Flipping through entrepreneur Tesfu Sintayhu's Yellow Pages yields some expected results: dentists who will whiten teeth, contractors who install granite countertops and lawyers promising divorces in three weeks or less.
But Sintayhu's pages also contain the name of the capital of Swaziland, the country code for calling Kenya, deejays who can remix Ethiopian music and answers to questions on the U.S. citizenship exam.
Last year, Sintayhu and three friends published what they believe is the first African Yellow Pages in the United States. Intended to help African immigrants, from the newly arrived to the firmly established, the 456-page publication offers bus schedules, information on countries and their embassies, travel resources, listings of schools, churches, mosques and hospitals, and a business directory that runs from African stores to video services.
Now, from their office in Falls Church, the team behind the African Yellow Pages is preparing to publish a second edition this summer. They promise that it will be bigger, better and, in some ways, less African.
"The best gynecologist may not be an African," said Ahadu Woubshet, a managing partner. "We're targeting the market for any business owner. . . . from multinationals to small mom-and-pop shops."
Woubshet said that as long as a company wants to do business with Africa or its emigres in the U.S., he can talk them into buying advertising space in the book. And by that logic, Woubshet suggests he should be talking to most businesses in Northern Virginia, which has been redefined and transformed by immigration.
On doorsteps, in supermarkets and at trade fairs, ethnic business directories are piling up one heavy book after another. Vega Hispanic Yellow Pages, which was distributed in the Washington area for decades, was sold last year for $4 million to Hispanic Yellow Pages Network LLC, a growing Tampa, Fla., chain trying to acquire Latino directories nationwide. Business directories targeting Korean, Arab, Indian and Chinese immigrants also serve the region.
On the fifth-floor offices of the African Yellow Pages, many of these phone books sit stacked high on a desk. The office down the hall houses the Indian Yellow Pages and members of that staff helped the Africans put their book together. Managing partner Mimi Alemayehou said the competing books were a source of inspiration as she worked on the African version.
"We looked at them," said Alemayehou, who also works as an international consultant for organizations doing development work in Africa. "Why reinvent the wheel when we can just learn from them? There's definitely a need for Yellow Pages dedicated to specific immigrant communities. A family arrives in America and they want to know where to get their spices, where to take an English as a Second Language class."
With full-page ads costing about $3,000 and DaimlerChrysler Corp. serving as their lone corporate sponsor, the partners estimate the first book generated $250,000 in revenue.
"When you get into smaller and smaller niches, the prospect gets more daunting," said Charles Laughlin, an analyst with the Princeton, N.J.-based Kelsey Group, which tracks the phone book and directory industry. "Small businesses tend to think, 'If I am going to spend a dollar, I want to get 5, 10, 20 in return. If they can demonstrate that members of the community favor the businesses, they may have a reasonable proposition."
Beyond the book, Alemayehou and her partners have lofty goals. They want the Yellow Pages to promote African unity and help Americans get beyond images of Africa as impoverished, war-torn and famine-ridden. They don't ignore the problems -- statistics on AIDS in Africa fill the book, for example -- but the entrepreneurs also cite a surge in development on the continent, especially in Ethiopia (where all four partners were born), the boom in the Nigerian Stock Exchange, tourism in Mozambique and the deep pockets of African immigrants. In the 2000 Census, the African emigre population in the U.S. was shown to earn a median income of $42,000 and number around 881,000 -- although the Yellow Pages publishers assert that the number is closer to 1.8 million.
This area has more African immigrants than any other region in the U.S., with many of them lured by jobs at the World Bank or other development agencies. But the publishers of the Yellow Pages say the mainstream knows little about their community.
"Half the population doesn't know we have cars and buildings in Africa," said Ben Mitiku, vice president and co-founder of the African Yellow Pages. Mitiku also works at CVS as a pharmacist and promotes African concerts and festivals. "We get frustrated with the representation of Africa."
About 50,000 copies of the first directory were printed. In early April, they handed some out at an African bridal show. Alemayehou recently brought a suitcase of books with her to London, where she attended a conference on the African diaspora.
Like the entrepreneurs who fill the pages of their book, they are trying to think of new markets, trying to think beyond their yellow book, trying to think big. There's been interest in a directory for New York's African community. Perhaps other marketing opportunities can be mined if a database of African businesses is created, they said. "This is going to be a very, very big business," said Sintayhu, who quit his job as a network programmer to work on the Yellow Pages and other products full time. "I see the potential."