Esther Afua Ocloo launched her entrepreneurial career as a teenager in the 1930s on less than a dollar.
She quickly became one of Ghana‘s leading entrepreneurs and a source of inspiration around the world. Today, on what would had been her 98th birthday, Google dedicated to her a ‘doodle’ illustration.
In addition to her own business, she taught skills to other women and co-founded Women’s World Banking (WWB), a global micro-lending organisation.
On its website, the WWB microlending network says it lends to 16,4 million women around the world, managing a loans portfolio of over $9bn.
Known as “Auntie Ocloo”, Esther dedicated her life to helping others like her succeed.
“Women must know that the strongest power in the world is economic power,” she said in a speech in 1990.
“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.”
How she started
As a high school graduate with only a few Ghanian shillings given to her by an aunt, she bought sugar, oranges and 12 jars to make marmalade jam.
Ocloo sold them at a profit, despite the ridicule of her former classmates, who saw her as an “uneducated street vendor“.
Soon she won a contract to supply her high school with marmalade jam and orange juice, and later managed to secure a deal to provide the military with her goods.
On the basis of that contract, she took out a bank loan.
In 1942, she established a business under her maiden name, “Nkulenu”.
Ocloo then travelled to England to take a course in Food Science and Modern Processing Techniques at Bristol University.
In 1953, determined to grow her business with her newly acquired knowledge in food processing and preservation, she returned to her homeland with a mission to help Ghana become self-sufficient.
Nkulenu Industries still makes orange marmalade today and exports indigenous food items to markets abroad.
In 1962, the company relocated to its present location at Madina, a suburb of the capital city, Accra.
Besides working on her thriving business, she also set up a programme to share her knowledge with other women who cook and sell products on the streets.
”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,” she said.
In 1990, she became the first woman to receive the Africa Prize for Leadership.
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
“We are now producing youth with degrees who don’t want to work in the fields or have anything to do with agriculture.” She added.
Ocloo died in 2002 after suffering from pneumonia. At her state burrial 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.
Today would have been Esther Occlo’s 98th birthday. In her honour Google changed its homepage logo in the United States; Ghana; Peru; Argentina, Iceland; Portugal; Sweden; Australia; Greece; New Zealand; Ireland and the UK to a “doodle” – or illustration – of her empowering the women of Ghana.