“…but Ocloo showed by example that persistence has no gender. Her roadmap to success should inspire all of Ghana’s future female entrepreneurs”
When Google celebrated the 98th birthday of Esther Afua Ocloo with a doodle on its homepage on April 18th, it marked a rare and powerful occasion; paying homage to a transformational woman entrepreneur and a pioneer of micro-lending who happened to be Ghanaian.
Ocloo’s story is particularly important for Ghana’s small and medium sized enterprises, which increasingly includes women entrepreneurs desperate to grow their businesses but lacking the necessary tools and funding.
In the 1930s, Ocloo founded Nkulenu Industries. She had the audacity to build a business out of making marmalade and orange juice at a time when very few African women had any business training and were mostly relegated to home affairs. When she made and sold her first jar of marmalade as a teenager, Ocloo had only six shillings to her name.
With persistence, she won a contract to supply her high school and later the military with marmalade jam and orange juice. This significant step led to her securing a bank loan to expand Nkulenu. As a consummate entrepreneur, Ocloo did not rest on that achievement. She travelled to England to study Food Science and Modern Processing Techniques, and returned to Ghana to share her knowledge with countless other women. Later she co-founded Women’s World Banking (WWB), a global micro-lending organization, which currently manages a loan portfolio of more than $9 billion.
Ocloo died in 2002, but the problems women entrepreneurs face in Ghana and around the world have persisted. Banks like Premium Bank have emerged to help business women bridge the gender inequality gap in business, but there’s more that needs to be done.
As a UN report noted five years ago, Ghanaian women generally do not face problems in starting businesses on a subsistence basis; the challenge has always been scaling up the business. The lack of properly coordinated support, credit, and access to new technologies have always been their biggest handicaps. Poor infrastructure, low capacity and sometimes obstructive government policies also present roadblocks.
On a global scale, the challenges Ghanaian women entrepreneurs face are not so different. The International Trade Centre (ITC); a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and United Nations, published a study covering 20 developing countries that revealed striking disparities between men and women’s participation in trade.
The study showed fewer women entrepreneurs participate in trade in these 20 countries and that only 20% of interviewed trading companies in the surveyed developing countries are owned or managed by a woman. The lack of scale is reflected in the observation that women-owned or managed exporting firms are less likely to be engaged in imports than their male counterparts. According to the survey, almost 60% of men-owned and managed exporting companies also import goods as opposed to the rough 50% of firms owned or managed by women. The study also reveals that women experience more problems in raising funds, competing and accessing markets than their male counterparts.
Bridging the Gap
There is an opportunity cost for countries that do not realize the importance of aiding women entrepreneurs. A revealing Africa Human Development Report found that economic and social discrimination against women is costing Africa $105 billion a year or 6% of its gross domestic product. Clearly, closing this gender gap is in the continent’s best financial interest.
In Ghana, most economically active women operate in the informal sector. One report estimates that some 80% of women in Ghana are engaged in various economic activities, and they predominate in the informal micro to medium scale agriculture, manufacturing and services sectors of the economy. A 2014 Ghana Living Standard Survey suggests that the formal sector employs about 6.2% of women, 3.3 % in the public sector and 2.9% in the private sector.
Traditionally, the consumer goods and services industry is dominated by women entrepreneurs, who are generally more adept than their male counterparts at dealing with consumers, bargaining deals with suppliers, and taking advantage of pricing opportunities and fluctuations in consumption. This is evidenced by the fact that most of the trading in Ghana’s marketplaces are conducted by and with women.
A Wind of Change
On a corporate level, there are a growing number of Ghanaian women entrepreneurs treading the path left by pioneers like Esther Ocloo. These are highly educated businesswomen, unrestrained by glass ceilings and societal norms. Each year the Entrepreneur Foundation of Ghana honors many such women.
The emphasis on the part of the new government of Ghana to facilitate financing schemes for SMEs will in fact benefit these women entrepreneurs as will the concerted effort on the part of financial institutions focused on lending to the sector. The ambitious industrialization agenda of creating more local factories should also encourage women entrepreneurs to look beyond their traditional comfort zones of petty trading, and be willing to take more risks as manufacturers and exporters.
It’s been said by some scholars that men are more successful in business because they are inclined to take significant risks, an entrepreneurial characteristic that does not come naturally to women, but Ocloo showed by example that persistence has no gender. Her roadmap to success should inspire all of Ghana’s future female entrepreneurs.