Title: Ghana expatriates return home to seize opportunities from booming economy
Banker Julian Opuni and his fashion designer wife, Rebekah, are among a growing number of Ghanaians returning to their homeland to work and build a better life
By: Afua Hirsch / Dated: 19-12-12
At a 19-storey glass skyscraper in downtown Accra, Ghana, the daily exodus of office workers is beginning in earnest. Men and women in suits spill out into the equatorial sunset and congested city streets from the headquarters of Fidelity Bank – one of a couple of dozen banks profiting from the west African country's economic boom.
In a modest, tidy corner office on the second floor, Julian Opuni, 40, is working late. Since returning to Ghana from the UK this year after almost 20 years working for Lloyds TSB, he has immersed himself in helping Fidelity to capitalise on the growth in small- and medium-sized businesses.
"It is a good time for the banking sector in Ghana," said Opuni. "The banks have benefitted from what's happening in the broader economy – the oil find, increased earnings and the high price of gold. Ghana has lots of opportunities, and there are so many markets that haven't been tapped into yet. The banking sector in Ghana is very receptive at the moment to new ideas."
Opuni is one of many Ghanaians attracted by Ghana's steady economic growth – which reached 14.4% last year, driven primarily by the boom in oil, construction, technology and agriculture – to leave a successful career in the UK and return to his homeland.
Raised in Ghana until the age of 18, Opuni travelled to the UK and embarked on a senior management training programme with Lloyds TSB. Like many of the estimated 800,000 Ghanaians abroad he had a vague hope of returning one day. But it was after getting married four years ago that he was provided with the impetus to do so.
Now a fashion designer whose clothes sell under a label with her name, Rebekah Opuni grew up in Ghana but moved reluctantly to the UK after meeting Julian.
"I stayed in the UK because of Julian but I didn't like living there," said the 28-year-old. "I studied fashion at the University of Hertfordshire, but it was cold, I didn't make a lot of friends, I didn't have that much in common with people there. I was very keen to come back to Ghana."
The couple have a one-year-old son, Micah Junior – or MJ – and say they enjoy having a stronger support network in Ghana, allowing Rebekah to combine childcare with running her own business.
Her niche of European-style white wedding dresses with sweetheart necklines and African-inspired silhouettes is filling a gap in the market in Ghana, as a growing number of people with cash to spend are willing to splash out on her gowns, which sell for upwards of £700.
"This is the perfect time to start a business like mine in Ghana," she said. "The whole fashion industry is starting to get going, but no one else is doing something like this.
"A few years ago an imported dress would have had way more prestige, but now people love wearing African fabric, and they appreciate designers who can put good quality on it. And there is extra cash in the system – more people have money to spend now."
The Opunis enjoy a degree of luxury in Ghana. They are building themselves a family home and enjoy weekend retreats at some of the country's high-end lakeside or seaside resorts, and eating at top hotels such as the Mövenpick Ambassador during the week.
They are part of a growing community of affluent Ghanaians and business travellers who have helped the hotel and restaurant sector expand by 11% in recent years. Ghana is now one of 23 African countries that have reached middle-income status – a dramatic change in fortunes from the economic and political turbulence that followed independence from Britain in 1957.
But the couple say they recognise that they are, nevertheless, members of an affluent minority.
"I do feel part of a bubble," said Opuni. "When I think how much it costs to pay our driver or our nanny, I know that we can go to lunch or dinner and spend the same in one night as they earn together for the month. That does make me feel bad.
"But the reality is as someone who has returned, I have a genuine interest in making Ghana better, and I have a global picture in mind.
"This is still an emerging part of the world, and a lot of the recovery will come from people who tap into these emerging markets."
But it was not just the opportunities in Ghana that pulled the Opunis back. Julian said he experienced racism in the UK, which cast doubts on his prospects in the country compared with in the booming economy of his homeland.
"There was definitely a glass ceiling at Lloyds," he said.
Opuni said he was happy about the way his career was progressing in the UK, but he still felt limited. "I knew I could never become CEO of Lloyds TSB. But when I started at Fidelity, one of the first things my director said to me was, 'The thing about Ghana is, you could become CEO one day. Or you could start your own bank. Or you could become minister of finance.'"