African businesswomen: From kitchen, field to commerce

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DOUALA, Cameroon — Mme. Massopo’s office is not easy to find.  Leaving Douala’s crowded main street, you are soon walking down a pothole-ridden, mud-covered alleyway, weaving in and around dilapidated buildings and rusty gates.  Finally, you reach her place of business: a three-room space crammed with various pieces of equipment, ranging from a sewing machine to an old computer, and the walls covered in posters advocating social awareness and action. 

Emma Massopo founded “Association Femmes Battantes Oeuvrant dans le Social” (FEBAS) or “Association of Working Women” in 2001.  Among other things, FEBAS provides basic education to women and vulnerable children, including orphans. 

It also offers training in sewing and hair-dressing to young women, especially mothers, who have no source of income and no real formal education. Massopo points out that it is often girls who have children early on, often without a spouse, who lack the means to support themselves, let alone their families.

The FEBAS initiative is backed by modest means.  The walk to the FEBAS office confirms that.  When asked what is perhaps the greatest obstacle facing women like herself attempting to start a business or association here in Cameroon, she replies without hesitation: “Access to finances.  We cannot expand our initiatives, no matter the demand in a given community, if it remains virtually impossible for women to obtain loans.”

Mme. Massopo is a new member of the Cameroon Businesswomen’s Network (CBWN).  CBWN was created in January of 2009 when a group of female entrepreneurs came together to discuss all the difficulties the women of Cameroon encounter in the world of business.  They quickly realized that perhaps if they pooled their resources and started a network to address those difficulties, they might be able to improve the overall environment for entrepreneurial women. 

Difficulty in accessing finances has been a recurring theme in the conversations among the members of CBWN, amidst an overarching critique of a system that does not lend itself to those who lack the connections or the resources.

In fact, despite laws passed in 1990 granting women the right to open bank accounts and register businesses without needing their spouse’s consent, there remains what is called the Civil Status Registration Ordinance, which gives a husband the right to formally reject his wife’s exercise of a trade or profession if he feels it is not in the best interest of the family.

According to Nana-Fabu, a Professor at the University of Douala, the women of Cameroon have for a long time been the backbone of the economy, but have stayed “largely marginalized in society generally and in the economic sector in particular.”  Dr. Nana-Fabu argues that in modern times, the women of Cameroon are more dependent on the men economically than they everwere in pre-colonial times.

Lack of access to credit is a large part of the problem.  According to the National Employment Fund, 80 percent of the economically active women in an urban setting in 2005 were petty traders of some kind.  Business expansion loans, Nana-Fabu explains, are very difficult for women to obtain. 

In fact, “legislative provisions restrict women’s legal capacity to offer guarantees,” said Nana-Fabu. “Thus, some banks demand the husband’s guarantee as a condition for granting a loan. Women also have difficulties obtaining credit because they are seldom able to meet the financial criteria of credit institutions.”

So what do women like Mme. Massopo do?

Several members of CBWN at one point or another found themselves in dire straits, and yet managed to generate enough revenue to form their own associations and reach out to others in need of employment in their communities.  Jacqueline Ebene, a mother of six and a widow at the age of 30, turned to sewing and selling clothing to survive. 

It wasn’t long before she was training and employing other single mothers in need of an income, however small.  These women then formed their own association, registered themselves with the Delegation of Social Affairs, and now conduct outreach programs to orphans in various regions of the country.  The association, called “Mères et Enfants Solidaires” (MERENSO), or ‘Single Mothers and Children,’ has also partnered with UNICEF to embark on HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns.

While certainly noble and life-changing for the participants, these operations remain small scale.  Without access to loans, these well-intentioned associations find it difficult to expand.  Their tools remain simple and their space confined.

CBWN President Dr. Marguerite Limagnack, however, sees immense potential in the women of Cameroon: “The purpose of the CBWN is to help women grow their businesses and themselves.  We will provide the opportunity to develop their skills through training and the sharing of experiences.  We want to celebrate, empower and educate women who could add so much to this economy, and to the society in general.”

It is undeniable that women remain marginalized in the economy of Cameroon.  What is less clear is whether or not that can be changed and, if so, how.  CBWN is one of a number of organizations attempting to better equip and involve women in the world of business. 

Women are starting to step out of the shadows of petty trade and road-side stalls, out of the fields behind their houses, and out of someone else’s kitchen.  These women are emerging, assembling and moving forward – collectively. 

The question remains, will the veil of victimhood and inferiority that is perceivedto shroud the face of many African women be shed and replaced by that of a proverbial power suit?  The members of CBWN would answer: Yes.