Her day begins at dawn. You see her straight-backed, carrying her wares on top of her head and moving through the throng of the market in a slow and graceful gait. All around her, with the beauty and harmony of a symphony, this hub of commercial activity, the beating heart of her community, comes to life—the spellbinding sights and sounds of market fare drawing all customers in to join the hustle and bustle and make their purchases for the day.
If you have ever had the pleasure of visiting one of Ghana’s markets, you have met her before. She is uncompromising in her confidence. She drives a hard bargain and is no match to the most astute haggler. But while we all know of her, our knowledge is purely superficial—we have never taken the time to meet her, understand her, and have probably even looked down upon her.
Society’s stereotypes persist, with many assuming that she is illiterate, uneducated, or involved in crime. I admit I have been guilty of this prejudice. I was under the impression that anyone hawking on the streets or selling at the markets was living in poverty, perhaps unable to enter more professional settings of employment. In actual fact, she is an entrepreneurial powerhouse. She, and all women like her, are the unsung heroes and the lifeblood of the Ghanaian economy.
The Marvel of the Market Structure
Commercial centres like malls, brick-and-mortar shops, and online retail have become increasingly popular in Ghana, but many Ghanaians still prefer to access foodstuffs and other consumer goods at local markets. Markets are part of Ghana’s informal sector, which means that they are not well regulated, registered, or taxed by the government. This sector represents a massive portion of the country’s economy and employs 80 per cent of Ghana’s workforce, of which half are women. The markets, in particular, are dominated by women, and over the years these women have developed an effective way to conduct business that is far from simple.
Markets in the south of Ghana are comprised of traders who are responsible for sourcing goods and making them available for sale. The traders are organized into groups according to the commodity they are responsible for—for example, some traders will be responsible for plantains, others would be responsible for tomatoes, and so on. Traders are also given the opportunity to become members of associations that give them access to a wider network of commodity sources and other economic advantages. The work life of a trader can be demanding, with travel across the country and other West African countries often required to access the goods they will send to market.
All market activity is managed and overseen by market queens, women of moral authority and high status. Democratically nominated by the traders to act as a point of contact for all matters pertaining to the market, the role of a market queen is not to be taken lightly. These women stay booked and busy, working to resolve any disputes between the traders and government authorities and serving as a point of contact for all parties who keep the market running. With a highly respected and revered female leader who oversees the operations of a central hub of commerce that is also run by women, Ghana’s market systems have effectively placed women in the seat of economic power.
The Understated Power of Traditional Female Business Leaders
While the predominance of women in Ghana’s commercial economy is indicative of their immense power, their role is largely overlooked. Market queens and traders are seldom consulted by policymakers, and their perspective is rarely considered in economic decisions. Things are changing for the better in Ghana, but gender roles are still strongly reinforced and women are still largely expected to take care of matters at home. To add to their lack of recognition, many focus too much on the fact that markets are informal businesses and have therefore considered them to be unsophisticated. Women working in the markets have thrived for generations in spite of this and have worked tirelessly to establish solid businesses, all while supplying the nation with essential goods.
Who, then, could be better suited to lend a voice to the economy than those who are propelling it forward? Female entrepreneurship is a key requirement for sustainable development, but this doesn’t mean that the focus should be on formal professions or seeking to formalize traditional means of enterprise. With the wealth of knowledge the market women hold about their brand of economic activity, they are a source of untapped potential to add more fuel to the country’s rapid economic growth. Their trading strategies support job creation in the broader community, from the farmers who grow the produce to the truck drivers who transport their goods to market. Their networks, as well as their skills in sourcing and distributing food, can be used to tackle food insecurity and inform trade policies. Extending credit facilities could go a long way to increase their efficiency, their capital, and boost their profit margins.
When we cast aside those whose work has the most value, we deny the world the opportunity to see their potential. All women on the hustle are worthy of praise and recognition, and Ghana’s market women are no exception. Let’s admire them for the way they have empowered themselves, and endeavor to appreciate the importance of the traditional structures they have maintained. It is high time Ghana’s market women—and all market women across the continent who quietly support their communities —are given the respect they deserve.