‘‘They took his life. No. They murdered him, leaving his lifeless body in a pool of blood. As my senses began to process the ghastly scene, its implications became even more profound’’ he tells me. At this point, Yaw Sakyi Afari breaks eye contact with me. He stares intently at his desk. But it is not the desk he sees. He sees something else. He time-travels to the very beginning. To Anum-Boso, a town in the Eastern Region.
‘‘This wasn’t a movie or one of those horror stories I heard while growing up. This was real life’’ he continues. ‘‘This was my father whose murder I had just witnessed. It changed my life. Even as a kid, the full implications of what I had just witnessed was not lost on me’’ he says. He would later learn that the murder was a result of a chieftaincy dispute over the Anum-Boso stool.
‘‘Many years later, I would realize that I could not live an ordinary life’’. Yaw Sakyi Afari almost remorsefully. The effects were immediate and brutal. From a living in relative comfort, the Afari’s were forced into austerity. From being just a child whose only duty was to study, Yaw Sakyi became an active investor, not only in his education but of his siblings as well.
‘‘Without my father to support, the responsibility of providing for the entire family overwhelmed my mum. So sacrifices had to be made and one of the first was to change schools. We could no longer afford the cost of tuition in the private school we were attending. We had to enroll in a public school because they were cheap in those days. But that was not enough. My mum was a civil servant and she had to resign because of her meager salary. So she started selling clothes at the Makola Market’’ he says, finally making eye contact with me again.
From age ten to his late teens, Yaw would sell fabrics, bread, doughnuts, and newspapers. Life was difficult. But amid that adversity, Yaw was prepared for what today has all the makings of a dynasty.
In 2003, Yaw, then the Event Manager at Choice FM, made his first foray into sports. And when he did, he took to it like a duck to water.
‘‘Choice FM was not the market leader in terms of events and brand activations. Our forte was the content we sold on air. So my job was to excel against established brands in previously uncharted waters as far as Choice was concerned. Research had shown that our listeners were diverse. So you had the older folks, the corporate and working class, and the youth. We came up with different events for each group of listeners. For the youth, particularly in high schools, we decided to try sports; basketball. The Choice Ball’’ he says.
‘‘Although the idea was good, all our sponsorship proposals were rejected. To the companies, it was too big a risk. Which parent or school would let their kids out on Christmas eve when the entire family normally goes out on Christmas day?’’
They were probably right. Christmas in those days and even now is often spent together. Families go to church together. Those who do not, either attend musical concerts, the theatres for movies, or comedy shows. There is the small matter of commercial interest in sports. There was no prior record of a successful basketball event of such magnitude. Not any that guarantees the kind of numbers that would give sponsors mileage. Put these together, and you can understand why, in the mind of these companies, the numbers did not project a happy ending.
Sponsors or not, Yaw proceeded. Did he succeed? Let’s just say Choice ball became the latest illustration of the Latin proverb ‘Fortune favors the brave. It was a resounding success. Thousands came to support their participating schools. The following year, Yaw did not need to convince sponsors. The numbers did the talking and ‘corporate Ghana’ did not only respond. The numbers moved them from their previous nonchalance to open one-upmanship. Typically.
For four years, Choice Ball on Christmas Eve was a goldmine for the company and its sponsors. But the biggest winner was the sport. It had the capital’s attention in a season when even the most popular sport in the country – football – would often make way, rather meekly, to social events. Bit by bit, the sport was winning to its side, a passionate, resourceful, and youthful constituency.
And it owed it all to one man. Yaw Sakyi Afari. Out of nothing, Yaw had given life and meaning to what was hitherto a dormant space. But as it is with all originals, they can only enjoy the success of the same kind for so long.
‘‘After four years and a half, it was no longer challenging. It was no longer fun. It was just tedious. So in 2006, I left Choice FM. By that time, I had gained a deeper understanding of the basketball culture, enhanced my relationship with the schools, understood the talents, the conveyer belt, and even the global investors of Basketball’’ he tells me.
One of the biggest at the time, was the American multinational beverage company, Coca-Cola. However, their interest in the NBA was no guarantee of a similar interest everywhere. Just like any investor, the beverage maker’s decision to invest would be informed by several factors; market demand, purchasing power and life span of the purchasing class, the life span of the product, etc.
Being no novice, Yaw knew this and walked into Coca-Cola’s head office at Spintex Road in Accra. Here, his storied past of persuading hitherto disinterested people to buy his mother’s fabric, bread, doughnuts, or newspapers, and his formal education would prove crucial.
‘‘I went to Coca-Cola after I researched which regions had the similar infrastructure to support the sport, a constituency, talents, and other relevant factors. I told that them that it would be in our shared interest to support basketball’’ he says with a relaxed look on his face.
But it would take more than just ‘shared interests’ to convince the beverage maker. They wanted a product that was bigger than Choice Ball. They wanted more numbers, a sustainability plan, and a product that met the ever-changing taste of its consumers.
‘‘Having agreed, we started the ‘Sprite New Year Ball’ on January 2nd, 2007. We started on a relatively smaller note but by the second year, I proposed to make it a national competition and they agreed. So in 2008, we added one more region. We did 6 regions in 2009, 8 in 2010. So we could now play regional qualifiers but before we realized it, the hype around Sprite Ball was something else’’.
‘‘The brand now attracted old students in the corporate world and their interest in it helped on so many levels. They would talk about it on social media platforms and that gave us organic numbers there. They invested in their teams, some bought kits, and motivated the players. Others would donate basketball courts to their alma mater so the kids can train well. You even had various Student Representative Councils, dedicating some of their resources to such projects. It was amazing’’ he says with delight.
In effect, Yaw and his Rite Sports Limited created a quasi-self-sustaining basketball culture. Yet, just like before, Yaw was already thinking of improving what now looked like a value chain. Next, they focused on the tier below. With the same template, Yaw and his team started a championship for Junior High Schools.
This then became a talent factory for Senior High Schools.
Perhaps the most significant innovation yet would be his next product. And here, we would see a common trait in all successful businessmen; finding problem-solving ideas and adding value. In 2011, there were only two multi-sports events in Ghana’s tertiary institutions; the Ghana Universities Sports Association (GUSA) and the Ghana Polytechnic Sports Association (GAPSA) Games. However, these were biennial games. The format then was an encumbrance particularly for first and second-year students. This is because continuing students had the advantage in terms of selection. For students who gained admission in non-competition years, their only realistic chance of playing competitive basketball would be in their final year. There was therefore the need for a competition that would offer equal opportunities to all players; an annual competition. What’s more, the new competition would feature both private and public universities, as well as polytechnics. Thus, the Universities, Polytechnics, and Colleges (UPAC) Basketball Championship was born.
Out of nothing, Yaw Sakyi Afari had given life to basketball culture. More than that, the competitions at the Junior, Senior High Schools, and the tertiary level are now self-sustaining brands that offer value for money to their partners and investors. If he were to draw the curtains on this adventure today, you would look back on what he has built with a sense of pride and accomplishment. For most businessmen, this would be the time to spread his tentacles. Leverage the resources in the industry to build a conglomerate that would thrive on the synergy existing between allied agencies.
But that is not Yaw. It is not what drives him. But what drives him? What fills his sail?
‘‘Impact’’ he says. ‘‘Being able to influence the growth of kids through education and sports. Knowing that our great country counts on us to offer a platform for kids to hone their talent, to improve their career alternatives is what keeps me going. If I wanted money, I would have gone into talent development in football. It is a gold mine, a thriving industry that would not require as much work. And at this stage in my life, I have the goodwill and trust to do this. But who takes care of the talented basketball kid? Someone has to’’ he tells me.
When Yaw uses the phrase ‘‘takes care of’’, that is exactly what he means. Before Rite Sports Limited entered the space, there were no scholarships for talented basketball players. Ghana’s Scholarship Secretariat and the Ghana Education Service only gave scholarships to football players and athletes from selected disciplines. Even then, it was mostly the schools’ decision to roll out such scholarship schemes. Today, however, schools at Ghana’s high school and tertiary level, scramble for the best talents available, and at the beginning of each academic year, tens of students gain admission on full scholarships to schools in Ghana and the world over.
There is even a community tournament for talents who have had little or no education. This also exposes them to schools that may want to offer scholarships to deserving talents.
‘‘Players who are fortunate enough to win scholarships do not have to sell newspapers while their mates learn in school as I did. If their families can’t support them, their talents will level the playing field through our platforms. This is what keeps us going’’ he says with an unmistakable sense of pride.
In many ways than one, this is symbolic revenge of sorts, if not actual revenge. Yaw is making available to kids, opportunities he never had.
‘‘And it feels good every year. When I get a phone call from any school asking about any of our players, the joy is priceless. Priceless because I’ve been there. I know what it feels like to wish I would wake up one day to a happier, richer home where I don’t have to sell to go to school. There were many days I wish God would just change things in a flash. But I had to go through it because God was preparing me for this. So I know how the kids are going to feel when I tell them there is a scholarship award.’’
That is not the only success story. Some, like Ben Bentil, won scholarships to study abroad and have leaped to become professional athletes.
At just 15years old, Bentil won a scholarship to the Haverford School in Haverford, Pennsylvania before leaving for St. Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware. Initially, Bentil played soccer and basketball teams, before earning a basketball scholarship at Providence. In 2016, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the NBA and has remained a professional since then. Last year, Bentil won the Greek Basketball league with Panathinaikos.
His is not the only success story. There is Amidah Braimah of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and Reggie Agbeko-Villarobledo of the Spanish LEB Silver League too. There are others too, like Nathan Mensah, who is currently at the San Diego State University, Joel Mensah of the James Madison University, and the Florida International University’s James Ametepey, who are waiting to make the big leap.
If only Yaw was not so constrained by the government’s nonchalance in developing the sport, the successes could have been on a larger scale.
In Ghana, the government offers tax waivers to some investors in most sectors. In return, investors contribute to improving the human resource and even in some cases, build infrastructure to support the industry. This is possible because there is a working policy in such industries, backed by enforceable laws that protect the public interest. The local content laws in the oil and gas industry are an example. Beyond that, the state on its part builds infrastructure.
That’s what it government does for the industries it is so minded to.
For all else, there is nothing. Zilch. The Sports Ministry offers little or no support in the training of coaches/trainers. This directly affects the development of basketball players since they get next to zero technical and tactical education. Talent development is therefore stunted and delayed. The officials (basketball referees) face the same fate. In terms of infrastructure, there is some support from the Ghana Education Service. However, the courts are often donated by Parent Teacher Association’s (PTA), Student Representative Council’s (SRC), or by various old student associations.
But Yaw remains unperturbed. If anything at all, he is gladdened by the country’s dependence on the industry he has created.
‘‘We cannot complain too much. It would have been nice to see an actionable policy for basketball development, state investment, and a deliberate plan to support talents. After all, it’s the Ministry’s responsibility. But the fact that there isn’t, doesn’t excuse us of ours to the state. To be very honest with you, we at Rite Sports Media are proud that the nation can count on us to offer viable career alternatives to kids, be it education or sport. But we hope that the National Basketball Federation will at least grow to the point where what we do becomes part of a wider system and not what the country depends on.’’
Regardless, Yaw remains hopeful.
‘‘We’re taking baby steps. Steps that in the end should produce a national basketball league. You know, registered clubs running as semi or full business entities, players on professional contracts, etc. That’s an industry on its own. That should be the next level. But we would need help. The Ministry must be willing to create an enabling environment for that to happen. For example, we need at least one indoor facility in Accra and another in Kumasi.’’
Today, basketball, just like football, is changing lives, offering opportunities that previously did not exist. And it is all because, on 24th December 2003, a young man decided to challenge the status quo. In the end, Yaw Sakyi Afari has pretty much shifted the paradigm as far as basketball in Ghana is concerned.
Credit: Asaase Radio