How to Spread it: Herbert Mensah

2013-09-16 08:00

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Herbert Mensah is one of Ghana’s best-known businessmen and sports personalities.

From the early 1990s onwards, he became a major distributor of mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa, was the country manager for M-Net in the 1990s and went on to professionalise one of Ghana’s biggest football clubs during an era that saw the rise of Ghanaian football globally.

Today he is promoting west Africa as a gateway into Africa and is investing in biofuels.

He also has a big heart and a social conscience.

You are a successful businessman and sports personality in Ghana, with wide-ranging interests. You are also a strong proponent for African development. In your career, what major changes for the better have you seen in Ghana and west Africa?

Ghana’s political stability and leadership role on the continent as far as democracy (as known in the West) is concerned. Over the past three decades, the stability we have enjoyed has been unique and sets us apart from most nations in Africa.

We have traditionally been pacesetters politically, starting from the days of Kwame Nkrumah to former president Jerry John Rawlings.

We have seen independence first and experienced coups, parliamentary democracy, revolution, and now a constitutional democracy. For businesspeople, the challenges still exist on an individual basis with politicians, many of whom have still not grasped the concept of public servitude.

I think the cultural acceptance of the modernity that has come with changes in global technology is perhaps the most significant change. Globalisation means our youthful populous is no different from their counterparts across the world.

And how much more needs to be done?

We still have a long way to go. The four-year political cycle means that many businesses still must plan in accordance with the possibility of change after four years.

Many businesses, mine included, have, over time, suffered with changes in the political players and power.

Many of our politicians have failed to support indigenous businesses and people in the way many other countries around the world have.

I believe that, with time, the younger ones will bring about the needed change, and rapidly. They tend to be less ethnocentric and in touch with the globe!

You are well known for organising the charity event to help Max Brito after the 1995 Rugby World Cup. What have been the other causes you have felt passionate about? And what have they involved?

Funnily enough, since the Max Brito event I regularly raise monies for a number of events, including supporting the Ghana Journalists Association, Families of Aviators (after the death of respected pilot Squadron Leader Dwamena), as well as the development of the turf at the main stadiums in Accra.

I set up a small fund out of the proceeds of my businesses to support some students to further themselves at all levels.

Perhaps most publicly was the support for the families of those who died in the tragic May 9 stadium disaster in 2001, when 126 people died after a football match between Kumasi Asante Kotoko (I was the chairman of the club at the time) and Accra Hearts of Oak.

I am actually trying to raise monies for the wife of one of the victims at present who is in need of serious medical assistance. My sadness is that, as a people, we do not seem geared to help one another beyond a point and our governments (plural) have continually shown no empathy with the people when it matters.

What does philanthropy mean to you personally?

It is the essence that bonds us as a people and defines us, both to the have-nots and globally. Individuals must do what they feel and what their consciences dictate. Hopefully, that will extend beyond family and into society.

Yes, we do live with the extended family culture, which protects most in many families, but these days it is simply not enough.

Would you describe yourself as philanthropic or as a philanthropist?

Neither actually. Most things I have been involved in have not been publicised, as was my wish. I suppose to others I have been philanthropic.

I am sadly not wealthy enough to perhaps support others and causes continually, and to the scale that would allow me to be referred to as a philanthropist.

A lot of the work you are involved in directly creates opportunities for others. Your emphasis on the development of football clubs has been credited with playing a big role in the blossoming of Ghana’s football on the continent and in the world. What have been some of your biggest success stories in developing Ghana’s football and what is the legacy of that today?

If I am credited then I am flattered. Certainly in looking at sports as a global phenomenon my approach in marrying the corporate world to soccer was the basis of the theme of getting “people” to appreciate that soccer is big business.

Academies were established using schools where coaches like Ernst Middendorp trained school teachers in nutrition, basic sports medicine and training.

A club newspaper was established, which all but outsold all other regular newspapers. Live match updates via the internet were established in 1999/2000 (ahead of its time) and our internet site was more interactive than anything on the continent at the time.

The rights of players was cemented at the time via contracts and the an internal player-transfer commission was established prior to the government’s establishment of the now famous Gbadegbe Commission on Player Transfers.

It was also of fundamental importance that there was a recognition that the most important people were the supporters.

It was so important to give them the respect and we succeeded in filling the stadiums during my tenure.

Much of what you do has a strong, sustainable business thrust. How does business development make a difference in the lives of ordinary Africans? Is there a philanthropic element in how you run your business affairs?

Business development for a nation that involves reinvestment and employment is the key to our cycle of existence and growth. This is why it is so important that investors have a permanent interest in the country.

Being African, I believe that looking after the greater family and society is par for the course.

What have been some of your proudest success stories in terms of your own philanthropy efforts?

I think they would have to be the ones least mentioned and that is in providing educational support for the less well off and seeing some of them blossom. The May 9 cause is something particularly dear and close to my heart. I have grown with many of the children and been involved with their lives and their aspirations.

Which other Africans do you look at that have inspired you with their generosity towards others?

We are a giving people and, as they say, charity starts at home. My mother, who raised me, taught me most about generosity.

Other notable people include my late best friend Adeboyega Ojora, Professor Yaw Nyarko (New York University), the former president and Mrs Rawlings, Yvonne Kumoji-Darko, Etienne Heyns (formerly of M-Net now at Graham Beck), to name but a few.

Some, like the son of Warren Buffett, Peter, have expressed the opinion that philanthropic gestures can often just be a way for the rich to justify their great wealth, without really making a change to the system that locks so many into poverty. How does that resonate for you, from an African perspective?

He is probably right. Everyone has their own motives and there are many who seek recognition from it while there are others who do it because they feel.

In the end, anyone and everyone who makes a difference to others needs to be commended.

I always hope that the actions of a few can motivate others to also join in trying to make a change.

You have expressed the opinion that politicians of today cannot be entrusted to find the solutions to the problems and challenges of Africa. Do you think civil society is making a big enough difference to improve ordinary lives? And what are the ways in which you are involved, as a concerned citizen?

I think the challenges of the poor and unacceptable attitude towards public servitude and a general lack of accountability still exists and, frankly, will continue until you get a strong person with the right values in charge. I have long since stopped believing that change will come from us as a whole. We all need to self-motivate and start acting but it is individual leadership that will motivate the consciences of others.

Are we too easily distracted by stories of dictators and warlords, when there are positive Africans doing highly constructive work?

Yes. I think Africans get a disproportionate amount of bad and negative reportage, blinding many to the beauty of our people and continent. The opportunities for a better life are often better or on a par with other parts of the world.

Is there a sea change, do you think, in Africans reinvesting in their own countries and ‘doing it for themselves’?

Africa perhaps has not marketed itself as well as it could in terms of the global perception of it. As a result, old perceptions remain, when in reality many European countries are now the ‘beggars’.

We have many great Africans and many great and rapidly growing African nations. Africa is, in fact, the continent of the future as far as investing is concerned. Our continent definitely provides us with choices in terms of language, location, culture, religion, stability and so on – something that few other locales can offer.

You still unfailingly commemorate the May 9 stadium disaster. Why has this tragedy remained so close to your heart?

(Many) people died needlessly, children lost parents, spouses lost breadwinners, a nation lost its children, and I was determined that they should not have died in vain. Simply put, I care. If you feel, you do – if you speak and do nothing, then you don’t care.

» This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust.

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