Africa’s business opportunities and strong economic growth have attracted the attention of multinational companies and investors. Alongside this has been the interest of the African diaspora, many of whom are using skills developed in the western world to tap into the continent’s growth story.
“To be honest, the main driver behind my returning home was simply to go back home, as I had become tired of living in the west,” said Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia, founder of Oxford & Beaumont, a law firm with offices in Accra and London. “When I left Ghana a little over a decade earlier, my plan had been to get a good degree and head back home immediately after graduation.”
Kuenyehia started his business in 2006, after he had been made aware of a gap in the quality of service delivery in the local legal market in Accra, and saw the opportunity to apply his western training and experience.
“With the upward trend of foreign direct investment into Ghana, my hypothesis was that the legal market existing at the time could not adequately service demand from foreign direct investors seeking ‘western-style and quality’ legal advice,” Kuenyehia told How we made it in Africa.
“In retrospect, I think I significantly underestimated the size of the opportunity.”
Like Kuenyehia, many other Africans studying or working abroad have identified business opportunities in their home countries and have returned to set up companies. But how have their expectations compared to the reality?
While Africa consists of 54 diverse countries, with unique opportunities and challenges, How we made it in Africa spoke to some returnees who have experienced similar challenges with setting up businesses on the continent. They have shared their stories, not to discourage other members of the African diaspora from doing the same, but to ensure that they are not starry-eyed about the reality.
It can be expensive
Ritesh Doshi was born in Kenya, and after studying at the London School of Economics he pursued a number of work opportunities abroad, including investment banking. He saw an opportunity to bring the US-based franchise, Naked Pizza, to Nairobi after waiting 90 minutes for a pizza while visiting his family in Kenya a few years ago.
“In every other international, world-class city that I have lived, worked and travelled to, I have been able to get a pizza in 35 minutes or so, so why not Nairobi?”
He added that with a growing upper and middle class with rising expectations of quality and convenience – as well as a growing number of expats – the demand and potential for success was obvious. However, while he did not imagine that setting up the franchise would be easy, the experience was still more challenging than expected.
“Setting up a business anywhere is hard. I expected it to be harder in an emerging country like Kenya. It’s been even more gruelling than I could have imagined. With the exception of labour and some fresh produce, everything costs more. Equipment, food ingredients, government licences, taxes. And everything takes longer.”
He noted that government bureaucracy, poor infrastructure and a short supply of skilled human capital are his main obstacles.
“You often ask yourself ‘is it worth it’ when a lot more things go wrong than right. But there is nothing else that I would rather be doing right now, especially being part of that growth story in my own country,” Doshi highlighted.
It can be frustrating
Rebecca Enonchong, CEO of AppsTech, a global provider of enterprise application solutions, decided to leave the US and return to her home country of Cameroon to focus on setting up the African subsidiaries of AppsTech. While she describes the move as enriching, she has learnt that operating a business on the continent requires patience and a long-term investment perspective.
“I spent quite a lot of time on the continent the year before opening offices there so I really thought I understood. Most of our US-based staff was also of African origin so many of us had strong ties to the continent. We also carefully planned and budgeted for our Africa investments and tried to anticipate a lot of the challenges we were likely to experience. Despite all of this preparation and the exposure that our team had, we were quite unprepared for reality. We realised too late that we truly had no clue how business was done on the continent,” she explained.
For example, while Enonchong expected corruption from government organisations, she had not expected the private sector – even multinationals – to be corrupt too.
Despite the frustrations and challenges, Enonchong said the return was important as “Africa is home”.
It requires preparation
Cordie Aziz is a former US congressional staffer who relocated to Ghana in 2011 after losing her job.
“I decided to move to Ghana because of the opportunity I saw. Africa is still in many ways untapped terrain so, with a little bit of work and dedication, there is tremendous opportunity to do well. The type of wealth you can generate in Africa in my opinion is greater than what you would generate in the US or the UK.”
She started a mobile phone rental company in Accra which she closed at the end of last year. She admits that she previously thought operating the business in Accra would be fairly easy.
“I didn’t prepare for challenges with [finding adequate] employees and inflation; all things that have a major impact on the business. I also assumed that it would be a self-sustaining business. I had no clue the amount of time I would have to spend coordinating and setting everything up.”
Aziz is now focusing on her blog and series of books aimed at assisting other members of the diaspora with understanding the challenges and rewards of moving back to Africa.
“I think moving to Ghana has made me more innovative. I think it has also helped me redefine my view point of business and what it takes to be successful.”
It requires patience
According to Kuenyehia, as well as the other returnees interviewed by How we made it in Africa, patience is a necessity to doing business in Africa. While there are some African countries, notably Rwanda, that offer very swift company and property registration, Kuenyehia noted that in countries such as Ghana, this still remains a challenge.
“GMT – Ghana Maybe Time – just how long it takes to get even the most basic things done. You’ll be lucky to be able to register a company in a month and it’ll take a miracle to register title to property in less than nine months. It took one of my colleagues, just recently, 17 trips over six weeks to the Ghana Revenue Authority to obtain a tax identification number for a client setting up in Ghana,” he said.
Despite the challenges they have all faced, Kuenyehia, Enonchong, Doshi and Aziz expressed no regrets about the decision to return to the continent to set up businesses, and encourage other Africans living abroad to do the same.
“I believe that, for the African in the diaspora, Africa should be a shared responsibility,” added Kuenyehia. “If you are from the continent or have any connection with the continent and you have been privileged enough to get an education and experience from outside Africa, then it should be your obligation to use your skills, experience and contacts to help develop Africa. As Tony Elumelu says: ‘Only Africans can develop Africa.’”