Selassi Eghan-Kpanga's story of his African journey is extremely motivational for the youth of today who are struggling and giving their all to break into the entrepreneur world that is currently bubbling up in South Africa.
My ‘African journey’ began in a boarding school in Ghana. As a young student, I remember how my peers would tell me about their plans for the end of term – how they were going to spend their vacations. To me though, my plans were always about how I was going to make money during the school holidays.
You may wonder how I earned money at such a young age. In simple terms, I did a bit of buying and selling – anything from high-end alcohol to a bit of building hardware. Your next question may be where my seed capital came from. Well, I was confident enough to buy everything I sold on credit. My pay backs were never late and I always made sure that I paid in full, splitting the profits very transparently. I believe that this very simple beginning was my introduction to entrepreneurship. As a teenager, I became fully self-supporting and independent from my parents. Two concepts formed part of my early ventures – the significance of saving and the importance of sharing what I had with those less fortunate than myself. Those principles built a strong foundation for my career.
“Back in my motherland, things were changing, business had taken on a new and different dynamic"
Let’s fast forward from my high-school days in Ghana to the years where I worked summer jobs in London, earning the coveted British pound. As low paying as some of those jobs were, I embraced the independence it brought me. I remember working in Sainsburys one summer – truth be told I don’t even know what my job entailed, but those were good times. During my studying years in Gaborone, Botswana, I had the opportunity to intern at the Power Corporation, in their accounts department. Later I returned to London to start real life as a young adult fresh out of the educational environment. I got a job with GE Capital Insurance as a premiums associate. I probably need to add at this point that in my little head, as young as I was, when I landed that job I felt like I had arrived. That didn’t mean that I gave up my part-time jobs. My routine was to wake up at 4AM to do a 2 hour job, then straight after work at 5PM, I put in another 2-3 hours of extra work. This paid for my weekends – partying, shopping and basic pocket money so that I could save my income from GE.
I love Africa. And so I made sure to visit Ghana at least twice a year, scooping whichever opportunities were available and making sure that I maintained close relationships with my contacts on the ground. It wasn’t always easy going. Back in my motherland, things were changing, business had taken on a new and different dynamic that I wasn’t familiar with. I still remember a particular incident like it was yesterday. I worked and project managed at Thames Water UK for 6 years. During this period I kept an eye out for any opportunity in that sector that would benefit Africa – back home people were battling water shortages and a lack of treatment and processing infrastructure.
I identified an opportunity – a no-brainer, my chance to take an idea and run with it. Thames had some recycling, treatment plants and water treatment facilities which weren’t in use. I approached my boss at the time and shared my thoughts.
His response was, “Brilliant young man. The only problem is that doing business in Africa isn’t an easy task. This is very high level stuff. Are you sure you’re connected all the way to the top?” My response was: “Sir, I wouldn’t say I’m connected all the way to the top but I think I have a network of contacts who I can speak to about this and transform my net worth.” He smiled and said, “Speak to your people and let’s see what becomes of it. But remember it’s Africa.” I was determined, holding on to my favourite axiom, ‘nothing tried, nothing gained.’ After a few phone calls and emails, I was connected to a very high up individual who worked at the World Bank. I met with this person in Accra. He didn’t say much but at one of our last meetings he said, “young man, I admire your drive and way of thinking, but if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?” I was in my early twenties at that point. After hearing my age he responded and said, “Now that’s the problem – you thinking about a project of this magnitude at this stage in your life. My peers who are nearing retirement have not delved as deep into the water project prospects. The problem is this – in Africa, my more matured, seasoned colleagues in business will run with this without you. They just won’t take you seriously.” I was in shock at his blatant honesty but I was reminded about what my boss in London had said. Africa is a different territory where power is entrenched and delegated amongst the elders.
“Speak to your people and let’s see what becomes of it. But remember it’s Africa.”
I returned to England somewhat deflated but I had learnt a valuable lesson: I needed patience to do business in Africa. It was going to be a trial by fire, I would have to face failure many times before I tasted success. I had developed a passion for cars and bikes so I saw it as an opportunity for trade because there’s a real superbike culture in Accra, Ghana. I did that, and today I still have a little custom business with a cousin who supplies high-end vehicles to some key clients upon request.
Eventually, real estate and the property boom in London came calling. I dabbled in that for a while before the crash happened. I learnt some hard lessons there as well but in between that, I was also working as an account manager for an independent record label with offices in London and America. This gave me a great deal of exposure as I continued to expand my network. In 2010, I decided to relocate to Ghana, to get a real feel for the business environment.
To keep myself busy, I did a bit of business consultancy work for some friends and through that, I realised that the core challenge of doing business in Africa, the ultimate denominator, is funding – getting your head around the banking system. Just recently I sat with a good friend in banking in Accra, discussing the true potential of Africa. If only we as Africans stood together and worked towards a common goal, we could build a better Africa for all.
And so, my journey continues. You could call this part one of my story. I’m still learning, striving for success, jumping through hoops, falling down, overcoming obstacles and staying true to my drive to make a difference.