“I was working for a tour operating business where I observed how whenever a group of tourists arrived they wanted African wares. After the firm folded, I decided to go into the business of selling African wares as souvenirs full-time. I got credit from a dressmaker to start my business. I displayed the wares on a small table outside the Cape Coast Castle. Now I can boast of two shops.”
This story of Awo, a souvenir trader, typifies how women-owned small tourism businesses in Ghana are collaborating to start, nurture and sustain themselves. The support they give each other is moral as well as material, and extends to formal professional associations that can give the women access to funding from international agencies.
Tourism supports small firms because it has low entry costs. This means that even if a woman has only a limited amount of capital and limited skills, she can still establish her own business. Nonetheless, many encounter difficulties even in raising the minimum capital to start. What Awo’s story reveals is how leveraging ties with a fellow woman entrepreneur can make all the difference for aspiring women entrepreneurs.
In research that we conducted to understand women’s entrepreneurial journeys through tourism in Ghana, we found that the women lamented the challenges they encounter – but also took the initiative in overcoming these challenges through existing and newly created networks.
For instance, Mansa, a bar owner, at first appeared to paint a gloomy picture of her entrepreneurial journey: “Before I got married, I was working at a guest house. I was responsible for cooking and cleaning guest rooms… but after I got married and children started coming in, I realised that I had to make time for them. Working in the guest house was tedious so I used the knowledge I gained from [it] to start my pub business.”
Ama, the owner-manager of a hospitality management company, described the difficulty she had in penetrating the market. She noted: “It was difficult getting properties to manage. People do not know who you are; you do not have any track record and they cannot trust your brand. That was challenging.”
Relatedly, Maame almost gave up her tour operation business at the beginning: “Nobody knew my business, so I had very few customers,” she said. “I was also a little bit inexperienced and I didn’t have much networks which made it impossible for me to diversify… I almost gave up on the business.” Efua, who was in the homestay business, also complained about the difficulty in raising capital to renovate her rooms and market her business.
When we asked these women how they were able to overcome these challenges, Maame spoke of the support she had from an informal community microfinance institution, known in Ghana as a susu: “I belong to a susu which supported me financially, I borrowed some money from our susu and injected it into the business. A friend in the susu also helped me with marketing until things got better.” Another woman indicated immense support from her family, “not in financial terms, but morally they have been there for me”.
More and more women own businesses in Ghana, but many do not have access to capital, business networks or skills. Hence their businesses are small and struggle to grow. Few last beyond five years, and the proportion of women entrepreneurs who succeed is lower than that of their male counterparts. Women’s collaborative networks – ranging from informal groups of friends and acquaintances to formally registered associations – could play a pivotal role in changing that negative narrative.
My husband does not allow me to really go out of the house... he is even against me attending women’s meetings at church
The start-up struggle
Without such support, however, even viable women’s businesses may fail. For Efua, her homestay business started promisingly: “There is an organisation here in Cape Coast [who] have been receiving volunteers. They approached my mother and asked her whether she could host some of the people. That was how our business started. Anytime they had these young students come to Ghana, they brought some of them to us. We provided them with rooms and meals for about three years.”
Those first three years were profitable as Efua got a steady stream of guests from the volunteer placement organisation. But then it ceased working with her and her business started struggling.
On top of that, local stereotypes about women’s place in society stopped her from finding new sources of guests from a business association or simply from friends: “I know there are some other people who host these volunteers, but I do not approach them,” she said. “My husband does not allow me to really go out of the house... he is even against me attending women’s meetings at church. He asks who should prepare his meals when we delay at such meetings, so I am mostly home. I rarely go anywhere.”
Relatedly, the big break for Akosua, the owner-manager of a hotel management company, came through an acquaintance. At first, penetrating the market, which was dominated by men, to secure clients was exacting for her. “Ghana Tourism Authority was the one that helped me to get a property to manage. There was a property owner who needed someone to manage it for him and GTA invited me to take it up,” she said. “I had networked with a lot of people at GTA so they knew what my business was about.”
Idea to reality
When a business has made the leap from idea to reality, a host of the women in our study relied on informal networks to secure raw materials, raise capital and harness ideas to grow.
Mansah recounted how she gradually developed a good, trusting working relationship with her suppliers: “I approached a local drinks distributor and pleaded with him to give me the drinks to sell on credit and pay him back. I started with a crate each of the most popular drinks, which I sold and was able to pay back his money. I gradually increased the amount of drinks sold daily as my customer base increased.”
Maame got support from her susu and spoke glowingly about how this network changed the fortune of her business: “I wanted further training in tour operations. One of my friends in the susu paid for the training, and the susu gave me a loan to register my business. You gain confidence and impetus and don’t count on the public service support, which is hard to get.”
Furthermore, Maame, who was also a member of a formal trade network, said: “These groups give you credibility. The groups do not bring in business per se but certain class of people or institutions will not do business with you if you don’t belong to any of these associations.”
The way forward
At the start-up phase, women tourism entrepreneurs in Ghana need to be aware of and be part of formal collaborative networks. Because formal networks are registered and regulated by the government they have a public profile that enables them to promote the activities of their women members. They mobilise funding and run events for the benefits of their members.
Existing networks include Women in Business and Tourism, Women in Tourism and the Ghana Association of Women Entrepreneurs. They offer women information about how register a business, mentoring and coaching from established women entrepreneurs, new skills development and new ways of doing businesses. They also allow women to tap the political and social ties of other network members.
Women in Business and Tourism, for instance, has over 200 members across the country. As well as organising training and mentoring programmes, it facilitates access to credit facilities and has provided a platform for continuous marketing of members’ services and products at no cost.
Collaborative networks are also in a strong position to seek assistance from international development partners. The US state department’s bureau of educational and cultural affairs, for instance, funds the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs, a networking and mentoring platform for women entrepreneurs worldwide. In 2019, 29 Ghanaian businesswomen successfully went through this programme in Ghana. Meanwhile the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) together with the Danish government sponsors the Business Sector Advocacy Challenge Fund, which has financed women-owned tourism businesses in Ghana.
More work is also needed within Ghana itself to help to create and nurture collaborative networks for women entrepreneurs. The National Entrepreneurship and Innovation Programme, for example, provides both financial and non-financial support for local businesses, and over the past few years it has started to pay special attention to women. Its leaders should partner with existing collaborative networks or create new ones in parts of the country where there is growth in tourism to support more women entrepreneurs.
These stories reflect the pivotal role that networks play in women’s entrepreneurial journeys. When women feel they have the backing of their families, friends and community, and they can rely on them, they are motivated to succeed in their businesses regardless of the challenges. And when women succeed in business the benefit extends to their families and communities. No wonder there is growing recognition that supporting women entrepreneurs can help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals of decent work, economic growth and ending poverty.