IWD: Seek Ye First the Economic Kingdom, Woman

Africa’s first post-independence president, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, urged colonial Africa to “seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else shall be added onto you.” Nkrumah was alluding to the biblical verse, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto.” He would later revise his statement to say that economic independence was what African nations needed first and foremost.

Nkrumah’s prophetic statement is particularly relevant today, when so many African countries must contend with a global capitalist system structured in dominance.

The age of neo-liberalism is upon us, and the bulk of the weight has landed on African women’s heads. Gender theorists and women’s activists tend to focus on political and social rights as a necessary condition for women’s empowerment. Economic rights seem to be an afterthought, as if that will fall into place when the political and the social are reconciled.

What Liberian women need to do is seek first the economic kingdom. There’s something about earning one’s income that makes women formidable. A young girl who sees her mother working a 9-to-5 is more likely to want to be a breadwinner in her own home. An employed female university student is less likely to fall prey to the advances of an older man wanting to add her to his list of conquests. And a woman who runs her own business is less likely to tolerate being beaten by her husband or boyfriend.

This is the thinking that earned Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Yunus was on to something when he patented the idea of providing small loans to rural women in Bangladesh. The idea spread like wildfire throughout the development world. Nowadays, any successful model of entrepreneurial development, especially women’s entrepreneurial development, must include micro-credit schemes as its hallmark.

Women’s economic empowerment has become another fad that I hope will outlive itself. This month the fourth class of Liberian women entrepreneurs graduated from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 women scholars program, which runs in 42 countries. The program is a five-year initiative that provides business and management education to women as well as access to capital, networks and mentors. According to the program organizers, the rate of success for participants is a statistical dream: 70% of graduates of the program have increased business revenues, and 50% have infused the labor market with new jobs.

Women are proving that they can and must graduate from wage earners to wage creators. I have to side with the evidence that shows women are better financial managers than men. We’ve all heard the stories, if a man earns a living he is likely to ‘chop’ the money, but a woman will save it, put it into a susu, and turn it around, making something out of nothing. It is no wonder that the ‘market woman’ has become a successful cultural trope in Liberia in the past six years. Beyond the anonymous faces of market women throughout the country, there are stories of successful Liberian businesswomen, representing a range of small to medium size enterprises: Josephine Francis of Arjay Farms and Aquarius Beverages, Tina Kpan of KaSawa Fashion, Rosemarie Tolbert of Rosie’s N’yala Café, Adelaine Lavala of Zuitin Nails, Era Taylor of Vital Technology.
Who can forget the dynamic Celestine Setoe, respectfully known throughout Liberia as R.L. (Republic of Liberia)? R.L. used to sell homemade kitchen and bathroom cleaners in small, recycled containers; now she is one of the most sought after chemists in Liberia. R.L. doesn’t need a bio-chemical degree to lead a successful business. She has guts, intuition, and much more than book knowledge can muster. I remember her complaining that what she lacked was the capital to get started, that banks were wary of Liberian businesses because our loan-payback habits leave much to be desired. I imagine that the challenges for women entrepreneurs like R.L. are ten-fold.

What the government needs to do is create an enabling environment for more R.L.s to succeed, through public-private partnerships. When the Liberianization Policy was proposed in the 1970s under Tolbert’s regime, it was in response to heavy concentrations of foreigners in capital-intensive enterprises such as iron ore and rubber. We need to return to Liberianization in practice rather than in rhetoric, carving out a margin of preference for female entrepreneurs whether they run small or medium enterprises. Our Revenue Code could certainly use a boost of gender mainstreaming.

I know the same pundits who shot down the Gender and Equity Bill will be up in arms about this, but economic empowerment sometimes has to be about quotas until there is a level playing field. The Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programs in South Africa are proving that affirmative action programs for historically marginalized groups are necessary bitter pills.

As we celebrate Women’s History Month in March and the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8, I hope that Liberian women will seek first the economic kingdom, and that the country is prepared for this revolution to take hold. Because it will surely hold.

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey
 is an opinion fellow with New Narratives, a project supporting leading independent media in Africa. She is currently pursuing a doctorate in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Ph.D. Scholar. She can be reached at robtel@newnarratives.org