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Life and Business Lessons from African Market Women

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Wednesday, February 10th, 2016
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“Being an African woman is what you will make of it Zenzele. But never forget that for the majority, it also means to rise out of bed before others, to make the cold kitchen warm, to work the fields in the blazing heat, to walk for miles on dusty paths carrying water on your head, wood under your arms, and a baby on your back” —Zenzele:

A Letter for my Daughter J. Nozipo Maraire, Zenzele

When Ev and I visited Ghana with girls, I was struck by how hard women worked. I watched a woman carefully cross a busy 4-lane highway as she glistened black from the sweat reflecting off her face. She had a 20-pound toddler strapped to her back and carried two enormous bundles of chopped wood on her head. Perhaps motherhood had made me hyper sensitive to the plight of working women who pulled long, strenuous hours in the scorching African sun to make ends meet.

In every market, on the sides of roads, in dusty medians of congested highways, women sell everything from cell phone credits to salted fish. Working mothers bear the heat, the babies, and the economy. Not many people do double-takes on the plight of Ghana’s market women, but their industriousness amazes and inspires me. To think how far the few Cedis these women earn each day is stretched to feed her family, maybe to pay school fees, to buy clothes and the soap that launders them, to buy toilet paper and other daily necessities, to pay rent, to buy medicine, to treat her little ones to an occasional lollipop, to tithe with, to reinvest with—to live.

Afropolitan women have few role models in history and in national headlines as inspiration to draw from. It’s important for us to understand what nurtures and drives our collective spirit. Women hustling in Africa’s crowded streets and markets are resilient with a strength that permeates generations. If we look close enough, we can mine lessons from the unexamined realities of their daily lives and see that we are made up of the same solid stuff.

3 things African Market Women Teach Us About Life

  1. Everyone has something to offer

African women are hustlers. We are naturally inventive, creative, and entrepreneurial—we aren’t the idle type. We work with our hands, minds and wits. We find things we’re good at—even if it’s just a hobby—and find ways to be industrious with it.

     2. Hustle like your life depends on it

If you’ve been to Makola market, in Ghana, or any other African market for that matter, you’ve seen the endless rows of stalls, tables, kiosks and booths of women selling everything from baby diapers to tomatoes. There are usually rows of women selling the exact same thing within yards of each other. I’ve always wondered how on earth anyone made a reasonable living selling goods and produce in an oversaturated market?

Women who sell things in the market know they have severe competition, after all, there’s nothing new under the sun, but in a crowded marketplace, victory goes to the person dedicated enough to show up every single day. For many market women, that little stall of sundry provisions is all they have. Consistency is key. Their one chance of affording life’s bare necessities are contingent upon waking up earliest, showing up every day, and hustling like your life depends on it.

3. Balancing is a necessary skill

Those big heavy loads on their heads and babies on their backs are actual examples of the “double shift” women everywhere have to pull. Balancing ambition with others’ expectations and personal responsibilities require strength, tact and resilience. As African women, the world expects more from us than it expects of anybody else, so learning how to balance between cause, culture, and self is necessary.

The West has its heroes, and we have ours. The everyday market women on the streets of Accra, Lagos, Freetown etc, are some of the most inspirational people we can pull strength from. African market women are on my roster of heroes that nurture me. They teach us so much about life and business. I outline some business basics we can glean from market women in an article I recently wrote for SheLeads Africa called, 5 Ways to Out-Hustle the Competition Like an African Market Woman.   Check it out!



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