The Founder of UBI Group on Leading a Transition to Renewable Energy in Africa

Leer en español
Ler em português

In 2018, 44 countries signed on to the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement, which, when it took effect a year ago, created the largest free-trade zone in the world. After years of negotiations it was a huge step forward and, in my view, marked a turning point: Africa would finally move toward true industrialization. Instead of consuming mostly foreign-made products, we would make and trade our own goods. European and Chinese companies had already started setting up African-staffed factories on the continent, and domestic businesses would get an even bigger boost from AfCFTA.

For UBI Group, the oil and gas distribution company that I founded in Ghana and still help lead as chair, this was welcome news. We were well positioned to capitalize on the coming transformation. But I knew that Africa didn’t want to repeat the mistakes the West and China had made as they pursued development and economic growth. Our continent’s industrialization would require an enormous amount of energy to propel it, and I wanted to help my country and its neighbors develop responsibly.

That’s why, also in 2018, after a few years of research and planning, I moved forward with my plans for a new venture: the solar-focused Blue Power Energy. Though I’d spent the previous decade working on infrastructure for storing and moving fossil fuels around Ghana, I knew that renewables were a better long-term alternative for Africa. It’s still early days for the company. We have a staff of 20—eight employees and 12 consultants. We haven’t yet started generating revenues. But we’re currently building two solar farms in Ghana with the goal of eight more by 2028, and we’re aiming to supply 3 million customers with 140 megawatts of clean energy by the end of 2023.

My hope is that I can apply the lessons I learned launching and building UBI to this new business so that it not only becomes just as successful but also has a more positive impact on the world.

Diverse Role Models and Experience

As one of 14 siblings growing up in the suburbs of Accra, I learned early on how to strategically negotiate for myself. I could argue my way both into and out of most things, so my parents often joked that I should become a lawyer. My brothers, sisters, and I were driven to succeed because our family was old school about achievement. If we got A’s, we were rewarded. If we got C’s, my dad, a teacher turned politician turned businessman, would make us figure out what went wrong. He didn’t expect that we’d all become professionals, but he encouraged us to find our areas of strength and be the best at them.

I also took great inspiration from my mother and her relatives. That side of the family is descended from Ghanaian royalty and maintains a matrilineal tradition. The women are the heads of their households and the breadwinners, and there isn’t a lazy bone among them. My maternal grandma had no formal education but built a good business making and selling dry smoked fish. My mother went to junior college to study nursing but was recruited to be a flight attendant, a job she did and loved for several years. She then became a real estate agent and developer and an importer and distributor of British baby items. I have aunts who were traders of various household products and clothing and older sisters who are merchants; another sister is an educator.

I finished high school at 16, and at 18 I left Ghana to attend college and graduated from Loyola Marymount University. At first I studied political science, but when my uncle suggested that I get a more useful nursing degree, the little negotiator in me opted for a business degree instead. I did another year and a semester to attain it before graduating. I worked all through school, in the dean’s office and at Bullock’s department store (which was eventually acquired by Macy’s). After college I took a job at Transamerica, a life insurance, investment, and retirement services company, and then at NSSI Group, a food brokerage.

A prototype solar farm in central Ghana

I’d always wanted to return to Ghana, so after having children and getting married in the United States, I decided to start vacationing there to explore my options. At first I worked for my mom on some affordable-housing projects. But I kept seeing other opportunities. For example, in 1998 the parking lot of the Kotoka Airport, in Accra, was still staffed by attendants who exchanged tickets for cash, which seemed to me like an open invitation to commit theft. I tracked down the manager and explained why automated machines would be more effective, and he asked for a proposal. I went back to the States, found a company that could install such a system, and served as a liaison between the two businesses.

Next I found myself working to bring HIV antiviral drugs and medical supplies from the United States to Ghana. I was a hustling entrepreneur and greatly enjoying it. But then I was introduced to a contact at Sahara Group, the company that would bring me back at age 33 to my home country full-time and into the sector that would become my life’s work.

In my new role at Sahara, an energy and infrastructure conglomerate that now operates in 38 countries across Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, I coordinated with Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency, port authorities, and shipping companies to bring crude oil into the country. But again, from this new vantage point I could see many other opportunities—notably to distribute liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), a more efficient and less pollutive fuel, to an underserved population in the north of the country, where people were still felling trees for firewood and the government was offering subsidies to companies that could help them stop. I estimated that we could make $300,000 a month. But Sahara didn’t want to invest in the necessary infrastructure; it wanted to stick to crude trading in Ghana. So I decided to pursue the idea on my own.

Lessons from UBI

In August 2006 I left my job to start UBI. Unfortunately, the company hit a stumbling block right away. We could move LPG to the north, but we had no place to store or dispense it. There was a reason that my competitors—non-African oil traders including Vitol, Glencore, Trafigura, Shell Trading, Total, and BP (which I call briefcase businessmen because they show up to collect their cash but don’t stay to reinvest in our communities)—had avoided this product despite their deep pockets and already impressive infrastructure. The tank farms required for LPG are specialized and expensive. That realization prompted our first pivot: to petrol and diesel distribution, for which ample storage existed in the country—lower-hanging fruit that was needed in less-central regions of Ghana. Once I built a capital base, I could revisit LPG.

Our first customer wasn’t an easy get. He had been buying from a Shell subcontractor for $1.10 a liter, so I said that we’d charge a little less and be at his beck and call 24/7. In our first big break, he signed. UBI’s second customer was the telephone company Spacefon (today MTN), which hadn’t been looking at its oil and gas expenses and welcomed the chance to save money and get better service. Soon our revenues were spiking, but we somehow weren’t seeing improvements in our bottom line.

We shortly discovered the problem. An audit revealed that our back-office systems were a mess. This is a common pitfall for entrepreneurs. Because we’re dreamers and salespeople, we sometimes aren’t diligent about setting up policies and processes, including the kind of accounting controls you need to prevent revenue leaks—especially theft. Some of our clients weren’t paying their bills. Some of our territory managers were pocketing money from those who paid in cash. We had to fire people, some of whom were also arrested. It was an extremely painful but important learning experience. Now, with the help of consultants, UBI and Blue Power Energy rigorously screen potential hires, and we have clear accounting protocols: We insist that payments be made by check to corporate accounts, with a transaction record sent to the central office.

By the end of 2007 we had 30 employees and annual revenues of more than $5 million. By 2012 we’d grown to about 230 on staff and sales of nearly $200 million, with gross margins averaging about 11% for some products. We built, bought, or partnered with filling stations across Ghana and installed the fuel-storage-tank farms I’d envisioned. We invested in our own fleet of trucks. We expanded to bunkering vessels—floating fuel stations where Western tankers could unload their cargo—offshore from Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. We won major government and corporate business in our home country and started selling in Nigeria and the West African subreg

Go to Source