What has Esther Afua Ocloo done for women? Google knows

Google’s ‘doodle’ today celebrates the achievements of an entrepreneur from Ghana who helped to empower millions of women through business

Esther Afua Ocloo founded her first company with less than a dollar to her name, selling marmalade as a teenager in the 1930s. It was the start of a career that would lead the Ghanaian entrepreneur to empower millions of other women to succeed in business, and for her to become an inspiration around the world.

Now her achievements are being celebrated in a Google “doodle” on what would have been her 98th birthday.

Recognising the financial difficulties faced by poor women, Ocloo taught them skills and became a pioneer of micro-lending after setting up a bank to assist those on low incomes. “Women must know that the strongest power in the world is economic power,” she said in a speech in 1990.

In her honour, Google is changing its homepage logo across 12 countries, including the US, Ghana and the UK, to a “doodle” or illustration of her empowering the women of Ghana.

Born in 1919 as Esther Afua Nkulenu in the South Dayi district of Ghana, Ocloo went on to study at boarding school before winning a scholarship to Achimota school, where many prominent African leaders were educated.

As a high school graduate with only a few Ghanaian shillings that had been given to her by her aunt, she bought sugar and oranges – along with 12 jars – to make marmalade to sell at a profit.

She soon won a contract to supply her high school, and later secured a deal to service the military with her supplies. On the basis of that contract she was able to take out a bank loan and, in 1942, established a business under her maiden name. Nkulenu Industries is still making jam today and exporting to foreign markets, operating out of Ghana’s capital, Accra.

Known affectionately as “Auntie Ocloo”, the entrepreneur travelled to England to undertake a food science course at Bristol University before returning in 1953 to help her home country, then the Gold Coast, to become self-sufficient.

From the 1970s she worked tirelessly to improve the economic status of women.

In 1975, she was invited to Mexico for the first UN World Conference on Women and later co-founded and became chair of the board of directors of Women’s World Banking, building on her earlier mission to help women obtain the small loans needed to launch businesses. The not-for-profit organisation has since helped millions of women to set up their own companies.

While working on her own thriving business, Ocloo also devised a programme to share her skills with other women seeking to cook and sell their products on the street.

She championed and spoke up for independent vendors, saying: “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.”

In 1990 she became the first woman to receive the Africa Prize for Leadership.

Ocloo, who died from pneumonia in 2002, spent her life promoting sustainability and agriculture while proposing alternative solutions to the problems of hunger and poverty, and the distribution of wealth.

In an interview in 1999, she said: “Our problem here in Ghana is that we have turned our back on agriculture. Over the past 40 years, since the beginning of compulsory education, we have been mimicking the west.”

The contribution she made to her country was recognised in a speech at her state burial by former Ghanaian president John Agyekum Kufuor. “Her good works in the promotion of development in Ghana cannot be measured,” he said.


Hannah Summers

The GuardianTramp

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