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Kavitha Dispatch

Ask Dr. Ocloo: Women's Job Training 101

Imagine...you're in the capital -- a big, fast-paced, unfriendly city that's far, far away from your family and friends, and you've hit your all time low. You're out of money and you would hate to have to ask for money from your family, which has so little to begin with. Your aunt sends you some change...barely enough to eat for the day...what would you do?

Would you turn that change from your aunt into a growing industry, the first of its kind in the country, helping thousands of your fellow underprivileged women and men, becoming an international hero along the way?

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Dr. Ocloo and I smile for the camera!
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Well that's exactly what Dr. Esther Ocloo did. Talk about resourceful! When Abeja and I visited her house and factory the other afternoon in Ghana, this spunky, sweet 80-year old woman kept us amazed at how much one woman could do in a lifetime, with little more than sheer determination.

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Dr. Ocloo came from a poor family in northern Ghana, but she was privileged enough to go on to secondary school in the capital, Accra. While in Accra, she hit a low and was stranded with no money. Her aunt sent her a mere 10 shillings. "I was determined to turn that 10 shillings into 2 pounds at least," Dr. Ocloo recounts with a smile on her face. "With 6 shillings I bought the ingredients to make marmalade, and went to the street side to sell the jars of marmalade. Within an hour I had sold all my jars and turned 6 shillings into 12! I was so excited I treated myself to a delicious lunch."

She laughs as she remembers the humble beginnings of Nkulenu Industries back in 1942. "Ghana was taking on more of the values of our colonizer, Britain. The attitude to people doing blue-collar work was terrible. In my days, people who had received a secondary education were expected to seek jobs in offices, managerial positions. I was ridiculed by all my classmates, who saw me hawking marmalade on the street like an uneducated street vendor. I went to a school with prestige, [where] the Ghanaians trying to mimic our colonizers looked down on the old fashioned traditions. But 80% of our teachers were European, and they were excited when they heard what I was doing. They invited me to supply the school with my marmalade 2 times a week. They were so impressed with how successful my business was, they began reserving a percentage of my profits to save money for me to go to England for further training."

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Suits made and sold by local women who have been trained by Dr. Ocloo.
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After 6 years she had saved enough money to go to England, where she studied food technology, preservation, nutrition and agriculture. She brought back all that she had learned to her homeland and sought to help the underprivileged and marginalized in her society. In the past 50 years, she has gone on to start 8 non-governmental organizations, including the Sustainable End of Hunger Foundation. Dr. Ocloo's passion for assisting the indigenous industrialists and women of Africa has won her international affection, and her participation in the first UN conference in Mexico in 1975 has helped inspire assistance for underprivileged women all over the world.

Dr. Ocloo has always sought empowerment of women. "I came from an underprivileged family. I wanted to see to it that women were equipped to help their children so they don't suffer the same hardships. Women can contribute effectively--socially, economically, and culturally," she explains. "Women are the economic backbone of West Africa. They produce over 80% of our food--from growing, to producing, to distributing, yet their jobs are not regarded in a high esteem."

Dr. Ocloo has led a number of trainings geared at equipping women with the skills they need to be more effective with the tremendous amount of work they already do (see sidebar).

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Whistle as we work! Women in Dr. Ocloo's factory making palm oil.
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So, she's started Ghana's first indigenous industry on less than a dollar, she's empowered women all over the country and changed people's attitudes towards their work, she's been a role model in international development...what more could one woman decide to take on in a lifetime? No, Dr. Ocloo is not through yet, she wanted to make sure things really change for the better, and for that you've got to turn to our youth! Dr. Ocloo was happy to explain to Abeja and me all about her newest project, the Youth Farm.

"Our problem here in Ghana is that we have turned our back on agriculture. Over the past 40 years, since the beginning of compulsory education, we have been mimicking the west. We are now producing youth with degrees who don't want to work in the fields or have anything to do with agriculture. Ghana was made to be an agricultural nation. We used to be the world's leading producer of cocoa, we used to export surplus agriculture. Now we are hungry and must import food."

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Dr. Ocloo attempts solar cooking...perhaps a next project?
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"Yesterday, I met with the Minister of Agriculture and I told him that agricultural education is not geared towards the needs of the people. It is not taught so that students see farming as a noble profession. He wanted to know more about my Youth Farm," Dr. Ocloo laughs. The Youth Farm was a project Dr. Ocloo started back in 1991. "I wanted to create an environment that would entice youth to farming. With some grant money I bought 64 acres and built 16 houses on the land. We bought a tractor, some bicycles and a motorbike, a television set, and a radio. The idea was to invite students to manage and live on the farm. They are expected to pay back the money and the ongoing expenses with their agriculture." The first seven years were quite difficult due to the droughts that plagued the area, but last year a dam was constructed and the Youth Farm now has irrigation. "Now I will show the government what I mean!"

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Last but certainly not least...Dr. Ocloo's bead shop where she teaches women to make beads from old glass bottles.
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After spending the afternoon talking with Dr. Ocloo, and walking around her factory and her handicraft shops, seeing all the projects she's started and still intends on seeing through, Abeja and I said a warm goodbye to our inspiring host. We walked away with smiles on our face, newly reminded that where there's a will there really is a way!

Kavitha

Dr. Ocloo has been helping empower women here in Ghana by training them in three basic fields:

1) Food processing--teaching women how to make their local cooking more nutritious, and how to preserve foods to store during the dry season
2) Tie-dyeing and batik--village women make beautiful clothes and dresses, but need skills to improve the quality to make their goods suitable for export
3) Business management basics-most of the women involved in businesses like cooking and selling food on the streets have no business skills. "The women have no idea if they are making profits or not. I have taught them to cost the things they sell and determine their profits. You know what we found? We found that a woman selling rice and stew on the side of the street is making more money than most women in office jobs...but they are still not taken seriously.

The result of her trainings? Empowered women around the country. Finally proud to be doing what they are doing, and respected for all the hard work they do. "Now some of the women I have trained are competing with me! My children keep telling me to stop training them, but I don't listen. My main goal is to help my fellow women, if they make better marmalade than me, I deserve the competition!"


 

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