From sleeping rough, vulnerable to rape and prostitution, Teni Agana, Founder of the Loozeele Initiative, managed to change her life around and is now working hard to employ vulnerable girls in Ghana.
Could you tell me a bit about yourself – your ambition to start the company and your journey to get where you are today?
We cannot choose who we are born to or where we come from, but we have the power to dream of who we want to become.
My name is Teni Agana, a proud native of Sherigu, in the Upper East Region of Ghana. I was born to parents with no form of education. My late dad was a truck pusher and my mom worked in a local eatery, commonly known as a “chop bar”. When I turned 10 years old, my life changed. One afternoon, I found a picture of a woman smiling in a graduation gown on the floor. I realized I wanted to be like that woman. So, I held on to it as a reminder that someday I would wear a graduation gown.
After completing Junior High School, I took a gap year to raise money for my higher education and other family needs. I spent a whole year in a local market in Bantama, a suburb in the Ashanti region, working as a Kayayei.
Following my BECE results, I enrolled in Bolgatanga Girls’ Senior High School to study Business and excelled with competitive grades. I used my savings to cover all expenses in my first year and the subsequent years, I went back to Bantama to work during vacations to raise funds for my fees.
For those who are not sure who the Kayayei are: Kayayei translates as “Women head porters”. Kaya is an occupation in Ghana that involves carrying items in the market from one place to another for a fee. Kayayei is not a crime nor is it an immoral act, but the social, economic and health issues associated with the work makes it dangerous. The Kayayei phenomenon sees increases school drop-outs and high levels of illiteracy in the North, increased unemployment in urban cities, pressure on social amenities in the south and an increase in social ills such as robbery, prostitution, rape, teenage pregnancy.
My journey of becoming an Ashesi graduate has not been an easy one. To raise money, I would carry peoples’ items all day and make a total of about 15 cedis (£2.10) a day. As the sun set, we would have to think about where we could sleep for the night. To avoid being sacked by shop owners if we camped outside their shops, we often slept in the open, using our basins as pillows and to avoid being raped at night, we’d tie our feet together. Sometimes, we’d take turns to sleep and one of us would keep watch to prevent us from being attacked.
Regardless of the ever-so-present dangers, I still had the burning desire to wear my graduation gown. My mother has always supported me and together we worked hard to raise the money needed so I could go to university. It was a week before we were due to travel back to the North of Ghana, when my mum was knocked down by a car.
With my mum in the hospital, I had to use the money both of us had worked hard to raise, to pay for the hospital bills. Handing over our money was the most difficult moment of my life as I knew that we were back to square one.
I was on my way to buy my mum food when I came across a woman who was crying out that her child needed blood urgently. No one had the blood type required and the hospital blood bank had run dry. I offered to help and luckily, my blood type was a match. The girl’s mum later thanked me for my generosity and after we exchanged stories, she recommended CAMFED – an NGO dedicated to empowering females through education.
My mum later recovered and with the help of the organisation, I applied to universities in Ghana and was offered a place at Ashesi University in Accra, to study Business Administration, with the help of a four-year MasterCard scholarship. Being a student was a dream come true – a new environment to explore with new people. However, it was not easy at all. I was always lagging during coding classes because I had never used a computer before but with the help of friends and lecturers, I persevered and my grades soon improved. Throughout university, I knew that I wasn’t only buying myself freedom; but I was supporting my family too.
Exactly a year ago, my dream of wearing a gown came true and I did not only graduate; I graduated with the presidential award under my belt.
After graduating, I started an initiative to help girls like myself have a better future and to stay in education. I train and support young girls from the North of Ghana and those who are working as a Kayayei, with entrepreneurship skills to enable them to create a source of income for themselves. I vividly remember how we used to sleep on the streets of Ghana with our legs tied together to protect ourselves. Some of my friends were raped and some disappeared.
I want to make a difference because of the above problem. My team is committed to helping vulnerable girls to become the great women they dream to be. At Loozeele Initiative, we are following our dream to contribute to the sustainable development of Northern Ghana, promoting education and reducing poverty. Our products range from traditional smocks to bags and purses, that have been handmade by our girls.
Instead of sacrificing education to transport heavy items, sleeping on dusty side roads and being raped at night, at Loozeele Initiative, we encourage our girls to go to school and work after their education has finished for the day. We sell their products and 5% of the revenue is contributed towards our annual educational program, while 20% of profit is saved for their school needs.
What do you want to have achieved in ten years time?
In the next 10 years, I hope that we manage to support more girls and we are in a better financial situation to diversify and create different products, from agricultural to lifestyle products. Instead of dreaming about a university graduation gown, I now dream that I will be able to continue to help this cause.
You have made an impressive life for yourself despite challenging circumstances. How important is it to you that Ghanaian women are protected and given the same opportunities to succeed as men?
I’ve always found the idea of leadership paradoxical and gendered. Men sit under huge trees to make decisions concerning the society without the involvement of women. The otherwise rich culture emphasizes patriarchal leadership and sidelines the matriarch power, which cherishes the contributions of men more than that of women. Although women contribute as much time and effort to society, they are not given as much credence and opportunities. To be, at least, considered at the decision-making table as a woman, requires working twice as hard in all spheres while battling with the cultural barriers that stall progress. We are all unique and different, no one on this planet can ever be like us, so we should all be given equal opportunities, regardless of gender.
And lastly, do you have any advice for young women wanting to make a tangible difference in the world?
I would advise them to take a bold step and start it. It often won’t be an easy journey, but the difference you will make in life will be worth it.