Esther Afua Ocloo was a Ghanaian entrepreneur who co-founded the Women's World Banking in 1976, with Michaela Walsh and Ela Bhatt. A pioneer in the practice of micro-lending in her country, she was dedicated to the cause of economic empowerment of poor women and their families. Born into a poverty stricken family, she realized the significance of being economically independent early on in life. Blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit and great ambitions, she started her own business venture when she was just a teenager. Though initially she struggled and also had to face ridicule from others of her clan, she persevered through all the hardships to become one of Ghana’s best-known entrepreneurs. Her success earned her assistance from Achimota College which enabled her to study agriculture and food technology in the U.K. Upon on her return to Ghana, she focused on helping other women in running their own small businesses with the management skills she had acquired in the U.K. Her entrepreneurial efforts, combined with her determination to help other women become economically independent, gained her national and international attention and she was invited to the first United Nations World Conference on Women in 1975. Shortly after, she co-founded the Women’s World Banking. She was honored with several awards, including the African Prize for Leadership, for her relentless work promoting economic empowerment of women.
Childhood & Early Life
Esther Afua Nkulenu was born on 18 April 1919 in Peki Dzake, British Togoland, to George Nkulenu, a blacksmith, and his wife Georgina, a potter and farmer. The family was an impoverished one. She began her schooling at a Presbyterian primary school and later went to a coeducational boarding school at Peki Blengo. She was a bright student and won a scholarship to Achimota School where she studied from 1936 to 1941, obtaining the Cambridge School Certificate. Ambitious from a young age, she started her first business venture shortly after her high school graduation.
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Early Entrepreneurial Activities
Growing up in a poor family, she realized the value of being financially independent quite early on. She did not even have a dollar with her when she started her first business! With a few Ghanaian shillings which her aunt had given her, she bought some oranges, sugar, and jars, and started making marmalade to sell. Her venture did well and soon she won a contract to supply her high school with marmalade jam and orange juice. Eventually she was able to further expand her business with the help of bank loans. In 1942, she established a juice and marmalade business under the name "Nkulenu". Her business performed very well, and impressed by her entrepreneurial skills, Achimota College sponsored her for a cooking diploma from the Good Housekeeping Institute in London. Thus she went to England in 1949 for her higher studies. After getting the diploma, she also took the post-graduate Food Preservation Course at Long Ashton Research Station, Department of Horticulture, Bristol University.
Upon her return to Ghana in the 1950s, Esther Afua Nkulenu started to further expand her business. After gaining considerable success as a woman entrepreneur, she decided to use her business skills to help other women develop their small businesses. Thus she began teaching women food preservation techniques and also shared her business knowledge with them. Around this time she began lending women entrepreneurs small amounts of money to help them establish their own business. With time she started gaining attention on a national level, and with the support of President Kwame Nkrumah, she was elected as the first President of what became the Federation of Ghana Industries, serving in this position from 1959 to 1961. A few years later, she was made the Executive Chairman of the National Food and Nutrition Board of Ghana. By the 1960s her business had branched out into textiles and dyes as well. By this time she was also deeply involved in activities dedicated to women empowerment in Ghana which gained her an international reputation. In 1964 she was appointed as the Executive Chairman of the National Food and Nutrition Board of Ghana, the first woman to hold this post. She was appointed an adviser to the First World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975.
Founding of Women s World Banking (WWB)
At the First World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975, the idea of providing microcredit to women entrepreneurs was discussed. Following this conference, Esther Afua Ocloo coordinated with Michaela Walsh and Ela Bhatt to found the Women’s World Banking (WWB) in 1976. Through this organization, she promoted the provision of small loans, known as micro-credit, to women entrepreneurs in Ghana, enabling them to set up their own businesses. As of today, the WWB network serves 24 million micro-entrepreneurs in 28 countries worldwide, of which the majority are women. The organization explicitly focuses on empowering women from underprivileged backgrounds. Ocloo served as the first chairman of the Board of Directors of WWB from 1979 to 1985.
In addition to her involvement with the WWB, Ocloo also worked for the economic empowerment of women in other positions. In 1976, she was appointed as an adviser to the Council of Women and Development, a post she held till 1986. From 1978 to 1979, she served as a member of Ghana's national Economic Advisory Committee. She was also a member of the Council of State in the Third Republic of Ghana from 1979 to 1981.
Awards & Achievements
Esther Afua Ocloo was the recipient of numerous awards for her work on the economic empowerment of women entrepreneurs. In 1990, she was honored with the African Prize for Leadership (shared with Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria). She was presented with the African Entrepreneurship Award in 2001 for providing innovative solutions for increasing food production in Africa.
Personal Life & Legacy
After returning home to Ghana from the U.K., Esther Afua married Stephen Ocloo. The couple had four children: daughter Vincentia Canacco, and three sons, Vincent Malm, Christian Biassey and Steven Ocloo Jr.
She became ill with pneumonia in early February 2002 and died on 8 February 2002, at the age of 82. She received a state funeral in Accra before being buried at her hometown, Peki Dzake.