Edward Osei Boakye is one of Ghana’s forgotten entrepreneurs from the 1960s and ‘70s, a golden generation of Ghanaian Industry when Ghanaians wholly owned and run many significant businesses. Though his once famous nickname ‘Boakye Mattress’ is no longer widely known, there was a time some 40 years ago when his business interests stretched over significant parts of West Africa, from The Gambia to Nigeria and parts of Europe too.
In May his birth month, this article recounts his journey as an entrepreneur and celebrates his life’s work. Edward Osei Boakye, known to many as Boakye Mattress built an empire, lost everything and built it all right back up again. He was born to Nana Akwasi Addae of Bamang and Nana YaaDuwaa, a royal of Asante-Juabeng, in May 1933. His wealthy father died while he was still young.
And so Boakye, the young royal, fell into difficult circumstances and had to drop out of school. But Boakye was determined to cut his own path to success. So he left Ghana, with the help of friends and family, to seek his future and fortune abroad.
For a time, Boakye lived with his cousin, Teacher Frimpong, an architect in London. Boakye later left for the US. He attended Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio while working part-time as a salesman, a driver among other jobs. Boakye returned to Ghana in 1959 to start United Mattress and Foam Company Ltd at age 26. It was the first mattress factory in Ghana.
Mattresses were rare, imported and expensive items in those days. Some accounts from the time suggest that they were required items as part of the dowry for brides in Northern Ghana. Boakyestarted out assembling the coveted Vono brand of mattresses for all state school and hospitals. Until that time, mattresses had been imported from Britain.
Boakye Mattress would later buy the State Furniture and Joinery Centre in the early 70s, and from there manufacture mattresses more cheaply and sell under his own brand, with the iconic "Goodnight sleep well" logo.
From Ghana, Boakye Mattress proceeded to expand his business interests through joint ventures and other partnerships with Vitafoam of Nigeria and West Africa Foam Company. He had interests also in The Gambia, Sierra Leone, United Kingdom, the USA, the Netherlands, Poland and Italy. In the 970s, Boakye Mattress built the first fully-serviced private hospital (now the state-owned Police Hospital).
He also had commercial property developments, houses and apartment blocks (FC Cosmetics Building, for instance) in Accra and Kumasi. Boakye and his partner, Lawyer Effah had plans for a drive-in shopping mall at the Holy Gardens – Kwame Nkrumah Circle.
Boakye Mattress had many other plans to exploit. But misfortune, and perhaps injustice struck when he became one of many casualties of the PNDC coups. Boakye Mattress was at the time in the UK when word of the coup got to him. He was mentioned as one of many business people who were wanted ostensibly for various infractions. EO’s charge was tax evasion. For this his businesses were ceased, payments for the hospital – which had been sold to the Government – ceased, and he was tried in absentia.
Suddenly, his great visions were stalled. And for nearly fifteen years, he was cut off from his home and family, and his businesses. His children, some of whom were still quite young would not see him for many years.
For years, Boakye would travel only as far as Togo or Ivory Coast to meet with his family. Many of the younger children were spared this trauma, but he remained connected to his family through phone calls and gifts.
Boakye, not one to give himself to idleness or to dwell on his misfortunes, quickly established himself in his new community. He started a business in Shepherds Bush Market that supplied West African foods and bush meat, ‘fresh from home’ to the huge West African community in London.
He acquired interests in textiles, retail, wholesale and property development and won a grant from the British Government to build a mattress factory in Ireland. Boakye Mattress also became involved in local politics in the UK as a Conservative Party member. He campaigned and raised funds for his friend Harry Greenway who served as former MP for Ealing North constituency from 1979 to 1997.
Boakye mattress eventually was able to return to Ghana in the early ’90s, to take over the fight to clear his name that his Jamaican wife Gwendolyn had led while he was in exile. He would later speak of the injustices he suffered at the National Reconciliation Commission in the early 2000s.
Boakye would later open another mattress factory in 2003, the year he turned 70, in Kumasi. This factory soon after was razed by fire in an industrial accident. But Boakye’s spirit was not broken. Production continued in a limited capacity, and he continued to expand his real estate interests.
By accounts, he had a great work ethic. He was up at dawn and would have put in a day’s work by the time others were starting their day. He was a shrewd businessman who loved life, family and friends. His generosity extended beyond his immediate circle though. He gave generously to the Methodist Church and left much of his estate in the care of the E.O. Boakye Trust Fund to be administered for charitable works, for the good of society.
E.O. Boakye built up an empire with a sheer force of will and a refusal to bend to the caprices of his life. He was a master of his fate, and would not allow the difficult moments to keep him down. He adapted and thrived everywhere life took him. He was tenacious, indestructible. Like the mattresses he produced, he was to the very end the irrepressible E O Boakye.