Monday, January 23, 2006


Perceptions versus Reality of Black Businesses in the UK

(This article was first written after the 2005 Handsworth disturbances)

We are in the first few years of the 21st century and we are still consumed by the hang-over of the last century’s ethnic insecurities - economic deprivation and social exclusion in sections of British society. Some argue that future prospects for African and Caribbean peoples remain dim, while others say that, from indicators, it is not true. It is often said, that `a nation that forgets its past is condemned to repeat it'.

So what is the real history of Black people in general? Is it only about physical enslavement, oppression, degradation and inhumanity to man by man? Is it about negative stereotyping? What about today's Britain where sections of the Black community continue to wallow in despair, living a sense of hopelessness, powerlessness and seemingly endless frustration? What sense are we to make of these symptoms? Many of us feel that British society is far more developed and enlightened to be experiencing, more so tolerating this endless human scourge. These searching questions have many answers, but space limits a measured response.
Black people have been in Britain since the 17th and 18th centuries and have contributed much to the political, economic and social advancement of this country. However, recent history suggests that the growth of the Caribbean population particularly, was triggered in part, by the British Government's invitation to Caribbean nationals to help in the post-war reconstruction effort in the construction, health, hotel, transport and other sectors of the economy.

Caribbean Presence

In fact, although Caribbean people have settled in the UK for over 300 years it was not until 1948 that large numbers migrated to the UK and this is demonstrated in the census returns, 1891-1951. It is not possible to identify ethnic origin here although it can be assumed that the majority of migrants were of African descent and to a lesser extent European and Asian. Today, most of these settlers have become worthy citizens and their contributions have all but seemed forgotten.

Long before the term `diversity' gained political currency, Caribbean peoples embraced this principle. From birth, they have integrated into the universe of similarities and differences due to a combination of physical enslavement, indentureship and further interference by colonialism and adult suffrage. The arrival of Caribbean people in British was met initially by shock, apprehension and withdrawal. These responses were symptomatic of the ignorance and the negative propaganda fed to create fear and insecurity in the minds of the British public. Very few people knew that Caribbean nationals who came to the country by invitation, were part of the broader British imperial project that lasted more than 200 years taking in Africa, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and even early America.

Over the past 45 years, Britain has witnessed a phenomenal rise in economic activity among Caribbean people, with the rapid creation of businesses and social firms. For a community numbering just over 560,000 Caribbean people have an estimated 10% stake in the total self-employment activities of the UK. To date, African and Caribbean people own and manage over 20,000 businesses with a wealth creation of £3 billion per annum. In Birmingham, one of the leading cities in England, there are more than 1,260 Black firms, with approximately £180 million generated every year. Nationally, these firms employ 150,000 - 200,000 people. Such a comparatively significant contribution to economic development has gone virtually unnoticed for decades in Britain where acknowledgement is often symbolic and recognition, stifled.

Black businesses are located in growth sectors such as cleaning, construction, food, manufacturing, personal care, health care, information technology, education and training and professional services. Official statistics show that in the West Midlands; for example, Black firms' market share in manufacturing is 12%, construction 8%, tourism 10%, transport 5%, cultural industries 6%, IT 4%, retail 23%, professional services(including consultancy)15% and healthcare 15%.

Yet the issue around (ethnic) ownership, the means of distribution and supply of Black hair care products for example, has been contentious in recent years. It is perceived that this issue (amongst others) may have served as a catalyst for the conflict between among sections of the Asian (Sikh and Pakistani) and Caribbean communities in October 2005 in Handsworth, one of the deprived wards in England.

Historically, the success of Black enterprise in the UK, is associated with the hair trade, beginning with the pioneering work of Dyke and Dryden in the 1960s which gave rise to the number of saloons, including barber shops, owned and managed by African and Caribbean people. This industry has helped create innovations of style, texture, and technology and market segmentation involving a range of alternative therapies. The truth is, other communities recognised a niche market and have capitalised on it which makes good business sense. However, this should be seen in light of the harsh realities of ethnic commerce vis-a-vis business planning regulations which convey the impression of favouring one set of ethnic groups over another. Evidence on the ground can shed some light on this fact.

Market Distortions

Asian and Eastern European firms control vast distribution outlets for Black hair care products and owners of Black hair care firms claim that their operations are under-cut and disenfranchised in a market which they feel historically, they have a sense of belonging as consumers and producers alike. Procurement of Black hair care products is tricky and problematic for Black firms, since their limited purchasing power, along with the use of effective distribution and supply chains by competitors, have almost frozen Black hair care businesses out of the market. Such sensitivities may not be relevant to the hard-nosed nature of business, but in a racially-divided British society, these issues need careful examination and investigation to find appropriate solutions to remedy this situation in order to avoid unnecessary tension and potential explosive results.

Anecdotal evidence in the ethnic market shows overwhelming disparities in trading and consumption practices. In Southall, West London, where there is a largely dominant and segmented Asian/Indian population, very few if any, Black firms can trade successfully in products and services, including hair care commodities. Trading by that community is practically disallowed because of the overwhelming presence of, and pervasive influence by the Asian community in general. According to a Caribbean business student, "The system is not interested in whether or not these people are involved in unfair trading practices and tactics, once they can pay their taxes and open as many shops as they possibly can, the system will protect them. If we try to set up a small business, we are finished; they will make sure that we never have customers and they would even attempt to block any expansion we undertake. One way or the other, the planning regulations system is stacked against us and if I were to start a business, I would be very keen to consider these factors."

In North London, prior to the 1990s, a thriving Black business community existed until Cypriots, Greeks and Turkish and other nationalities from Europe arrived as a result of the opportunties afforded by the growing enlargement of the European Single Market. These `new comer' firms also trade in `Afro-Caribbean products even though in principle, they do not employ Black staff. In Brixton, the situation is even more puzzling where Caribbean firms are unable to compete with either Asian or Eastern Europeans whose primary intention is to access the `Black Pound'. Again, very few employ Black staff or even trade with this community's entrepreneurs.

Black businesses are continuously lectured on equal opportunities and other inclusive doctrines, yet Chinese, Jewish, Asian or Eastern European businesses fail to adhere to these `racial integrationist' caveats. Based on concrete evidence `on the ground', it would appear that the planning regulations governing the location of businesses, including premises, need reviewing, especially in areas where there might be potential for conflict involving different ethnic groups. If the impression is routinely conveyed that there is one law for Black people, one for mainstream Whites and another for other ethnic groups, according to the current evidence in the market place, then there is a rather compelling case to be made for the system to be changed. There is not much literature available on the trading disparities involving different ethnic groups in the UK because most of the research on this subject is biased in favour of the majority and issues affecting small minority communities such as African and Caribbean peoples, are pivoted around immigration, race and negative stereotyping.

It is important, that as Britain maintains its passion for a racially stable and prosperous society, that the authorities in collaboration with various communities, resolve prevailing inequalities found especially in local planning regulations. Where possible, efforts must be made to find a balance between encouraging and supporting ethnic markets accessibility with appropriate safeguards to resolve unnecessary tensions. Historically, Britain's obsession with race, prejudice and other discriminatory behaviours, has inherently clouded its judgement on making sure that there is an even-handed approach when (victim) firms are caught up in the crossfire of `ethnic monopolies', as in the case of Caribbean hairdressers and barbers.

Contrary to popular opinion, Black people have contributed immensely to British society. A few examples of this fact will suffice. Lee Williams is owner of a cleaning firm, one of the fastest 100 inner-city firms in England. As Chair of the Birmingham Black Business Association he is engaged in a procurement initiative for minority firms, collaborating with the distinguished Professor Monder Ram of DeMontFort University who is the brainchild of this initiative. The BBA is a lead partner in the National African and Caribbean Business Council, a national body, formed in 2004 that represents all Black businesses and social firms in the country, and one which has been endorsed by Her Majesty's Treasury Department in January 2005.

Other Entrepreneurs

Karl George is also among leading members of the Black community. Apart from running a successful accounting firm, he is founder of the 100 Black Men organisation which provides education and training opportunities for young men, using a culturally sensitive approach. George was awarded an MBE for services to the community in 2004. Nikki Walker, another successful entrepreneur in the healthcare sector, is head of a local business forum. Then they are the veterans - Clyde Pile who owns an industrial company and Tony Sealey who runs a Mc Donald franchise - both are described as "successful businessmen" and "civic statesmen" for their pioneering efforts around empowering and supporting economic development within Black communities in the West Midlands Region.

Since Caribbean people arrived in the UK, they have been working ceaselessly to be part of the society, by identifying areas where they can have a direct input. For instance, their participation in public life is manifested in the growing number of MPs, councillors, civil servants and others who hold a variety of positions in public and private life. The Caribbean business presence is a signifier of that community's abiding interest in impacting positively on the economic management and development of the UK. Through the ceaseless efforts of Black peoples generally, the country has begun experiencing greater tolerance and social cohesion in inner-cities especially. Indeed, the sole purpose of Black people in the country is to contribute, by encouraging and supporting various initiatives to make the UK more prosperous, stable and viable in the 21st century and beyond.

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