From Shoeshine Boy & Trotro Mate to Business Mogul: The untold story of Seidu Agongo
For many, being born into a wealthy home is almost an insurance against the difficulties and discomforts of life. It is sometimes even seen as a lunch-pad to riches. For business mogul and philanthropist, this is far from truth.
Born to a wealthy man in a village in one of Ghana’s poorest regions, Upper East, young Seidu, who targeted the impossible, neither had life on a silver platter nor inherited any lunch-pad riches. Unlike many children of the wealthy few, Seidu did not stay with his biological parents to enjoy the conveniences that his dad’s wealth could buy.
Despite that early-life hard luck, young Seidu trudged through life’s trenches with bare audacity until his intense, stern gaze into poverty’s face eventually bought him freedom from the wants of this world.
Realising early in his life that he had absolutely no one but himself to blame and hold responsible for everything that either happened or did not happen to him – whether right or wrong – young Seidu would fuel his mission to escape from poverty with sheer hunger and anger.
As he told CTV’s Nana Otu Darko in a recent interview, hunger and anger drove him to think his way out of the trenches of poverty.
Gifted with wisdom to know from very early in his life that “my dad’s wealth wasn’t mine”, tough Seidu would start from very humble beginnings to conquer the behemoth heights of poverty.
“I wasn’t born into riches. I didn’t inherit riches although my father was a rich man. People who inherit riches normally don’t succeed because they would have had a pampered upbringing and mess up later”, he waxed philosophical to Nana Otu Darko.
“I’m a very tough and fearless person but humble. I grew up at Burma Camp among soldiers, so, you can imagine how tough I am. I have been a cobbler (shoeshine boy) before. I was also a bus conductor (trotro driver’s mate) at a point in my life”, he recounted.
“It is hard work and the grace of God that has brought me this far”, Mr Agongo, who now owns media giant Class Media Group and a plethora of other businesses, acknowledged the handiwork of the Divine God in his life.
To him, “it is foolish” for anyone to rely on their parents’ wealth to build their life because whereas hunger and anger may have been the motivators that fueled their ancestors’ hustles, a voracious appetite to “show-off” on social media in “designer” stuff might, more than likely, be the motivator for the progeny.
“Hunger makes you think. Secondly, anger can drive you to success. It has nothing to do with your parents’ wealth. I know the children of the rich will suffer in the future because they would not manage that wealth properly because their parents were driven by hunger and poverty but they are being driven by social media, so, they buy designer belts, shoes, and cars. You’ll never succeed that way”, the owner of the now-defunct Heritage Bank Limited continued.
“I’m grateful to God for how he wired me because I realised from an early age that I can’t blame anyone for my circumstances. I blame myself for everything”.
And, so, he became his own boss from the very outset. As CEO of his own shoeshine busy, young Agongo put his very heart into his job. Excellence was his target and excellence he hit.
With the same fervour, dedication and commitment, young Seidu took his trotro mate job to dizzying heights.
He was on to a good start – thanks to his toughness and rugged audacity to succeed.
He then took things a notch higher. “I was the very first person to set up a communication centre at Burma Camp”, he said with well-deserved pride, recalling: “People queued to speak to their soldier relatives abroad at my booths. It was very successful”.
“By the grace of God, no enterprise I establish ever fails; it’s just that I don’t get the right people to run them. It’s the same for all business owners in the whole of Ghana. Businessmen are struggling and suffering to get honest, decent managers and workers but don’t get them. It’s difficult because all that those people think about is what my family and I have and how they will mess it up, without thinking that the better you run my business, the more experience you gain to run yours in the future”, the media mogul bemoaned.
But it would take him quite some doing before his bank and media forays.
“Real businessmen have humility and are able to do even the dirtiest and lowliest of jobs but in our part of the world, businessmen are all about showing off with big cars, among others, so, they make the concept of business look different”.
Far from being a show-off and keeping his eyes on the ball, Seidu Agongo turned his attention to even much bigger things.
“While at the Burma Camp, I loaned the proceeds from my communication centre business to the soldiers at a 30-per-cent interest rate because I didn’t know what to do with the huge profit. I did very well with that business, too”.
“From there, I went into rice, sugar and tin tomatoes trading at Nima. I created the bustling business environment you see at Nima today by virtue of my business. I attracted people to Nima to trade. Everyone knows me at Nima as ‘Seidu the Rice Seller’. I could sell GHS4 million worth of rice in a day. You can ask Olam, Stallion and others. Banks were unable to count my money and, so, they did what they could and returned the following day to continue counting the money”.
“I drove trailer trucks myself to go and cart rice to sell. I could bring 20 to 30 containers of oil to Nima. The whole of the Nima Roundabout gets clogged with human and vehicular traffic just because of my trading activities there. I’ve done a lot of work in my life but my philosophy is the work must impact the lives of people positively”.
“The rice brands I sold were mostly imported brands from Thailand and USA. I only sold foreign rice. So, it meant we were creating jobs for those countries anytime we consumed their rice. It wasn’t meaningful to me because I believe money must be made in a satisfactory way to help other people but not through any means at all, irrespective of the consequences”.
“So, I began searching for institutionalised businesses protected by government regulations to establish more businesses. That’s what got me to set up Heritage Bank. Such businesses can outlive me and last for decades because they would have had protection from government regulatory institutions”.
Heritage Bank Limited, which he said “was doing well” even when it was collapsed by the Bank of Ghana, was one of those institutionalised businesses.
Ironically, it didn’t get to enjoy the regulatory protection that had attracted Mr Agongo to venture into such waters. The giver of the protection killed the seeker of that protection.
“The success of every bank depends on the kind of board members you have: are they people you want to control, or do you want them to use their knowledge and expertise to run the institution independently of you? I didn’t want remote-controlled board members. I wanted people who could look me in the face and tell me the truth, so, I had very good board members. For instance, the late Prof Kwesi Botchwey was the Board Chair. Also, Mr Benson Nutsukpui, a former President of the Ghana Bar Association, a very respectable person who won’t allow anyone to dent his reputation, was a member of the board”.
Despite the bank’s death, Mr Agongo’s toughness isn’t shaken one bit. “I came into this world to experience life, not to avoid it, so, I am always prepared for whatever happens. If I can help the situation, I would do everything possible to salvage what I can and leave the rest to God, but if it is beyond me, I just leave it all to God to deal with”.
“I don’t want to go too much into the Heritage Bank matter”, he pleaded, explaining: “Because up till now, I haven’t been given any letter about why the bank was collapsed but, maybe, the regulators know why that happened. Apart from the announcement of the bank’s collapse in the media, I never had any official correspondence to that effect. I don’t fault anybody because every misfortunate has a purpose. So, I don’t question God about anything that happens. He knows best”.
Rather than worrying about the millions of dollars he lost following the collapse of the bank, Alhaji Seidu Agongo – very typical of his philanthropic nature – is more concerned about the fate of his workers who suddenly lost their jobs.
“I was worried about the bank’s collapse because my workers who had families and dependents lost their jobs and livelihoods suddenly just because of the decision of the central bank to collapse the bank. So, the human aspect of it really breaks my heart but I leave it all to God, He knows best”.
“It’s unfortunate that the major reason that motivates certain actions of the typical Ghanaian is short-sightedness. Even animals protect each other, so, to collapse banks suddenly without thinking of the repercussions on the workers and their families and dependents was heartbreaking for me. I strongly believe that any action that would have a rippling effect on a lot of people and their lives and livelihood must be well-thought-through otherwise, the life of the person taking the action will even go in the reverse direction. Institutions must not act willy-nilly but I believe God is king”.
Mr Agongo, a young tough shoeshine boy and trotro mate, who now employs and pays an “uncountable number of workers”, said: “Even if Heritage Bank doesn’t bounce back, something bigger than it will come up because I have vowed to sacrifice myself to the service of the nation by doing something special for this country – something that will make you proud to be a Ghanaian; not material things like cars, etc.”
As for his media empire, which consists of nine radio stations across the country, a TV station and a news portal, Mr Agongo said he sought to use them to correct the waywardness of the country.
“I saw Ghana as going wayward. Not that I disrespect anybody. So, I wondered how I could get a medium through which well-meaning Ghanaians and I could speak to the masses. I feel my media houses have achieved only 3 per cent of the vision for which I set them up. They are region-based and the objective for setting them up was for them to own the regions and impact the lives of the people in those parts of the country but I don’t see much of that”.
“I don’t dictate to my radio stations what to say and not to say. Even if I’m in the news for a bad reason, I won’t stop them from reporting on it”.
What Drives His Business Success?
“Every successful businessman must be humble enough for even his security man to be able to approach him with new ideas because as a businessman, whatever people tell you is important since all knowledge is not in one person’s head”, Mr Agongo, who rises for work every 3 am, said.
“One thing about Ghanaian businesspeople is that they like to show off. They buy the latest cars and chase everything in skirts but money is spiritual, it doesn’t like to be messed about with. And God has already planned everything in the Universe, so, all you have to do is find your place in it and fit in because we’re insignificant in the grand scheme of things. So, there are so many factors that lead to the failure of businesses in Ghana. Even government policies are a factor as well as hatred, jealousy, the proverbial ‘pull him down’ syndrome and stereotypes – Who is he? Where’s he from? How can a northerner, whose kin and kith are known to be fufu pounders, security guards and farm hands, own a radio station? Are you God? You are not God. It’s all hatred”.
“[Barack] Obama, from Kenya, rose to become the US President. As we speak, a Briton of Indian ancestry is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It means you can’t, in the slightest way, alter God’s plan, so, shut up and be in your corner and do what you can and leave the rest for God. But, sometimes, we try to interfere with God’s plan. So, for success, there must be a change in mindset. You must go through the process rather than chasing overnight success”.
“Once you go through the mill and you establish yourself, it is difficult to bring you down”.
Attitude of The Ghanaian Worker
“If care is not taken, it may get to a time that no businessperson would establish any jobs because the attitude of the average Ghanaian worker is bad and appalling. Every business is like an infant. It needs nurturing. But Ghanaian workers don’t think about the job but rather what they would get from it. We need to prioritise things. First of all, you can’t make money without putting in efforts that would result in money as the outcome. You have to use the strength, wisdom and knowledge God had gifted you with to make the things you want manifest because God didn’t give anybody money to come onto this earth. If He wanted it so, He would have designed it so. But He gave you wisdom, knowledge and strength to work and, so, if somebody has employed you to do a certain job, care about the job: what can I do to make it better? What are some of the weaknesses? What level do I want to take this job in the next two years? Once you think that way, money has no choice but to come. Every business evolves but a typical Ghanaian worker is all about the money. Even when you express gratitude, they wish it could be money. So, you should be able to gauge the stage of the business and tie it in with your demands and expectations because there is no free lunch. It’s a two-way affair: you can’t get what you don’t create.
What Gives Him Satisfaction
I’m satisfied when I am able to help a lot of people and families to realise their dreams. At the end of the day, that is what matters. It’s not about the car you drive or plane you fly in. all that is vanity. But if I am able to help one million people and their families and dependents, at least that would reduce poverty and suffering. There are some brilliant students from poor homes who would have gone to waste had I not adopted them or intervened one way or the other.
Is Ghana on the right path
I feel Ghana has never been on the right path even from Nkrumah’s regimes. I won’t talk about only this leadership. I feel Nkrumah, Kufuor, Jerry Rawlings, Atta Mills, this leadership [Akufo-Addo], we’ve not been under any right leadership because Ghana has no structures. If you are a president, it is only the structure that protects you. The structure makes you the commander of the Ghana Armed Forces. If your structures are not right, what do you think we can achieve? There are no structures. Institutions are not right. You can’t achieve anything. Forget it. So, businesses will keep collapsing. The institutions are not strong. The judiciary is protected by the institutions; if it’s weak, nobody would want to be a judge. The presidency is protected by an institution if it’s weak … If a businessman is coming from Singapore or America, he looks at the institutions, not the presidency. That is it. And, since Nkrumah’s time to date, institutions are not working. Let me be very frank with you, I’m coming from America to invest $100,000 in Ghana. I will be looking at the institutions, not the presidency because the president will be gone in eight years, maximum but how is our police system working, how is our military working, how is our judicial system working, how is our labour system working? It’s the institutions that protect your investment. So, that is why people who amass wealth in government become paupers after leaving office in about five years because the structures are not there to protect him but if you look at somebody like Donald Trump, his father was into real estate and he still benefits from that inheritance. So, if the institution doesn’t work, discretionary actions take over. Institutions protect growth, protect businessmen, protect investments, protect even succession plans, so, trust me, you can’t get one 100-year-old business in Ghana because we don’t have the institutions to protect them to grow to that extent. Even wills can be manipulated. So, since Nkrumah’s time to date, if those things are not sorted out, we are just wasting our time. I’m a realist. The sad story is that once the institutions and the structures are not working well, we are all behaving like mosquitoes.
‘Time will eventually expose you’. And, so, time did expose Mr Agongo to the world as a strong-willed businessman who weathers whatever storms fight his progress and shrugs off hurdles.
But, perhaps, time, has more to expose than the Agongo we see now, for ‘vindication lies within its womb’.