster the courage to go into private business practice. The few who did either failed trying or got caught up in one of the myriads of challenges then facing private businesses. 
As a result, many of Frimpong’s colleagues were jittery in allowing him, a relative and loved one, to exit his well-paying job – a senior engineer in the Energy Ministry – to engage in a ‘try and error’ in the entrepreneurship world.
However, as daunting as these challenges were, Frimpong never allowed them to weigh him down and shift his focus from starting a business that would stand the test of time in the country. 

With a clear vision and proper sense of direction on what he wanted, how to get there and how long it will take, Frimpong, who had previously worked with the nation’s hydro power producer, the Volta River Authority (VRA), took all suggestions and criticisms in good faith as he set out to help solve the county’s energy needs.

With Wilkins Engineering as the name of his company, he zoomed straight into business in May 1993, starting first as a one-man consultant. Five years into its establishment, the company became the first in the country to install Photovoltaic (PV) systems for customers.

Eng. Omane Frimpong zoomed straight into business in May 1993, starting first as a one-man consultant. Five years into its establishment, the company became the first in the country to install Photovoltaic (PV) systems for customers.

Tapping global experiences

In 1998, Wilkins Engineering, today the leading electrical engineering company in Ghana, was awarded a contract alongside the Spanish company, Isofoton, to install some 1,000 solar PV systems in major parts of the country. At the time, the solar PV technology was not common in Ghana, as it was still at the discovery stage in the West African nation. The successful execution of the project marked the success story of Wilkins Engineering, which, today, boasts of one of the best systems and engineering team in the country and the sub-region as a whole.

In the same year, Wilkins Engineering’s superior customer service and service delivery earned it another job from another Spanish company, Elecnor. Elecnor was awarded a contract to connect about 100 communities in the Upper East Region to the national grid under the government’s rural electrification project. Beyond giving Wilkins Engineering the opportunity to grow its revenue base, these partnerships served as a learning curve for the infant company to leverage the expertise of multinationals in its strive for growth.

As the years passed by, various challenges, including power supply deficits, low accessibility and a growing appetite for renewable sources, emerged in Ghana’s energy sector. With tact and perseverance, Wilkins Engineering and its founder turned those challenges into opportunities, making service quality and prompt delivery the hallmark of its activities. The result has been a world-class engineering firm that now robs shoulders with multinational in the country and its counterparts abroad.

Looking back, Frimpong said the journey has been rewarding and full of experiences and big lessons.
“The journey has been from a one-man business to, now, one with over 1,000 workers. We started as an engineering consulting company, then we transformed into an electrical construction company. Currently, we have engineers and more than 1,000 artisans who are working for us in the villages,” he said when Marcopolis visited him at the company’s headquarters in Ghana’s capital, Accra.

The company now operates in over 30 districts in Ghana and has plans to make its international debut by the close of this year, when it hopes to open an office in Liberia.

The company now operates in over 30 districts in Ghana and has plans to make its international debut by the close of this year, when it hopes to open an office in Liberia.

Acquiring international expertise through subcontracting

Over the years, the company has leveraged on its international expertise acquired through subcontracting to execute world class projects in the country.
So far, the Wilkins Engineering’s founder said the landmark one was in 2000, when the company was contacted to install a 50 kilowatt – 0.05 megawatts – solar system in the Ministry of Energy building, the place he resigned from to set up his business. 
“At the time, it was the – biggest solar system in Ghana. Solar was not common then and to have installed an operational 50 kilowatts system was a great achievement for us,” he said.
In the coming months, Frimpong said the company would be undertaking similar projects, most of which involve solar energy.

“We are currently working on a couple of solar projects that require international partnership. They are: a 5 megawatts grid tied solar generation plant, 25 megawatts and 7 megawatts solar generation plants for two different cement factories in Ghana,” he explained.
With the country’s upcoming general elections (December 2016), the government spending will increase, which will result in new projects related to power generation given Ghana’s fast economic growth and increasing demand for power.

Energy deficit presents business opportunities

Since the 1950s, when Ghana made its biggest ever investment in power generation through the establishment of the Volta River Dam to generate electricity through hydro, not much investments have been channeled into the sector.
However, the country’s growth over the years, through population increases, economic expansion and the coming in of foreign direct investments means that more power is needed to power the country’s energy needs. The result has been a yawning power supply deficit, which is manifesting in a painful and persisting power rationing throughout the country.

The deficit is currently estimated at 360 megawatts, which the government is working to close.
Although the development remains a headache to the country’s leaders, it presents a business opportunity to companies such as Wilkins Engineering, which has a wider expertise in the provision of alternative energy sources such as renewables.
Its founder explained that 90 percent of the current deficit could be taken care of through optimal investments in renewable energy sources such as the solar.
“The trend currently is shortage of power. We, therefore, see so much potential for power generation because the current overall national power deficit is about 360 megawatts and renewable energy, for example, can offset over 90 percent of this deficit because of the abundance of renewable resources like sunlight in this part of the world,” he said.

Closely related to that is the power transmission and distribution sub-sector, which continues to suffer a lot of power losses resulting in a low overall network efficiency. This presents an investment potential for new transmission, power distribution projects and refurbishment of the existing power network, the Wilkins Engineering founder said.
“From my point of view, immediate investment is needed in the transmission and distribution network because once the network efficiency improves, the overall power deficit will surely improve and the actual power demand will be known and addressed appropriately,” he added.

The potential for investment and Wilkins Engineering’s growth potential also stretches into the African continent, where over 600 million are currently struggling to have access to electricity. 
In most African countries, access rates to electricity are below 30 percent. The low electricity access rates in the continent means huge investments in the sector are required to procure infrastructure that can be leveraged to mitigate challenge.

Need for stable capital

In Ghana, not many businesses fancy taking loans. With government bills trading at 25 percent, interest rates from banks are not what most businesses would want to endure, especially should they get alternatives. The same applies to Wilkins Engineering, which has grown, mostly from the plough back of its profits.

The founder and MD said although the company would require international partnership to gain more technical experiences, access to finance was currently a top priority as far as international partnership is concern.

“Our major challenge has been the issue of financing, in terms of interest rates. Even though funds are readily available when we need them from our bankers, the interest rates they charge us takes away a large portion of our profits, making the venture not so profitable after all,” he explained. This, he said was on the back of the promising returns that investing in the country’s energy sector presents.

“There are a lot of projects available in Ghana, but financing them without partners had always been a problem because of some of the financial challenges stated above.

A case in point is the recent load shedding situation in Ghana because of our power deficit. The solution to the problem is obvious; we need to generate electricity and sell it. However, there is a need for huge capital investments to put up these power plants. 

A second case in point is grid extension and rural electrification. Even though Ghana is among the countries with the highest rates of electrification, there are still many areas that need electricity. Furthermore, our electrical network is old and dilapidated and, therefore, needs overhauling. All of these things require a lot of investments and our international partners have been very helpful in this key area,” Frimpong added.

Going forward, he said the company would aim at venturing into small-scale dam constructions, which requires that it invest into shaping its technical staff to be able to explore in tandem with the financial investments mentioned earlier.

He challenged on colleague entrepreneurs and investors not to despair in the midst of the country’s challenges but remain steadfast and be ready to change in line with the challenges. “With the current economic situation in the country, all hope shouldn’t be lost because as Ghanaians, we see a very bright light at the end of the tunnel for our nation,” he added.

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