From Bamboo to Baskets
Ghanaian entrepreneurship, as the women tell it
By Gabriella Borter
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the passenger seat of a taxi, hurtling down a dirt road, Bernice Dapaah cooed as she changed her baby’s diaper. Her well-trained hands folded the old and replaced with the new, leaving no mess as our car bounced from pothole to pothole.
The car dropped us next to a building constructed entirely of bamboo, the only structure in sight. Baby on hip, Dapaah led us inside the production hub of her internationally acclaimed start-up business— the Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative.
In 2008, Dapaah had an idea for an ecologically friendly product that could make use of local resources and create jobs in villages that needed them—especially for women and youth. At the time, Dapaah was already the director of a nonprofit organization in Kumasi that aims to serve underprivileged women and youth in rural Ghana. She founded the Bamboo Bikes Initiative with a similar premise.
“Women are more marginalized in terms of economic empowerment,” she said. “That’s why I had the passion and interest in setting up this organization.”
An award from the United Nations in 2010 accelerated the start-up, and today the two bustling factories produce bicycles for markets in Europe, Africa, Australia and the United States and employ nearly 70 people across both factory sites.
Dapaah chose the site of the factory I visited in Kantink Yiren for two reasons: its proximity to the bamboo forest, and the low employment rate in the village nearby. Men and women, old and young, worked at different stations in the one-room factory. Some cut stalks, others melded them together with resin, and others polished the frames. Bamboo bicycle parts lined the walls, and I even spotted a bamboo wheelchair prototype in a corner.
The team of 25 people at work were split in half by gender. Dapaah had hoped to have a team comprised of 70% women when she opened the factory, but found that it was difficult to keep the numbers up when women became pregnant and stopped coming to work. To this day, part of her creative mission is finding a solution to keep women active and empowered in the workforce.
“Even when I started the bamboo bike business, people were telling me it’s men’s work, a job that men are supposed to do, so why women?” Bernice recalled. “I said, ‘We can make it.’”
A job at the bamboo bike factory is unique for “women’s work” in rural Ghana, where women often rely on domestic skills for income and sell their goods in the small market economy. To start a formal business requires a bank loan for those who cannot afford the initial investment, and Ghana’s lack of banks and financial services outside its city centers presents a problem.
Many women in rural Ghana, if they haven’t been trained for a technical career like those in Dapaah’s bicycle factory, employ the skills they already have to make a living, such as basket-weaving, cooking, and cloth-making.
As a result, there is an influx of similar business ventures. Kosi Yankey, the executive director of Ghana’s National Board of Small Scale Industries, sees this as one of the main impediments to women’s economic growth in Ghana.
“Diversity in business does not exist,” Yankey said. “It’s the same old things. So soap making, sewing, bead making, the same type of enterprises, and I think we need to rise beyond that. But how do you get women to rise beyond what we’re used to doing constantly?”
The answer is not easy. A 2016 report by the International Monetary Fund showed that less than 10% of the female population of Ghana was employed in wage work, while more than 40% of women counted household work as their occupation and the remaining majority were in the agriculture industry. Women who grow up learning domestic skills and farm work often rely on those skills for their livelihood. There is safety in sticking with what you know, and starting a business is a risk, even while using a familiar skill set, when loans are hard to come by.
Akosua Afriyie-Kumi, a native of Kumasi who studied fashion in the U.K., found her solution to this problem by adding a creative twist to a traditional women’s skill.
Afriyie-Kumi launched her woven basket bag company, AAKS, in 2014 with a vision to make fashionable designer bags out of the woven baskets that she saw everywhere growing up in Kumasi.
“I always wondered why no one had done anything new with it,” she said, sitting perched on her parents’ living room couch with her bags scattered on the coffee table.
Afriyie-Kumi works from her parents’ home, where she and a small team put liners, tassles, and other finishing touches on the bags. She has a workroom in the back of the house, but tends to spread out across the living areas as well.
“I’ve taken over the house,” she laughed. “Today it’s calm, other days, screen printing all over the floor.”
The weavers who make AAKS bags are from a small village in northern Ghana, which Afriyie-Kumi searched long and hard to identify. She wanted to make sure she found experts in the traditional practice, who could adapt their skills to a new model of basket. After a year of traveling, Afriyie-Kumi met a man who was weaving a basket while walking down the road. She immediately asked him to supervise her weaving factory in his village, and he agreed to become her business partner.
Since she established the weaving factory and created her designs, the journey to start her business has had its challenges. One have these has been the difficulty of communicating with her business partner and weavers in Northern Ghana, where she only visits four times a year. In the spring, while she was planning her trip to the weaving site in June, Afriyie-Kumi’s business partner told her that he had fired all the female weavers.
“He said the women were slowing them down,” she recalled. “I was like, you’re literally changing my whole brand story and you don’t even know it. I based my brand around women, creating jobs for women, for women empowerment. I wanted to get the women in the community to see their baskets as something they can make money from, a real business.”
On her last visit to Northern Ghana, Afriyie-Kumi planned to “reconcile” the situation to ensure that women were employed.
“I need to make things set to how I want my brand to be run,” she said.
Despite the challenges of business management, Afriyie-Kumi counts herself lucky among most aspiring entrepreneurs. Anthropologie contacted her just four months after she launched her first season with interest in selling her bags internationally, and its parent company Urban Outfitters stocked her bags soon after.
“After Anthropologie, other stores heard about me and then they all started buying, so it happened really quickly,” she said. “I want to have my product in each country around the world, that’s my target.”
Her family’s fortunate financial circumstances gave Afriyie-Kumi an edge, without which, she claims, she would never have achieved her business success because government organizations offered little support. Before launching, she contacted the Ghana Free Zones Board to inquire about receiving imports to create her new product and was told she would have to pay a fee of $5000 per year to do so. She applied to a fashion grant competition run by the British Council of Ghana only to be told that the competition had ended, but there was no indication on the website.
“In Ghana I have received zero, literally. If I wanted to do this business without my parents I would fail,” Afriyie-Kumi said. “There wasn’t anybody that I could turn to for initial investment. There are some grants, but it’s not something you can just access. It’s mostly a friend of a friend who knows somebody. We have a lot of that in Ghana, and it limits growth.”
Similar to Afriyie-Kumi, the absence of government support for small businesses is what convinced Kosi Yankey to leave her own business to lead the National Board of Small Scale Industries. Yankey founded NUBA foods, which sources commodities from rural farm villages and supplies them to West African industries, back in 2012.
“When I was given this position I saw it as a blessing and a way to really guide and push policy to support the micro and small business sector,” Yankey said. “If we want it to be competitive, for me that was a higher calling than just doing NUBA and going about my business.”
Yankey was named one of Business in Ghana’s 20 under 40 in 2015, one of 5 women on the list.
“My grandma was a business person too,” she said. “I think that’s where I get my strength and that’s what pushed me.”
For Dapaah, the enthusiasm of her colleagues who share her bicycle business vision gives her inspiration.
“To get the right people to move agendas forward is a challenge,” she said. “If you don’t get the right people who can keep your spirits up and keep it moving, it’s not going to work.”
Dapaah smiled at her employees engrossed in their work as she circled the room, her infant against her chest. She still worries about funding. Applying for grants will be a priority as she seeks to open a third factory, while she refuses to increase the price of the bicycles for fear of making them unaffordable. She continues to seek out new markets for her bikes around the world, and she always has her goal in mind, to provide more jobs to the women and youth who need them.
But in the meantime, in a one-room bamboo factory off a dirt road in southern Ghana, wheels are spinning, women and men are working, and the vision is taking form.
Gabriella Borter is a senior English major in Morse College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.