This name Nana Benz refers to wealthy businesswomen in Togo, a West African country which covers 56,785 km2, with a population of approximately eight million. The Nana Benz started trading very early in textile produced in Europe, Asia, or sometimes in Togo, when the foreign textile companies settled there. The Nana Benz have always been a socio-political and economic force to reckon with. These industrious women “metamorphosed” with time, adjusting to the features and requirements of new eras.

How they started

The word “Nana” is related to “Na” which means mother in many African languages like Jula, and Mina which is spoken in Togo. In Akan culture in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, Nana is the name of a royal, in general. In this context, Nana Benz refers to wealthy businesswomen who prospered through the textile trade in Togo. They became so successful that they were riding in Mercedes Benz vehicles. The genesis of this social class goes back to the 1940s and 50s, before independence, when women traders started importing textile from Ghana and when diplomatic relations between Ghana and Togo went sour over the Togoland issue, those traders changed their business partners and started dealing with foreign or international textile materials producing companies implanted in Togo including, British GB Ollivant, United Africa Company (UAC), John Holt, the French SGGG (Société Générale of the Gulf of Guinea), CFAO (Compagnie Française de l’Afrique Occidentale), and SCOA (Société Commerciale de l’Ouest Africain).These companies were selling merchandise of many types on the markets along the gulf of Guinea. So, the Nana Benz turned away from their Ghanaian business partners and continued to make money in the textile business with those foreign companies; they made their mark internationally by trading in wax printed cloth. They were generally women from modest backgrounds who used their determination and skills to become the richest in the country; many of them never went to school, so they could not read or write, but they knew how to trade, and it is generally said, with humour, that they knew how to count money, which is a fact. They ordered textile materials from Indonesia and when the commodities reached Togo’s shores, the women distributed it throughout West and Central Africa.

The Climax of the Nana Benz Class

These wealthy businesswomen formed a socio-economic and political class. They had a refined and strong sense of business. They were dealing only in textile and were riding in Mercedes Benz cars only. The choice of that brand may be related to the German influence. Togo was a German territory until WWI, when France took over as the colonial master. Not every woman trader could afford that lifestyle. In the 1970s, they rose in prominence and became a corner stone of the Togolese economy. They established a famous reputation in Lomé, the capital city of their country, as the West African centre for the sale of wax prints manufactured in countries like Holland, Belgium, France and England. Wax print from Holland is commonly called Hollandais in French speaking Africa; it is a prestigious and expensive cloth. Women who wear wrappers or dresses or the general “top and wrapper” made with wax print in Africa are highly respected. In general, such outfits are worn on special occasion like parties, naming ceremonies, weddings, etc. Research confirms that between 1976 and 1984, 40 per cent of the business in Togo was in the informal sector and the Nana Benz were the ones behind that. They created new dynamics in West African business and an example is when they established Vlisco as the top selling textile brand in West Africa. 

Their influence was among the strongest in African and West African business, precisely. It is, therefore, not a surprise when they salvaged the national economy during hard times: the budget deficits increased from 13.4 per cent of GDP in 1973 to 39.6 per cent in 1979. Then in the early 90s, political instability shook Togo, and economic sanctions followed, probably because France was bent on imposing her model of democracy in their former colonies like Togo. Around the same time, a 50 per cent devaluation of the CFA franc brought other difficult times, economically. These women “owned the country” by controlling the economy, the government used to hire their Mercedes Benz for important guests and state functions. They were a model of women’s success and epitomized what most strands of feminism are calling for today. The Nana Benz were much ahead of their time. They realized that women’s emancipation could be achieved through financial control, and autonomy. With time, the appellation ‘Nana Benz’ came to symbolize the freedom, ingenuity, creativity, pride, achievement, success, and courage of women. They were appointed to high offices in the women’s wing of the ruling political party. A leading Nana Benz, Madame A. Amedome, was appointed Minister of Social Welfare in 1977 even though she could not read or write. A woman did not become a Nana Benz through inheritance, or society’s choice, but through ingenuity, and struggle.

Current realities: Adaptation and the new gender paradigm

Today, the Nana Benz have adjusted to the postmodern fast growing digital economy and its market. Unlike their mothers or grandmothers, the current crop of Nana Benz study in top-notch universities. That enables them to handle with efficiency the businesses bequeathed to them. Another novel dimension is that the Nana Benz are seen at times as a threat to male domination and machismo. They control the budget in homes, pay the rent and children’s school fees. As a result, many men feel uncomfortable, and emasculated in the household. Maybe the new norm is to negotiate with women, with a kind of predisposition based on ‘negofeminism’ which means ‘no ego’ feminism, a strand that contends that men cannot lead a prosperous life without women and vice versa. Reflections and studies on the Nana Benz and gender would certainly reveal exciting results.

Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

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