- Female Entrepreneurship in West Africa:Trends and Trajectories1
In the wake of the decolonization of the African continent, scholars began to reconsider the impact of colonialism and the process of decolonization. Among the most notable of these are the contributions made by anthropologists and historians in analyzing women’s changing roles in colonial African societies.2 The increasing concern with gendered agency highlighted women’s active role not just as mothers, wives, and sisters, but also as heads of households, farmers, and entrepreneurs. The typology of commercial transactions which includes house, street, market, long distance, and cross-border trade has over the last decades produced a growing body of qualitative and quantitative research offering economic, social, anthropological, historical, and political perspectives. One major topic that [End Page 164] has emerged since the 1970s concerns African market women.3 The focus on the so-called “informal economy” unearthed hitherto neglected forms of revenue generation that have graphically demonstrated the importance of female entrepreneurship in West African societies.4 Differences in patterns can be observed at regional levels: comparisons between the latter and the eastern and southern parts of Africa, where research on women’s trading activities took longer to make its mark, illustrate the greater prominence and tradition of “big women” in formal and informal business in West Africa.5 [End Page 165]
The distinctions among African women (whether as slaves, peasants, farmers, traders, healers, or royalty) have fostered a plurality of perspectives on their lives. Questions concerning whether women’s influence, power, and authority waned as a result of the arrival of Europeans, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the cash crop trade, and colonization has dominated a significant part of this debate. Drawing on archival and published sources, this essay examines how female entrepreneurship evolved along the West African coast from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. It demonstrates that despite “proto-colonial” incursions and a notable male bias in reporting, the skillful management of social and cultural resources allowed women to engage in local and regional trade and build networks that left a visible and lasting legacy in West Africa’s history.
West African Trade Networks and Atlantic Connections
The study of the historical dimensions of women’s involvement in trade networks on the African continent has generally focused on early encounters between Africans and Europeans that began in the fifteenth century.6 Numerous investigations have argued that women’s position in African societies eroded over time as a result of this encounter. Scholars have identified three phases: the first associated with the early modern slave and commodity trade; the second, with the introduction of cash crops in the nineteenth century; and the last with effective colonial occupation in the twentieth century. These investigators have argued that “the development of private property and the market or exchange economy, created conditions where female and male became increasingly defined as unitary statuses that were hierarchically related to one another. Such conditions appear to have been absent in various precolonial African societies.”7 Accordingly, colonialism profoundly altered the status of women and men, leaving the former progressively disempowered in terms of status, wealth, and power, and increasingly dependent [End Page 166] on male authority.8 However, it is not clear that this statement is also valid for the first phase of Afro-Atlantic interaction, despite the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its impact on African societies.
Studies of women’s roles in sub-Saharan African history in medium- and long-term perspectives have come to focus on women’s entrepreneurial activities. This work illustrates women’s autonomy in African societies and in relation to foreign, colonial intervention.9 Research into pre-colonial contexts has redrawn pictures of women’s roles on the basis of early written accounts and oral data, while deconstructing hierarchical distortions imposed by colonial and post-colonial “western” notions.10 As research into pre-colonial situations provided new perspectives on women’s and men’s positions as embedded in kinship and descent relations characterizing African societies — for example, in dual sex systems — the question of how women’s roles changed over time gained prominence.11 The study of these changes has benefited from...