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History Of Success For African Entrepreneurs In UK

In many Western countries where Africans and people of African origin form a significant proportion of immigrants, there is a myth that they are fit only for lowly jobs or that they cannot succeed in business. *Kwaku’s research reveals that there have been successful African entrepreneurs in Britain going back 200 years. He provides a few examples.

One of the most disturbing comments I heard about the riots in England last August riots, (the aftermath of a peaceful march to police station in north London to demand answers following the gunning to death of a 29-year-old African* man called Mark Duggan) was not from the British mainstream media, but rather from one of our leaders addressing a post-riots community meeting.

This leader told the gathering that in any case the riots did not really affect us Africans, because we do not own our communities or businesses. But I saw on TV an African pharmacist standing in front of his store, appealing to the mob not to trash it. I read in the press about a clothes shop in Birmingham that was attacked on two nights by looters, and a grandmother who confronted the looters outside her London hair salon. These were businesses owned by Africans.

I was driven by a passion underscored by this quote by African-American leader Jesse Jackson: “If my eyes can see it, if my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it.” I thought it was important, particularly for our young people, to see and be inspired by the success stories of Africans in Britain who have overcome barriers or navigated the system, and achieved. I organised an event, as part of the Black History Month festival to break the myth that Africans are not business owners or within the higher echelons of the corporate world in the developed world.

Early achievers

The event took the audience back over 200 years, by highlighting Ignatius Sancho, better known as one of the 18th century Africans who fought for the abolition of the enslavement of Africans. His relevance in this history is that he was a free man who owned a grocery store not far from the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London, and on account of being a property owner, he voted in the general elections of 1774 and 1780. He is the first African on record to have voted in British parliamentary elections.

Two years after he died in 1780, his writings were published in a book entitled The Letters Of The Late Ignatius Sancho, An African. His widow earned over £500 in royalties.  

Sancho’s contemporary, Olaudah Equiano, a leading member of the Sons Of Africa abolitionist movement, successfully self-published, in 1789, his biography The Interesting Narrative Of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself, which he supported with several UK writer tours, and reprinted the book several times, in addition to having it published in foreign languages. His book was published in the US in 1791, at a time when enslavement was rife in the so-called New World.

George Africanus was brought to a businessman in Wolverhampton from Sierra Leone as an enslaved boy aged three. After an apprenticeship as a brass founder, he married and settled in Nottingham. He set up the Africanus Register of Servants employment agency, and was so prosperous he owned his own home as well as the premises of his business. Again, when white English commoners were not permitted to vote, Africanus voted in the 1826 general elections, on account of being a property owner.

The Norwich-born performer turned businessman Pablo Fanque is celebrated in popular culture but it is not pointed out that he was African. He started what became one of Victorian Britain’s leading circuses in 1841. The Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal toured the UK for 30 years. In the 1850s he built an amphitheatre in Cork, Ireland, and there was also one in Edinburgh. Fanque is mentioned in The Beatles’ song ‘Being For the Benefit Of Mr Kite!’ on the Sgt Pepper album.

Bill Richmond was a former enslaved African-American brought to Britain as a servant in 1777. He became famous as the boxer nicknamed ‘The Black Terror’. When he went into semi-retirement, he bought the Horse and Dolphin pub located near central London’s Trafalgar Square in 1807 – the same year Parliament passed the Abolition Of The Slave Trade Act – which he turned into a fashionable and well-patronised boxing academy. He died in 1829 in the comfort of his luxurious London home.

Another former enslaved African who ended up living in luxurious circumstances was Cesar Picton. Brought from Gorée Island, Senegal, as an enslaved boy aged six, he worked as Sir John Phillips’ family servant, before using his employer’s legacy of £100 to set up as a coal merchant.

Not only did he become a very successful coal merchant, he owned other businesses. He also bought properties in the Kingston upon Thames area – Picton House in 1795, and a much grander house, also named Picton House, in Thames Ditton, for which he paid a then astronomical sum of £4,000 in 1816.

Modern entrepreneurs

Last year I wrote a book, NARM (Naming And Role Model) Highlighting African British Male Role Models 1907–2007, published by BTWSC. In it, we chronicled the lives of men who achieved success in several areas outside of sports and entertainment.

We highlighted entrepreneurs and executives, such as Tony Wade MBE, who came to Britain in 1954 from the West Indian island of Montserrat. Within three years of arriving, Wade bought his own house by pooling his pay, and that of his sister and brother-in-law, to service the mortgage. In 1968 he became equal partner and the driver of Dyke & Dryden Ltd, a leading hair and beauty firm, the subject of his 2001 book, How They Made A Million: The Dyke & Dryden Story.

Today black music ringtones are very prevalent. However, that was not the case in 1999, when Alexander Amosu, having already run a sports promotions, sound system and cleaning business in his teens, started RnB Ringtones. He was soon turning over £1.5m in sales across Britain and Europe.

As others saw the potential and moved in, he sold his business to a European communications company for a multimillion-pound price tag in 2003. Amosu now makes luxury goods, and is the creator of the world’s most expensive suit and mobile phone.

Then there is the case of Ghanaian-born Henri Appiah. After working part time flipping burgers whilst studying, Appiah left school to work full time at McDonald’s. He then got into the management programme, rose through the hierarchy, and bought the franchise where he started off. He has owned several McDonald’s franchises within the northwest London borough of Brent.

The BHM event also wanted to highlight the fact that there are some Africans who have broken the glass ceiling to enter the higher echelons of the corporate world, be it in private, public or statutory institutions.

Terry Jervis grew up in a single-parent family on a rough estate in Hackney, east London. Without the support of the “old boys’ network”, he  rose to become an executive who controlled a department within BBC TV, where he also produced, directed, and even presented a range of 1980s youth-orientated programmes. He ran his own Motown Records-linked record label, Down To Jam, and has created and sold animation projects like the calypso-based Tropical Island. Jervis oversees the UK merchandising rights of the RAF (Royal Air Force) and Marvel Comics’ big characters, like Spider-Man and X-Men.

Lord Herman Ouseley left school in 1963 with two A levels, starting out as a junior clerk at Middlesex County Council. He acquired extra qualifications along the way and, in 1981, he was appointed principal race relations adviser to the GLC (Greater London Council). In 1986, he was made director of education of ILEA (Inner London Education Authority), and he subsequently became its chief executive. In 1990, he was appointed chief executive of Lambeth Council, and chief executive and chair of the CRE (Commission for Racial Equality), from 1993 to 2000.

Lord Bill Morris, rose from the factory floor in Birmingham in the 1950s to become the general secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union in 1991 – thus becoming the first African to head a major trade union,

Eleanor Smith rose from theatre nurse in Birmingham in the 1980s to be the president of Unison in 2011 – the first African female head of Britain’s largest public sector union. She also sits on the TUC (Trades Union Congress) General Council.

Ghanaian-born, though of Trinidadian parentage, Margaret Busby OBE co-founded the once-leading independent book publisher Allison & Busby. The first African female book publisher in Britain, she was editorial director for 20 years, before it was sold to major publisher WH Allen in 1987. She is now an award-winning writer, editor and lecturer, and sits as a judge for many literary awards.

Verna Wilkins also ran her publishing business, Tamarind Books, for 20 years, before selling it to major publisher Random House, where she was made a publishing director, before retiring in 2009. She started the business from her home in 1987, and her catalogue was aimed at redressing the lack of positive imagery regarding non-white and disabled people in books. Another person who started his business from home was the media boss Val McCalla. He was an accountant, who with the funding help of the GLC, launched The Voice newspaper in 1982. His publishing group published a number of newspapers and magazines. Although ownership has changed hands since his death in 2002, it continues to be the longest surviving African British weekly.  

In 2004, Oxford graduate Henry Bonsu was sacked from his BBC Radio London show for being “too intellectual”. In 2005, he joined the team that planned and launched Colourful Radio in May 2006. He is a breakfast presenter and in charge of on-air talent and programming. He is also a director and shareholder in the Colourful Media Group.

Also within Britain’s growing African-focused media niche is Dr Alistair Soyode, who had many years experience in business development and management before setting up BEN (Bright Entertainment Network) TV in 2003, the first, and longest-running, British-based African-focused TV broadcaster.

I rounded off the presentation by highlighting Tidjane Thiam, the Ivorian-born engineer and manager, who in 2009 became the chief executive of Prudential, Britain’s largest insurance company; Trevor Faure, who rose from a single parent household on a Luton council estate in southeast England, to become a much-honoured lawyer and who has been since 2009 the global general counsel of the financial services firm Ernst & Young; and Sudanese-born Dr Mo Ibrahim, a billionaire philanthropist who founded  mobile communications company Celtel.

It is sad that 200 years after the likes of Ignatius Sancho, George Africanus and Picton Cesar, African youths born in Britain find it hard to believe that an African can own a restaurant franchise. Worse still, some of our leaders do not have a sense of history and therefore do not know of Africans who own businesses in Britain employing hundreds of people, or who head global businesses employing thousands of people.

*The term African is used to denote African people, be they from the African continent or its diaspora. As a response to the UN declaring 2011 The Year For People Of African Descent, Kwaku is finishing off a documentary examining identity entitled The African Or Black Question.

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