Many things have been celebrated in black history month over the years but I doubt whether there has been any celebration of black people in business in Britain so in this brief note I intend to chronicle the history of black business development and celebrate the initiatives in the hope that more assistance will come in the way as we look forward to contributing to the brighter future of wealth creation in this country.
We have come a very long way from the days when black people did not routinely aspire or even think of self employment; setting up a business was but a dream for most.
I know there were several small black-owned businesses around 35 years ago, travel agents, hairdressing salons, night clubs, takeaways and restaurants, newspapers, patty shops and bakeries, records shops and various other businesses though most were devoted to personal services.
Research into black businesses
In 1980, the UK Caribbean Chamber of Commerce had brought their difficulties to the attention of government. The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee commissioned some research and called for several papers and published in December 1980 the report titled: West Indian Businesses in Britain.
Several others carried out research on the back of this initial report to assist in the development of policy on how black people in business in this country can be assisted.
- Martin Kazuka wrote ‘Why so few Black Business’ for the Hackney Business Promotion Project
- Alan Brookes researched Caribbean businesses in Lambeth
- Peter Wilson focussed on Brent for the Runnymede Trust in 1983
- Ade Sawyerr also contributed to the effort with my research on Particular problems faced by black controlled businesses in Britain with some proposals for their solution for his MBA dissertation at Manchester Business School in 1982 which broke academic ground on the subject.
Most of these reports revealed that black businesses faced several problems:
- Black businesses were small and remained so because they focussed on personal services serving a captive ethnic market.
- Access to capital and credit was difficult in the face of unwillingness by banks to lend partly because they did not understand the businesses and did not have confidence in them as entrepreneurs.
- There were problems with access to premises and skilled staff and competent managers
- Markets were generally closed to them because of their size and this led them to focus on their own communities.
These could be resolved with concerted action by government, the private sector and the academics working together and by facilitating organisations also providing assistance.
But it was left to Lord Scarmann who had been asked by government to inquire into the Brixton disorders who having found that ways of policing Brixton was totally unacceptable bemoaned the issue of young black people who were unemployed and to a large extent had no stake in the british society. He was bold enough to suggest a raft of employment training initiatives and went further to push government into action. Scarmann wrote …..: but I do urge the necessity for speedy action if we are to avoid a perpetuation in this country of an economically indisposed black population. A weakness in British society is that there are too few people of West Indian origin in the business, entrepreneurial, and professional class.