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African businesswomen: From kitchen, field to commerce

Despite huge economic and cultural hurdles, African businesswomen organize to succeed

DOUALA, Cameroon — Mme. Massopo’s office is not easy to find.  Leaving Douala’s crowded main street, you are soon walking down a pothole-ridden, mud-covered alleyway, weaving in and around dilapidated buildings and rusty gates.  Finally, you reach her place of business: a three-room space crammed with various pieces of equipment, ranging from a sewing machine to an old computer, and the walls covered in posters advocating social awareness and action. 

Emma Massopo founded “Association Femmes Battantes Oeuvrant dans le Social” (FEBAS) or “Association of Working Women” in 2001.  Among other things, FEBAS provides basic education to women and vulnerable children, including orphans. 

It also offers training in sewing and hair-dressing to young women, especially mothers, who have no source of income and no real formal education. Massopo points out that it is often girls who have children early on, often without a spouse, who lack the means to support themselves, let alone their families.

The FEBAS initiative is backed by modest means.  The walk to the FEBAS office confirms that.  When asked what is perhaps the greatest obstacle facing women like herself attempting to start a business or association here in Cameroon, she replies without hesitation: “Access to finances.  We cannot expand our initiatives, no matter the demand in a given community, if it remains virtually impossible for women to obtain loans.”

Mme. Massopo is a new member of the Cameroon Businesswomen’s Network (CBWN).  CBWN was created in January of 2009 when a group of female entrepreneurs came together to discuss all the difficulties the women of Cameroon encounter in the world of business.  They quickly realized that perhaps if they pooled their resources and started a network to address those difficulties, they might be able to improve the overall environment for entrepreneurial women. 

Difficulty in accessing finances has been a recurring theme in the conversations among the members of CBWN, amidst an overarching critique of a system that does not lend itself to those who lack the connections or the resources.

In fact, despite laws passed in 1990 granting women the right to open bank accounts and register businesses without needing their spouse’s consent, there remains what is called the Civil Status Registration Ordinance, which gives a husband the right to formally reject his wife’s exercise of a trade or profession if he feels it is not in the best interest of the family.

According to Nana-Fabu, a Professor at the University of Douala, the women of Cameroon have for a long time been the backbone of the economy, but have stayed “largely marginalized in society generally and in the economic sector in particular.”  Dr. Nana-Fabu argues that in modern times, the women of Cameroon are more dependent on the men economically than they everwere in pre-colonial times.

Lack of access to credit is a large part of the problem.  According to the National Employment Fund, 80 percent of the economically active women in an urban setting in 2005 were petty traders of some kind.  Business expansion loans, Nana-Fabu explains, are very difficult for women to obtain.