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Nana Boateng Osei and his sustainable vision for Ghana

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Nana Boateng Osei

Nana Boateng Osei and his company Bôhten have created an innovative and sustainable product that is benefiting his home country of Ghana.

Nana Boateng Osei is the young man behind the stylish luxury eco-eyewear company Bôhten. He hails from a Ghanaian family that is deeply proud of its heritage. He has travelled the world, conceived various outlandish business ideas and even appeared on the Canadian version of Dragon’s Den. Today his company Bôhten is going from strength to strength, while also giving back to his home country, Ghana.

Travel, the Big Apple, education and Lilo

Osei’s early life certainly wasn’t dull. Due to his father’s job as a diplomat for the Foreign Ministry of Ghana, Osei and his siblings spent long periods of time in countries such as the U.K, the U.S, Yugoslavia and South Africa. His family eventually settled to live permanently in New York City. However, they held on tightly to their Ghanaian roots; Osei has said that at home his family would always speak Twi and eat traditional Ghanaian dishes. They became closely involved in the Bronx’s large Ghanaian community and retained strong links with family in their home nation.

In 2007, Osei moved to Canada to study Environmental Science at the University of Ottawa. It was while at University that he first began to create and pursue his own business ideas. In 2009, Osei opened a marketing firm Lilo Enterprises, which was designed to connect sustainable and environmental product manufacturers to consumers. Lilo foreshadowed the creation of Bôhten, highlighting the causes that Osei holds dear. He also flirted with other unorthodox businesses such as vertical gardens and limousine services during this time.

Ghanaian beginnings and the Dragons’ Den

Nana Boateng Osei

Bôhten eyewear was born from the culmination of multiple ideas. Firstly, Osei was inspired by a trip back to Ghana where he was moved by the natural beauty of the area. Also, some of his family worked in the local wood business, which interested him. These factors swirled with his love of fashion and passion for sustainability. He said, “At some point, my interests began to play off of each other and during that trip, the seed of the idea for using reclaimed wood for glasses was planted.”

In 2012 he started initial work on Bôhten while still at University. He derived the company from his own name, Boateng, which means prosperity in Twi. Osei got the chance to pitch his business in the infamous Dragons’ Den during a student special episode. While he impressed with his pitch, he didn’t receive an offer from the Dragons, who felt the business was too young.

Osei wasn’t deterred by the Dragons’ decisions. He went on to bring family members into the business to help him grow the organization. Osei has said that with hindsight, investment partners may have stifled his creative freedom, and that the company has managed to move forward without them by knuckling down and getting things done.

The exposure from appearing on the show led to skyrocketing sales and growth. Some say the Dragons missed out.

A sustainable vision for Ghana

Sustainability is at the heart of the business; Bôhten uses reclaimed wood from items such as chairs and tables, all sourced in Western Africa. Additionally Osei wants to use Bôhten as means to better the economy in Ghana. The company currently manufactures its glasses in Canada. However, later this year the firm intends to open a full-scale manufacturing plant in Ghana. The plant going live will be the realization of a long term ambition for Bôhten. “Our ultimate mission is to create a zero-waste facility in Africa that will not only serve to create jobs but also educate people the importance of eye care, sustainable design and social entrepreneurship.”

Osei says that eye care is woefully inadequate in Africa. He explained that the high levels of UV radiation on the continent are responsible for some of the issues that African’s face. To combat such problems, Osei has partnered Bôhten with eyesight charity Sightsavers. For every sale Bôhten makes, the company will make a donation to Sightsavers programs, aimed at eradicating avoidable blindness in West Africa.

As Bôhten grows, so will the benefits that it brings to Ghana and other nations in the region. Nana Boateng Osei is tenacious, compassionate and conscientious individual; a great example for Ghana and Africa as a whole.

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Simbarashe Mhuriro: Zimbabwe’s savy solar innovator

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solar power in africa

Simbarashe Mhuriro and his company OurSun Energy Limited are creating an ambitious solar powered future for Zimbabwe.

A surge of innovation is electrifying Africa. A new wave of savvy, ambitious entrepreneurs with big ideas are pushing the envelope, and invigorating nations. Simbarashe Mhuriro, is one such person. Simba, as he likes to be known, is the 31 year old Executive Director of OurSun Energy in Zimbabwe. His firm has set out ambitious goals to bring wide scale renewable solar energy to Zimbabwe

Business beginnings

Simbarashe Mhuriro

Simba grew up in Marondera, Zimbabwe, just 30 kilometers from the capital Harare.  He attended a local school and by all accounts had a normal childhood. He didn’t start his career as a business high flyer. Simba recalled how his first jobs were rather ordinary, and not particularly indicative of the career he has gone on to pursue. His early jobs included working as a school teacher and even as a disk jockey before becoming a hotel reservations agent.

He built upon his hospitality career and moved to Dubai after landing himself a job with hotel giant Emaar Hospitality Group. As he climbed the ladder, Simba rubbed shoulders with established business people from a variety of industries while gaining a sound understanding of the corporate world. In 2010, he decided that given his business skills and knowledge of Zimbabwe, he wanted to create his own firm.

Partnership and major solar plans for Zimbabwe

Simba found two seasoned business partners in Andrew Connelly and Honour Mkushi. The trio swiftly formed Oxygen Africa Ltd, a firm specializing in identifying opportunities and creating partnerships between foreign investors and projects in Zimbabwe. Originally the group focused on energy, mining and agriculture. However in 2012, Simba was introduced to Jo Hanns Dieter Trutschler, the principal of Meeco Group, a Swiss firm that creates solar energy projects in developing nations. Simba and Trutschler started to build a strong business relationship, with Trutschler tutoring the Zimbabwean on the workings of the solar energy sector. Simba said that this “literally got me hooked into solar, so I zoned in and said you know what, I have to get these guys to Zimbabwe with me.”

With Simba’s unique blend of business skills and Zimbabwean connections, and Meeco Group’s expertise in solar energy, a partnership was imminent. In 2014 the two groups formed the official joint venture OurSun Energy Limited.

Intensely passionate about OurSun’s program, Simba believes it can play a huge part in solving Zimbabwe’s energy issues. He explained why this is the case: “The Zimbabwean geographical situation is ideal for the implementation of solar energy and related applications such as energy storage, lighting or water pumping due to its level of radiation, one of the highest worldwide,”

While such a program seems ideal for Zimbabwe, the country is not known for being an easy place to do business. Bringing the myriad facets of OurSun’s program together has been no easy feat. Simba has been an instrumental facilitator responsible for dealing with authorities and regulation, identifying prospects, bringing in additional partners, managing imports, sourcing suppliers and overseeing the implementation of the projects.

Solar Energy stands to benefit Zimbabweans and their economy

OurSun aims to deliver 230MW of solar applications throughout Zimbabwe in the next ten years. The benefits of the scheme should be significant. In Simba’s words: “The main thrust for us is developing clean energy solutions for the well-being of the population, especially in remote and rural areas. They are the ones in urgent need of stable and reliable power.”

OurSun is also committed to seeing its schemes benefit the local economy. They are looking to maximize the amount of manufacturing, research and development and hiring that happens locally. The firm estimates that over 2,000 jobs will be created throughout the life-cycle of the scheme. Furthermore Simba has commented that the program represents a great opportunity to drive growth in the industry via the the “knowledge transfer” that will occur between OurSun and indigenous Zimbabweans, many of whom will be women and the young.

Tenacious individuals like Simba are essential to usher in change. Zimbabwe will enjoy the benefits of his conscientious work, and can be sure to see further contributions from this home-grown pioneer in the future.

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Catherine Mahugu: Inspiring Women in Kenyan Tech

Comments (0) Africa, Featured, Leaders

Catherine Mahugu

Catherine Mahugu is a tech innovator from Kenya who has built an empire on socially beneficial projects and connectivity.

Catherine Mahugu is leading the way in the Kenyan tech industry. Currently working from San Francisco for her e-commerce accessories business which connects consumers and local African manufacturers, she has made waves across the tech, IT and retail worlds. She credits her early interest in science and technology to her engineer father and at just 27, she has achieved a great deal in these industries.

Early life

Mahugu graduated from the University of Nairobi with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. From an early age she broke the mold, favoring entrepreneurial projects over “corporate” roles that she considered to be the “safe option.” Her first projects were collaborations with her student colleagues at university, such as a mobile application that helps rural water vendors connect with customers by advertising their location and prices.

Combining her degree, enterprising spirit and intimate knowledge of the regional issues affecting her native Kenya, Mahugu has been at the forefront of creating many projects that benefit local people. Her first official foray into the tech world was with KamataKab, a mobile solution that uses GPS to locate taxis in the area, an option to contact and then a rating system to rate the taxi’s service for other users to utilize. Although this was the overall winner at the Garage4Kenya awards in 2011, Mahugu knows that this app was a little too ahead of its time; it didn’t meet the recent successes of Uber and Easy Taxi today. This hasn’t fazed Mahugu however, and she feels that the experience showed her that innovation was a viable career route and that her ideas had traction in the tech world.

Innovation, Innovation, Innovation

The building blocks to her latest enterprise can be seen in her next project, SasaAfrica. This provided the foundations for Soko, launching an app that allowed merchants to connect with customers using only their mobile phones. The idea for the projects came from a chance meeting with the two other founders while in Nairobi. They all believed in a future for mobile phone technology to help African enterprises. With the percentage of mobile phone usage up to 90% in some parts of Africa, they realized that is was an obvious global solution to connectivity issues between consumers and vendors. After seeing many predominantly female artisans at local markets struggling to sell their ware to a limited customer base, they decided to launch a global marketplace that these vendors could access, in which they could accept orders and then organize distribution.

soko artisans

Profiles of the artisans on the ShopSoko.com website

Now based in California, the company helps over 1,000 artisans sell their products to a global community. After joining the Soko network, users see their yearly income increasing by a massive 400% on average. They now operate in over 40 countries and plan to expand to reach vendors in Mexico and India. Mahugu is committed to overcoming the challenges that many Africans face. They were confronted with supply issues from vendors, caused by problems such as inconsistency of electricity, so they are adapting their business model to include trusted, shared spaces where artisans can create and collaborate.

Mahugu knows the struggle many women face coming from traditional backgrounds, having less access to education, and to the outside world. She is committed to rebalancing gender inequalities and believes that “when one woman helps another, amazing things can happen.” She is a role model to young women, particularly in the tech-world. When she was expanding her business, and receiving no applications from women for the technology roles, she realized something had to be done to appeal to women like herself. She explained that the gender imbalance in the tech industry was “a harsh reality that dawned on me, and that we still need more women in technology and collaboratively need to promote this awareness.” Social enterprise and IT seem to be a winning combination for Mahugu, and her commitment to social justice and interest in empowering other women in the tech-world make her a person worth keeping an eye on.

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Koffi Djondo – the Togolese entrepreneur, driven by pan-African ideals

Comments (2) Africa, Featured, Leaders

Koffi Djondo

Koffi Djondo is one of Togo’s most successful businessmen, but success for Africa is his ultimate goal.

Koffi Djondo may not be a name that is familiar to a lot of people outside of Togo, but Djondo is a businessman who has had huge influence on Africa’s economic landscape. As the co-founder of EcoBank and Asky Airlines, Djondo has established not just successful businesses, but enterprises that look to foster pan-African principles.

A difficult beginning

Koffi Djondo was born in a small Togolese village on July 4th, 1934. Djondo recalls a childhood characterized by extremely strict parents who eventually separated. Although Djondo does not recall his early years with much fondness, as an only child he developed a sense of self-reliance that he took into his studies.

However, even Djondo’s university education was beset with difficulties due to the politics of Togo at the time. While studying a degree in Accounting at the Institute of Social Sciences, Labor University of Law and Economics of Paris, the Togolese government contacted French authorities to ensure that Djondo was expelled from the university. This was a personal vendetta against the Djondo family, as Koffi’s uncle, Nicolas Djondo, was an outspoken critic of the Togolese regime.

Despite this setback, after a coup in Togo saw regime change, Djondo managed to return to France and complete his education. Djondo began working for the airline UTA, before moving into newly established government roles. In 1964, Djondo was appointed as the executive director of a government body – Family Allowances Fund – where he was responsible for the introduction of a mandatory retirement age and pensions. By 1973, Djondo was chairman of the Economic & Social Council, and only two years later he was elected as the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Togo.

A meeting of minds

As Djondo’s government career progressed, he eventually found himself as the President of the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce. It was here that Djondo met his Nigerian business partner, Adeymi Lawson, and the birth of a business dream was realized.

With the help of the entrepreneur, Henry Fajemirokun, Djondo and Lawson created the first pan-African bank, EcoBank, in 1985. The goal was not simply to create a prosperous business, but to create jobs across the continent, and to imbue young Africans with a sense of opportunity and pride.

Koffi Djondo

EcoBank is now present in 33 African nations, employs over 18,000 Africans, and had a turnover of $2.3 billion in 2013. The bank has offices from London to Beijing, and Djondo feels that its success is linked to his ethos of pan-Africanism, explaining, “You can notice that African strength lies in unity; what we can call togetherness… It was this which gave success.”

EcoBank’s spirit of empowering young Africans was something that the men behind it felt was important, as it made employees “feel that their purpose was more than just making money.” The bank’s hiring policy was to find people with a “passion to make a difference in Africa.”

Renewed goals for a new century

Koffi Djondo continued making moves to invest in new ventures as the 21st century began, as he looked to create an airline that matched the philosophy of his African owned bank. His dream led to the creation of Asky Airlines in 2010, and in 2011 its first commercial flights began. While the inaugural flights often had only 10 passengers on them, by 2014 they were flying 8000 passengers a week, with an 80% occupancy rate on their flights.

Asky won the award for the “Best African Company of the Year” at the prestigious African CEO Forum Awards, and the company employs over 250 people. Djondo believes strongly in the need for greater integration between African nations, saying “Integration of the continent is the only way by which Africa will find its safety, through a common regional market.”

Asky is a company founded on the concept of integration, and Djondo sees transport as key to wider African cooperation, explaining, “pan-Africanism and integration starts with people moving…If we want to make business…we have to create the appropriate means to make things move.”

Djondo is held in such reverence by many Togolese that the village of his birth has been renamed Djondo-Condji in his honor. The man himself now lives in a village he built, Djondo Kope, but he is not relaxing in retirement. Djondo plans to expand Asky Airlines, and Ecobank grew 14% in 2014. It’s a busy life for Togo’s most successful octogenarian.

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