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Entrepreneurs shine at African Diaspora Marketplace Expo
Diplomatic Pouch / September 24, 2015

By Larry Luxner

To say Brian Lukano is excited about Biogen Kenya would be an understatement.

His company collects used cooking oil from hotels and restaurants, converts it into biodiesel and sells it at a steep discount for use in trucks, electric generators or anything with a diesel engine.

“There’s an amazing market for this,” the Nairobi businessman told us one recent morning. “I come in, I collect waste vegetable oil from your kitchen, I clean it up and sell it back to you at a price you’ll never find at the pump.”

Biogen Kenya’s B100 refined biodiesel sells for the equivalent of 56 cents a liter, compared to 81 cents a liter on the streets of Nairobi. Lukano says his potential market exceeds 330 hotels; at the moment, he’s working with InterContinental, Hilton and Pride Inn — and trying to bring more clients aboard.

Lukano was one of 35 entrepreneurs exhibiting their products and services Sept. 15-16 at the African Diaspora Marketplace Business Expo. The conference, held in Silver Spring, Maryland, was co-sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Western Union, Deloitte and various other business entities.

Not far from Lukano’s booth were Delaware resident Bridget Mbeng, president of Mbeng Adio Mushroom Farmers of Cameroon, and Fetlework Tefferi, owner of Brundo Ethiopian Spice Co. in Oakland, Calif.

Both women won technical assistance packages and round-trip tickets to Africa courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines, along with companies from Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda. In addition, seven African entities — ranging from NextGen Solar of Cape Verde to Nigeria’s First Atlantic Semiconductors & Microelectronics — took home the full award package of $50,000 in venture capital, technical assistance and airfare.

Liesl Riddle, a professor of international business at George Washington University, has spent much of her career studying diaspora communities around the world. She helped create the African Diaspora Marketplace (ADM), which first took place in 2010 and again in 2012; last month’s event was billed as ADM III.

“This is basically a business plan competition for African-Americans and African migrants in the United States to have business partnerships with local companies in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Riddle, noting that this year’s 35 finalists were chosen from among more than 400 applicants. “These businesses provide a variety of development benefits including employment, technology transfer and empowerment.”

Twelve African ambassadors attended this year’s event, a prelude to Global Diaspora Week 2015, scheduled for Oct. 11-17.

“I’ve done surveys of all the participants who have applied since 2009, and the No. 1 perceived obstacle to diaspora investment [in Africa] is government bureaucracy and red tape,” Riddle said. “It’s a concern of doing business in any country, but this is by far more of an obstacle than corruption or access to energy. In fact, corruption does not even hit the top five, because the truth of the matter is, corruption is a known quantity. But it’s uncertainty that adds to the cost of doing business in a volatile way — not knowing how long something is going to take.”

Recognizing that emigrants who still have strong sentimental and family ties with their countries of origin can be agents of development and investment — rather than people to be ignored or even scorned — about a dozen countries have created divisions or even entire ministries of diaspora affairs including Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ghana.

Some emigrants go back and live in their home countries, said Riddle, while others run their businesses from the United States, making only periodic trips to Africa.

“The U.S. has seen a real upsurge in African migrants of late — particularly in main gateway cities — so it’s easier to reach them as diaspora communities in order to mobilize them,” noted the GWU professor. “The diaspora businesses can be some of our best information brokers in helping American businesses enter these markets. When it comes to distribution channels and forging relationships, it’s very important to utilize this insider diaspora knowledge.”

Barbara Span is vice-president of global public affairs at Western Union, which operates in 200 countries and last year completed 255 million consumer-to-consumer transactions worth $85 billion. WU is a leading money transfer provider for millions of people sending remittances to Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

“One of the most important roles of an embassy is to develop investment in, and business for, their country,” said Span. However, embassies aren’t always as responsive as they should be, she said. “We hear from our [African] diaspora that they’d like more contact with their embassies. They need more information and guidance to invest in the country, but it’s often hard to access embassies on that level.”

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