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A dirty job that made a poor man filthy rich

Joseph Agyepong Siaw wanted to become a pilot or a marine engineer, but ended up selling school books on the street. He made his fortune from what everyone else didn’t want – with the help of tricycles from China.

He may be one of the richest men in Ghana, employing 250,000 of his countrymen, but it all began in struggle. Joseph Agyepong Siaw holds his lean, early years in abhorrence. Reason: the serial entrepreneur and founder of the Jospong Group of Companies had the odds stacked against him from the day he was born.

“My mother told me that when it was time to give birth to me, she had to move to the village because my father had three wives and traditionally, in the Ghanaian culture, when you are in that situation you have to go to your parents to deliver your baby. So when she was walking in a farm, she went into labor and started crying for help. At the time there was no hospital so we had to call on the village prophetess to come and assist in my delivery,” says Agyepong as he talks to FORBES AFRICA of his humble past in the conference room of his Adjiriganor office, in the country’s capital Accra.

The walls of the room say it all; they are covered with trappings of wealth and numerous entrepreneurship awards.

Agyepong is an enigma in corporate Ghana. He shies away from interviews and public appearances – very little has been documented about the serial entrepreneur who has made a fortune through revolutionizing solid waste disposal in the West African country. He is assertive and confident with a demeanor that commands attention without being arrogant. His personality is warm and engaging. What was to be a 30-minute conversation went on for three hours.

Agyepong finally settles down to recount his journey, one that began with the wrong name.

“My mother named me Felix because my father was not there during the time of my birth. So I used the name Felix from kindergarten to primary school two. It was then that my father saw my name and said to me ‘your name is not Felix; it is Joseph.’ So my name was changed to Joseph.”

Joseph Agyepong Siaw wanted to become a pilot or a marine engineer, but ended up selling school books on the street. He made his fortune from what everyone else didn’t want – with the help of tricycles from China.

He may be one of the richest men in Ghana, employing 250,000 of his countrymen, but it all began in struggle. Joseph Agyepong Siaw holds his lean, early years in abhorrence. Reason: the serial entrepreneur and founder of the Jospong Group of Companies had the odds stacked against him from the day he was born.

“My mother told me that when it was time to give birth to me, she had to move to the village because my father had three wives and traditionally, in the Ghanaian culture, when you are in that situation you have to go to your parents to deliver your baby. So when she was walking in a farm, she went into labor and started crying for help. At the time there was no hospital so we had to call on the village prophetess to come and assist in my delivery,” says Agyepong as he talks to FORBES AFRICA of his humble past in the conference room of his Adjiriganor office, in the country’s capital Accra.

The walls of the room say it all; they are covered with trappings of wealth and numerous entrepreneurship awards.

Agyepong is an enigma in corporate Ghana. He shies away from interviews and public appearances – very little has been documented about the serial entrepreneur who has made a fortune through revolutionizing solid waste disposal in the West African country. He is assertive and confident with a demeanor that commands attention without being arrogant. His personality is warm and engaging. What was to be a 30-minute conversation went on for three hours.

Agyepong finally settles down to recount his journey, one that began with the wrong name.

“My mother named me Felix because my father was not there during the time of my birth. So I used the name Felix from kindergarten to primary school two. It was then that my father saw my name and said to me ‘your name is not Felix; it is Joseph.’ So my name was changed to Joseph.”

Agyepong also established The Africa Institute of Sanitation and Waste Management (AISWAM), in partnership with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), to help meet the technological and human resource needs of the waste management industry. AISWAM gives people the required skills for efficient waste management using modern technology. For Agyepong it is not so much about the money but building an organization that can stand the test of time.

“I am passionate about getting good concepts that have longevity and I like industrialization. So, all the things that I was doing, I was looking at what businesses will succeed in the future. Waste is generated every day. So I thought if I got into it early, and do it right, I would last. I was not looking at it in terms of how much money I could make today. No matter what happened with the economy we would always need waste management, so I decided if I just move into it and establish the base well, I will thrive.”

There were, however, some roadblocks along the way. In 2013 the World Bank debarred Zoomlion Ghana and Zoomlion Liberia for two years. Zoomlion was accused of fraud and paying bribes to secure contracts.

“In 2008, we went into Liberia where we secured a World Bank contract and one of our staff, during the contract proceedings, committed certain errors, which were an infraction. The contract was for the construction of a landfill,” says Agyepong.

“During the auditing processes of the bid, certain things were not recorded correctly and there were certain errors that were made by our staff. This was the first international contract we had as a company moving into the international field. We delivered on the project and got paid but during the auditing process, the World Bank saw that some recordings were not done properly and we got blacklisted for two years. It was a very big blow.”

It was a wake-up call for Agyepong. He immediately set out to strengthen corporate governance throughout the Jospong Group of Companies. In 2015, the company was removed from the World Bank’s list of sanctioned companies. Creating jobs has always been key for Agyepong, which resonates with the government.

“From Zoomlion we started creating jobs and we have more than 250,000 people working in our organization and this is a jackpot because there are huge employment opportunities. I saw the need for government to find employment opportunities but they did not know how to go about it. In the waste management business your best customer is government. You have to work with the ministry of local government and policymakers of government to achieve your goal.”

From canned beans to the African dream of owning a slice of the states

Since the establishment of Zoomlion, Agyepong has created two to three companies every year. Investment and diversification is more important to him than comfort.

“One thing I did was I invested in my business. Every amount was put back into the business. I stayed with my wife and three children in a single room, built 10 companies before I built my house. I don’t limit myself to one business. So every year I kept moving into different businesses. My passion is employment generation so I am not looking at how do you manage the business but rather just get the right people and pay them well to manage each business.”

“The growth of the company has been phenomenal since its inception as a printing press, with operations in diverse sectors at the moment. This is hugely attributed to Siaw’s leadership style as well as his focus on quality service delivery at a competitive price. The core philosophy of the business is to identify opportunities and provide solutions, roll out innovative business models, build capacities to provide value and nurture them to become market leaders,” says Chris Koney, a journalist for the Business and Financial Times in Ghana.

Agyepong is obsessed about finding solutions to everyday problems. “Wherever there is a problem, I like finding out how to solve it. At that time, everybody was talking about how much of a problem we had with waste management so I moved to solve the problem,” he says.

Currently, Agyepong is looking for a solution to curtail the numerous fires in Ghana. Given his proclivity for out-of-the-box thinking – and the skill to spot the potential of a tricycle in China – the flames could soon be doused.

Source: forbesafrica.com

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