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‘A Cultural Hybrid’

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I am inordinately held up in Manhattan’s unpredictable traffic even as Bisila Bokoko waits endlessly for me at the Les Ambassades patisserie in Harlem. She has promised to show me around the African-American neighborhood with its vibrant alfresco cafes, arty hotspots and cultural hubs.

She is about to finish her third cappuccino and a plate of Senegalese rice when I show up, hoping she hasn’t left. But despite the two-hour wait, she’s a picture of calm.

We soon walk the streets to Apollo Theater, the legendary Harlem performance hall, ending our May evening jaunt at Red Rooster, the restaurant run by Ethiopian celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, another famous African export. The place is packed for a week night and there are many regulars by the stylish smoke-filled bar who wave to Bokoko.

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All along, we have been chatting about Africa, a continent she visits more than three times a year. Her kohl-lined eyes light up every time she mentions her umbilical cord connection to the land of her dreams.

Bokoko is many things at the same time – businesswoman, motivation speaker and TV personality – but she is also a wine entrepreneur, and very much like the boutique wines she sells – “wines with an African accent made in Spain”.

Born in the port city of Valencia in Spain to parents from Equatorial Guinea, Bokoko lives in New York – in a penthouse apartment in Manhattan – but straddles continents, sometimes doing as many as six flights a week. She calls herself “a cultural hybrid”.

“I live out of a suitcase, but you really live within yourself. The suitcase is irrelevant, I am happy and home wherever I am,” says Bokoko. The secret, she says, is devoting the first four hours of the day to her body, mind and soul.

“I am at the gym at five every morning. I pray, meditate, exercise and organize my day. It’s always about efficiency and focus.”

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Work often takes her to Valencia. Her wine business has been profitable and she recently invested in a 19th century building, “like a castle”, in Spain for her winery. Currently, she sells 12 different categories of wine and 40,000 bottles a year in Spain, China, Latin America and some parts of West Africa.

Besides her eponymous wines, she is also founder of the Bisila Bokoko African Literacy Project, bringing books and libraries to children in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. She is soon opening a library in Senegal, and South Africa is also on the cards for 2018.

“Most of the African stories are being lost. I was born in Spain by accident – my parents were there only because of the political situation in Equatorial Guinea. That is why I am so passionate about the libraries project. I was always experiencing Africa through books. Before I went to Africa with my body, I traveled with my mind. That’s why I want to gift that to the children there,” says the 43-year-old and mother of two.

The first time Bokoko stepped foot in Africa, was when she visited Ghana, the day she turned 35, as “a birthday gift” to herself. Her tryst with Africa was about to begin. It became her mission to change the image of Africa abroad.

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She had moved to New York from Spain at the age of 24, whilst doing an internship for the government of Valencia in international trade. She went on to complete an MA in International Relations in New York, while at the same time helping companies in Valencia do business in the US.

As the Executive Director of the Spain-US Chamber Of Commerce for seven years, she worked closely with leading Spanish brands such as ZARA and Mango.

Bokoko’s lawyer-father still lives in Equatorial Guinea. Her greatest blessing, she says, are her brothers. One of them is an ex-banker living in Panama; she also has a brother who runs his own consultancy firm in China.

Bokoko travels the world for speaking engagements and also owns Bisila Bokoko Embassy Services International, a boutique consultancy firm in New York.

“My biggest fear was to be an entrepreneur. I was in a comfort zone, with a paycheck and an institution to fall back on. But now, I work for Bisila Bokoko, I am my own boss,” she says.

Interview

Why We Need ‘Hard Cash In The Economy’

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Busi Mabuza, the Chairperson of the Board of the Industrial Development Corporation, on the BRICS summit and why we need to start talking as an African bloc.

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Focus

The Heroes Among Us

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Heroes exist in history, on celluloid, in pop culture or in these digital times, at the forefront of technology. These are the mighty who shine on the front pages of newspapers, as the paradigms of victory and virtue. But every day in public life, surrounding us are some of the real stars, the nameless, the faceless we don’t recognize or celebrate. In the pages that follow, we look at some of them, exploring the exemplary work they do, from the war zones to your neighborhood streets. They are not flawless, they are not infallible, but they are heroes.

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Entrepreneurs

The Ghanaian Who Brought HR Corporate America To Ghana

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Ghana is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies this year, according to the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the IMF. Its projected growth in 2018 is between 8.3-8.9%.

The Ghanaian workforce is young, with 57% of the population under the age of 25. This means millions of new graduates enter the workforce each year. One woman who understands the struggle that awaits this unsuspecting group in corporate Ghana is Human Resources (HR) entrepreneur, Rita Kusi.

Kusi is the founder and CEO of Keeping “U” Simply Intact (KUSI) Consulting, a marketing, training and recruiting company based in the United States (US) and in Ghana. She is also the Managing Director of threesixtyGh, a social enterprise company with an online presence showcasing innovative ventures in Ghana and the people behind them.

Born in Bolga, Northern Ghana, Kusi’s family gained access to the US through the US Visa Lottery in the early 80s. The family relocated to the US in 1991 where Kusi remained until 2013. And that is also where she amassed a wealth of experience working in several sectors.

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After college, Kusi worked a number of temporary jobs, from telemarketing in Atlanta to door-to-door sales in Maryland. She even tried her hands at customer services and working in cafes.

“I think for me having held all these jobs opened my eyes and I realized especially what I wanted to do in corporate America,” says Kusi.

All these experiences came together when she applied for a new role as HR assistant. When she did not hear back from the company regarding her application, Kusi took the initiative and called the hiring manager.

“So my dad told me to call and get feedback and as I called my CV happened to be in front of the hiring manager and he invited me in for the interview. I knew nothing about HR but I was just really looking for a job and I ended up getting that job and it was the longest I ever stayed at any job so that was a sign,” says Kusi.

She had finally found her calling in HR but it was not until a nostalgic visit back home that she would merge all her US experience together, ushering in a new life as an entrepreneur.

There were no real training programs at the time focused on improving the quality of customer service in Ghana. Kusi seized the opportunity to provide quality HR training programs, which she hoped organizations would pay for. And they did. This was the birth of Kusi Consulting.

From training services, the company has morphed its offerings into recruitment services and Kusi is now diversifying into skills-training as well as business process outsourcing, where the company handles the pay roll function for other corporate clients. Her timing couldn’t be more perfect. Hiring the right people is critical for companies to reduce employee attrition and enhance returns from HR. Companies face challenges in accurately perceiving and assessing an employee’s quality attributes prior to hiring that employee. This problem is more pronounced in African economies, which involves novices who do not have prior work records attesting to their raw skills, learning abilities and motivation. And this is where Kusi comes in.

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She believes a specialist HR function is imperative in every organization to ensure maximum output by each employee. However, she has had some difficulty convincing corporate Ghana.

“It has been challenging operating here especially being a female because it is literally a man’s world and in this country, it’s all about who you know… There is that challenge of how do I make myself look older and more respected?” she says.

But ever resilient, Kusi refuses to back down. She hopes to create her own temp agency where she has skilled staff inhouse which she can outsource on demand to other companies. Her newly-formed team is just as passionate about the business and with that focus, she is rebranding her company to be a leader in HR not only in Ghana but across Africa.

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