For a half year, I published Neue Afrique, a digital newsletter that explored business developments in the Economic Community of West African States, known as Ecowas, reaching more than 1,600 diplomats, development analysts, international civil servants, institutional investors and entrepreneurs. Neue Afrique, which involved low start-up and operating costs, acted as a prelude to my plans to start other entrepreneurial ventures and helped me learn the back story behind the so-called Africa Rising narrative promoted by the media and others.
The big lesson I learned as a publisher was that gender bias, ageism and race-based exploitation could hurt the success of West African women entrepreneurs.
In Sierra Leone, where I was born, the cultural notion is that women have no place in business or in public life. Young people and women are shut off from or denied access to local power networks, which are dominated by middle-aged men. I was unsuccessful in my repeated attempts to contact many established African entrepreneurs (who were often male) for a feature in Neue Afrique. While Internet connectivity might have been an issue, as power outages are quite common in West Africa, many of these people often read my newsletter, information I gleaned from readership metrics.
My hunch is that my age, 26, and gender branded me as not important enough to converse with powerful West African entrepreneurs. But I was not easily discouraged, as I have the credentials to prove my worth: Fulbright scholar, a former United States Mission to the United Nations intern with connections to ambassadors and leaders from the World Trade Organization and the United Nations and a well-traveled American passport holder.
While I persevered through these comparatively small setbacks, I can only imagine how a West African woman entrepreneur with a different background would be discouraged by emails that go unanswered, say, to an influential entrepreneur; or a denied application for a small-business loan from a bank more accustomed to male entrepreneurs; or a disparaging remark about her prospects as a businesswoman from family members. It’s not unusual for West African women to police other women who transgress gender-based social norms.
I found that foreign executives with business ties to West Africa were enthusiastic about being featured in Neue Afrique. Because of the legacy of the colonial era, foreign investors are looked upon with great suspicion in many West African countries. But it should not be ignored that historically, West African woman entrepreneurs have benefited from foreign sponsors.
Beginning in the 16th century, a group of Afro-European women called the nharas monopolized commerce on the West African coast. The word “nhara” is derived from “senhora,” a Portuguese honorific whose use in West Africa referenced a high-status woman. A nhara either had a Portuguese father or a European partner, whom she was quick to separate from, should he be found wanting. They were the multilingual intermediaries between European traders and local markets. Sensational, self-reliant and successful, the nharas juggled many identities to brazenly hack into global commercial networks.
These women are proof that West African women can command commercial empires with competence and creativity. In Sierra Leone, for example, an older woman whom the community respects would be referred to as a “nhara.” But the commercial and cosmopolitan aspect of the nhara personality is long gone.
West African women entrepreneurs are also at risk of being exploited by powerful institutions. During my publishing venture, I was approached by nonprofit groups and profit-making companies who wanted to use the platform to promote their own initiatives without compensating me through paid advertising or in-kind support. Rather than buy ad space in the newsletter, an organization wanted me to do a whole write-up about its event — an event for which they were charging €1,490.00 per ticket (about $2,000).
I was happy to give complimentary space to the Visão Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on disadvantaged youth in Sierra Leone. In 2009, a Senegalese entrepreneur named Magatte Wade wrote about a similar exploitative encounter with the Millennium Villages project, the brainchild of Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economics professor and director of the Earth Institute, which oversees Millennium Villages.
My experience with Neue Afrique taught me that as a card-carrying member of some of the world’s most disenfranchised groups — women, African, youth — I should take every liberty to use the privileges that I possess; that is, my education and experience, as a coping mechanism against oppression and disappointments. I also learned that it is important to be cosmopolitan and willing to network with foreign collaborators who offer mutually beneficial partnerships.
As Africa continues to rise, my hope is that more West African women entrepreneurs brazenly delve into the financial, social and political institutions that have marginalized us into a brave new world of equality and dynamism for everyone.
[This article was updated on Feb. 18, 2014.]