Subject: [fem-women2000 773] Women's Globalnet #186: Esther Ocloo, 1919-2002
From: iwtc <>
Date: Tue, 12 Mar 2002 18:01:59 +0000
Seq: 773

Initiatives and Activities of Women Worldwide
By Anne S. Walker 

March 12, 2002


A well-known and highly respected leader, visionary and strong supporter 
of women entrepreneurs worldwide, Esther died on February 8, 2002 in 
Accra, Ghana.

The following obituary (with some editing) appeared in The New York 
Times on Sunday, March 10, 2002, accompanied by a large smiling photo of 
Esther. We here at IWTC have lost a long-time friend and mentor and will 
miss Esther's frequent visits and constant encouragement terribly. Our 
thoughts go out to her family and friends, with heartfelt thanks for a 
life incredibly well-spent.

New York Times
March 10, 2002 
By Douglas Martin

Esther Afua Ocloo, who as a young woman turned a gift of less than a 
dollar into 12 jars of marmalade, which she sold for a profit, and went 
on to become one of Ghana's leading entrepreneurs and a prominent 
exponent of the role of women in economic development, died on Feb. 8, 
2002 in Accra, Ghana. She was 83. Her husband, Stephen, said she died of 
pneumonia in Accra Military Hospital. 

As the first chairwoman of Women's World Banking, Esther Ocloo was one 
of the pioneers of micro-lending, the financing of homespun businesses, 
predominantly run by women, through very small loans, sometimes as 
little as $50. If a business prospers and the loan is repaid -as more 
than 98 percent are- then a larger loan is made available. 

Large lending institutions give micro-lending institutions, like Women's 
World Banking, big loans of, say, US$5 million. The money is then 
parceled out in small loans, at interest rates slightly higher than 
normal commercial bank rates, for enterprises as simple as drying fish. 
Nancy Barry, President of Women's World Banking, said that 25 million 
people, three-quarters of them women, had received micro-loans in more 
than 40 less-developed countries. Half the loans are from Women's World 

The idea was born at the UN International Women's Year (IWY) Conference 
and IWY Tribune in Mexico City, 1975, and became part of  the United 
Nations Decade for Women (1976-1985) proclaimed one year later. Esther 
Ocloo found that ideas she had been developing with women in Ghana were 
also percolating elsewhere. The premise was simple: more than education, 
health care or family planning, women in poor countries need money in 
their pockets. 

The other early leaders in the movement were Michaela Walsh, a New York 
investment banker, Virginia Saurwein, a former UN civil servant, and Ela 
Bhatt, founder of a cooperative bank for poor working women in India 
(Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA). They and several allies 
founded Women's World Banking in 1979 with Esther 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. Ms. Ocloo, in a speech in 1990, gave a 
starkly practical explanation. "Women must know that the strongest power 
in the world is economic power," she said. "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." 

Esther Afua Nkulenu was born in Peki-Dzake in the Volta region of Ghana 
on April 18, 1919. Her parents were poor farmers, but she was able to 
attend high school with the help of scholarships offered to young women 
by Cadbury, the UK chocolate company, which was a major buyer of Ghana's 
cocoa crop. Her mother, with tears in her eyes, sent her off to Accra 
with just sixpence (a nickel). After graduating, she lived with 
relatives in the city. An aunt gave her 10 shillings, (worth less than 
one US dollar today but worth more like US$10 then). She bought sugar, 
firewood, oranges and 12 jars, and made marmalade jam, which she sold 
for a shilling a jar. "I was ridiculed by all my classmates, who saw me 
hawking marmalade on the street like an uneducated street vendor rather 
than seeking an office job", she said. 

But she plowed her profits back into the business. She also took some of 
her marmalade to her old high school and won a contract to supply the 
entire school. Soon, school officials asked her to supply orange juice 
from orange trees on its grounds. She next got a contract to supply 
juice to the military, but lacked the necessary funds to produce it. 
Though she had no collateral, she persuaded a bank to give her a loan on 
the basis of the contract. The result was her company, Nkulenu 
Industries, which grew to produce products like canned tomatoes and soup 

After six years, she had saved enough money to go to the UK to study 
food technology, preservation, nutrition and agriculture. She also 
learned leatherwork and lampshade- making in the hope of sharing the 
skills with rural women back home. Even as she continued running her own 
company upon her return, she devoted more and more of her time to 
improving women's economic situation. For example, she established her 
own programme on a farm to train women in agriculture, preparing and 
preserving food products and making handicrafts. She paid for the 
programme in part with her half of The Africa Prize, a US$100,000 award 
she split with Olusegun Obasanjo, the current president of Nigeria, in 
1990. It was presented by the Hunger Project for their leadership in 
working to end hunger in Africa. 

She liked to keep things simple, as when she taught business management 
skills to women involved in cooking and selling food on the streets. "I 
have taught them to cost the things they sell and determine their 
profits," she said. "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." 

Ms. Ocloo, who always wore bright African clothes and loved to cook 
traditional meals, preferred to be known as Auntie Ocloo, in the 
Ghanaian tradition. She usually began meetings of bankers and others 
with a prayer, and often ended them with a song: "We Are Wonderful." The 
day she entered the hospital she gave a speech urging women to carry on 
her campaign for micro- lending. Not long before she died, she was on 
the phone from her hospital bed to governmental officials arguing that 
micro-loans, rather than grants, should be specified in Ghana's new 

In addition to her husband, Esther is survived by her sister, Georgina 
Nkulenu; her daughter, Vincentia Canacco; her sons Vincent Malm, 
Christian Biassey and Stephen Jr., and six grandchildren. She once said 
her children complained that the women she trained competed against her. 
 "I don't listen," she said. "My main goal is to help my fellow women. 
If they make better marmalade than me, I deserve the competition." 

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