When the all powerful Google celebrates someone’s life with a doodle dedicated to them, on what would have been, their 98th Birthday, you know that the the woman it celebrates was really something. And even if her name is unfamiliar, her work is simply an inspiration. That’s why we have chosen her as our Woman of the Week.
“You cannot go and be begging to your husband for every little thing, but at the moment, that’s what the majority of our women do.”
Female African icon, Esther Afua Ocloo, launched her entrepreneurial career as a teenager in the 1930s on less than a dollar but became one of Ghana’s leading entrepreneurs.
Carving her own career path wasn’t easy, but she used the experience to recognise the financial difficulties faced by poor women; teaching them skills and becoming a pioneer of micro-lending after setting up Women’s World Banking (WWB) bank to assist those on low incomes. “Women must know that the strongest power in the world is economic power,” she said.
Now WWB microlending network says it lends to 16,4 million women around the world, managing a loans portfolio of over $9bn.
Born in 1919 as Esther Afua Nkulenu in the South Dayi district of Ghana, Ocloo grew up in a life of poverty in the Volta Region of Ghana in the town of Peki Dzake. Her father, George, was a blacksmith, and her mother was a potter. Due to her family’s poverty at weekends Ocloo would prepare food for the week ahead at school.
The family was able to send Ocloo to a Presbyterian elementary school and later to a boarding school from 1936-41 on a scholarship and grant from chocolate giant Cadbury to continue her studies. Cadbury purchased much of their cocoa in Ghana. Many prominent African leaders were educated at the same school.
Her first business started with oranges and apples. In high school, with only a few Ghanian shillings given to her by an aunt, she bought sugar, oranges and 12 jars to make marmalade jam – selling them at a profit, despite the ridicule of her friends, who saw her as an “uneducated street vendor”.
Despite that, she won a contract to supply her former school with marmalade jam and orange juice, and later managed to secure a deal to provide the military with her goods. In 1942, she established a business under her maiden name, “Nkulenu”.
Unsatisfied with that, she travelled to England where she won another scholarship to attend the Good Housekeeping Institute in London and take a Food Preservation Course and was the first black person to graduate from the housekeeping institute in 1951. When she returned to her Ghana she had widened her sights to help Ghana become self-sufficient.
As her business continued to grow in Ghana throughout the 1960s, Ocloo served in a number of positions for other organisations. She was the President of the Federation of Ghana Industries. She was also the Executive Chairman of the National Food and Nutrition Board of Ghana.
She proposed alternative solutions to the problems of hunger, poverty and the distribution of wealth, championing the development of an indigenous economy based on agriculture. In 1999 interview she said: “Our problem here in Ghana is that we have turned our back on agriculture. Over the past 40 years, since the beginning of compulsory education, we have been mimicking the West.”
Ocloo’s focus shifted in the 1970s when she became involved in the women’s liberation movement and in 1975 she was an advisor for the United Nations First World Conference on Women.
It was at this point that she became involved in the micro-lending industry, providing millions of low-income women with the small loans needed to reach their financial goals. The other early leaders in the movement were Michaela Walsh, a New York investment banker, and Ela Bhatt, founder of a cooperative bank for illiterate women in India. They and several allies founded Women’s World Banking in 1979 with Ms. Ocloo as chairwoman.
Ms. Barry said that concentrating on women made sense because they are discriminated against in borrowing; “…they do the majority of artisanal work and much of the farming, and they have a keener sense of the interdependence of generations.”
”You know what we found?” said Ocloo, “We found that a woman selling rice and stew on the side of the street is making more money than most women in office jobs – but they are not taken seriously!’’
During her lifetime, Occlo also set up a farm in Ghana that was specifically used to teach women agricultural cultivation.
Ocloo died in 2002 after suffering from pneumonia. At her state burial in Accra, former president John Kofi Agyekum Kufuor said: “She was a creator and we need many people of her calibre to build our nation. She was a real pillar… worthy of emulation in our efforts to build our nation. Her good works in the promotion of development in Ghana cannot be measured.”
In Occlo’s New York Times obituary, she is quoted, in reference to the notion of women she taught competing against her, as once saying, “My main goal is to help my fellow women. If they make better marmalade than me, I deserve the competition.”