“[Running a business in Ghana is] just like doing business everywhere else but different…The ‘different’ is what makes or breaks your business,” Masao Meroe, co-owner of Sankofa Beach House, explained.
Sankofa Beach House (SBH) is ranked #11 out of 131 B&Bs in Accra on TripAdvisor. Located a short drive from Big Milly’s Backyard, a Kokobrite “establishment,” and about an hour and a half from Accra, SBH offers a “lovely, tranquil oasis” according to one recent review from Brighton, UK.
Over the last month, I have been disappearing on Sundays to hide in this rustic retreat. SBH is owned by an African-American couple who have been living in Nigeria and Ghana for nearly two decades. (Masao is from Massachusetts and Janet is from New York.) Masao and Janet operate seven rooms spread across a main house and a couple of chalets that are a short walk to the shore. Yesterday I sat down with Masao, the husband, to discuss his background and experience running a business in Ghana. (Masao’s mother is Japanese and his father is African-American.)
The path to starting and building SBH was a roundabout one. After graduating with a BA in politics from Brandeis University, he attended the University of California at Berkeley where he was studying for his JD (in law) and an MA in Regional and City Planning. In 1981, while at Berkeley, he came to Ghana on an exchange program with the University of Ghana at Legon. It was during this “time between coups” that he “loved [how Ghanaian] people were friendly.”
Why He Came to Ghana
Masao worked in a variety of law settings including a corporate law office in Phoenix, AZ, as well as for Legal Aid in Alameda County and the State of California Fair Employment office. I asked him why he wasn’t working at a corporate law firm. “If you want to do anything, it has to come from the heart”, he replied. Masao added, “Life is too short.”
He soon realized that he did not like the practice of law; more importantly, he didn’t like working in America.
“Being an American citizen yet not an American citizen,” Masao offered. He explained living and working in America as an African-American requires you to have two personalities, two vocabularies, and two manners of dealing with people: one for your community and one for those you work with. “You have to be schizophrenic.”
Janet and Masao met while they were both on the Nile in Egypt as part of a educational tour in 1985. They married in 1986.
In 1992, the Meroes moved to Nigeria with their two children when Janet became plant manager — she is a mechanical engineer — for Proctor and Gamble (P&G) in Ibadan. From 1992 to 1997, Masao played “golf and tennis” and raised their children.
“If you stay too long [in Nigeria], you lose sense of what’s normal,” said Masao. Thus, he was visiting Ghana every 4-6 weeks “back when a [airplane] ticket was $60.” Nonetheless, it was during this time he “fell in love with West Africa.” During one of these visits to Ghana in 1993, he bought 5 acres in Langma near Kokobrite. His original intention was to build homes and sell them.
In 1998, the Meroes returned to the US for two years.
Giving Ghana a Go
In 2000, they moved to Ghana and spent a significant part of their savings on their children’s education, living expenses, and new ventures. Janet started a consulting business. Masao built a house on the land in Kokobrite and rented it out. At the time, he said there could be months between getting customers. There was no electricity nor water and there was nothing around except villages. Masao seemed to do a variety of things including real estate agent, writing business plans, and running some other ventures.
These entrepreneurial ventures included a car rental business in Ghana, buying gold in Ghana and selling it in the US, a tour company, and opening Africa Within, a retail store, at the Tri County Mall in Cinncinati, OH. Masao would by goods from all over West Africa for the store.
“In the first six weeks, we made $30,000” but from there the store went downhill due to “poor management and inventory control.”
Masao learned a handful of lessons from those experiences:
- “Pick the right partner or don’t have one.” If the person lacks the right skills, then don’t work with them.
- Beware of criminals.
- “Not everyone can be an entrepreneur.” Need to be willing to have a “sense of going it alone”, “being in control, responsible”
- Qualities needed for being an entrepreneur: luck, resourcefulness, customer service, ability to deal with other people
- Some source of capital
By 2006, Masao explains “the market was catching up with what we’re doing [at SBH].” So he began spending more time developing the property including building or acquiring additional rooms.To this day, SBH is continuing to expland with additional land for rooms and meeting space.
“This place will sell itself. All we have to do is add good customer service and food and drink,” Masao tells his staff. I can confirm that Masao goes out of his way to ensure an American level of customer service including acting that the “customer is always right.”
Masao offered several lessons and tips on operating his business.
Masao explained that SBH’s main source of “marketing” is “word of mouth.” Positive customers experiences generate recommendations which brings more future customers. Closely related to “word of mouth” is the web traffic from TripAdvisor. Again, positive reviews attracts customers willing to give SBH a try.
Third, Masao has invested $500 a year on hardy, wood signs pointing the way to the property. Kokobrite is known for the “Rasta” culture overflowing from Big Milly’s and many expats visit the area for the relaxing, backpacker scene. Apparently some of the best “rasta” cigarettes are grown in the Volta region. Masao said that some people will visit SBH because they saw one of these signs while driving around. Lastly, he says he rounds out the marketing effort with a presence on social media including Facebook and Twitter.
Getting your staff to operate with an American level of customer service is a challenge. And yet, somehow Masao has cultivated an atmosphere that does not generate the level of frustration that I have become accustomed to in Ghana.
“It takes years to understand the culture,” Masao offered. From his nearly two decades living and working in West Africa, he provided the following things to keep in mind:
- There’s no such thing as a “Ghanaian.” People identify themselves by their tribe. They like to hire family members and people from the same tribe. They like to speak their own language, e.g. Ga, Fanti, Ewe.
- They don’t like to tell you stuff that they think you don’t want to hear
- Some things you wouldn’t think twice may be insulting to them
- You may have some advantage because some will want to work for a white person
- They want to “make the most for the least amount of work.” He contrasted this idea with Americans who believe that have an understanding of what is a fair amount of labor for a certain level of pay
- Incredibly religious that comes from African spiritual tradition. When I asked him how this affects the workplace, he said, “Think about how your workers going to all-night worship services will affect your business.”
- “Lots of funerals” — meaning your staff will frequently need to take time off to attend funerals.
Listening to his list of observations, I was pleased to hear them echo my own observations. One thing that I felt was quite interesting was how he hired and paid his staff. Masao explained that when he hires someone he will give them extremely grueling work for 2-3 days to see if he is “serious” about work.
Given the strong link between compensation structure — incentives — and work habits, I was curious to see what solutions he had developed. Masao offers a four-part compensation structure. First, employees receive a “competitive” base salary. Second, there is a “forced savings” component that — depending on time worked — could range from 20 to 100 percent of the base salary. This addresses the seemingly constant need from staff to borrow money from the wealthy boss. Masao offers IOUs to his staff of an agreed amount which the staff can draw upon this amount for “loans,” school fees, and medical treatment. He explained that most companies in Ghana do not pay their staff very well and most Ghanaians do not have anyone saving for them. Once you pay your staff, the money is spent on necessities or helping relatives.
There are two important caveats. First, if the employee fails to provide 3 months notice to leave the job, then the savings are gone. This is to address the passive-aggressive nature of Ghanaians who have no problem telling you with 24 hours notice that today is their last day. Basically, when Ghanaians feel slighted they will not tell you but will find more subtle ways to exact their revenge. Second, if the employee is justifiably fired, then the savings also disappear. This policy is to ensure good work habits.
The third compensation component is tips from customers. Essentially, this is incentive compensation. Lastly, Masao will offer contract work to employees that is outside the scope of their normal work and pay for that.
Sankofa Beach House
Having visited Big Milly’s and Kokobrite Gardens, I can attest that Sankofa Beach House offers tranquility with a large, open grassy “quad” with views and the sounds of crashing waves. Similar to the other two places, it’s more of a B&B than a hotel experience. Unlike those places, there is no set menu. Basically, Masao asks what you want and his chef can prepare it to order. Every time I go, I’ve had grilled fresh fish and Ghanaian lobster with tomatoes, onions, and local spices. Most of the rooms have air-conditioning and shower facilities.
If you don’t want to stay overnight, then SBH also offers a great place to take the children for day visits. It’s 20 cedis per person if you bring your own food and 15 cedis per person if you eat there. The crowd is a mix of expats from the US, UK, Israel, India, Nigeria, and a local Ghanaians. They also host parties.
Is the Opportunity in Ghana huge?
“Yes, but…” seems to be his answer for budding entrepreneurs who want to take advantage of the opportunity in Africa. Masao offered the following tips:
- Do something that you know something about. He recounted how a friend spent a fortune on MAC trucks but hadn’t any experience running a transportation business.
- If you’re going to do real estate or buy land, then get serious legal help.
- Practice living here for at least three months so you can figure out if you want to live here and so you can learn how things work here.
“If you go through the front door, you won’t survive. If you don’t know about the back door and side door you won’t succeed.” In Ghana, you can’t just expect to get things done through “the front door.” The longer you live here, you’ll discover the “back door” and the “side doors” to getting things done.
Masao operates SBH with considerable concern for the challenges unique to Ghana. He maintains a lean staff, minimal food inventory, and does not overly rely on generator(s). The relatively small investment he made 20 years ago has endured and grown into a self-sustaining business.
He has lived in Ghana long enough to understand how to work with his staff and how to attract a diverse clientèle. One of his advantages is that he enjoys living in Ghana and has a long-term commitment to building a life and working here. He often refers to Sankofa Beach House as his “working retirement.” He hopes that as SBH grows and he creates structures for creating wealth for his key staff, Masao hopes that SBH will simply become his “retirement.”