Hidden behind high walls and the dusty, traffic-laden chaos of modern-day Accra, Seth Dei sits in pensive calm in his office. A cup of late afternoon coffee and three mini chocolate-chip cookies lie untouched in front of him as he studies his next move in a protracted chess endgame with his computer. “I’m winning, but I’m not sure how to finish,” he sighs.
On the walls are a few pieces from the extensive Ghanaian art collection he has built up over more than three decades. Outside, a neatly trimmed garden with a verdant lawn and brightly coloured tropical plants offset the white walls and clean lines of his modernist house.
The building in which he is sitting was built in 1957 for an English businessman. Dei found it too big when he bought it, and turned it into the now mothballed and sparsely furnished Dei Centre for the Study of Contemporary African Art, complete with a small library, and corridors and staircases lined with some of the 500 paintings he has acquired.
He hauls himself to his feet, and gestures to a picture opposite his desk of a market scene by Adiama that is part-painting, part-fabric collage. “He was part of the old school of artists in Ghana, who were timid about selling their works and not business-like,” he says. “They didn’t put much value on art.”
Dei, 72, is a posterboy for business in Ghana. He helped create Blue Skies, a fresh fruit-packaging factory, which has become a frequent attraction on tours by dignitaries seeking symbols of the country’s economic success. He is now scaling back his involvement in a business with £90m in annual sales, supplying supermarkets in a dozen countries (including Waitrose in the UK) from its original factory in Accra, as well as others opened since in South Africa, Egypt, Senegal and Brazil.
His latter-day activities belie much of his working career and longstanding passion for supporting local artists. That is evident in the residential quarters next door, where he lives with his second wife. “Everything is made locally,” he says.
Born to cocoa-farming parents in the then Gold Coast and witness to independence from Britain during his schooldays in 1957, his focus was long on the US. He won a scholarship to Buxton, a boarding prep school in New England, and moved there aged 16.
He recalls his thrill at seeing the red autumn colours in his first September. In winter, “everything was white with snow, which I had never seen”.
With Ghanaian government funding, Dei studied at Columbia and Cornell in New York, before working in the life insurance sector. “I dealt with CEOs and CFOs. I observed the habits of American chief executives: they knew their businesses, kept fit, worked hard, had admirable self-confidence. You learnt from them,” he says.
He married an American and spent much of his career in the US, but never forgot his roots. “I had always intended to come back to Ghana, or at least to Africa,” he says. “I realised it was difficult to be poor here: there are so many opportunities. You only have to drop a seed and in two weeks you have a plant. Depending on your ambition you can become a millionaire.”
When he returned at the start of the 1990s, his first ventures drew on his US financial expertise. “There was a gold boom and a lot of mining companies, and I figured they needed equipment and leasing services. But that required central bank supervision, and the rules were terrible. I could see it would not grow, so I sold the business.”
Then in 1997, he was introduced to Anthony Pile, a Briton who wanted to open a fresh fruit-packaging plant. “He was keen to find a local partner. Somebody told him to talk to me. We started chatting and he had convinced me within three minutes. It’s been a very good investment,” Dei says.
Asked to list the difficulties of operating, he quotes transport — perishable fruit must be shipped by plane — as well as the erratic local electricity supply, something which, in the humid dusk, also presents a challenge for the preservation of his artworks.
And corruption? “We have not come up against it, and we would not participate,” he says. “We are doing a lot for the economy.” Blue Skies employs 4,000 local staff, pays substantially above the minimum wage, offers free cooked meals, medical help, maternity and paternity leave, and social responsibility programmes in local communities.
With Ghana just celebrating 60 years of independence, he reflects: “I feel we should have done better. We had many more assets than Malaysia or South Korea, with a lot more natural resources. But I see a slow realisation from the president down that we should have done better. Coups d’état were getting us nowhere. Democratic practice has introduced competition to government.”
He says he never had any interest in politics. “I cannot say something is blue when it is in fact red.” Instead, during his spare time, he threw himself into art collecting. He befriended many of the country’s artists, buying their work and sometimes being offered it. He points to a long canvas by Larry Otoo of a brass band in a remote village. “He came to me and asked if I wanted him to paint me something. This is it.”
Settling into an armchair in the entrance hall, Dei pauses before answering the question of why he loves art. “First and foremost, I look on it as history: what’s happened, what’s happening,” he says. “The artist is able to freeze-frame and look carefully at things you don’t normally pay attention to when you are walking around. You never noticed something, and, seeing the picture, you realise it’s beautiful. It makes you pay more attention.”
He gets to his feet, and walks across a courtyard, into the street and next door, where at the end of a small garden decorated by large stone sculptures, he had an Italian architect friend modify the former maid’s quarters into his living accommodation. Settling down in the study, among piles of CDs and videos, Dei says he still receives weekly management reports from Blue Skies, and is excited about new projects including a planned range of dairy-free ice creams in chocolate, mango, coconut and lime.
On the lounge table, flanked by sofas, are a series of antique wooden-carved slingshots from Ghana, Ivory Coast and Cameroon, which have been converted into ornaments. A full-length window opens on to a tiny, tranquil courtyard. Yet Dei craves still more space and light, and is completing work on a new home in the hills with a view over Accra. “I want more calm, where the air is cool.”
He is also winding down his art collection, expressing frustration that American academic partners did not provide any funding. He closed the centre to the public three years ago. “I got tired and I’m taking a pause,” he says. “If I kept doing this, I’d be broke.”
He says all options remain open, and recently discussed the sale of works in a meeting with Sotheby’s. His dream is to donate his collection to a new state museum of modern art, but for now, he questions the competence of government officials to take charge.
“We need a new museum of modern art. I think we can use the diaspora to build a nice little museum,” he says. He would like someone to approach the architect David Adjaye to prepare a preparatory sketch for a new venue, “to embarrass big institutions into contributing and building it”. Even if he is frustrated with the slow progress, Dei has not lost his enthusiasm for art. He has just bought two pictures in a new high-end gallery nearby, itself a sign of changing attitudes. “It has opened the eyes of Ghanaians and encouraged younger artists to up their game. There is a buzz about art in Ghana now. I’m very happy.”
Dei picks out a 2006 painting of a saxophonist by Ghanaian artist Hacajaka. “When I look at this picture, it brings back lots of memories,” he says. “I listen a lot to jazz. It reminds me of when I graduated from college. When I was studying in the US, I heard some of the best jazz musicians: John Coltrane, Miles Davis.
“Miles Davis is my favourite. I heard him in Boston once and asked for his autograph, though he pretty much told me to get lost. There was a lot of experimentation with music . . . It puts me in a good mood. I’ll put this in my office in my new house.”