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The history of the Nana Benz of Togo

The Nana Benz in the 1970s
The Nana Benz in the 1970s

The Nana Benz were famous businesswomen in Togo. Nana, a hypocoristic of na (or ena) to mean “mother” or “grandmother” in Mina, and “Benz” for the Mercedes Benz they liked to drive. Overtime, the word lost its original parental dimension and has been used as a form of respect and politeness to acknowledge the social position of the Nana Benz. 

In the 1940s and 1950s, the first cloth retailers started importing textiles from Ghana and then proposed selling them to import/export firms in Togo when relations between Sylvanus Olympio and the Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah went sour over British Togoland and the Ewe issue. Those firms were the British GB Ollivant, United Africa Company (UAC), John Holt, the French SGGG (Société Generale of the Gulf of Guinea), CFAO (Compagnie Française de l’Afrique Occidentale), and SCOA (Société Commerciale de l’Ouest Africain).

The role of the Nana Benz in the 70s

In the 1970s, the Nana Benz rose in prominence to become a cornerstone of the Togolese economy. They were credited for positioning Lomé into a regional center of textile distribution as they dominated the trade in wax prints from Holland, Belgium, France, and England. It is estimated that between 1976 and 1984, at least 40% of the commercial business in Togo which was in the informal sector, was in the hands of the Nana Benz. In addition to establishing Vlisco as the top-selling textile brand in West Africa, the Nanas also carried the nation’s economic burden during a time marked by large budgets deficits (from 13.4% of GDP in 1973 to 39.6% of GDP in 1979). In the early-90s, political instability, followed by economic sanctions, and a 50% devaluation of the CFA led to their loss of monopoly over the wax print market.⁠⠀

The Nana Benz

Documentaries

Nanatex, Un grand Nom, Une mémoire, Une Histoire. Réalisation: Parfait Benyi Johnson

Sources

Comi Toulabor, “Les Nana Benz de Lomé”, Afrique Contemporaine 2012/4(No 244), p.69-80

Marie Line J. Charles-Galley. “A Glimpse of African Identity Through the Lens of Togolese Literature.”