Makafui Awuku has slept on a bench, hunted in the bush, worked at a church and sifted through mountains of plastic waste. He is the man turning trash into cash in Ghana.
Thirtyfive-year-old Makafui Awuku has been through enough pain and penury in life to see beauty in the little things. He is the man who can turn plastic scrap to nifty objects of desire.
His is a life filled with odd, interesting assignments.
It is easy to see why Awuku is not particularly fond of his early years. The social entrepreneur and founder of Mckingtorch Creatives did not have a privileged life.
Born in Keta, Sogakope, in the Volta Region of Ghana, his father, who was a driver, passed away when he was aged 12 leaving Awuku, his sister and mother to fend for themselves. Surviving on his mother’s income as a nurse was not enough for Makafui to achieve his dream of becoming a doctor. Instead, he had to depend on his wits for survival.
He would hunt with a catapult in the bush and even started his own poultry farm to generate extra income. Then in 2005, life became grimmer.
His mother passed away from a stroke and Awuku found himself stranded with no help.
Armed with just $1,000 from his mother’s pension contribution, he moved to Ghana’s capital city, Accra, in search of greener pastures.
“There was a lot of waste generated during board meetings,”
That same year, he got admission to study marketing at the Institute of Professional Services but the money he made was not enough to pay tuition fees.
“I have struggled most of my way through life. I have slept on a bench in Accra and I have also slept at a 24-hour internet café. I didn’t have anywhere to sleep, so I decided to just spend the night behind the computer there. While in school, I had to find part-time work to pay my fees and pay my medical bills as I had asthma,” says Awuku.
He would do assignments for his colleagues and charge them for it, and also pick up odd jobs such as being a part-time soccer teacher for an international school in Accra. But he eventually had to drop out of school because he couldn’t afford it.
“I eventually met one of my mentors and supporters, Reverend Richard C. Whitcomb, a senior overseer of the Agape House New Testament Church in East Legon. He gave me a job at the church, then he helped pay my rent and then when I had to go back after I deferred my final year, he helped pay my tuition fees too.”
Awuku published his first book in 2015, The Tertiary Years, to address inefficiencies in the education system in Ghana and help young students build leadership skills.
That was followed by his social project called Student Initiative Ghana, a platform for the personal development and training of young people.
“I have visited over 15 schools and trained over 80,000 people over the last 15 years in the areas of brain-training and memory enhancement and helped young people with learning difficulties.”
He subsequently gained admission to the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) program created by former American President Barack Obama in his early years at the White House to develop the leadership of young people in Africa creating value in their communities.
“I spent five weeks in Nigeria at the Administrative Staff College in Badagry. I returned to Ghana to do an internship program. I worked with the One Ghana Movement and one of the programs they were doing was on sanitation. The team was going to be buying 1,000 bins and installing it in various places in Accra in partnership with the Accra Metropolitan Assembly,” says Awuku.
This is when he found his Eureka moment.
“While I was doing the internship, I realized there was a lot of waste generated during board meetings. I decided I wanted to do something about this. I looked through the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and I looked at the plastic waste problem. I said to myself, ‘I took a course on waste management at university and I am a fan of clean environment, so let me do something with sustainable communities and cities which the plastic waste falls under’,” avers Awuku.
A 2002 report by the African Development Bank said that Ghana generated about 3.6 million tonnes of solid waste per year made up predominantly of food, plastic and wood. Awuku decided to join the fight to clean up Accra’s streets. He started Mckingtorch Creatives in January 2018 to turn plastic waste into art.
“So I started collecting bottles from the office and decided to try designing a Christmas tree from plastic waste. I got a welder to install a frame for me that looked like a frame for a tree and I decided to buy ropes. I would drill holes under the bottles and on top of the bottles and pass the ropes through them and install them on the tree. A day before Christmas, I had finished the tree. I bought lights and put them up and there were actually 396 plastic bottles on that tree,” says Awuku.
He installed his new creation in a major street in Madina, a suburb in Accra.
“I realized that it was changing people’s attitudes, they were shocked that plastic waste and bottles could be used in this manner. So I decided that I could take things a lot further and look at modeling some solutions I could develop using plastic waste,” says Awuku.
Some of his creations include flower pots, bins, wall-hangings and even sandals.
He also teamed up with one of the biggest manufacturers of bottled water in Ghana to create a fence with over 10,000 bottles for World Environment Day.
Awuku is determined to tell the youth that there can be workable solutions for waste and that they can be a pertinent part of building a planet free of plastic.
What Will It Take To Close The Funding Gap For Black Female Founders?
If you’ve heard the statistics once, you’ve probably heard them a thousand times: Of the nearly $100 billion in venture funding that goes to entrepreneurs in America, less than 3% goes to female founders and just 0.2% goes to black female founders.
There’s a growing consensus that venture capital’s race problem needs to be fixed.What’s less clear is precisely how to start closing the massive gulf. And at the inaugural Black Women Raise conference in Manhattan on Friday, a gathering of some 80 black female founders, a series of candid conversations laid bare the frustrations around the lack of an obvious path forward. In several raw moments of interchange, however, some answers started to emerge.
Investors “could ask different questions,” Charles Hudson, founder and managing partner of Precursor Ventures, said during a panel conversation with BBG’s Susan Lyne, First Round Capital’s Hayley Barna, and Female Founder’s Fund Sutian Dong. “There are all these questions—‘Well, do you think she can recruit? Do you think she can hire?’—I know what’s behind that question.
It’s ‘Do you think she can get people to work for her because she’s a black woman?’ And people ask these, what on the surface sound like innocent enough legitimate questions about investments, but they’re not innocent. They’re loaded. And you learn a lot by the questions people ask.”
Despite the existence (and, arguably, preponderance) of these loaded questions, Hudson and the others cautioned the entrepreneurs in the room against becoming disillusioned with the traditional venture capital community. Instead, they said, minority founders should prioritize investors who have a track record of investing in entrepreneurs who look like them.
“Vet investors up front. Don’t let them waste your time only to give you a half-ass answer after you spend an hour with them or even two weeks later,” said Barna, who started her venture capital career after successfully cofounding e-commerce darling Birch Box. “Just ask, ‘Is this in your sweet spot?’”
Dong noted that investors should be self-monitoring for where they’re over- and under-indexing, too. “We’ve said we don’t like the ratio of founders in our portfolio. About half are nonwhite, but only two are African-American. So we asked our network who we should be talking to,” she said.
It can be hard, in an open and on-the-record forum, to ask the hard questions about investing in underrepresented founders—much less to receive forthright answers to those questions—but to the credit of the Black Women Raise attendees, no one shied away from speaking about the reality of her experience as a founder of color.
“Everyone talks about the ‘friends and family round.’ I raised $63,000; I am the friends and family round,” quipped Star Cunningham, founder and CEO of health management platform 4D Healthware. But underpinning her self-funding, Cunningham continued, was a lack of capital access. “I have debt, because I had to get it, because no one wanted to give me any money. So what are you, as investors, going to do to look at our companies differently?”
Barna’s reply: Don’t be afraid to talk about your distance traveled. “The same stories about people getting straight A’s from Ivy League schools isn’t what gets us fired up; it’s instead hearing about how someone put themselves through med school from driving an ambulance,” she said. “You might think that you’re not supposed to talk about your life story, but I think it’s an important data point in helping [investors] make the right decision.”
This isn’t to say that a little bit of information and clever storytelling will fix the funding gap for founders of color. Viola Llewellyn, cofounder of African fintech platform Ovamba, pointed out as much, saying that many of the investors she’s come across don’t seem interested in asking the questions that lead to the sorts of decisions Barna is referencing.
“Here’s the problem: No one gets punished intellectually, emotionally, or financially for saying no to black women or to Africans. You will instead be congratulated if you don’t make the ‘foolish mistake’ of investing in something that doesn’t fit into the preconceived ideas of what success is,” Llewellyn said to Hudson, Lyne, Barna and Dong.
“At what point do we find a way to tell the story of the fool that said no?” she continued, to applause from the room.
Hudson waited a beat, and responded with empathy.
“There’s a million reasons [for investors] to say no, but until we have more success stories, I think there’s always an easy out for people to say, ‘No one has proven to me that investing in this way and this type of person works out.’ It’s intellectually lazy and it’s wrong,” he said. “You have every right to be angry.”
Angry, yes, but also motivated. Among the clearest takeaways from the conversation is that one of the best ways to change the system is to start from within. In Silicon Valley and Arlan Hamilton parlance, fight pattern-matching with pattern-matching.
“More black women need to control capital, in whatever form that may be,” Dong said. “More black women need to be controlling capital to put that into companies run by black female founders.”
Masai Ujiri’s dream of harnessing untapped African talent
The President of Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, on his adoration for Africa as a continent filled with unlimited potential and talent.
The tall man in sport, Masai Ujiri, is a name in professional basketball far beyond the borders of Africa and his native Nigeria.
Born in England but having grown up in Zaria in Africa’s most populous country, Ujiri’s adoration for Africa sees him on the continent often, inspiring the youth.
“Africa is no more afraid. We are not afraid of anybody anymore. The continent is bold. The people are bold,” says Ujiri, when FORBES AFRICA meets him in Johannesburg in November at the Africa Investment Forum in which he participated.
The continent has a special place in his heart.
The President of the Toronto Raptors in the National Basketball Association (NBA), also founded Giants of Africa (GOA) in 2003, as a way of harnessing budding, untapped talent.
“As long as I am in a position where I am able to, we have to give the youth a chance. We have to pave a path for them and there is nothing I can’t do. I have to do everything, it is an obligation, I have to be an example for them by creating that pathway,” he says.
Ujiri, who started playing basketball at the age of 13, travels to Africa every August to visit the GOA camps across seven countries on the continent, training young boys and girls to be leaders in both sport and everyday life.
He says he draws inspiration from each and every country in Africa, and the feeling is inexplicable.
The history and culture are a constant reminder of his years growing up in Africa.
Whether it is in Kenya, where his mother was born, or the lasting friendships in Rwanda, Senegal or Nigeria, each country holds special memories.
Apart from the numerous trips in and out of the continent, 2018 granted Ujiri a rare once-in-a-lifetime moment.
This was in July when Barack Obama, the former president of the United States, visited Kenya, and with him, Ujiri opened a basketball court in the country.
Ujiri’s outreach program GOA launched it at the Sauti Kuu Foundation Sports, Resources and Vocational Centre in Alego; familiar ground for both leaders.
Managed by Auma Obama, Sauti Kuu, much like GOA, is focused on youth development.
“To spend that time with somebody that Africa means so much to, meant so much to me and so much to Auma. We are trying to inspire youth, we built a court that is going to impact the youth and that was special,” says Ujiri.
Being able to scout African talent is what is imperative for Ujiri, and it all comes down to building facilities to help the youth play basketball.
Ultimately, his dream for Africa is not only to see material wealth but for talent to go beyond what he has achieved.
“My dream is to have one of the youth become bigger than me, and bigger than everybody. People think I always dream of building this and doing that but I want one of these kids to take everything that they learn and do better in each and everything.
“I love the continent; I love the culture of different places. I am almost like Anthony Bourdain [the late American celebrity chef], that is how it really is with basketball, with the culture, the people and the food,” says Ujiri.
Staying true to his African roots, when we meet him, Ujiri speaks about his favorite yam and stew dish that he says reminds him of his childhood.
It’s such memories that see him taking the long-haul flight out of Toronto to Africa each year.
Brewing Success: Lessons From A Beer Baron
Canadian John Sleeman shares his entrepreneurial lessons with Africa.
cis not your typical textbook entrepreneur. His belief in what it takes to be an entrepreneur is so controversial that his advice is no longer welcome in MBA classes. The white-haired charismatic brewer, who re-established his family’s brewing business in 1988 as one of the most successful in Canada, offers sage advice to African entrepreneurs, although he has no plans to expand in Africa – yet.
Nonchalantly, in his automated beer manufacturing plant in Guelph, Canada, surrounded by people enjoying his craft beer, Sleeman says he believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. He argues that unless you are prepared to go bankrupt, work over 80 hours a week, lose your friends, face the prospect of divorce, put your house on mortgage and miss meeting friends for drinks on Fridays, then entrepreneurship is not for you.
He should know. This is the toll he took to restart his family business. It had lost its licence and was banned from the market for 50 years in 1933. This was for smuggling beer during the roaring 1920s by brokering deals with bootleggers and gangsters like Al Capone when prohibition set in in Canada.
Passionately, the beer baron, who plans to open a micro-distillery later this year, and is considering expanding his business in either the eastern or western parts of Canada, tells FORBES AFRICA: “If you want to be an entrepreneur, be very focused on what you want to achieve and don’t let people talk you out of it. If it is a dream, pursue it until you are successful.”
He attributes his success to surrounding himself with the right people. They will make or break your business, says Sleeman. You should be ready to change your business model if the current one isn’t working, he adds.
In his own case, he did this after his colleague advised him that rather than opening up new breweries across Canada, he should buy existing ones that share Sleeman Breweries’ crazy passion for beer and authenticity.
Sleeman reckons you shouldn’t grow so big that you lose your entrepreneurial flair, first-mover advantage and risk-appetite, but you also shouldn’t remain so small that you get knocked out of business or get bought out by someone who does not see your vision and wants to dismantle you, as it almost happened to his business in 2006. If you do sell, reminisces Sleeman, sell to someone who sees your vision, like Sleeman Breweries did, when Japanese company Sapporo saved the Guelph-based firm from a hostile takeover.
But that’s history. Since then, Sapporo has helped fund research and development and training for the business, whose humble, down-to-earth founder is now taking it on its next spirited journey.
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