Africa, Economy & Trade, Headlines

TRADE-TOGO: Traditional Trading Wisdom Rules the Airwaves

Ebow Godwin

LOME, Feb 12 2002 (IPS) - For two decades, the unrivalled economic boom that made Togo the hub of commerce in West Africa was led by women who used their traditional trading wisdom to manage and control the flourishing businesses.

The “Nana Benz”, who earned the name from the German Mercedes Benz cars that they were the first to import, owned large shops in the hustle and bustle of Asigame, the Lome central market in Adawlato. Here they traded in textiles, wax prints and all sorts of ladies wear bought under mutually beneficial arrangements with western manufacturers.

Their market stretched into other land-locked countries like Upper Volta now Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad. “We enjoyed unrestricted freedom to trade in every form of textiles and wax prints from Holland, Belgium, France and England in those wonderful days when Togo was the centre of commerce in West Africa,” recalls Dede Creppy, a Nana Benz.

Togo then was the “Switzerland of Africa”. Between 1976 and 1984, at least 40 percent of the commercial business in Togo which was in the informal sector, was in the hands of the Nana Benz,” says Charles Agossou of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

The Nana Benz built palatial mansions over their shacks in some of the capital’s shantytowns, invested in the education of their children, and fed, looked after and housed their husbands. Wags say these attractive women were the targets of Togolese Romeo’s who wanted a share of their wealth, popularly called the Nana Benz “scholarships”.

Though uneducated, the market women travelled abroad on business, and commanded spontaneous salutes from the police at state functions. Even the government used to borrow their Mercedes Benz for state visitors attending conferences in the capital city.

But their very success was to destroy the trading tradition passed down over generations to the Nana Benz. Their children and others from the extended Togolese family who were sent abroad to study spurned the family business.

The younger generation considered the daily ritual of selling cloth in market shops outlandish compared to the glamour of working as a secretary to a minister or being the manager of a big financial institution.

“As the daily drudgery of life in the market place was replaced with the pursuit of academic life, and professional achievements by their natural inheritors, the Nana Benz, gradually faced the threat of extinction,” observes Paul Pilo, a broadcaster at the Lome Market Radio Station.

Some other social commentators say that they have become an endangered species in view of the fluctuating economic fortunes of Togo. The violent agitation for multi-party democracy between 1989 and 1993 affected the political and economic privileges that were offered to the Nana Benz by the ruling Rassemblement du Peuple Togolaise (RPT).

Commercial giants, they had played a leading role in national politics under the one-party rule of the RPT. “As the Nana Benz rose in wealth and power, they also began to rise and improve in their political stature,” says Pilo.

President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who has held uninterrupted power for close to 35 years, gave them due recognition, appointing them to high offices in the women’s wing of the RPT. “A leading Nana Benz, Madame A. Amedome, was appointed Minister of Social Welfare in 1977 even though she could not read or write,” recalls Efoe Sassougah, a resident of Lome.

President Eyadema still remains in power, but the Nana Benz have lost their clout. During the violent agitation that rocked the country, some of them were duped and blackmailed by unscrupulous opposition politicians who collected huge sums of money from them, promising them commercial favours when Eyadema steps down.

Unfortunately for the Nana Benz, the opposition politicians fled into exile never to return to Togo. Although a number of Nana Benz have survived the tumultuous political events, they are helped by their daughters who carry the wares on their heads, ringing bells around the market place and on the side-walks, calling customers to flock around them.

But they have not given up hope. On Nov 2, 2000, a group of veteran Nana Benz paid a courtesy call on the Togolese head of state at his private residence in Lome. In an address that was read out on their behalf, they appealed to Eyadema to help them recapture the past glory that made them the real captains of the Togolese economy.

“We have come to thank you for all that you have done to uplift our lives and business in the past three decades. We also appeal to you to help revive our falling hopes,” Creppy said at the meeting that was widely publicised by Togo national television. The President listened attentively and promised to come to their aid.

Already a new multi-million-dollar ultra-modern market complex has been built at Hedzranawoe, a fitting monument on the outskirts of the Togolese capital city to the Nana Benz. But they are so conservative and traditional that they have refused to move to the new site.

Instead they complained bitterly to Eyadema about how the mayor’s office and the managing director of the Lome central market had extorted money and swindled them in the process when it came to the allocation of new market stalls at the old Lome market.

The veteran Nana Benz association has expressed support for the on-going anti-corruption crusade. They asked their President to deal mercilessly with people whom they described as “crooks and swindlers under whose beds staggering sums of money, including 180 million F CFA (450,000 U.S. dollars) were recently found”.

Today, the Nana Benz may have lost their money power but the people have not forgotten them. Many famous musicians including King Mensah, the Togolese winner of the Kora Award for 2001, has paid a memorable tribute to the Nana Benz in his latest release, extolling their indigenous initiative and business acumen.

The Nana FM station, located in the middle of the buzzing Lome central market or Asigame, which booms across the airwaves of Togo, recently celebrated its second anniversary. The popular private radio station has helped in no small measure to preserve the magic of the ingenuity of the Nana Benz.

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