The “Nana Benz” of Togo

| Into the “Dutch Batik” of Africa|

  In the Togolese dialect of Mina, “Nana” is a term of endearment for female elders in the family, meaning “mother”, “aunt” or “grandmother”, but nowadays it has lost its original social connotation and is more often used to express courtesy and respect for local businesswomen.
  To fully understand “Nana”, we have to start with a Vlisco textile company that was once located in a remote town in the Netherlands. The company manager, Mr. van Vlissingen, had been fascinated by a primitive batik fabric in Indonesia, where the locals covered the double-sided printed cotton fabric with wax to improve the color fastness of the fabric. So, in 1864, Vlisco Textile decided to start mass production of such fabric following the Indonesian batik technique in preparation for entering the Indonesian market. However, the result was very disappointing, as the product was not to the liking of the Indonesian people, as the mass-produced whole fabrics showed many cracks, which the locals found unattractive.
  However, it is said that the Ghanaian soldiers in the colonial army who were recruited by the Dutch to fight in Java and Borneo at that time loved the fabric and brought it to Africa when they returned home. The fabric was strong, brightly colored, and its imperfect cracks became “unique” to Africans, and they immediately captured the hearts of local women when they were brought to Ghana. In the 1870s, many ship owners and merchants settled in Accra, Ghana’s major port, to trade in fabrics, and increasingly women from neighboring Togo would travel to Accra to buy fabrics.
  Recognizing the importance of the Togolese market, the Vlisco Textile Company opened a branch in Lomé in the 1880s called “Vlisco Africa”, which still has many stores in West Africa today.
  For almost a century, Dutch batik cloth gradually spread from Ghana to most of West Africa. However, everything changed in 1960 when Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana after independence, came to power. Eager to promote local industry, Nkrumah imposed prohibitive tariffs on batik cloth from the Netherlands and built a large textile factory to replace European production. Ultimately, however, corruption in the relevant departments and inefficient production led to failure. Meanwhile, Dutch batik cloth gradually disappeared from the West African market.
| Togolese Women Reviving the Batik Fabric Trade

  At the beginning of the 1970s, Togo was experiencing an unprecedented economic boom in phosphate-producing Togo, which was even known as the “Switzerland of Africa”. A large number of businessmen, almost exclusively men, chose to “leave business for politics” and take up positions in the public administration, which they considered more lucrative than the previous business. It was at this time that a group of more than 20 local rural women decided to take over the previous batik cloth trade. This group of Togolese women, who had little education, hoped to use this moment to launch their new business.
  ”If we are more successful than those around us or women in neighboring countries, it is because we have never backed down from our work.” says Dide Kolibi, a well-known businesswoman from the older generation of “Nana Benz. The 20 or so women soon had a monopoly on the Dutch batik trade, and they worked so closely together that it was almost impossible for new competitors to enter the field.
  The then Vlisco Africa had lost its former commercial vitality, but the small group nevertheless signed an exclusive agreement with it: the company was required to supply these women with Dutch-made batik cloth, which they then exported to the rest of the country and West Africa in what amounted to a wholesale operation. In Togo, where the patriarchal mentality is very strong, the men began to express their disapproval and even some jealousy when they saw their wives in business and becoming increasingly successful. But these women ignored it, and in their own unique way, they promoted the independence of Togolese women.

Togo’s “Nana Benz” in the 1970s

The “Nana Benz” studying the craft of batik cloth

  The revival of the Dutch batik fabric trade marked the beginning of the “Nana Benz” saga. In the 1970s and 1980s, the group of women who restarted the Togolese batik trade controlled the distribution of the fabric throughout the West African market. They extended their market from Burkina Faso to Mali, Niger, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin and Nigeria. The fact that none of these countries had a port made Lomé one of the main ports in West Africa and a mandatory point of entry for Dutch batik fabrics into Africa, and with the exclusive rights granted to them by Vlisco Africa, these Togolese women effectively controlled the entire African batik fabric market. The rest is determined by demand. In countries where consumer goods were still scarce, women and men alike were literally scrambling to get their hands on these fine fabrics for their robes.
  In the midst of such a market boom, these businesswomen showed amazing business sense. They applied for low-interest loans from Vlisco Africa, resold the fabrics at a suitable profit, and then reapplied the profits to high-interest loans to their customers. They knew the market well and traveled regularly to Holland to discuss new trends with designers at Vlisco Textile’s headquarters. At their best, these businesswomen had an annual turnover of nearly $2 million and controlled up to 40% of Togo’s private sector. This could be considered a real fortune at the time. These wealthy businesswomen not only built luxury villas in Lomé, but also invested in property in Europe, especially in Paris, and imported the first German cars – BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes – into Togo. They drove their Mercedes through Lomé and voluntarily lent their cars to President Eyadema, who ruled from 1967 to 2005, to receive foreign missions. As a result, these West African businesswomen, who became rich from the batik cloth trade, became known locally as “Nana Benz”.
| A new generation of “Nana Benz”|

  However, in the early 1990s, Nigerian women gradually learned the technique of batik cloth, and they started to make the same kind of cloth at a much cheaper price than Togo’s. In addition, the economic recession in West Africa, the 1990s, and the recession in West Africa, they started to make the same kind of cloth at a much lower price. Coupled with the economic recession in West Africa, the socio-political crisis in Togo in the 1990s, the devaluation of the West African franc in 1994, and the ensuing decline in purchasing power, the older generation of “Nana Benz” began to realize that their business empire was in decline.

In 2016, on the occasion of its 170th anniversary, Vlisco Textiles invited the old and new generations of “Nana Benz” who had also contributed to the batik fabric industry.

  But while these Togolese business queens were busy with their careers, they also sent their daughters to the best schools and passed on to them the core of their business and expertise. Today, a new generation of Togolese businesswomen, known as “Little Nana”, have taken over the torch from their mothers or grandmothers, hoping to revive the business empires built by their ancestors through the expertise in international trade gained from school. These “little nana’s” between the ages of 30 and 50 realized that the fabric stores were now full of batiks imported from China, that the quality of these cotton batiks was excellent, that their market position was growing, and that they were cheaper than in the Netherlands, and that they needed to diversify their trading activities. No longer satisfied with the fabric trade, they became involved in the import and export of goods such as cars and the sale of basic household items and cosmetics.
  Esi Ajawin, one of the new generation of Nana Benz, said, “The batik fabric trade is a legacy of the previous generation, but now it has become difficult, so I have expanded my business to include hardware stores, importing cooking oil, etc.”
  The younger generation of “Nana” have learned from the lessons of their predecessors and drawn inspiration from history. As a new generation of professional women, most of whom are intellectuals and have shown great creativity and perseverance, they are doing their best to grow their company’s turnover. 40-something Maureen Ayitte took over her grandmother’s business and used her knowledge of new technology to win back the market she lost. She always remembers her grandmother’s teaching: “When you put the quality of your products first, you have the golden rule of the entire industry. Instead of selling a defective product or faded fabric at a low price and making a small fortune, destroy it on the spot, because reputation is priceless.” Now, Maureen has not only created her own brand “Nana Batik”, but also opened a blog about fashionable batik fabrics, which is updated daily and attracts a growing group of customers. She says there are at least a thousand fabric sellers in the industry, so she must rely on originality to gain a foothold in the market. Maureen says, “I want to pay tribute to my late grandmother, who left me with an incomparable legacy of advice, courage, values and enthusiasm for her business.”
  The “Little Nana’s” are also tapping into the business of previous generations in other West African countries. One successful businesswoman is Melvina Grele, who runs an import-export company in Benin. One of the company’s businesses was importing Austrian lace fabrics, which were highly prized in Benin and Nigeria. After a short stint in administration, Greyley returned to the textile industry, but then found it less and less profitable, and she eventually went into real estate. A similar situation occurred with Memona Peters, who had previously made a fortune importing and exporting fabrics and now runs her own company, distributing cosmetics in parts of West Africa.
  Diversification has given fresh energy to the business empire of the “Nana’s”. Adele Ameganwe sits in her office in the building she just converted into a hotel. She is also a typical representative of the new generation of “Nana Benz”, who has diversified into retail. Because of the fierce competition in the batik fabric industry, she has redirected the wealth she accumulated in this sector to other areas. “I have decided to invest in the real estate industry, which has a great future. Time may depreciate the value of fabric, but real estate will continue to appreciate.” Adele said.

The older generation of “Nana Benz” being interviewed by the media

  Although there are no specific figures on the turnover of the “little Nana’s”, there is reason to believe that their business prospects will be better than those of their predecessors, thanks to appropriate marketing strategies and diversified strategic choices. According to sources at the Togolese Ministry of Commerce, the new generation of “Nana Benz” is playing a key role in the local private sector, allowing women to account for half of the local workforce, contributing nearly 1/3 of the country’s wealth and reaching an annual turnover of 2 billion West African francs. “Women entrepreneurs,” “rigorous and strong managers,” “determined,” “creative designers” A series of labels that show that the new generation of “Nana” remains a model of successful African women. Despite the many challenges they face, they continue to contribute to the African economy by establishing businesses and expanding their scope and reach.