Ghanaian businesswoman Esther Afua Ocloo (1919–2002) was a successful entrepreneur and world famous pioneer in microlending, the practice of lending small amounts of money to disadvantaged women for the purpose of starting businesses. Born into poverty, Ocloo built a successful company and then made it her mission to help other female entrepreneurs. She received numerous awards in Africa and around the world in recognition of her accomplishments and work on behalf of women and families.
Ghanaian businesswoman Esther Afua Ocloo understood from her own experience that to help a woman start a small business, no matter how hum-ble, was to give her economic power. And that, she often said, was the strongest power in the world. Ocloo overcame deep prejudices against women in business, against street businesses, and against goods made in her own country, to show that women were ideally suited to earn a steady living for their families, even at the street level, with local goods. Drawing on her own success, Ocloo collaborated with other successful women from around the world to provide small loans to women to help them get started in business.
Ocloo was born Esther Afua Nkulenu on April 18, 1919, in the village of Peki Dzake, then part of British Togoland, an area in West Africa that was part of the British Gold Coast. Her parents were George Nkulenu, a blacksmith, and his wife Georgina, a potter and farmer. They were of the Ewe tribe, which was centered in French Togoland, to the west. Ocloo's grandmother sent her to a Presbyterian primary school, from which she advanced to boarding school in Peki Blengo, some distance away. An excellent student, she won a Cadbury scholarship to a famous co-ed high school in the capital city of Accra. Achimota School, founded in 1924 with the idea of racial integration and work for the good of all, educated many of Africa's leaders. An aunt gave Ocloo the funds needed to make the trip, and her mother tearfully gave her sixpence.
After graduation, Ocloo stayed in the capital city, living with relatives. When her aunt gave her ten shillings (less than a dollar), to spend as she liked, the teen purchased oranges, sugar, firewood, and a dozen glass jars and made marmalade jam. She sold her jam for a shilling a jar, making a two-shilling profit. Despite her success, Ocloo's classmates from Achimoto criticized her choice to sell jam on the street like an uneducated person. They thought that, like themselves, she should be working toward an office job.
Ocloo had mapped a different path to success, however. Taking some leftover marmalade to her alma mater, she won a contract to supply jam to the entire boarding school. Soon after, Achimota administrators asked her to supply orange juice as well, offering her the fruit growing on school property. Ocloo's reputation as a businesswoman quickly grew, helping her win a bigger contract to supply juice to the country's military. Ocloo needed working capital to fulfill this new contract, having put all her profits back into her business. With only sixpence in her possession, she applied for a loan at a local bank. Although she had no collateral to secure the loan, she persuaded the bank to loan her the needed funds on the basis of the contract's value alone.
Ocloo named her new company Nkulenu Industries, after her family, and established her first factory in 1942. Based on her initial success with fruit juice, she began expanding into other product lines, such as canned tomatoes and soup base. Even though she was successful, she knew that there was still much to learn about the retail food business. Ocloo saved up enough money to study food technology, nutrition, and agriculture at the Good Housekeeping Institute in London, England, from 1949 to 1951, and she became the institute's first African graduate. She then enrolled in a postgraduate course at Bristol University, where she learned about food preservation and modern processing techniques. Ocloo also made a point of mastering handcrafts such as leatherwork and lampshade-making while in England, with the idea of passing on these skills to rural women back in her homeland.
In 1953, Ocloo returned to West Africa, determined to help with her country's transition to independence and self-sufficiency under its new name of Ghana. She returned to the helm of Nkulenu Industries while also developing ideas to aid other women. She wanted to help prepare the next generation to succeed, and she hoped that one day girls would not have to grow up in poverty, as she had. Ocloo made a point of teaching girls the crafts she had learned as a way to earn a living wage. During this period, she also married Steven Ocloo and started a family.
In her business, Ocloo fought the long-held prejudice among many subjects of British colonies against purchasing local goods. The British Empire had acquired most of the raw materials from its colonies, converting them to finished goods and then offering these British-made goods to locals at a profit. Ocloo became a major booster of Ghanaianmade products, teaching young entrepreneurs how to exploit the local natural resources, and building what would later be called the country's “brand.”
On a return trip to England in 1956, Ocloo spent time at Metal Box Company in London, developing recipes for commercial canning and focusing on West African favorites. She returned to Ghana and formed a manufacturer's association, helping to organize the nation's first “Made in Ghana” exhibition in 1958.
Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah encouraged Ocloo in her efforts, helping her to win the presidency of what would become the Federation of Ghana Industries. She served in this office from 1959 to 1961, and in 1964, she became the first woman to be appointed an executive chairman of the country's National Food and Nutrition Board. She relocated Nkulenu Industries to Madina, a suburb of Accra, and the company soon went international with its food and beverage product line, eventually expanding into the textile business.
Ever since returning from England in 1953, Ocloo had been an unstoppable force for progress. She founded several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) over the next few decades, mostly supporting disadvantaged youth and women in different areas of the country by emphasizing employable skills. She also organized groups and initiatives within the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Having expanded her company in the mid-1960s, and by accepting advisory appointments at high levels of Ghanaian government, Ocloo soon became known internationally.
An invitation to the first United Nations World Conference on Women, held in Mexico in 1975, was a huge stepping stone to Ocloo's global mission. There, she met other women entrepreneurs from Third-World countries, many of whom shared her ideas of helping individuals at the grassroots level. A group of ten women from five continents followed through on the idea of economic independence as a reinforcement for women's rights. Very small “micro” loans given to disadvantaged women with a business idea as simple as selling goods on the street could help in the global fight against poverty.
A founding committee was formed that included Michaela Walsh of Merrill Lynch International; Ela Bhatt, founder of India's Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), the world's first trade union for undocumented women workers; and Ocloo, who chaired the board of directors of this new organization, Women's World Banking (WWB). The WWB would ultimately coordinate among 40-plus member institutions and serve upwards of 24 million clients around the world. At the start, its goal was to grant microloans for as little as $50 to low-income women with business ideas. In later decades, its offerings expanded to include other services for new entrepreneurs.
In 1990, Ocloo and Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo were jointly awarded the Africa Prize, a $100,000 award for their work toward ending hunger on the continent. She used her half of the prize to found a farm school where women and young people could learn crafts and basic business and sales skills. Although she was an in-demand speaker as well as an advisor traveling around the world, Ocloo followed her basic plan of empowering women through entrepreneurship. Although sharing her considerable cooking and business expertise with young women remained a pleasure, she lamented that the ongoing modernization of Ghana had made young people less interested in farming. Like her high-school peers, they instead sought jobs that put them behind desks and in urban buildings.
“I have taught them to cost the things they sell and determine their profits,” Ocloo once commented, as quoted by the New York Times. “You know what we found? 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.” Through Ocloo's efforts, such entrepreneurial women began to be taken seriously, benefiting from the continuing stream of resources offered by the WWB savings accounts, microinsurance, housing loans, individual and rural finance loans, and many more services provided crucial support to those women determined to make a success of their growing businesses.
GhanaWeb, (November 15, 2017), “Dr. Mrs. Ester Afua Ocloo.”
Guardian (London, England), https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/apr/18/what-has-esther-afuaocloo-done-for-women-google-knows (April 18, 2017), Hanna Summers, “What Has Esther Afua Ocloo Done for Women? Google Knows.”
New York Times online, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/10/world/esther-ocloo-83-pioneer-in-microloans-to-helpwomen-become-entrepreneurs-dies.html (March 10, 2002), Douglas Martin, “Esther Ocloo, 83, Pioneer in Microloans to Help Women Become Entrepreneurs, Dies.”□