“We don’t make a lot of noise!”
Less than seven years after launching her company in Ghana, NanaAma Botchway-Dowuona has earned her stripes as a leading lawyer. Earlier this year, her law firm N. Dowuona & Company was recognised by UK-based The Legal 500 – the world’s largest legal referral guide – as a top-tier law firm in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) in the practice areas of commercial, corporate, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and infrastructure projects.
Such a remarkable feat would often come with huge investments in advertisement and marketing, but Botchway-Dowuona’s quieter approach to building business seems to have paid off: “I have been working very hard. But we don’t make a lot of noise!”
For some in the diaspora, the desire to return home can be held back by deep fears and questions about how they will cope. But Botchway-Dowuona always knew that her dream to reconnect with Ghana was not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. “I left Ghana when I was seven and I’ve always wanted to come back. I definitely don’t question [my identity]. There’s no question I’m Ghanaian, I speak Ga [a local dialect] and I was raised in a Ghanaian way,” she says.
Back in 1992, when she was studying for her undergraduate degree at Princeton, she wrote her thesis on how to use the Grameen lending model for microfinance, to provide small loans to alleviate poverty in Ghana. “I’ve always been Ghana-focused and I’ve always wanted to either move back to Ghana or do something with Ghana,” she adds.
So when her then partner decided to move back in 2002, she jumped at the chance even without having a clear plan or strategy. “I didn’t come back with the idea that I’m necessarily going to practise law; I came back and I had a very open mind,” she explained. “I thought, I’m going to come, look at what’s on the ground. I know I’m not going to find M&A jobs and the type of work I was doing in New York, so I’ll just relax and see what’s possible.”
Launching a startup
With a keen interest in art and design, she opted to start a business supplying locally made products to shops in America. Unfortunately the entrepreneurial venture never took off. “For a variety of reasons that wasn’t feasible, (such as) huge supply chain issues,” she explains.
She returned to the corporate world in 2007 working for a top pan-African private equity firm, Kingdom Zephyr, which she says was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about Africa and to discover different industries and sectors. During her time there, she advised the fund manager on various transactional matters involving the $120m and $490m Pan-African Investment Partners I and II funds respectively.
She’s most proud of her work advising Kingdom Hotel Investments on a $100m development project in Ghana during her stint as a legal consultant. “I advised them when they were negotiating the deal with the government to acquire the property, to acquire the interest in the property, I advised them throughout the development, permitting, construction, […]. I literally worked on everything from the beginning of the Ghana adventure to the end when they sold the business,” says Botchway-Dowuona, who is a member of the International Bar Association.
After several challenging experiences that included a personal family tragedy, she attempted another dive into entrepreneurship in 2011, this time doing something she truly enjoyed. “I decided to come back to my first love which is the law, and this time to try and build something as opposed to being a full practitioner or a consultant,” she says. This was the birth of N. Dowuona & Company.
Despite the setbacks and disappointments, she says the journey has been worthwhile: “I haven’t looked back. […] It’s been difficult, definitely. I mean from the beginning you’re compensated a lot less than you are making as a senior associate in New York, but I haven’t traded my quality of work, and I feel privileged to have had great opportunities.”
In 2016, she delivered a compelling TED-style talk exposing some of the ills of Ghanaian society. She urged each citizen to commit to change and take personal responsibility instead of being quick to pass the buck. She advises that “before we talk about revolution at the country level, let’s think about revolutionising our own attitude towards compliance”.
As the founder of the only woman-owned firm in Ghana to have made The Legal 500 EMEA 2017 guide, Botchway-Dowuona credits her strong determination and overriding sense of optimism for her success. She acknowledges that sexism remains an issue but she’s chosen instead to focus on making sure that her clients are getting their money’s worth. “It’s not an easy environment, but we work our fingers to the bone to deliver,” she says.
And they are not working with small fry. In 2013, her team advised local and international companies on various transactions including the acquisition of Fan Milk International by French dairy producer Danone from private equity group Abraaj, and in 2016, the $100m sale of Movenpick Ambassador Hotel to a Mauritius-based investment fund managed by Quantum Global Investments Africa Management.
This year they’ve also advised on the debut $600m bond issue by leading telecommunications infrastructure company Helios Towers Africa. With the booming real estate market in Ghana, and her extensive experience advising on property and construction deals, business prospects look promising.
When asked what she would say to that young upcoming lawyer who looks up to her as a role model, she offers some candid advice based on her own personal experience: “I had my first child when I was in law school and everybody was terrified that I was going to drop out and not continue with my career. I [eventually] had four children and I don’t think it held me back. So you can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
From the July-August 2017 print edition