Women In Leadership: In Ghana, Where Women Rule

BS took 80 students on their GE to Ghana, here seen on a visit to Miniplast, in Accra, Ghana’s premier recycled plastics factory

There were three women on the stage. CEOs, founders and business gurus, they shared this palpable energy, this tenacity. Lady Dentaa Amoateng MBE, a British-Ghanaian TV presenter and business owner, was on the far right of the all-female panel. Her statement mint green outfit and booming British accent were unmissably boss-like. In the middle, sat Valerie Labi. co-founder of Ghana’s first electric vehicle company. Head-to-toe in a palm-tree maxi print, Valerie’s cool suavity bounced off Lady Dentaa Amoateng’s bombast. Valerie looked and sounded like nothing phased her. On the far left was Miishe Addy, founder and CEO of cross-border trade company Jetstream Africa. Miishe wore burnt orange and spoke with an intense authority through her Texan-Ghanaian twang, sitting tall on the edge of her seat. She gazed intently at the crowd of MBA students, hands waggling in the air to ask this premier triumvirate about entrepreneurship in challenging markets.

I watched these women when I was in Ghana for my London Business School Global Experience, or GE for short. The GE is a one-week immersion in a foreign business ecosystem, complete with a client project, lectures and field trips. Accra, the capital city of Ghana, is home to a thriving start-up and micro-business scene. From my pre-departure reading, I knew that Ghana was the economic success story of West Africa, but inflation was destabilising fledgling businesses. What I didn’t know – which I’d discover in the hot, dusty markets splurging into every street of the capital – was how much the story of business in Ghana is the story of its women.

Elmina fish market in the harbour (with most of the boats out at sea), notice the flags of different nations on each boat


“When I think of entrepreneurs in Ghana, I think of the women hustling away in Makola market,” said Lady Dentaa Amoateng, kicking off the panel discussion. Head into the city’s biggest street market, she encouraged us, and there you’ll find the heart and soul of Ghanaian commerce. But it’s a tough life, she warned, with long hours, fluctuating costs, no other support, and nearly every face you’ll see is a woman. Go buy an onion, you’ll be haggling with one woman at the veg stall Pick up lunch as you continue, it’s her daughter handling the transaction.

Whether in the markets of Jamestown, a seaside district of Accra, or the westerly markets of Cape Coast, the chain of command was the same. The women were in charge. I witnessed this during the GE field trips to the markets of Accra, under the looming, time-worn British and Dutch forts. I saw the same power at play when I travelled for five days after the GE, first to Elmina, a former slave-trading post, and then west to the rainforests of Volta. Everywhere, the story was the same. Lady Dentaa’s words rang true.

Jacquie carrying one of several heavy heavy bags of veg, newly haggled from Mary in Elmina market

It’s 5 a.m. The shoreline is flanked by fishing boats returning from the night’s catch, congregating under the red and white lighthouse. As the boats sail into the harbour, they pass under bridges, packed with people, legs dangling over the side, cheering the fishermen home from the sea. The long wooden boats, shaped like a smile, dock side by side. Each flies a different nation’s flag – hundreds of colours and tattered cloths of varying shape and size flutter in the breeze. I later learned each boat chooses the flag of their favourite football team’s nationality (which explains why so many boats seemed to be Spanish at first glance). Endless baskets of tiny silver flapping fish pile up on the dock, the market is humming, already, before the sun has even touched the horizon.


There’s not a single woman on the fishing boats, but in the harbour, you can’t see the docks for the bright patterns of the women’s skirts. The bustling crowd, seemingly in chaos, is in fact a slick, carefully-planned supply chain run by matriarchs. In under an hour, the women will have offloaded the fish. Some are hauled to the smokehouses, others to the salting stalls, and the rest to the market to sell fresh. More women in their families will have opened, loaded and set up the stalls. They will have set the day’s prices, started trading, and negotiated sales for the catch heading inland. By sunrise, the market’s open for business, the equipment already cleaned and ready for tomorrow. Everything will be buttoned down in case sudden gusts of rain carry the umbrellas covering the stalls up into the storm. While the fishermen nap and mend their nets, the women will sell, sell, sell until the sun goes down or they sell out – whichever comes first. They’ll repeat this routine every day, except Tuesday, when the market towns rest in honour of ancient sea gods.

I was lucky to see the matriarchal markets for myself – I travelled in Ghana post-GE for five days with Jacquie and Josh, two fellow MBAs. We linked up with two local tour guides, Nana and Muska. They had suggested we take a cooking lesson, including a trip to the food markets, where I saw the matriarchy in action. Their market dominance (pun intended) was one of the first comments Nana had made.

“The women control this market, they have to be ready when the boats return, ready with today’s price, ready to haggle straight away”, Nana told me. “You should try it”, he suggested.

Josh, Jacquie, another MBA Jennifer & I toasting the Jollof Rice and Abom meals we haggled for and handmade, with Muska and Nana (and many friends)

We needed ingredients for three national dishes – Abom (a fishy tomato-y stew), kelewele (fried plantain) and Jollof Rice. First, Jacquie tried to barter down some yams. The stallholder, Mary, told us we could have six for the price of five, and handed us a full bag. And then another…and another. We scratched our heads in momentary confusion, but continued, undeterred. Josh went next, valiantly attempting to establish the price of one plantain. Again, Mary told us she’d sell us six for the price of five and handed yet more bags. By now we had more big, heavy bags of veg than we could possibly carry. Mary was the only person who didn’t seem confused. Mary was also the only person who knew what price we’d committed to paying.


Chuckling loudly from the sidelines, Nana explained, “She’s already calculated what she needs to sell today to make her profit. She knows how much she wants you to buy. So, she sets a quantity and sells everything to you in bulk. It sounds like a deal to you, but really, she’s already figured out how to get her final price.” He grinned as he added, “but I invited a few friends to join us for dinner so we’ll need to visit a few more stalls…”

Despite being roundly confounded by Mary, I admired how she’d conducted the haggle on her own terms. Inflation meant she couldn’t set her prices. So, she had turned economic instability into a tactic. I was reminded of once again of the panel discussion.

Miishe Addy had said, “Being a woman means having to create your own opportunity in Ghana”. Despite having collected some serious CV-hard-hitters (she’s an alumna of both Stanford and Harvard and ex-Bain), Miishe had still faced the harsh reality of starting, growing, and running a business in Ghana. Before she’d founded Jetstream, cross-border trade facilities hadn’t existed – at all. She’d created the market, harnessed it, and grown it. A big part of the hustle is learning how to exploit the hustle.


Jemima feeding a lemur

Miishe created a multi-million-dollar business, but her insight rings just as true for Ghana’s informal economy. Margins are thin and daily profit can dwindle to nought overnight. No one understands the hustle better than the women running these micro-businesses. Eking out opportunity there is a hard grind. The day after the panel discussion, I met Janice, who owns a cosmetics store in Jamestown. She makes daily scouting missions around her competitors’ stores to moderate her own pricing strategy. She sources everything from Nigeria (it’s cheaper wholesale) twice a year and drives it 6 hours back, selling at 2-3 times the mark up in Ghana. Still, item pricing can change sometimes twice a day. “Every sale is a haggle, every cost is fixed until it isn’t” she told us. Electricity, water, fuel – “It changes all the time”.

Janice started out over 18 years ago, moving from a street stall to her bricks-and-mortar storefront, about seven feet by twenty, complete with an electric fan (which strongly correlated with the length of time we stayed inside). Her secret? “I remember every customer. Every time they return, I give them a better price. Every item they ask for, I write it down, every time. Everything I recommend to them is exactly what they need, that’s why they come back every week, every year.”

While we were talking, she made three sales – each one carefully recorded with a pencil into her A4 lined paper ledger. This ledger would travel the hour’s journey home with her each day, at 10pm, and return, updated, with new prices, for a 7am opening the next morning – 6 days a week, 52 weeks a year. From this 18-year hustle, Janice had put four daughters through university.


I asked Janice whether she’d considered loans, venture debt, even micro-finance. She paused for a beat, before shaking her head, explaining it just wasn’t an option. I probed – because surely, here was the ultimate success story. She had social mobility, business nous, consistent revenue growth, commitment…but despite the tenacity of women like Janice, capital is still a man’s world. Valerie Labi, speaking from the panel, had sounded this warning bell.

Despite MANA mobility, her electric vehicle company, being valued at $20m, she had struggled. “In the end, I had to partner with men to get funding, to get heard, to get my seat at the table. I had to find a way around the difficulty.”

A Giant African Snail hiding in her shell, about 15cms in diameter

According to Zubeiru Salifu of Ghana’s AV Ventures LLC, just 8% of venture funding in Ghana goes to women. I’d heard this on the first day on my trip – from Constance Swaniker, for whom I completed a short consulting project. She had founded Accra’s Design and Technology Institute, a technical college for young people. She’d sourced millions in investment – but had had to resort to international support.

When I reflect on the women I met during my twelve days in Ghana, I see this inequity played out across their stories. They’re the backbone of the economy but lack recognition. Even when they occupy the hustlers’ seats, they’re still partially invisible. Our female panelists spoke of the women of Ghana with both hope and despair. They hoped that more women would follow in the path of those like Janice, but were skeptical that the levers of potential – governance and regulation, funding, power – would be accessible.

To an outsider, this feels at odds with Ghana’s bright and buzzing culture, which again, seemed to be a story of women. There was the all-female jazz band, clad in flared patterned jeans, playing hits on the stage of an outdoor bar, packed with locals – the highlight of my week. Then there was the vibrant orange hue of ‘Homegoing’ by Yaa Gyasi, Ghana’s multi-award-winning female author, poking out of every MBA’s backpack, and featured on every street-side vendor’s display. Then there was the delicious irony of Muska’s (our Ghanaian guide) collection of pet Giant African Snails being all-female, the ringleader being a 5-year-old, 15-cms wide female named ‘Dorothy’. I came away feeling conflicted. Having travelled to Ghana with no idea of what I’d find, I was blown away by the stories I found, the people I met. No textbook could do justice to the experiences, the challenges and the lives of the entrepreneurs hustling in the heart of West Africa.

Bio: Jemima is a second-year MBA candidate at London Business School. She is a Forte Foundation and BK Birla scholar and is Vice-President of the Entrepreneurship Club, Women in Business and Women’s Touch Ruby Club. Prior to LBS, Jemima spent 8 years in advertising and communications at AMV BBDO and challenger brand consultancy eatbigfish. Jemima worked across numerous sectors, winning a silver Cannes Lion and numerous marketing awards. Jemima is also a qualified Coral Reef Research Diver and received her MA in Classics from Queens’ College, Cambridge. She is currently completing the Entrepreneurship summer school.




Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.