BRIGHT LIGHTS, NO CITY: An African Adventure on Bad Roads With a Brother and a Very Weird Business Plan, by Max Alexander

Bright Lights. No City (Hyperion Books)

This book tells the amusing tale of two brothers who venture to one of the poorest countries on the planet in an effort to apply some Yankee entrepreneurship to a crippling problem. In Ghana, where the average income is about a dollar a day, most people have no electricity. Much of the nation relies on crappy Chinese batteries that fade fast and create hazardous waste. Whit Alexander, having made a fortune inventing the board game Cranium, has a plan to introduce a rechargeable battery subscription service.  Better power, cheaper in the long run and cleaner for the environment. Max Alexander, after editorial stints at Variety and People, decides to join his brother to chronicle the adventure.

This is an insightful read.  It is part travel book and part business book. Alexander’s breezy writing style conveys well the cultural, political and economic challenges faced by the start up. With half the country living off the grid, kids in Ghana must complete their homework before dark. Twenty percent inflation creates all sorts of hassles for economic forecasting. And a history of military coups does nothing to promote a sense of stability.

As business grows in fits and spurts, Alexander provides insights like the copious amount of money spent on funerals, which apparently started in 1979 with a military coup.  The once vibrant nightlife suffered a curfew clampdown, and it no longer became safe to party in public after dark.  Further, any display of wealth was increasingly dangerous.  The funerals became the viable means by which to celebrate, but lately it has gone over the top with people spending an inordinate amount of money preparing and attending the funeral events.

Title to land is still ambiguous, which causes all sorts of consternation.  The prevailing wisdom is to start building as soon as possible to buttress your claim to the land.  But the economy generally grinds any further development to a halt, leaving cement skeletons in various stages of completion across the land.  In that the cement is impervious to the elements, there is no great incentive to accelerate the completion.

Given the weather, the lack of electricity and the general decrepit state of housing, all life in Ghana happens outdoors.  The author describes a long trek into the jungle to see a glorious waterfall, but the scene is soon comically turned upside down when a posse of kids manages to assemble a huge sound system to compete with the roar of the falls.

Toward the end of the book, there is some interesting business analysis about brand perception, user familiarity and sales incentives within the context of the Ghana culture. A great sequence involves recording some commercials in a decrepit sound studio, prone to power outages, where Phil Spector’s analogue ‘wall of sound’ style fifty years earlier (with African-American girl groups from the Bronx) was duplicated in that mud walled hut in Ghana.

Max Alexander (photo by William Alexander)

The brothers are nonetheless able to build a team of sales agents, and progress against all odds is made. An underlying theme is their father’s recent death.  All of these challenges invariably bring the brothers closer.

There is at least one strong chuckle per page, which further enhances the experience of reading this clever book.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.