The inspirational story of Régine Afi AZIAKPOR, my mother, born in the late ‘40’s in a small village on the Togo-Ghana border. She was known to be one of the original ‘Nana Benz’.
‘Nana Benz’ in Togo is the name given to the women traders in Dutch wax print materials before Independence. Due to the success of this product before independence the Mercedes-Benz-driving female entrepreneurs became known as the Nana Benz. These colorful fabrics were printed in Holland and the UK which mixed dying and waxing techniques and were destined for the Asian markets. With the Dutch ships stopping off in Ghana and Togo, a handful of local women saw the business opportunity to sign exclusive contracts with the material companies. A generation of wholesalers for the ‘Pagne’ was born. The city of Lomé also became the business crossroads for buying and customers came from all over West and Central Africa to buy the beautiful cloth.
Afi’s journey had been arduous, before she’d aspired to become ‘Nana Benz’! Orphaned at an early age, her responsibility was feeding and educating 3 brothers and sisters who she brought with her to Lomé to give them better opportunities and a future. Taught by Catholic nuns Afi gave up her own studies after primary school to care and provide for her siblings.
After arriving in Lomé, Afi began as a street seller, progressing to rent a small shop selling tinned foodstuffs (tomatoes, sardines and corned beef). She withstood the ups and downs faced by small business. Thanks to the informal women’s savings groups ‘Tontines’ she was able to grow her business, and in time would become the exclusive wholesaler for a global company. Time passed, with the help and support of women friends, Afi raised the finances to become a wholesaler at the ‘Assiganmé Market’ of the famous ‘Pagne’ becoming an official ‘Nanette’ in the 80’s. Her company grew steadily, so did her reputation as a business woman. Afi passed on her knowledge and skills so that her children could take over the company.
With her robust work ethic and honed management skills, Afi was always alert to new business opportunities and soon diversified her portfolio to include property and a bakery. She travelled throughout Africa / Europe and took risks to grow the company. She was confronted with numerous daily challenges and managed to overcome macro-economic factors like the devaluation of the French CFA, the economic crisis of the ’90s, the invasion of cheaper imitations from China; dwindling profit margins and the unscrupulous behaviour of some micro-credit organisations, and survived them all!
The company was taken over by my sisters, and is in good health today, still operating within the large market ‘Assiganmé’. The ladies have diversified their product lines to include men’s fashion and wedding dresses, continuing to enjoy growth.
A New Generation, what did we inherit?
The legacy from our mother, is a firm belief in hard work, that anything is possible, and success is a question of talent, not whether you were a girl or a boy. Opportunities are open to all of us, we just need to see them. She also taught us to ‘never give up’ no matter what the circumstances and to stay self-confident. At an early age, the lessons from her life story, intrinsically became part of our DNA. For us, she personified the strength of African women leadership firmly anchored in family values. This is the model I hope to pass on to my daughters, the future generation of strong talented African women. At LadyAgri, we wish to harness, value and encourage this self-determination and belief among all of our members.
Ayélé Sikavi Gabiam
LadyAgri Impact Investment Hub