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The Father Of Ghanaian Theater

Uncle Ebo Whyte wonders why Africa is not pouring money into telling its own stories.

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Uncle Ebo Whyte is a six-foot-tall, unassuming looking man. You could mistake him for a steward of the theater rather than the father of it. He speaks in a soft but confident manner but has an attention to detail that is slightly intimidating as we sit down in his cosy office to discuss his journey as one of West Africa’s best known playwrights. Surprisingly, the love of his life arrived by accident.

“I didn’t have the confidence to join the drama society because it had all the popular boys and I suffered from inferiority complex in those days, so I couldn’t enter their circle. One day they needed someone to fill in during their rehearsals and I happened to be the only person standing in the window watching them. What the director didn’t realize was that I had memorized the lines. It took the director only five minutes to realize I would be able to give a better performance than the previous actor he had cast for the role,” says Whyte.

In 1974, Whyte wrote his first play. It was called ‘Man Must Live’ and depicted the struggles of two sisters whose father died and left them penniless. The story had echoes of his life. As the first of five boys, Whyte grew up in a competitive household. When he was 15 years old, his father passed away and his family lost everything.

“I was devastated when he died, I think for a year or two I was totally lost. Those were the days before the Provisional National Defense Council (PNDC) law came into place, for when a man died intestate, which protects the widow and the children. So, all the extended family took everything from us apart from the house we were living in,” says Whyte.

After studying statistics at the University of Ghana, Whyte almost got chartered but decided last minute against accounting. He wanted a life of spinning stories into gold.

“Roverman Productions started in 2008. The problem was that there was no template for me to know how I could make theater production into a business. My first three attempts of making this work were financially disastrous because I came from the background where drama production was free, hence putting together plays you had to sell was difficult, thank God I learned how to do it,” says Whyte.

He began alone and now employs 15 permanent staff and an 80-man production team.

Getting an audience for the plays was the easy part. The difficulty for Whyte was securing money for the quality of production he wanted. Whyte wanted his production house to produce quarterly plays and to become big enough to be a name in Africa.

Tourists are a big market. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Ghana attracted 925,000 international tourists in 2015. In 10 years, international tourists are forecast to total 1.38 million. He reckons about 45% of the holidaymakers in Ghana come to his plays.

Then there was the tougher nut of corporate Ghana to crack.

“Gatekeepers in corporate Ghana could understand musical concerts but they could not understand how theater would work. We were the first company to pioneer theater in Ghana. When they saw how many people we were able to pull, they came easier and it became a much easier sell,” says Whyte.

“We have huge goodwill in the various boardrooms in Ghana. What is happening now is that a lot of the big companies are being controlled from outside Ghana and because the people pulling the strings are not in Ghana, they do not care about spending money here because they do not know about what is on the ground. So it is usually a budgetary issue with companies.”

Eight years on and there are still problems. Like the rest of Ghana, the theater is hampered by another drama – power cuts.

“One terrible moment was last quarter when the lights went out at the national theatre in the middle of the production. We were using a generator, which stopped an hour and half into the production. I think I died inside. Not because we couldn’t solve the situation because we got the power back in 30 minutes, but because of the excellence I look to achieve. I do not want my patrons to take certain things for granted. They should expect to pay for their tickets and nothing will go wrong. They do not need any excuses and I do not want to give them any. The fact that I could not deliver a production without a hiccup was very bad,” says Whyte.

George Ofori runs an art gallery in Accra. His family owned a theater business in the late 70s when stage productions were popular.

“The theater business died during the military rule where there were widespread curfews. My father and a lot of other production houses had to find new ways of making money back then. After that, the theater business has never really bounced back and a lot of people have struggled to make the business viable,” says Ofori.

“The theater business in Ghana is still very much at an evolving and developmental stage with a gradual effort towards audience cultivation. The potential for growth into a viable, consistent and highly rewarding industry is very high. Presently, Roverman Productions is the most identifiable theater entity owing to the consistent quality productions over the last eight years,” says Kabutey Ocansey, Head of Business Development for Roverman Productions.

For those closest to Whyte, his passion for the business is palpable.

“He is a perfectionist and passionate about theater and feels that Ghana has the talent to compare with any theater group in the world if we so desire and are willing to work diligently,” says Felicia Mensah, Customer Relations Coordinator at Roverman Productions.

For Whyte it is not just about business. It is about families dressing up and sharing in their cultural heritage. The golden tradition of families sitting by the fireside and sharing stories may be long gone in the world of the cell phone, but there is a renaissance of storytelling in Ghana and Whyte is responsible for this. As he recounts his journey, the quiet and reserved man is clearly in his element.

Entrepreneurs

Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’

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Shola Ladoja; image supplied

Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.  

With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.

The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.

The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.

But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.

Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.

But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.

“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.

On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.  

Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.

“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.

“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.

Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.

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All For Grooming Future Leaders

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Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.

He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.

Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.

“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.

He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.

Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.

“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”

Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.

“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.

Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.

Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.

“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.

But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.

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The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind A New Inclusive Community Teaching Budding Professionals How To Better Engage At Work

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Mother-daughter cofounders Edith Cooper and Jordan Taylor launched Medley to help young professionals gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work. COURTESY OF MEDLEY

Edith Cooper, who spent more than 20 years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, knows what it’s like to stand out in a workplace. Being one of few people of color in a sea of white faces over the course of her career hasn’t been easy. But rather than dwell on this reality, Cooper, who now sits on the boards of Etsy and Slack, has championed her differences. That’s what helped her rise through the ranks at the bank to eventually head its human resources department, an accomplishment she says was a result of her ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.

That quality would continue to work to her advantage: As Goldman Sachs evolved, so did its staff. Diversity was reflected not only in employees’ skin colors and genders, but also in their ages and geographical origins. Cooper was awakened to the fact that if the company was going to thrive, it would need to create an environment wherein its multifaceted staff could feel comfortable embracing their differences and, in turn, learn from them. 

“If you can figure out an environment where people can thrive together, it’s powerful,” Cooper says. But it’s a process that takes time, especially if newer, more inexperienced employees aren’t equipped with the proper skills to navigate this balance between professionalism and open expression. 

That is in part what inspired Cooper’s new startup, Medley, which she launched with her daughter Jordan Taylor, a former chief of staff at Mic and Harvard Business School Baker Scholar, to provide a community in which young professionals can gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work without fear. In light of the heightened tension surrounding ongoing racial injustice that’s inevitably seeping into workplace communication, it’s an ideal time to learn this skill.

Taylor has also had her fair share of experiences being the “only one in the room,” but as an emerging leader, rather than an established executive like her mother. Graduating in the top 5% of her class and being one the first 20 Black students to be named a Baker Scholar meant she was constantly figuring out how to relate to peers in predominantly white spaces. She figured it out, but Medley is a platform she wishes had been around when she was finding her voice among people whose backgrounds were much different than hers.

Medley groups young professionals in their 20s and 30s with other like-minded members whose workplace values, concerns and priorities align. The professionals that make up these eight-person groups differ, however, in terms of gender and ethnic background, which Cooper and Taylor hope will translate to increased empathy that members can apply within their respective workplaces.

“This idea of people being able to bring their true selves to work and to be able to talk through what that looks like is at the core of what Medley is offering,” says Cooper.

In addition to full access to workshops, panels and conversations led by experts across industries, members commit to a 90-minute virtual meeting each month, facilitated by a Medley-certified coach and focused on addressing and reflecting on ongoing experiences in their personal and professional lives. Cooper credits Medley’s robust network of coaches to the guidance she gained from Merche Del Valle, former global head of coaching at Goldman Sachs and a certified lifestyle, nutrition and wellness coach.

Merging personal wellness and professional development in group discussions is a priority. “You can’t just look at your career in a vacuum,” says Taylor. “In order to meet your potential, the ability to have a more holistic approach is incredibly important.”

To ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the ability to join the community, Medley offers a sliding scale fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the financial situation of prospective members. Cooper and Taylor are also in conversations with companies interested in partnering with Medley to give their staff reimbursement for membership. 

With the help of investors including Away cofounder Jen Rubio, dtx company founder and CEO Tim Armstrong and MIC cofounder and former CEO Chris Altchek, who contributed more than $1 million to the project, Medley was ready to launch in May 2020 as an in-person membership hub in New York City. Shelter-in-place mandates halted the launch, but also presented an opportunity for Medley to instead be virtual and incorporate international members. The more springing corporate workers that can benefit from the community’s aim to build the next generation of confident, communicative professionals the better, the mother-daughter team notes.

“Medley gives people an opportunity to be a better human in relation to the people they work with and quite frankly in society,” Taylor says.

Brianne Garrett, Forbes Staff, Leadership

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