Today, Google is celebrating what would have been the 98th birthday of Esther Afua Ocloo with a Google Doodle. Just who was this groundbreaking businesswoman who was known to so many as “Auntie Ocloo”? Read on for five fast facts about her life and legacy.
1. SHE STARTED HER FIRST BUSINESS WITH LESS THAN A DOLLAR.
Thanks to a scholarship and the generosity of an aunt, Esther Afua Ocloo was able to attend Achimota School, one of Ghana’s most prestigious boarding schools. But unlike so many of her classmates, Ocloo—who was born Esther Afua Nkulenu—did not come from a wealthy family. (Her father was a blacksmith and her mother was a potter and farmer.) Still, Ocloo was determined to succeed in life, and on her own terms.
After graduating from high school, her aunt gifted her with 10 shillings (less than a dollar), which she used to purchase sugar, oranges, and a dozen jars in order to make some marmalade that she could sell. “I was determined to turn that 10 shillings into two pounds at least,” Ocloo recalled in an interview years later. "With six 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 six shillings into 12! I was so excited I treated myself to a delicious lunch.”
2. SHE WAS ENCOURAGED BY HER FORMER TEACHERS.
Though she attended school with the children of some of Ghana’s most prominent families, Ocloo didn’t concern herself with the look of things. “Ghana was taking on more of the values of our colonizer, Britain,” she said of the atmosphere in Ghana in the early 1940s. “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 percent of our teachers were European, and they were excited when they heard what I was doing.”
They were so excited that Ocloo’s alma mater became her first big client. “They invited me to supply the school with my marmalade two times a week,” she said. “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.” Between that and the contract she eventually secured with the military, Ocloo was able to take out a bank loan and make her business—known as Nkulenu Industries—official. The company is still doing business today, making jams and other food items, which are exported around the world.
3. SHE WAS THE FIRST BLACK INDIVIDUAL TO RECEIVE A COOKING DIPLOMA FROM THE GOOD HOUSEKEEPING INSTITUTE.
In addition to helping her get her first business off the ground, the Achimota School also helped Ocloo further her education. Between 1949 and 1951, the school sponsored her trip to England, where she received post-graduate training. In 1951, she received a cooking diploma from the Good Housekeeping Institute in London; she was the first black individual to achieve the honor. She also took classes in food science, technology, preservation, nutrition, and agriculture at Bristol University.
4. SHE DEDICATED HER LIFE TO HELPING OTHER WOMEN SUCCEED.
When Ocloo returned to Ghana, she wasn’t about to keep all of that education to herself. Instead, she dedicated much of her time and life to empowering other women to become self-sufficient, establishing a farm-based program to help teach women about business, food production, agriculture, and craft-making.
''I have taught them to cost the things they sell and determine their profits,'' Ocloo said. ''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 not taken seriously."
In a separate interview, Ocloo spoke about where her desire to empower women came from. “I came from an underprivileged family,” she told The Odyssey. “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. Women are the economic backbone of West Africa. They produce over 80 percent of our food—from growing, to producing, to distributing, yet their jobs are not regarded in a high esteem.”
Over the course of her life, Ocloo helped to found eight nonprofit organizations, including the Sustainable End of Hunger Foundation and Women's World Banking, a microlending organization that gives small loans to female business owners who are unable to secure traditional bank loans. The organization operates in more than two dozen countries.
5. SHE BECAME THE FIRST WOMAN TO RECEIVE THE AFRICA PRIZE FOR LEADERSHIP.
In 1990, Ocloo achieved yet another first when she became the first woman to receive the Africa Prize for Leadership, an award given by The Hunger Project to “outstanding leaders from every level and every sector of society. Individually, their accomplishments have improved the lives of tens of millions of people. Together, they represent a new possibility.” True to form, Ocloo reinvested much of her prize money in the women she fought so hard to empower. Following her passing in 2002, The New York Times reported that when Ocloo’s children once complained to her about how all that training was only helping her competitors, Ocloo responded that, “I don't listen. My main goal is to help my fellow women. If they make better marmalade than me, I deserve the competition.”