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The Rise of Female African Entrepreneurs

"Mama Benz" Maggy Lawson of Lomé, Togo, grew rich by trading in brightly printed cotton. This brilliant businesswoman is not an isolated case. Nowhere are there as many women entrepreneurs as in Africa.

Maggy Lawson sits enthroned behind a counter made of tropical wood, still as a statue, eyes half closed. Outside the window of her boutique, a motorcycle rattles, stuck in the crowd. It's market day on the Rue de la Cathédrale in Togo's capital city, Lomé. It's impossible to move through the throng without bodily contact.

Only Maggy Lawson has no need to enter the fray. The dealers come to her. She is a wholesaler, selling the brightly printed cotton cloths known as pagnes from which West Africans have garments tailored. Although jeans and t-shirts are also quite common in Togo, traditional textiles are seen everywhere. Pagnes are a staple, as essential as rice or bananas. This keeps revenue high for Lawson's company, Manatex. There's good money to be made in the textile trade.

Mama Benz

A cellphone rings. Lawson puts on her gold-framed glasses, rummages deliberately through her Chanel handbag, answers the phone. Then she stands: "The new collection has arrived. Let's go." Maggy Lawson is a Mama Benz. That's what people in West Africa call women who have become rich in the textile trade – so rich that they can afford a Mercedes-Benz. Maggy Lawson owns homes in Dallas, Washington, Paris, and Monaco, as well as a villa on the outskirts of Lomé with marble floors and teak paneling. She is both wealthy and influential, representing the coastal regions in the Togolese Parliament and advising the Minister of Labor on important economic questions.

According to the World Bank, Africa has the highest growth rate of women entrepreneurs. In Switzerland, one out of every four companies is run by women; in countries such as Ghana and Botswana, the figure is one in every two. More than half of all African women work independently, operating market stands, restaurants, or self-built boutiques. With these microbusinesses, most of them can just about keep themselves and their extended families afloat. Few achieve a career like that of Mama Benz.

The Potential of Women

Nevertheless, the stories of successful self-made African women are accumulating, told and retold and shared on Facebook. Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu started stitching shoes 10 years ago in an Ethiopian slum and now exports them worldwide. Divine Ndhlukula has built a security firm in Zimbabwe that employs several thousand people – even though nobody in this male-dominated sector believed she could do it. Adenike Ogunlesi began selling pajamas from the trunk of her car and now manufactures children's clothing in Nigeria. Biographies like these are the narrative fuel for the visions of a new, self-confident generation. For girls who do homework late into the night by the glow of kerosene lamps because they want to become a doctor or an engineer. For women who take out a microloan to open a bakery or develop a cosmetics company. Women are the key to economic growth on the African continent. Not because they are better people, but because their potential has so far largely gone untapped. Nowhere else in the world do women turn so little into so much. The figures paint a clear picture. Though women own just one percent of the wealth, they produce, for example, two-thirds of all agricultural goods. Equality is important for Africa because, according to sources such as the World Bank, greater equality means greater ability to compete effectively.

Stylish: The two students Sika and Essie (far right) save up for beautiful fabrics.

Equality or Tradition?

Equality also means letting go of certain traditions. In Africa, sons generally inherit the entire estate. Mama Benz broke with this custom. She took over her mother's business and will eventually bequeath it to her daughter Esther. It was Maggy Lawson's mother, the first wholesaler to buy the German luxury car, who coined the term "Mama Benz." Now Mama Benz – or Nana Benz – is a catchword throughout West Africa, from Senegal to Côte d'Ivoire to Cameroon. She was able to afford the Mercedes because of her long and close association with the Dutch textile giant Vlisco.

Maggy Lawson now carries on this legacy. She too drives a Mercedes, and she too orders fabric from Vlisco. What Chanel is to Europe, Vlisco is to West Africa, a luxury brand with high prestige. The company produces colorful printed textiles that are very popular, especially among the upper and middle classes. Manufactured in the Netherlands, Vlisco fabrics have been shipped to West Africa for more than a hundred years. The company is the market leader there, and from the beginning it contracted with local women to sell the cloths.

The business is based on trust

For this trip, Maggy Lawson leaves the Mercedes in the garage. To drive the hundred meters from the Manatex boutique to the Vlisco commercial building, she takes her Hover SUV. She's not as young as she used to be, she says. Fifty? She raises her carefully plucked eyebrows. "That's how long I was married to my husband. God rest his soul." In the warehouses, her employees fill three cars with the colorful textiles. The goods are stored temporarily in the boutique – usually for only a couple of hours, a few days at the most. Maggy Lawson sells her textiles to foreign dealers. Women from Benin, Burkina Faso and Nigeria have already paid deposits. The market women from Lomé will pick up their bundles in the next few hours. Most of them operate on credit, paying interest. The business is based on mutual trust, longstanding relationships and a network that spans all of West and Central Africa.

From Illiterate to Millionaire

"Come in, come in." Madame Lawson stands on the stairway leading from the boutique to the second floor. She opens the door to her private museum, where 200 photographs, poster-size and framed in gold, document the life of her deceased mother, who could neither read nor write, but worked her way up to become a multi-millionaire. Lawson points to a stocky African woman with elaborately blow-dried hair and opulent gold jewelry. "That's my mother. Until she died eleven years ago, she got up every morning at four o'clock." Maggy Lawson speaks slowly, emphasizing every other word. Her mother grew up in modest circumstances in a rural area, one of many siblings. As a young woman, she moved to Lomé, the capital city, where she sold textiles. She taught herself French and English, stored hundreds of fabric designs in her photographic memory, and parlayed her ambition into the privileges of wholesalers. "She had a good eye and secured the exclusive rights to a few good patterns." Some of them developed from big sellers to classics.

The Switzerland of Africa

Into the '80s, the stable and flourishing country of Togo was known as the Switzerland of Africa. "Nothing is like that anymore." Maggy Lawson's gaze wanders across the yellowing photographs. In the early '90s, political unrest led to major inflation. Within a very short time, the cost of goods doubled. "Since then, most people can't afford Vlisco," she says. Because of that, and to escape her dependence on the Dutch company, she now also markets her own collection: Manatex, made in China. "Four times cheaper than Vlisco." At first glance there seems to be no difference, but then you can tell: The fabric from China is thinner, and on the back, definitely paler. She drapes a lemon-yellow cloth over her shoulders. It is printed with the portraits of all the former presidents of Togo. With this fabric alone, she says, she has earned several hundred thousand Swiss francs.

By producing her own Manatex line, Mama Benz is emancipating herself from Vlisco. She is trying to grasp an opportunity that escaped her mother. In the '70s, the wholesalers had enough capital to buy their own textile production companies and break free of the postcolonial structures. "But they didn't believe they could do it," says Maggy Lawson. She pinches her bare forearm. "They were only black, only women." Maggy Lawson is more self-assured than her mother. And market conditions have deteriorated, forcing her to adjust her sales strategy. "Vlisco produces for the elite; I produce for the people," she says. And she rubs the Asian fabric between her thumb and index finger, as if she were counting money.