Ghanaian entrepreneur Elikem Kuenyehia talks about his rise to the top
Ghanaian-born Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia is an entrepreneur, lawyer, author and an adjunct lecturer in entrepreneurship at the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration. In 2006 he founded Oxford & Beaumont, a leading corporate and commercial law firm in Ghana with offices in Accra and London, and has since advised clients such as Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, Shell International, Vodafone and Citibank. Kuenyehia, who is no stranger to awards, won the 2012 title of Young Business Leader of the Year at the West African All Africa Business Leaders Awards.
As a successful businessman himself, Kuenyehia is passionate about entrepreneurship and recently published his book on the matter. How we made it in Africa catches up with Kuenyehia to find out a bit more about entrepreneurship in Ghana and what it takes to be a success.
You were 32 years old when you started Oxford & Beaumont. What made you decide to open your own firm rather than continue working for someone else?
I had been disappointed and frustrated by my last job prior to Oxford & Beaumont. I had a boss with whom I did not share the same values and this affected my job significantly. As a result of that, I was keen to start an enterprise where I could imprint my own values. Values and the way an organisation does things are extremely important to me.
How did you initially finance your business?
I was lucky in that my initial financing requirements were very small. When I started my law firm, I only really needed my brain, a laptop and a small office space. It cost me US$5,000 to purchase a laptop and to pay six months rent for a tiny office space at the time. This came from my last paycheck at the bank where I worked.
What would you say is the most important reason for your success?
In recruiting members of my team I ask myself, “If this person was in class with me when I was in university or secondary school, will this person have challenged me?” I also ask whether I will be able to learn from this person and whether our values are aligned. Being true to this process means that I have surrounded myself with some of the brightest lawyers and managers I have come across and with whom I have shared values.
What have been some of the key challenges you have faced since starting your firm and how have you overcome them?
For many high profile transactions, because of the sheer value of the transaction and the corresponding financial and other risks, clients tend to feel most comfortable with older law firms with a longer track record. Although I had over seven years post-qualification experience when I started Oxford & Beaumont, many potential clients focused on the fact that the law firm itself had no track record. This was particularly pronounced with potential local Ghanaian clients.
I therefore had to price myself very competitively to get work through the door and then to provide a service that I was confident they would not otherwise find in the Ghanaian market. That makes a difference. The initial clients who took a risk on me quickly become (and often still are) our biggest advocates.
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently?
I would have started on my own earlier than I did.
Excluding yours, what African company or business do you admire the most?
United Bank of Africa. I think Tony Elumelu and his team did an amazing job transforming Standard Trust Bank, a small Nigerian bank, into a pan-African brand and acquiring its older rival, United Bank of Africa. It’s truly Africa’s global bank with an enviable footprint across the continent and in the USA, Cayman Islands and Europe.
All this was done in less than ten years. It demonstrates that with the right vision and the right team in place, the opportunities are indeed endless across the African continent.
You have released a book called ‘Kuenyehia on Entrepreneurship’. Drawing from your knowledge, what is the major challenge facing formal entrepreneurship in Ghana, and how do you think this can be overcome?
My research tells me that there are two main challenges facing formal entrepreneurship in Ghana. The first is human resources – many of the entrepreneurs I spoke to complained bitterly that they could not find the right human resources for their business and when they did, they do not stay. The other is financial capital. Without a developed venture capital or private equity market in Ghana, it can be difficult to source capital for your enterprise, no matter how bright the idea. Banks are completely unhelpful when it comes to supporting growing businesses.
The HR challenge could be overcome if business owners spend a bit more time identifying and recruiting the right calibre of staff for their enterprise and by focusing both on competency and values. I found out that too many enterprises do not pursue a rigorous recruitment process.
Regarding finance, government and development partners can encourage banks to lend to entrepreneurs through match funding. Our government has set up a government funded and backed venture capital trust fund, akin to a kind of fund which invests debt and equity into venture capital companies. This is a good idea but seriously underfunded. So our government would do well to increase the funding of this vehicle.
What has been the best entrepreneurial advice you have ever heard?
“Dare to dream but don’t dream unless you are willing to live your dream.” Too many entrepreneurs spend too much time dreaming. Bunmi Oni who told me the quote above challenged me to turn my dreams into reality by executing against the dream. No point in over perfecting a dream you never execute.
Drawing from your experience, what advice do you have for aspiring, young entrepreneurs on the continent?
I’d encourage aspiring young entrepreneurs to invest in their own personal development. Africa is changing rapidly and will continue to do so. None of us can predict with real certainty what the various markets and opportunities will look in five, ten, fifteen, twenty (etc) years. But we can prepare for these opportunities if we invest in our own personal development.