A desperate business

Benefits of stimulating small enterprises in Ghana are questionable

Poor Ghanaian women are being encouraged to start their own businesses. “Those women would do just about anything to prevent their children going down the same path”, says Merel van ’t Wout, a doctoral student from the African Studies Centre.

“A large part of the Ghanaian population try to make a living by running their own businesses. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) regard it as enterprising, but those people are ‘businessmen’ – note the quotation marks – from sheer desperation”, says PhD student Merel van’t Wout, speaking by the telephone from Amsterdam Airport’s departure lounge. Last week in Leiden, she received the Africa Thesis Award from the African Studies Centre for her Master’s thesis on sewing businesses set up by impoverished Ghanaian women. She was struck by the idea in 2011, when she was doing an internship at an NGO in Ghana.
“I was teaching Ghanaian school children and young women how to run a business. They were attending a seamstress course at the market. I noticed that there was far more to them and their problems than the NGO saw, so I decided to discuss the issue extensively in my Master’s thesis.” That thesis, which she did at the University of Groningen for the Master Research programme Modern History and International Relations, took a number of years, during which she eventually became a research assistant at the African Studies Centre.
“The NGO did not take the social-economic circumstances in which the girls lived into account at all. They came from villages, far away, and got up a four o’clock in the morning to cook for their families. Then they walked to the town and by the time it was midday, they were extremely tired but they still had to listen to me giving them information that had no relevance for them. There was a marked discrepancy between the NGO’s expectations and how the girls pictured their futures.”
“The problem was not unique to that NGO. I started to read more policy texts and action plans on stimulating enterprise. In theory, businesses drive economic growth. But as a development strategy for the very poorest, the benefits are questionable.”
The women in my study belong to the poorest part of the Ghanaian population and their customers treat them accordingly, paying too little or demeaning them. The NGOs think that the women should act like proud business people and should not let themselves be treated as doormats.”
“Those women never graduated from secondary education because there was no money, a huge disappointment for them. Some lock themselves away or stop eating. Their businesses are nothing more than a last resort, not a way of making the big time. I spoke to women who burst into tears because they couldn’t always feed their children. They would do anything to prevent their children going down the same path while the NGOs are hoping for flourishing businesses.
“To those women, it’s not logical to invest every tiny amount of time, energy and money they manage to save in their businesses. They prefer to use it for education: for themselves, their children, or even their neighbours’ children.”
But what could help them? “In economic terms: the stability of a fixed income, and as that’s not often feasible, combining it with life skill programs. And I would like to add to the public debate: businesses are not the be-all and end-all. We should also focus on the government’s part in solving the problems too.”
She has already caught a plane to the Ghanaian town of Tamale, where she will be doing her next bit of field research, now as a PhD student at the ASC. “About how the Ghanaian boys who commit internet fraud view themselves. On my last visit, I spoke to lads who were ashamed of what they were doing as well as kids who were proud of how much money they made.” MvW

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A desperate business

Poor Ghanaian women are being encouraged to start their own businesses. “Those …