22.08.2006 Business & Finance

Ghana's New Money

Chicago native Idris Osei-Agyeman went to Ghana to uncover his roots and invest in his future.Chicago native Idris Osei-Agyeman went to Ghana to uncover his roots and invest in his future.
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It took Anita Bryant and Erieka Bennett all of a day last May to earn their commission on what was supposed to have been a three-week gig. Together, Bryant and Bennett run the Bridge, a consultancy that helps African Americans who would like to invest in Africa navigate the continent's folkways, and they were trying hard to shepherd a delegation filled with prominent clients through Ghana without mishap. The delegation was celebrating the signing of a sister-city agreement between Washington and Accra. And while most of the entourage was excited about visiting the capital, no one would have mistaken them for ambassadors of Ghanaian culture.

Some delegates complained about the length of the tour. Others, having been honored with gifts of land and gold, never bothered to say thank you. Then when Bennett took the group to see the Asantehene--the king of Ghana's storied Ashanti tribe--there was little deference shown. A woman who was introduced to the king asked him for a glass of water and tried to sit next to him. "When you do business in Africa, you really need to know what to do," says Bryant. "You never shake someone's hand with your left. When you enter a room, you wait to be told where to sit."

It's an amazing kind of cultural clash if you think about it. Bryant set up her company two years ago, after she noticed the number of African Americans investing in Ghana was on the increase. And now those black Americans--successful entrepreneurs and corporate managers--were being told to kiss some royal butt. Ghana, a major source of human cargo during the slave trade, has been a favored destination for African Americans since it won independence from Britain in 1957. Those who make the pilgrimage often talk of an epic search for their roots and a grand narrative of Pan-Africanism. But increasingly, it's trade, investment and entrepreneurship anchoring those high ideals. Ghana's President John Kufuor has aggressively courted his country's long-lost cousins. Ghanaian government officials are contemplating a bill that would grant dual citizenship to African Americans who invest in Ghana or maintain a home there. Some native Ghanaians in the U.S. have started organizing tours for African-American businessmen. When they arrive, the guests are usually showered with gifts, and sometimes they are made honorary chiefs.

But the visitors are occasionally confronted by Ghanaians who regard them not as far-flung family but simply as foreigners. The Ghanaian government is working to change that attitude mostly because in According to Valerie Papaya Mann, president of the African American Association of Ghana, there are approximately 5,000 African Americans living in Ghana. Mann sees tangible benefits from dual citizenship, like voting rights and land ownership, but much of her case is rooted in other things. "We're saying, as African Americans who were taken from these shores hundreds of years ago, we also should have the rights to dual citizenship," she says.

Yet in what may be one of history's great paradoxes, many native Ghanaians regard African Americans as more white than black. Africans Americans, especially those with fairer skin, are sometimes referred to as obruni by Ghanaians. The term roughly translates as "white person" or "stranger," depending on whom you ask. The result is that African Americans who would like to think of Ghana as home sometimes get the cold shoulder. The government has started a campaign to get Ghanaians to use the term akwaaba anyemi--which means "welcome home, brother"--when talking to African Americans. Just fake the sincerity, in other words. (It works in the U.S., doesn't it?) Obetsebi-Lamptey says the new measure isn't just about investment but also about healing old wounds. But not all African Americans are so thin skinned. "It is not derogatory. It's more like foreigner," says Blanche Agyemang, who owns a bakery in Accra. "Wherever you go, unfortunately, you're going to be a foreigner if you're not a native of that place."

Stateside, Ghanaians who have emigrated to America have taken up that call. Samuel Akainyah, an art teacher and gallery owner, last year pulled together a group of 40 Chicago-area African-American businessmen and -women and took them on a 10-day trip to Ghana. The group was received by the President and the Ghanaian business community and then given a tour of the country. "It's a mutual benefit," says Akainyah. "We benefit from the technology and the investment, and African Americans with the entrepreneurial impulse find a fertile market to make money."

Willie Carrington, who accompanied Akainyah on the trip, runs Carrington & Carrington Ltd., a firm that specializes in connecting big business with minority executives. When Carrington arrived in the Ashanti region, the aristocrats liked him so much that they named him the Agona Nkosuohene--developmental chief--for the region. When he returned to Chicago, members of the local Ghanaian community began visiting Carrington regularly, instructing him on how to dress and conduct himself during state functions.

The rehearsals are more than empty ritual. Carrington worked for Arthur Andersen for a few years, and his firm has done business with such big companies as Boeing and Raytheon. The thought is that Carrington would be able to leverage some of his contacts into investment in Ghana's Ashanti region.African Americans they see investment possibilities and start-up capital that this country badly needs. Although Ghana is in much better shape than many other African countries, its GDP is $9.4 billion, or about $420 per capita, which ranks below most Asian countries. "The potential for economic impact is very significant," says Jake Obetsebi-Lamptey, Ghana's Minister for Tourism and Diasporan Relations. "As you look around now, you see the role African Americans are playing in the corporate world, as mechanical engineers, architects, doctors--right across the gamut."

The two communities are meeting at an interesting point in their respective histories. Since the U.S. civil rights movement, the black middle class has ballooned. The entrepreneurial spirit among African Americans is acute. In April, the Census Bureau reported that from 1997 to 2002, the number of black-owned businesses in the U.S. grew 45%.

Ghana is increasingly a target for foreign investment. It is democratic and relatively stable, a rarity in a region historically marked by thieving autocrats. In February, the World Bank named Ghana the friendliest country in West Africa to do business in. The country routinely attracts investment from the Netherlands, Malaysia and China. Overall, foreign direct investment in Ghana has more than tripled since 1998, from $45 million to $145 million. "The world is a global place," says Obetsebi-Lamptey. "We're not saying African-American investment instead of Chinese investment. We are saying African-American investment as well."

For those who invest in Ghana, the going can be rough. In 1993, Mona Boyd and her Ghanaian husband rented out their brownstone in Boston and moved to Ghana. They created Land Tours Ghana, a business specializing in guiding tourists through the country. Boyd, 55, now Land Tour's CEO, had visited Ghana before but had never done business in the country. She found that her go-go, type-A American personality was a poor fit with the laid-back spirit of most Ghanaians.

Still, Boyd worked 15-hour days and got a few breaks--when President Bill Clinton visited the country in 1998, Land Tours was contracted to show the presidential entourage around. Land Tours now has 52 employees and an Avis franchise. In the company's first year, Boyd's sales totaled $40,000. She brought in $1.3 million last year. Boyd says she'd like to help the new wave of African Americans looking to do business in Ghana. "If I had had someone to lead me through the process here, I think I would have had a lot less anxiety and stress," says Boyd. "If you are here with $50,000 and a business plan and put your nose to the grindstone, you will succeed."

For Idris Osei-Agyeman, 29, investing in Ghana was even more personal than for most African Americans because his father is Ghanaian. That side of Osei-Agyeman's family has worked as farmers for generations--a tradition broken only when his father emigrated to the U.S. to go to college on a track scholarship. Osei-Agyeman returned to the family last year, took out a 70-year land lease on 36 acres in Ghana's eastern region and converted it into a mango farm. "I wanted to go back on my own and get into farming, and when I ran the numbers, a mango farm seemed to be the best return," he says.

Osei-Agyeman still lives in his native Chicago, where he works in real estate investment, but two to three times a year he makes a monthlong visit to Ghana. On each trip he is sure to take a few African-American friends. "African Americans are coming from a nation that most developing nations are trying to emulate," says Osei-Agyeman.

Still, there are moments, says Carrington, when the two cultures don't exactly mesh. When functioning in an official capacity, Carrington has a tribal "linguist" on hand who acts as his mouthpiece. One day, while entertaining a group of Ghanaian friends at his home, Carrington decided to demonstrate his grasp of Ashanti traditions. "I told [the linguist] to tell my wife to get me a glass of water," says Carrington, laughing. She was sitting next to him. Her answer did not require the assistance of linguists. "I learned that you have to know when to be Ghanaian and when to be American."

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