Setting up businesses back home: Four returning Africans share their stories

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.

“In retrospect, I think I significantly underestimated the size of the opportunity,” says Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia, founder of Oxford & Beaumont in Ghana.

“In retrospect, I think I significantly underestimated the size of the opportunity,” says Elikem Nutifafa Kuenyehia, founder of Oxford & Beaumont in Ghana.

“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.