Lessons Learned: A Strange Business Environment

One Way Sign

What do you think when you see a “One Way” sign?  If you’re an American, you probably think, Ok, better find another route.  You wouldn’t think twice about it.  First, it’s dangerous.  You know that all the cars will be coming against you and they wouldn’t even expect a car coming their way.  Head-on collisions = fatal accident.  Second, say you’re able to disobey the sign and drive on the road, you can expect that eventually a police car will pull you over and probably arrest you for “wreckless driving” — at least.

If you’re a Ghanaian, it’s more of a suggestion rather than a rule.  If it’s 1pm, then you probably shouldn’t take that way because you can expect cars using the road.  If it’s 1am, then you might think, There’s probably no one driving this way so I can get to my house/store without any trouble.  And the police?  Those guys are sitting pretty at their checkpoints waiting for criminals dumb enough to drive pass them.  Even if you did get caught, then it’s likely that a small dash could get you out of trouble.

Laws exist but they are not strictly enforced.  Lack of enforcement is an invitation to people who are not bound by morals to act.  For instance, I’m pretty sure that even local copyright laws prohibit the sale of pirated movies and TV shows.  And yet, every heavily trafficked road has hawkers selling these pirated movies.

Not a Lawless Country

Now, I didn’t say Ghana is lawless.  If you rape a 14-year old girl or kill a man, you’re going to jail.  If you steal even 50 cedis, you’re doing 10 years.  Possession of drugs is a big no no, too.

Ghanaians have traditional sense of justice for blatant crimes.  In fact, the government has been trying to stem the masses’ tendency to lynch, stone, and beat market thieves to death.  I haven’t read of a case of vigilante justice for, at least, 3 months now.

Something that isn’t widely advertised is that Africa — specifically The Gambia — is a destination for sex tourism and pedophiles.  Basically, the people in some of these countries are so desperate for cash that they become ripe targets for the developed world’s perverse-minded.

Ghanaians don’t want to be a part of this so the government has put up a prominent sign at Accra’s Kotoka International Aiport warning the perverse to stay away.  (It’s right behind passport control.)

Pedophile sign


In Ghana, homosexuality is illegal and society frowns on it.  Nonetheless, men still offer themselves to white tourists either for financial reasons or for innate ones.

Strange Business Environment

Ghana’s rising economic fortunes makes it an attractive place for investment.  Unfortunately, I feel that legitimate business owners face magnified competition because they must compete against NGOs and “those who are willing to drive against traffic.”

The UN and other large NGOs like directing aid to Ghana.  Thus, the man who makes mosquito nets and must buy his tools and supplies will be put out of business by the hawker who gets them for free from an NGO.  Similarly, donated clothes from the West don’t end up at a massive free T-shirt, Goodwill shop.  They find their ways to being put up for sale at local markets.  They are called “dead white man’s clothes” and are blamed for the absence of a local textile industry.

For the first group, sometimes you may think, I just want to focus on my business — on making money.  Unfortunately, if you keep your head in the sand, then you won’t be aware of the scammers when they come at you.  At some point, you will need something from the local community — bringing goods into the country, an accountant to pay taxes — and you won’t know where to start.

I won’t expand too much on “those who are willing to drive against traffic.”  Because their main businesses are highly-profitable they seem to have ample funds to finance projects, enter new businesses, and lobby for government contracts.

These three groups contribute to making Ghana and other countries with lax enforcement unfamiliar to those of us from developed legal frameworks.  For instance, in 2013 a British-American couple in China was arrested.  They had been advising foreign companies on how to enter the China market.  They seemed to have tripped over something that was sensitive in the local market — personal data of government officials — and got arrested for it.  Laws can change on a whim and suddenly you’ll find yourself high and dry.

For some, this warning should discourage you from even making the entry into frontier/emerging markets.  For others, I suggest you find someone in the local market that you can trust to advise you on the issues relevant to the local market.  Of course, you must be careful who this “trustworthy” person.  Finding a strong foundation can seem like an act of circular reasoning.

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