When Abdul Karim Abdullah founded Afrochella in 2017, he considered holding the festival in New York City. He’d grown up between there and Ghana and imagined the festival as a way to come together with friends and associates who knew a similarly bicontinental existence. After scouting expenses, however, he decided Ghana was a better option. He expected 2,500 attendees that first year; almost double that showed up.
A month ago, Afrochella’s third iteration, a one-day celebration of community and culture in the country’s capital of Accra, attracted 16,000 people from the U.S., Europe, and the Caribbean. Perhaps more important than the turnout was the giveback: Abdullah and his partners hired over 700 people from the region and highlighted dozens of local businesses, pumping money back into the country.
“In three years, we’ve been able to include educational programs like panels, scholarships, and community service, and we’re getting bigger companies to activate in Ghana,” Abdullah says. “When we first started going to Ghana, we never had that space where we could connect and learn from one another, but now we’ve created a space where people can come and see some of the amazing talent on the continent.”
Afrochella is by no means an isolated phenomenon. Actor Boris Kodjoe, whose father is from Ghana, has traveled to Africa for the past several years; last December, he hosted the inaugural Essence Full Circle Festival there, joined by 100 business executives, entertainers, and influencers. The festival purposely coincided with the Year of Return, an international initiative backed by Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo, marking the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in the United States. It was just one piece of a larger mission to incentivize members of the Black diaspora to return and for Ghana to tap its own talent and resources to develop the continent.
“It’s great to see all of these African governments working together and collaborating instead of being pitted against each other or being used as pawns in other people’s wars.”
This isn’t the first call to return to Africa, of course. Most famously in 1914, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association became the largest mass movement in African American history. Garvey believed that Black equality in America was an unrealistic notion and that Black people should nationalize and seek self-emancipation in Liberia. Similarly, in early 20th century Jamaica, sects of Rastafarianism called for resettlement in Africa, specifically in Ethiopia, where they believed Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie was a divine figure called to lead African people to the promised land.
While those movements were primarily grounded in racial and religious identity, the recent pushback to Africa may prioritize business over Blackness. According to Nasdaq, in 2019, half of the 10 fastest-growing economies were African countries. And recently, 24 African nations became parties to the Continental Free Trade Agreement (CFTA), an agreement that would remove tariffs from common African goods, increasing intracontinental trade. It stands to be the largest trade agreement in the world, with a consumer base worth $2.5 trillion.
“People all over the world have racked their brains about why such a fertile, entrepreneurial continent hasn’t gone further. It’s the breadbasket of the world. It has more natural resources than any other region,” says Lauren Dunn, an associate at Pan African Capital Group, a private equity and investment banking firm servicing sub-Saharan Africa. “A lot of it is because of made-up borders that were imposed upon the countries. It’s great to see all of these African governments working together and collaborating instead of being pitted against each other or being used as pawns in other people’s wars.”
As such, West Africa — specifically Ghana — has become attractive to investors, who may see the trade agreement as evidence of Africa’s commercial potential. According to Dunn, 2011 to 2012 was also an optimistic time for the continent; commodities prices were high around the globe, a boon for Africa’s many export-based economies. Shortly after, though, a one-two punch: First, prices tanked, then an Ebola outbreak terrorized the region, creating instability for investors.
But now, with events like Afrochella and the Year of Return, optimism is growing, and the narrative is changing once again. Free Trade Agreement aside, the current excitement is catalyzed not by a specific economic occurrence, but a combination of factors, from the promise of undiscovered resources and talent to the freedom of living and working in a region where your money lasts longer. It’s all a part of a larger push to invest in and return to Africa.
West Africa as a competitive commercial market is a departure from the traditional perception of Africa by some Americans, who view Africa as dangerous, poverty-stricken, and culturally monolithic. Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists still view Africa as being more politically or economically risky, which Dunn insists is an exaggerated risk — especially when placed next to global-scale events like Brexit and even the United States’ current political climate.
Chierika Onyuku-Opukiri, a Nigerian-British millennial with a background in finance, travels to Nigeria and Ghana yearly from the U.K., where she runs an apparel business that she hopes to expand to West Africa. She points to the Middle East as an example of how African nations can ensure nonexploitative use of their resources and economy: In order to open a business in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, for example, you have to partner with a local resident in order to prevent outside investors from swooping in and setting up shop.
“The most important thing is to get in early, to properly assess the market opportunity, and to work with the right partners on the ground,” says Mfonobong Nsehe, the managing partner of crisis management and global affairs consultancy Volksstratege and a reporter who has covered the continent for over a decade. According to Nsehe, Africa is seeing a divergence from some of the major resources like oil and gas, which is its own safeguard against exploitation. Many entrepreneurs who wish to do business in West Africa are now looking to tech, agriculture, and fast-moving consumer goods like toiletries and packaged food.
Not only do such sectors tend to be more accessible for younger entrepreneurs, but African American entrepreneurs may enjoy a rare structural advantage. “By and large, Black Americans will not be viewed with the same brush as the average investors from abroad,” Nsehe says. “This particularly goes for young adults and African American millennials. We share a common history, and they will mainly be entering sectors that have, historically, not been exploitative to the people.”
“In technology, millennials are very active and they’ve been successful in getting money, but a lot of them are not from the diaspora,” says Wilmot Allen, a political economist who founded VentureLift Africa in order to connect early-stage African tech companies with investors. “The relationship [between commerce and identity] is nothing new; if you look at places like China and India, you see it. All we’re saying is that it’s time for us to do it for ourselves. For people of African descent.”