HELPING African women improve their skills and standard of living comes as naturally to Esther Ocloo as making marmalade. She is one of Ghana's most successful entrepreneurs and a winner of the 1990 Africa Prize for Leadership from the Hunger Project, an organization working to make hunger a higher priority on the global agenda.
Dr. Ocloo began her jam-making venture during World War II when she was just out of high school. Within a few years she developed Nkulenu Industries Ltd., which took her maiden name, into one of Ghana's most successful export businesses.
Around the same time, she founded what is now the Association of Ghana Industries - which has more than 1,000 members - and headed up a number of women's business organizations. She also took an active role in teaching women, who produce most of Africa's food, how to preserve fresh produce by drying it or making pur'ees or jams.
By common estimates, as much as one-third of Africa's harvest spoils each year before it gets to market. Cutting that loss could make the difference in Africa's ability to feed itself. ``The only way to meet Africa's food crisis is to produce more, preserve more, and store more,'' says Mrs. Ocloo.
Dr. Ocloo (the title is an honorary one from Ghana's University of Science and Technology in Kumasi) has also been in the international forefront of helping women gain access to credit. Key to Africa's food spoilage problem is lack of money for solar driers and silos and for jars and preservatives. Ocloo is a founder and first chairperson (from 1979 to 1985) of Women's World Banking. That organization has helped make credit available to more than 70,000 women in 40 countries who are in small business, including farming.
Her strong desire to help others is rooted in a determination never to forget her own humble beginnings, the ample help she feels she received from others, her commitment to Christianity, and her perception of Africa's greatest needs. ``I've been aware of the suffering of other people all my life and have been trying to do something about it,'' she says. ``Everything I've achieved has been through using the Christ principles.''
``She's one of those people with an extraordinary energy to start things and encourage other people to do things,'' comments Rosalind Harris, coordinator of a project on development and the environment of the Women's Foreign Policy Council. Ocloo also serves on the project.
``She's very much a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-let's-get-on-with-it type of person,'' agrees Nancy Barry, president of the New York-based headquarters of Women's World Banking. ``She really epitomizes women in agribusiness in Africa. She's someone who's really lived it and done it.''
THE daughter of poor farmers who grew up about 75 miles from Accra, Ocloo says she would never have been able to attend high school without the help of a scholarships offered to young women by Cadbury, the British chocolate company that was a major buyer of Ghana's cocoa crop. She recalls that her mother had tears in her eyes as she sent her off with a sixpence: ``She felt the money she was giving me was nothing.'' Ocloo says she struggled with a sense of inferiority and other handicaps when suddenly placed in the same school with children from very well-to-do homes.
After graduating, she lived with relatives in the city. Her aunt's decision to give her ten shillings, then worth about 50 cents in US money, prompted her to act on ``an intuition'' to earn a living. She bought sugar, firewood, oranges, and 12 jars, and made marmalade jam, which she sold for one shilling per jar. Profits were put back into the business. Though criticized by some who thought her schooling should lead to a white collar job, Ocloo was soon called back to her high school and asked to bring a sample of the marmalade to the dining hall. Authorities liked what they tasted, and offered her a contract to supply the entire school. ``That gave me a big push and put some confidence in me,'' she recalls.
The school, which produced juice for the students from orange trees on the grounds, suggested that she expand into juice production. School officials showed her how they did it and gave her a letter from leaders of the West Africa Volunteer Forces, then in Ghana, who wanted to get orange juice on a regular basis for their troops. She used her savings to build a temporary factory to qualify for the military contract.
Yet after receiving the contract, she lacked the necessary funds for production. So Ocloo showed the contract to a store manager and managed to purchase the necessary materials on credit. Soon she had her first check - ``I'd never seen one before'' - and her aunt and uncle opened a bank account for her. Her company, which now also makes tomato products and soup bases, employs about 50 people in peak season. It is run largely by her husband, Stephen, and son, Vincent, the oldest of her three children.
After her first six years on the job, Ocloo went to England with some of the money she'd saved and took courses in large-scale cooking and food preservation. She also picked up skills in leatherwork and lampshade-making in hopes of sharing them with rural women back home. When the idea for Women's World Banking took root at the 1975 Mexico City conference that launched the United Nations Decade for Women, Ocloo's early difficulties in getting a bank loan played a role in the decision. ``I told them ... my father's house wouldn't sell for $50 and I wasn't married at the time to ask my husband to give me his house, so I had nothing to offer as collateral,'' she recalls. In the end, top officials in Ghana intervened on her behalf so she could get a loan to mechanize her factory.
Women's World Banking, which has dispensed more than $14 million in small loans averaging $200 apiece over the years, serves variously as a loan guarantor, supervisor, and teacher of management skills. Only two percent of the loans have been written off for lack of payment. In Ocloo's view, the organization and its affiliates deserve a much larger share of the interest returned on loans made by commercial banks. Still, she considers the women's banking venture a very important one, though she says the mission is still largely unfulfilled.
``Women must know that the strongest power in the world is economic power,'' she says, pointing out that academic expertise such as accounting can be bought. ``You cannot go and be begging your husband for every little thing, but at the moment, that's what the majority of our women do.''
Stressing that the food security of Africa starts with women farmers, she says their problems must be addressed, adding: ``Then the sustainable end of hunger in Africa can become a reality.''