Success stories have always been a motivator for rising entrepreneurs. The “one day I’ll have my own narrative” mindset usually doubles and gives them the courage to wade through storms and emerge unharmed. But what kind of vibe and drive can be afforded from reading the story of a man who went from rags to riches? You may have heard such clichés about entrepreneurs who made themselves enterprise giants despite being born into an underprivileged background. To prove that there are such people actually in existence, and not just hear-says in the world’s seemingly large book of moguls, the name Joseph Agyepong Siaw is a perfect example.
He may well be one of Ghana’s richest, with a staff base of 250,000 of his countrymen and a multimillion dollar company Zoomlion preceding his reputation as a battle-hardened and wildly successful businessman. But Joseph’s story began in a struggle that couldn’t have been any worse – little wonder why the entrepreneur holds his lean early years in abhorrence. Right from the day he first saw the light of day, this serial entrepreneur and founder of the Jospong Group of Companies had the odds stacked against him.
When he was time for Joseph’s birth, his mother had to relocate to the village because the father had a trio of spouses, and Ghana’s tradition warrants in such situation; the mother goes to her parents to deliver the baby. Due to the lack of any maternity facility in the village, a village prophetess was called upon to assist in the birth. So when it’s said that his outset couldn’t have been any worse, with the odds right up against him, no exaggeration is intended.
Agyepong, an Accra-based Ghanaian, is easily the enigma of corporate Ghana. His unpopularity owes to his shying away from media attention and public appearances. And so, very little has been recorded about the man who a “filthy job made filthy rich.” By revolutionising waste disposal in his country, Joseph has made a name for himself in modern Ghana and commands attention in many spheres.
Joseph, whose name was initially Felix, was one of the 17 mouths a father with little means of livelihood had to feed. A dwindling business in photography that yielded little profits could not possibly cater for the entire family, and seeing that Joseph knew he had to rely on his wits and brawn for survival.
Growing up in the village was quite challenging, as he often had to attend school barefooted and complete a shift at the farm before heading for the classroom.
For not being able to afford even the cheapest cream for his skin, he had to chew palm nut and use the oil extracts to cream himself up. Asides sleeping in mud houses without electricity, Joseph had to labour hard to afford his daily bread. His hardened palms today are a reminder of his scabrous years of using cutlasses to clear weed, and his endurance is the outcrop of 30 km walks to different locations to find work. The toilful years only reinforced his resolve to succeed, and with efforts from himself and an elder brother, Daniel, Joseph, and his siblings were relocated from the village to Accra. With the move, he dreamed of becoming either a pilot or a marine engineer, but fate had something in store for him on the streets.
After Joseph completed his first course in electrical engineering in 1990, his father made known his financial incapability to further contribute to his education, which harbingered his switch into business. His father suggested Joseph assisted his mother’s little trading business and agreeing; he started selling exercise books on the street. That was the first step in a long journey that led to one of the most diversified holding companies in Ghana. All the way from petty trading, Joseph is now the key man in the strategic fixtures of the Jospong Group of Companies, with operations in Asia and the Middle East. Agyepong’s conglomerate has interests in a variety of sectors, with giant strides in waste management, ICT and banking. With slightly unorthodox gameplay, he believes his moves are under the watch of a higher power and directed at appointed times.
At the point where he had a little exercise bookselling business to start and end with, Joseph was saddened to the point of tears because he thought his destiny had been cut short. His life moment met him with a message from a higher power which instructed him to pay heed to his parent’s directions for him to achieve success. With this signal at heart, he fully stooped school and put all his efforts into assisting his mother’s small business. At the age of 22, Joseph would go to his mother’s shop early, pack boxes of exercise books and walk off with them atop his head to sell along Accra’s busy streets. Eventually, his resilience paid off, and he accumulated enough profits to salt away in other businesses.
From selling shirts to peddling jewellery during the yuletide, Joseph learnt point- by- point businesses as demand curves that change their shapes.
As he played his cards right in different ramifications, he gathered enough to expand. He saw an avenue to start his own printing business and asked his mother for USD 0.70 as start-up capital. He aimed to supply schools with stationery products, but didn’t have enough equipment. Because of this gap, he became a marketer who took orders from schools, completed them in a printing press and took his various commissions. The process helped him build his clientele until he had enough money to buy a machine to start printing the books himself – thus was the birth of Jospong Printing Press in 1995.
The following year, Agyepong stumbled upon a business opportunity in construction. After a pitch as a contractor, and delivering the contract by outsourcing the various building activities to local tradespeople, Agyepong in the process established his construction arm of business – Extended Builders. In 1998, during Ghana’s elections, the entrepreneur saw another opportunity to print t-shirts for campaigns and taking it gave birth to Appointed Time Screen Printing. Since then, the company has established connections and made names in oil and gas, logistics, quarry and mining, manufacturing and agro-business.
But the real moment came alongside the solid waste difficulties that upturned Ghana in 2006. Due to environmental hazards, it became a real plague in the country. The United Nations Conference on Human Settlement had a report which stated that between 33 percent and 50 percent of solid waste generated within most cities in low and middle-income countries are not collected. Also, a 2002 report for the African Development Bank stipulated that Ghana generated about 3.6 million tons of solid waste per year, which predominantly comprised organic compost such as food, plastic, and wood. While others saw facts and figures, Joseph Agyepong saw yet another business opportunity he couldn’t ignore, one which became his most lucrative business. To make his next venture successful, the entrepreneur knew he had to overcome stereotypes associated with waste management – bringing a dignified way of making money from dirt.
Agyepong’s eureka moment finally caught up with him on his first visit to China. He saw the Chinese using tricycles, so he purchased on in a container and shipped it back to Ghana. After some time, he started building an assembly plant in Ghana to produce the tricycles himself. The idea thinker did this because he needed the tricycles to aid more people in collecting more waste because if he had relied on trucks, they could break down and land him in serious business trouble. He then went to districts to convince the government into adopting this idea, giving them 25 tricycles to try the method.
Soon, the demand for tricycles had gone up, and the next problem for Agyepong was cash flow. For the lack of profitability of the tricycle venture, he did some outside-the-box thinking to raise funds. He went to the bank and asked for a loan to expand his printing business, and when the lobbying proved fruitful, he used the money to buy tricycles instead to develop the business in all districts. This was the emergence of Zoomlion. With a USD 6.8 K bank loan, the company began its expansion, stating with 1,000 tricycles. The company currently has 15,000 of those and 30,000 motorised tricycles, with a fleet of waste management trucks. Zoomlion now has a combined 3,000 number core staff and handles 85,000 workers under various forms of Public Private Partnerships (PPP), with operations in Togo, Zambia, Angola, Liberia, and Equatorial Guinea.
To help meet the technological needs of the waste management industry, Agyepong established the Africa Institute of Sanitation and Waste Management (AISWAM) in collaboration with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. Despite Zoomlion being accused of fraud and bribes and its resulting ban in Ghana and Liberia for two years by the World Bank, Agyepong yet strengthened corporate governance in the Jospong Group of Companies, which removed it from the list of sanctioned companies in 2015. This entrepreneur stayed with his wife and children in a single room, built ten companies before building his own house and has a passion for employment generation. When there’s a problem, Joseph Agyepong wants to solve it, and that’s why he is looking into the numerous fire outbreaks in Ghana. With his proven proclivity for thinking outside the box, these flames would soon be doused.
Zoomlion’s growth has been phenomenal since its inception as a printing press, all thanks to Siaw’s leadership style and his determination to do business anywhere and anyhow, alongside his focus on quality service delivery at competitive prices. While identifying opportunities, providing solutions, rolling out innovative business models and building capacities to offer value, Joseph Agyepong’ story waxed into success and remains at the helm of affairs in the business landscape of Ghana.
Feature image courtesy: Forbes Africa