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date: 19 April 2019

African Market Women, Market Queens, and Merchant Queens

Summary and Keywords

In the open marketplaces found in cities and villages throughout Africa, women traders usually predominate. This gives women considerable weight as economic actors, because these marketplace systems are the primary distributive networks in most parts of Africa. A large proportion of Africa’s consumer goods and foodstuffs move through their intricate chains of intermediaries, which can include market retailers, neighborhood shops, street vendors, wholesalers, and travelers who collect goods from farms, factories, and ports. Although the vast majority of women traders live at or below the poverty line, some have risen to powerful positions that earn them the sobriquet of queen.

Different regions of Africa show distinctive patterns of trading practices and of men and women’s participation in specific trading roles, reflecting specific gendered histories of precolonial trade, colonial interventions, and waves of national policy. These variations arise not from some primordial isolation, but from traders’ varied positioning within longstanding trade relations that have linked Africans since ancient times between regions, across the Sahara Desert and over adjoining oceans. Women’s trading roles are more highly developed in western Africa than in eastern, northern, and southern Africa, where precolonial trading patterns were more radically disrupted by conquest, land appropriation, and apartheid.

Ideologies and arenas of practice such as Islam, Christianity, modernization, socialism, structural adjustment, and globalization likewise shape the constraints and opportunities facing women traders in any given situation. Because these influences operate around the globe, though not uniformly, they to some extent create parallel or convergent trends in widely separated nations. Deepening economic pressures today push even more women and men into trading to support their families and sustain the hope of prosperity. Market women struggle individually and collectively to keep their communities going under difficult circumstances that make formal economic channels function poorly. Their determined efforts give African economies more resilience as they respond to the challenges of war, political instability, and climate change.

Keywords: women traders, marketplace systems, market queens, merchants, street vendors, caravans, women’s organizations

Variation and Resilience

The open-air marketplace, bustling with women traders and their piles of goods, presents one of the most conspicuous visual images of African city and village life. The predominance of women in market trading at present is so widespread in Africa (and indeed on many continents) that it is easy to take for granted as a kind of biological mandate.1 Their seeming ubiquity in fact conceals an intricate mosaic of local and regional histories across Africa, inflected by divergent cultural norms and colonial experiences.2 Such contrasts may be hardly surprising across an entire continent, but they preclude the construction of a plausible unified narrative or historical trajectory for Africa as a whole. Historical factors that inhibited or fostered women’s participation in comparison to men continue to significantly shape both the trading practices seen today and the ideological context within which traders operate.

Global trends toward greater informalization of commercial and productive relationships perpetuate a central role for marketplace systems in most parts of Africa. They channel the largest proportion of economic activity and supply the great majority of consumer demand in most countries. The income they can generate for women provides a vital bottom line for family and community survival while economic, political, and climate crises persist and multiply. Formal public or corporate channels tend to collapse under pressure, without the flexibility to adjust quickly enough to shifting circumstances, while on the other hand each self-employed trader can make her own new decisions daily. But at the same time, the ambivalent or hostile environment of public policy and public opinion that often surrounds traders, and market women in particular, hampers their ability to respond to pressures and needs arising from contemporary economic conditions.

Intermediary Roles

The organization of trading roles within each marketplace system responds sensitively to economic, technological, and social changes in its larger environment. The current gender division of labor between trading roles is only one aspect of these continuing transformations. Relations between marketplace systems and the formal sector, including colonial and national state actors, have clear effects on labor force dynamics, capital access, and ethnic specializations, all of which have gendered implications. Tracking such sequences of change requires first some familiarization with the repertoire of trading roles typically available.3 Each commodity and location employs a selection of these alternative possibilities at any given time, depending on the configuration of supply and demand, perishability, and the ratio of value to weight and volume. Specific links in these commodity chains are separated or combined as needs for information, transport, and capital shift.


The very smallest-scale retailers are absolutely necessary to serve the bulk of very poor consumers who live from day to day. Their small and irregular incomes provide a steady customer base for retailers willing to sell sugar by the cube or three small tomatoes or a handful of beans. They operate from regular locations on the fringes of large markets, or from neighborhood and sidewalk spaces that may or may not be officially recognized. Street hawkers carry goods on their heads through markets and commercial and residential districts. Along with rural peddlers, hawkers buy their supplies from slightly larger scale retailers who buy from wholesalers and sell in larger quantity.

African Market Women, Market Queens, and Merchant QueensClick to view larger

Figure 1. Loading foodstuffs for the city of Kumasi in a nearby market town.

Photo by the author.

Credit, sometimes on a daily basis, enables these smaller retailers to buy enough to keep up sales throughout the day and to maintain a varied inventory attractive to customers. Some street hawkers of more expensive items, such as cloth, may have larger capital investment than some traders with fixed locations.


For every commodity sold by market traders, there is a unit considered the minimum wholesale quantity. It may be a hundred yams, a carton of cigarettes or a standard size of burlap sack filled with maize. Buying in at least this quantity enables a retailer to purchase her stock at lower prices in areas designated for bulk sales. Wealthy consumers may also be able to buy and store this size purchase, at least for a special occasion, but buyers for resale are the backbone of a wholesaler’s customer base. They include not only market or streetside retailers but buyers for restaurants, boarding schools, and military barracks, who buy regularly in sizable amounts.

African Market Women, Market Queens, and Merchant QueensClick to view larger

Figure 2. Some wholesale traders in Kumasi Central Market.

Photo by the author.

African Market Women, Market Queens, and Merchant QueensClick to view larger

Figure 3. The Kumasi yam queen pouring libation for her commodity group.

Photo by the author.

Market wholesalers must be available at all times the market is open, to quickly meet the needs of these valued repeat buyers. They must also be available to receive supplies from those traders who bring them in quantity from periodic markets, farms, or importers. For some commodities, such as secondhand clothes or local manufactures, wholesalers buy directly from the factory or sell from specialized warehouse districts in large cities. If necessary, they extend credit in both directions, so these wholesalers need some of the highest levels of working capital in a market.

Direct Importers

Traders based in West Africa have been trying to import directly from manufacturers abroad since the mid-19th century, when regular steamship service first made this feasible. Expatriate firms on the Gold Coast at that time actively sabotaged African merchants’ access to lines of credit and banking services.4 Personal relationships had to be established with sources abroad. For example, women trading in wax print cloth could patronize certain London shopping streets, where sellers catered to their tastes. The advent of mail order companies made remote ordering more dependable, but these did not offer wholesale prices. Since the goods ordered still need to negotiate official boundaries at the ports or post offices, old-fashioned smuggling by foot or by motor vehicle across land borders remains lucrative. Women and men traders both engage in this, but tend to specialize in commodities retailed by the same gender. For example, cars, diesel engines, gasoline, and vehicle spare parts are predominantly brought in by men.5 In the small coastal countries of Togo and Benin, pass-through trade with neighboring countries has long been a significant portion of their total economies.6 Their governments promote this intermediary position by keeping regulatory and financial barriers low.

Importers who travel regularly by air to Europe or Asia to bring back consumer goods have recently attracted much attention. Like land-based smugglers, they often provide a more reliable supply chain than the official channels, where import licenses and foreign exchange might depend on patronage or bribery. Some importers, often men, bring in full containers through the ports (e.g., secondhand clothes or pharmaceuticals). They travel primarily to inspect the goods loaded and to cement relationships with their overseas suppliers, although they might also underinvoice or otherwise minimize customs duties.

Even more controversial traders bring in smaller quantities of luxury consumer goods by air. Women doing this cultivate a glamorous image to justify their extensive baggage as personal effects and gifts, though some collude with airport customs agents and baggage checkers.7 Northern Europe and Italy are popular sources of cloth, shoes, and readymade clothing. Men also make the trip to Hong Kong and China for kitchen appliances and electronics. Muslim women visit Dubai and Saudi Arabia for the latest modest fashions, which they sell privately to friends and relatives.8 The annual pilgrimage to Mecca makes a convenient occasion for trading, using subsidized charter flights with streamlined customs treatment. It can be hard to pin down the primary motivating factor for such trips, since pilgrims can plausibly bring back veils and other items with religious significance as gifts. Besides, West African pilgrims on foot to Mecca and closer pilgrimage sites in West and North Africa have paid their travel expenses by trading on the side for centuries.

Market Queens and Merchant Queens

The title of queen is applied to a wide range of wealthy women traders, and its usage varies by locale and period. Publicly recognized women leaders within a market are properly called market queens. In larger urban markets, the traders are organized in groups by the commodity they sell, or by the spatial section of the market they occupy. Commodity queens keep order by settling disputes between traders and have a set of elders to advise them on policy issues.9 These services enable the commodity associations in many locations to manage credit relations, enforce trading conventions, provide mutual aid, and respond to public emergencies such as floods or currency exchanges.10 Usually the market queen who heads the group for the most prestigious or capital-intensive commodity in a particular market acts as the senior or overall leader, representing all women traders to civic leaders and at community celebrations.

Any wealthy and influential woman trader who operates within a local marketplace system is frequently called a market queen in English.11 This term reflects the deference she receives from smaller wholesalers and retailers inside the marketplace who rely on her for steady supplies and credit. Sometimes such market queens deal only with the largest transactions in person and maintain market stalls staffed by relatives or hired agents. In Togo and Ghana, the symbol of their wealth is the Mercedes Benz car and driver that brings them to and from the market, leading to the popular title of Mama Benz or Nana Benz.12 In East African Swahili they are called the Wabenzi.

Large-scale wholesalers who are based primarily outside the marketplace are sometimes called merchant queens. For example, in Eastern Nigeria the largest coastal traders dealt directly with European exporters and importers. They functioned as a kind of landlord and broker for African traders bringing them goods from inland areas.13 The famed signares of Senegal and many similar communities along the West African coast also provided commercial contacts for European traders spending shorter or longer periods in the ports.14 Scholars have not taken them seriously as merchants, perhaps because they also offered home comforts and health care.

At the intersection of history and legend, several actual queens emerge as holding positions of power in societies renowned for interregional long-distance trading. Whether they personally took leading roles in trade remains unknown, and they are renowned for other reasons. Queen Dido or Elissa of Carthage, for example, came with her brother from Tyre, the Phoenician capital in Syria, to build a new city on the North African coast.15 The local Berber population connected Carthage to trans-Saharan trade networks valued for grain through Roman times, and it founded other colonies in Spain. The biblical Queen of Sheba is claimed by Ethiopian tradition, but historians concur that she was very likely associated with the city-state of Sa’ba in Yemen.16 Sa’ba was one of the leading Yemeni ports at the time, when the major commodities were incense, myrrh, and Indian spices. Like other Yemeni ports, it later founded colonies on the East African coast. In the 16th century, Queen Njnga Mbanda made her reputation in the Kongo kingdom as a diplomat and general for her reigning brother. She negotiated relations with the Portuguese and then conquered and ruled the neighboring Matamba kingdom.17 These were certainly queens of merchant societies, if not strictly speaking merchant queens.

Market Facilities

Marketplaces themselves may show the most minimal infrastructure—a line of burlap sacks or sheets of plastic on which traders heap up their wares. Others boast elaborate multistory cement buildings. It is the relationships between them and the relations between traders inside and outside such marketplaces that enable them to constitute a system that performs key mediating functions between varied ecological locations and economic sectors. Rural periodic markets in villages too small to support full-time traders meet in a coordinated cycle of alternating days, so that buyers from larger towns can circulate among them. These full-time travelers collect rural produce or offer imported and manufactured goods.

Urban marketplaces generally meet six days a week, with more limited sales on rest days according to the prevailing religious observance of Friday or Sunday prayers. These daily markets may have periodic sections that meet on certain weekdays to gather sellers and buyers from a wider hinterland, in order to collect wholesale quantities of more specialized commodities such as beads. Neighborhood markets mainly serving consumers often get by with rickety tables placed under makeshift roofs of tin or thatch. The most influential urban markets are not always those with permanent buildings, but those with broad wholesale yards where freight trucks can easily unload and load their high volume of goods.


A wide variety of currencies were found historically in Africa, including European and Middle Eastern coins, gold dust, locally produced and standardized iron bars or bracelets, lengths of plain cloth, and imported cowrie shells. This long experience anchors the sophistication with which traders now manage the exchange rates of multiple national currencies. The exchange of goods directly for other goods, called barter, was quite rare and only possible under very specific conditions. The desired commodity must be standard on both sides to maintain a coherent exchange rate. For example, in some nomadic herding communities in East and West Africa, pastoralist women milk animals and process dairy products they barter with neighboring agricultural villagers for grain, their staple food. Coastal fishing communities often have poor soil and trade fish with more fertile inland villages where protein is scarce. Other pastoralists and agriculturists have long used currency as a measure of value, even when they are exchanging surplus products between ecological zones.18

Regional Configurations of Gender and Trade

Broad comparisons between the geographical regions of North, West, East and Southern Africa remain useful as long as they bear in mind the historical linkages, blurred boundaries, and parallels that problematize the conventional separation into four regions. North Africa, for example, has strong cultural and political ties to the Near East and the Mediterranean world. Ancient Egypt, an empire that unified territories up and down the Nile Valley, tapped resources of ivory and other luxury goods from sub-Saharan Africa. Cities founded by Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans on the North African coast also drew great wealth from trade across the Sahara. The spread of Islam followed these trans-Sahara trade routes closely, integrating North Africans into an Arab identity that stretched from Spain to Mauritania and the Sudan.

Precolonial Linkages

Well-established caravan routes linked the Western and Eastern Sahel, supporting strong male-dominated trading networks facilitated by shared religious and ethnic affiliations. Ethnic diasporas of Hausa and Dioula men unified this economic arena patronizing locally based landlords who hosted travelers and brokered their sales. Donkeys carried salt, kola, and cotton cloth within the Sahel, while camels brought West African gold and leather goods within reach of Europe.

At the edge of these grasslands, commercial transport shifted from donkeys to head carriers because of livestock disease and scarce fodder. Foot tracks extended south deep into the forest zone of West Africa. Women from the forest societies were more active as head carriers, panning gold and gathering kola from wild trees. Both sexes were enslaved for sale locally and for transport to North Africa. The Portuguese started trading with Africans on the Atlantic coast, called the Gulf of Guinea from the 15th century, soon followed by the Dutch.

Ancient Egyptian traders ventured up the Nile Valley through Ethiopia to obtain ivory and slaves from East Africa. Larger numbers of Arab traders came south later, spreading Islam. Traveling by boat along the Indian Ocean coast, they made a segment of trade routes that stretched as far as Indonesia. Yemen was the leading Arab partner in this expansion, with a string of trading enclaves along the east coast. Several Yemeni towns also established island colonies, growing Indian spices on plantations using enslaved labor. In these settlements, the Swahili people gradually evolved by combining elements of Arab and African languages and cultures. Swahili caravans crisscrossed East Africa, maintaining set routes from the coast through the Great Lakes region into the Central African rainforest. There they made contact with West African traders coming up the Kongo and other rivers from the Atlantic Coast.

The sparser populations in Southern Africa generally suggest less intense trade there, but the absence of surviving Arab or European chronicles leaves very little documentation of their trading patterns compared to the European and Arabic sources for West Africa. Archeological research at reputed caravan stops in Central Africa suggests that the power of Great Zimbabwe may have been anchored in Swahili caravans from the east coast. Like the Yemeni, Portuguese settlers in Angola and Mozambique established plantations and married into the local populations. Sixteenth-century Dutch settlers in South Africa’s Cape Colony farmed produce for supplying European ships, importing enslaved and indentured farm laborers from Asia. They bought cattle from local Africans but otherwise traded little with them.

Women Traders in the West African Forest Zone

African women most conspicuously dominate market trade and take on the widest range of sophisticated trading roles in the forested ecozone of West Africa. This region stretches from the equatorial rain forest, in central Africa, north and west through extensive primary and secondary forests along the Atlantic coast as far as the Gambia. Women not only gathered kola, gold, and other forest products in demand by the trans-Sahara caravan network but carried them to sell in a series of trading towns just north of the forest edge, such as Salaga and Bonduku.19

Portuguese ship captains were the earliest European traders to venture down the Atlantic coast in the late 15th century seeking pepper and spices. They encountered an established trade feeding gold north to the Sahel and a coastal trade by canoe carrying palm oil and slaves. By 1602, the Dutch trader De Marees reported thriving settlements around Portuguese and Dutch forts like Elmina.20 Ship captains dealt with wealthy African merchants, including both men and women, whose titled status qualified them as intermediaries between the fort factors and traders arriving from inland. He observed large numbers of women traders selling all kinds of foodstuffs to local fishermen and transporters, alongside men selling other items. Fishwives and other market women were a still common sight in early modern Europe, but these women carried smoked fish on foot far into the forest, where it got a high price. He also noted that Elmina women baked unusually high quality hard tack and bread in large quantities, popular for provisioning ships for the return voyage.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, this coastal trade mushroomed while firmly linked to the still-flourishing Sahelian caravans. The Akany in present-day Ghana and the Aro in present-day eastern Nigeria created tightly knit trading confraternities using spiritual sanctions and insider credit to span ethnic boundaries. Powerful new empires grew up that straddled the main routes through the forest and closely controlled long-distance trade.21 The kings of Asante in Ghana and Dahomey in Benin organized border controls, collected taxes, and participated directly in trade through court officials and state loans. Their wars of expansion or rebellion generated captives, often distributed as slaves to military leaders or paramount chiefs. Chiefly connections and secret societies tended to give males favored access to the higher levels of trade, but women in charge of large caravans of traders continued to appear occasionally. For example, an enslaved woman who traded on behalf of the Asantehene was rewarded with several villages.22

Both Igbo towns in Eastern Nigeria and Yoruba towns in Western Nigeria gave market leaders a structural position in local government. Each Igbo village group had a market, whose leader was the titular head of the wives or mothers of the village, and a second group representing the daughters of the village.23 These two interlinked networks formed a tight lattice throughout the decentralized Igbo territory reaching beyond the eastern boundary of Nigeria. They protected women’s interests both against individual men who disrespected gender norms and against colonial threats like proposed taxation of women and threats to their entitlement to palm kernels, which sparked the women’s war of 1929.24 Igbo women also farmed alongside men, while their men took part in longer-distance trade.

A detailed account of one 20th-century woman trader describes Omu Okwei, based in the Niger Delta.25 She built up an enormous enterprise based on heading a household expanded by marriage, clientship, slavery, and pawning (holding a young person as security for a loan). During the 1930s and 1940s she traded at Onitsha in palm oil, ivory, coral beads, and foodstuffs, while providing food and female companions for European traders. Her many trading partners were tied to her through credit in both directions and she also lent money for land litigation. Later in life she took office as head of the council of mothers in her hometown, which made her titular head of the market and a member of the town council.

The Yoruba, by contrast, considered trading women’s work and farming men’s work. The Iyalode served simultaneously as the head of market traders, ritually and pragmatically, and as the head of the women of her community.26 She had an important role in managing the market by keeping order and settling disputes, and also negotiated taxes and other regulations with the chief or local government. She also played a constitutional role in selecting the next monarch. Well into the 20th century an Iyalode could threaten the reigning chief by starting ritual preparations for his funeral.27 In recent years, officeholders in the female hierarchy headed by the Iyalode have been drawn from the ranks of women in business, politics, and the professions.28

Women Traders in the Prairie Zone

Trade in the Sahel, just south of the Sahara, shows tighter gender boundaries, partly because Islam followed these same trade routes into West Africa as early as the 15th century. Long-distance traders associated with these donkey caravans were mainly men, as were the landlords who hosted them and served as brokers in the towns along their routes. Women in local markets fed and provisioned the caravans and their hosts, also selling the baskets they wove and the cotton thread they spun. Women carried further responsibility for farming on their own and family plots. The staple grains grown in this region also require intensive processing—threshing, drying, pounding, grinding, and rationing between annual harvests. In 1980s Mali, Bambara women were still active traders, but only in their local marketplaces or from their homes.29 The spiritual affiliation of their families made a difference to their options. Wives of the newer, more fundamentalist Wahabiyya brotherhood were more often veiled or confined to selling from their houses, while those from the older Khadriyya brotherhood did not veil and could sell freely in the market.

Archeological analysis of the layout of the palace in Kano, Nigeria gives an outline of several historical shifts in women’s trading activity, first with conversion to Islam in the 15th century and later with the Fulani conquest under the Sokoto caliphate in the 19th century. The town was refounded and the palace rebuilt after this initial conversion, when Kano thrived as a leading center of the caravan trade, but pre-Islamic structures and offices survived from the earlier palace. The oldest and most central part of the palace was the Yelwa, the central kitchen and “stomach” of the palace. At its entrance stood the central granary Kunandon, and next to it the shrine to pre-Islamic spirits with the same name. The master of this granary, the Mai Kunandon, was the senior concubine and allocated food throughout the palace complex. Taxes paid in grain were collected from the surrounding villages by enslaved women and stored in palace granaries by leading concubines of the Sarkin, or king.

A road from this “female” side of the palace led directly to the city market. Women grain traders in the Kano market were organized under another female titleholder, the Korama, who coordinated prices and measures. She was the only woman official who, like high male officials, received honorific gifts of embroidered robes and horses from the Sarkin. The Fulani conquest promoted stricter seclusion and veiling of women and put enslaved male functionaries in charge of both grain taxes and the grain market. The elderly female officeholders were not replaced.

Female titles like Korama were also reported in other Hausa towns of that period, along with women trading grain and collecting taxes. British colonial researchers reported them particularly often in towns that remained outside the conservative Fulani influence. The Hausa town of Maradi (in Niger) received refugees from Katsina fleeing the same Fulani conquest. They replicated in Maradi a similar hierarchy of female offices, whose highest-ranking woman supervised grain, markets, and the pre-Islamic rituals of bori. Her title, the Iya, echoes the title Iyalode, the highest-ranking woman in the Yoruba towns immediately south of Hausaland.

In the 20th century, local interpretations of Islam gradually emphasized stricter seclusion, which discouraged Hausa women from trading in the markets. Instead, they developed a complex system of trading in grain, food, crafts, and other commodities from inside their homes that kept their tradition of independent incomes alive.30 Their prepubescent daughters or other young relatives often acted as messengers and delivered goods between houses. Some women could become wealthy wholesalers without leaving home.

Ethnic and Gender Transitions

Ethnicity remains a major organizing factor in marketplace trade alongside gender. For example, Fante women still dominate the smoked fish trade in Ghana. The smoked fish section in Kumasi Central Market can be simply called the Fante market, because Fante women send or bring consignments from the coast to Fante wholesalers who have settled there for generations.31 Women from Elmina and the adjacent Cape Coast are still famous as the best bread bakers in Kumasi and other southern cities. Northern women specialize in products like shea butter or locust bean paste, produced by women in the north of Ghana and used for cooking and cosmetics by migrants from the north.

Market women also manipulate ethnicity to foster their trading relationships. Asante women buying yams in the best yam-growing areas at the forest edge deliberately learn local languages to form closer relations with northern farm families. In Northern Yoruba towns, many women traders convert to Islam to facilitate trade, and found Islamic secondary schools for their daughters.32 In Southern Yoruba towns Christian conversion is more common. Some countries associate distinctive ethnic identities with women who trade. In Sierra Leone, women can adopt the Krio language and identity when they trade outside their ethnic homelands.33 There and in Liberia, women from emancipated immigrant families lose their “civilized” identity with too strong a commitment to market trading and local dress.34

During the early 20th century, men began to move out of market trading in Ghana, Nigeria and elsewhere in the forest zone for several reasons. The trading hierarchy was divorced from the chiefship system, making it less attractive to ambitious men.35 Formal education and white-collar work became more available to educated men. Preferential access to land and labor, including support from wives, gave uneducated men the advantage in planting cocoa or other tree crops that provided more income in the long run. In the Sahel zone, more men remained active traders since cash crops were less lucrative. Government schools often had church affiliation, deterring many Muslims from enrolling their children. From the 1970s, male unemployment soared in both forest and Sahel zones. Young men, some of them with school certificates, began flooding back into market trading as both formal and informal production shrank.36

Party Politics

Market traders became active in the different political parties contesting elections just before and after independence. Market women’s groups acted as reliable voting blocks in regional and national elections and collected significant amounts of money for party coffers. Using both their wealth and their numbers as leverage, market leaders joined with other wealthy women traders to lobby for lower taxes and against restrictive regulations.37 In Ibadan, Nigeria they emptied the market to surround the state parliament building and demand female representatives on all standing commissions.38 In Abeokuta, they joined the Women’s Party in alliance with educated women. In Ghana they served as gifted orators in local languages. Individual market queens also drew on party connections to gain election to market offices. Market women in Guinea-Bissau and Guinea-Conakry were particularly influential in politics because of the relatively small size of the educated or wealthy middle class in those countries.39

Hostility between national governments and market women dates from the colonial period, but continued to intensify after independence.40 Economic discourse took on a highly gendered flavor in Ghana when the standard of living of salaried employees fell sharply through the 1970s and early 1980s.41 They made a convenient and effective scapegoat for unfavorable terms of trade—the high cost of imports and the high cost of living in general. Price controls and other hostile policies were enforced more drastically against market women. The treatment of predominantly male categories of traders and craftsmen was markedly more respectful and accommodating.42

These interventionist policies lost credibility when they failed in practice to achieve their intended effects. Free market reforms imposed by the IMF, World Bank, and other aid agencies did not reflect or trigger any dramatic positive change in public or official attitudes toward women traders. Structural adjustment loan conditionalities starting in the mid-1980s induced Ghana and other nationalist governments all over Africa to back off on similar price and currency controls and import restrictions. Voters concluded that any government they elected would eventually have to heed financial pressures from lenders and donors to conform to free-market principles. Violence toward women traders continues to break out sporadically within street clearance campaigns and urban redevelopment initiatives.

North Africa

Commerce has been the keystone of economics and politics in North Africa since ancient times and tied it closely to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The market or bazaar is as central to community life here as in West Africa, although most countries also have more robust corporate and public formal sectors. Islam entered North Africa soon after its establishment, through conquest and settlement from the Middle East. The region was integrated into centralized caliphates based in Iraq and Spain, so Islam penetrated much more thoroughly and in more orthodox forms. The ideal of seclusion gained greater hegemony, even though it could only be practiced by prosperous families with sufficient labor. The bazaar is classified as a public place for men, not a women’s arena. Women trading in marketplaces are not uncommon, but they do so at some risk to their reputations.

Market women’s work in this most public location problematizes their identities as Arabs, as good Muslims, and as virtuous women. All of these require explicit reinforcement to avoid stigma. Gossip and joking become important in disciplining deviations from gender norms but also in making space for such deviations.43 To deflect criticism, market women invoke the competing ideal of motherhood and portray themselves as trading out of desperation to support their families. Their plea of male incapacity absolves them of blame in return for accepting their low status. Women with dead or incapacitated husbands, for example, were never in short supply. Economic crises deepened after the 1980s, rendering larger numbers of women truly desperate and further normalizing their increased presence in the market.

In countries where Arab identity represents privilege, market women face association with the devalued non-Arab population. In Morocco, the Berber woman is associated with a propensity for trading in local markets and a less observant Islam. Market women who are skilled verbal manipulators can juggle Berber and Arab identities, peppering their speech with Arabic proverbs while also profiting from the association of Berbers with herbs and spells.44 Market women indicate that they are good Muslims by their behavior in the market and by verbal displays.45 Trade in local foodstuffs has relatively low status as typically Berber. In Mauritania, the contrasting category to Arab identity is that of black African origin. Women who trade in the markets are presumed to be descended from slaves originally captured or conquered, although born locally for many generations.46 If a woman’s wealth increases through trade, she behaves more like an Arab, moving out of the open marketplace into a nearby store or shop to sell “clean” goods. Selling veils requires more capital, brings more profit, and signals stricter observance of Islam.

In Cairo, Egypt the class distinction is more salient because most people there do consider themselves Arabs. Strict seclusion requires a secure income that can support full-time servants or male relatives to attend to errands outside the home, such as shopping in the market. Women traders are more likely to be selling on the street or in neighborhoods rather than in the male space of the bazaar. Selling cooked food and doing crafts allows a wife to spend more time at home.47 Even working as a servant for a wealthy neighbor conforms better to local gender norms than market trading; while North African men tend to staff the higher levels of wholesaling and deal in the higher capital commodities, wealthy women sell privately to other elite women and minimize their success. They must balance their reputations as good traders with the image of a good Muslim woman from a good family. A complicating factor in Egypt is the prestige of education for women. In offices or other professional workplaces, educated women are often separated from men and veil carefully on the way to and from work.

East Africa

The important role of caravans trading inland from the Swahili coast in East Africa creates substantial parallels with North Africa and the Sahel. As already noted, the Swahili coast long had direct contact with the Arabian peninsula through Yemen, and absorbed many aspects of Arab culture, including its Islamic gender ideals. Swahili functioned as a trade language throughout East Africa because of the reach of Swahili caravans, like Hausa and Dioula did in the Sahel. While the caravan trade inhibited women’s participation in long-distance trading and in the upper levels of wholesaling in East Africa, it stimulated their participation in local trade. Collecting foodstuffs and preparing cooked food to service the fixed caravan stops put women in a good position to provision the growing urban populations in the 20th century. They even organized to boycott unpopular caravan leaders by refusing to bring them food.48 Women’s craft production also targeted the caravan stops. For example, Zambian women farmers routinely turned to basket weaving for supplemental income in dry season and drought years.49 Male relatives or husbands carried their baskets long distances to reach the reliable demand in caravan towns.

In Kenya and Tanzania, Swahili identity for women paradoxically correlated not only with Islam and veiling but with active trading and visibility in public life. Elite families on Zanzibar and other islands might consider themselves Arabs and seclude their women members, but far beyond the Swahili homeland membership was much less exclusive. East African women born into other ethnic groups could adopt or move into a Swahili identity by using the language, joining Muslim dance societies, and loosening their ethnic ties.50 As with Sierra Leone’s Creole ethnicity, a Swahili identification was particularly convenient for women trading across ethnic boundaries and in multiethnic urban settings and for political organizing.51

Apart from supplying Swahili caravans, East African women had other opportunities for trade among themselves through rural periodic markets. The exchange of dairy products for grain between nomadic cattle herders and settled farming communities may have been by barter, but nonetheless it contributed substantially to the total food supply on both sides. The vertical ecological boundaries on Kenya’s high mountainsides likewise marked variations in rainfall and the crops planted in adjacent communities. Trade could take both men and women up to 200 miles across ethnic and ecological boundaries, carrying crafts, red ochre, and imports as well as foodstuffs. The expansion of slave raiding around the 1890s undercut women’s long-distance trading. Male wholesalers, including East Asians, moved in to take over the supply of staples and vegetables to the cities through licensed shops. As the British consolidated colonial rule in the 1920s and 1930s, they established marketing authorities that discriminated against African produce through inspection and pricing.

East African women also faced problems in controlling their own produce and incomes. In the early 20th century, married women’s farm produce could be sold by their husbands to pay colonial taxes.52 Wives’ trading profits were also subject to husbands’ appropriation at will. Beans, on the other hand, were a woman’s crop and the sole or major ingredient for many typical dishes later made with maize or potatoes. For the Kikuyu, the njahe variety symbolized womanhood and fertility, and they had ceremonial as well as nutritional functions at clitoridectomy, marriage, and childbirth, and around Nairobi.

Both village elders and colonial officers tried unsuccessfully to prevent women from coming into cities like Nairobi to trade. Young wives faced special pressure to demonstrate their virtue and obedience by staying on their husbands’ farms. Middle-aged women, who faced the weight of supporting multiple children, had reduced marital responsiblities and could delegate these to older children. Without the opportunity to apprentice in their youth, East African market women had difficulty building the multigenerational networks of relationships that helped West African market women accumulate expert knowledge and share capital and were like those that helped make some West African women so powerful.53 Although women were exempt from the 1921 pass law that controlled men’s movements, women traders were intermittently deported as prostitutes. Food shortages during World War II brought price controls and a criminalization of women’s trade that kept their numbers down.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, agitation for independence led colonial authorities to try harder to restrict movement to Nairobi and between ethnically segregated African Reserves.54 Trading licenses were issued only to loyalists, with the goal of eliminating women hawkers and formalizing male traders. Internment and villagization measures during the Emergency period had disrupted rural communities and farm production, which only gradually recovered. One legacy was the contingency of women’s residence in the city; many women who traded full time in Nairobi kept one foot in the village. Even when they no longer received support from their husbands, they and their children had land and residence rights there.

A few women traders made the transition to wholesaling in Nairobi or other towns after independence, but their businesses remained smaller in volume and less stable than male wholesalers.55 Government marketing boards for farm produce still favored large-scale producers in their pricing and licensing policies. Although more of these were African now, this meant most of African traders still operated illegally. Since the 1980s, the most tension has focused on access to urban land for open air markets. New illegal markets serving the growing urban population are periodically bulldozed, and long-established markets on valuable central city real estate are periodically threatened by redevelopment plans.

The nonaligned socialist government in Tanzania after independence implemented policies of village relocation and land reallocation similar to those seen in the Kenyan Emergency period, but with the very different goal of promoting collectivization. Hostility toward informal trade in both urban and rural locations also had a different ideological justification in preventing the growth of an African bourgeosie. Other conditions replicated the experience of Kenya more directly. Indigenous cultures labeled women who went after money as greedy and promiscuous, creating suspicion of women traders in principle.56 Tanzanians also endured repeated urban street clearance campaigns, whether in the name of socialist “hard work” or modernization, displaying gender bias as strong as elsewhere in Africa. Fewer women here had ever had formal public sector jobs, so police considered any urban women found on the street liable for forced return to rural areas.57 Despite its socialist leanings, Tanzania had to accept structural adjustment conditionalities for World Bank loans in the late 1980s, resulting in parallel economic pressures. Falling exchange rates and massive layoffs from formal waged work meant that most households needed more than one income earner to survive. Consequently, women and men both resorted to “projects” in informal production and trade to get by.58

The inland countries of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi were penetrated by the Swahili caravans, but at wider intervals, suggesting that women there took up trading roles similar to those documented elsewhere in East Africa. Women were reported as already active in marketplace trade during the colonial period, and this smaller-scale commercial activity survives. The more disruptive factor here has been civil wars, which decimated their populations and forced many villagers to flee into the forest away from roads and trading centers. The formal sector, already relatively small, ceased almost entirely. As residents returned after some years, local trade started up again, but both men and women turned to it for survival. Marketplace networks virtually started over from scratch, but without the accumulated commercial expertise and relationship networks that give market systems their resilience elsewhere.

Southern Africa

Women’s opportunities for market trading in Southern Africa today are still inhibited by legacies from precolonial and colonial times. Geographically, it lies more distant from the intercontinental land and sea connections so influential in East and West Africa. Only the extreme southern fingers of the Swahili caravan routes reached into Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia. The local crafts and foodstuffs women supplied for caravan trade elsewhere escaped documentation here by European or Arab travelers, but may be presumed. Northern Angola likewise barely came into the orbit of the Atlantic sea trade in the Congo Basin. Mozambique and Angola also suffered the disruptive effects of prolonged internal warfare in the 20th century. They threw off Portuguese rule in the mid-1970s but plunged immediately into years of violent conflict between rival factions supported from outside their borders.

Internal trade existed in South Africa, but faced difficult limiting conditions. The sparse foraging population was highly nomadic, bringing people to resources rather than the reverse. Their gift exchanges were important for ensuring broader mobility but did not spark ecological specialization. Where African farmers and pastoralists lived in adjacent territories, lactose intolerance prevented barter in dairy products from laying a foundation for more complex interdependence. Early Dutch settlers on the Cape bought cattle from Khoe pastoralists but not farm produce.

In Southern Africa the disruption of African life attempted in Kenya during colonial rule was much more extreme and successful. It also lasted longer in South Africa, from the mid-1800s until majority rule in 1994. The land appropriated for white areas, relatively limited in Kenya, comprised all the land in Zimbabwe assessed as fit for settler use. In Zambia, land along the railway lines with commercial potential was reallocated to prevent competition by African farmers.59 In South Africa, white settlers left only 11 percent of the worst land for “homelands” that were modeled on US Indian reservations. The relocation of so many African communities dealt a massive blow to village and regional integration which might otherwise have supported trade. The infamous pass laws which regulated the movement and residence of Africans made long-distance trade or even local markets virtually impossible. Again, these were much more strictly enforced, more comprehensive and lasted longer than in Kenya. Demonstrations in 1915 resisting the extension of passes to African women succeeded in delaying this until 1948. In both Zimbabwe and South Africa, declarations of independence by white settlers extended and intensified colonial laws. Towns and cities remained tightly controlled white-only areas, with Africans kept on their fringes in purpose-built townships (South Africa) or high-density settlements (Zimbabwe).60 Men were expected to have formal employment in white-owned mines or businesses, and to leave their wives and children in the countryside. Urban women not working as servants or farm laborers were illegal by definition; only Zambia accepted some married couples in mining towns.61 In practice, many women commuted weekly or monthly to rural areas to look after their children, left with their mothers or other relatives.

Some women and men traded from inside illegal squatter camps, but the constant threat of arrest kept their businesses small and inconspicuous.62 However, mention must be made of South Africa’s illegal beer brewers, the shebeen queens. Beer was a longstanding craft of rural women, as in many parts of the continent, and African men preferred local beer. But these unlicensed bars also offered unsupervised venues for political discussions, so drinking was legally restricted to government-owned beer halls. These sold bottled beer, which was more expensive and promised significant revenues. Their limited opening hours also aimed to foster better work discipline, but the initiative provoked organized resistance by both workers and brewers.63

Even in settlements planned for African workers, little space was designated for markets. British colonial authorities favored distribution through licensed shops, and preferred to license expatriates from their other colonies—Lebanese, Indians, and Pakistanis. These were male merchants linked into the male-dominated networks that extended around the Indian Ocean. Local markets were tolerated more in Mozambique, with its much smaller settler population. In Zimbabwe, locally grown foodstuffs were sourced for Harare, the capital, from a few expatriate growers rather than indigenous farmers. African women bought them for resale in markets designated within African settlements, or peddled them house-to-house in middle-class neighborhoods. Even after independence, they had to ask permission from the few African and expatriate middlemen to buy vegetables directly from nearby farmers.64

When the legal framework of apartheid was lifted in South Africa in 1994, property rights in the formerly white rural and urban areas remained intact. The little room allowed for street traders on urban sidewalks was hotly contested, and unemployed young men stepped aggressively into this narrow opening. The city of Durban, with a large concentration of Asian residents, has by far the most accommodating regulations for street hawkers, including some named markets.65 Wholesale distribution remained in expatriate or corporate hands. Male traders were more likely to have worked in the formal sector, to have covered stalls, and to earn larger incomes. Small shops kept their dominant place in townships and rural areas because they extended credit to formal sector employees.

One expanding sector in South Africa is cross-border trade with Zimbabwe, where women are very active in importing food and consumer goods due to shortages.66 The influx of foreign African traders from Zimbabwe (but also from as far as Nigeria) has triggered resentment by native South Africans and outbreaks of violent xenophobia. These have not so far featured the gender hostility common in other parts of Africa, although gender-based violence not related to trading is widespread in South Africa generally.

Discussion of the Literature

Only a brief indication of the scholarship on this subject can be attempted here. An excellent historiography of market women in Africa published in 2017 by Kathleen Sheldon discusses in more detail work published up to 1970.67 The earliest published studies that address women traders were based on colonial documents, and reflected colonial priorities. Two studies of Igbo women traders were commissioned in the 1930s in response to the Igbo Women’s War of 1929.68 In the 1950s, another round of studies described large urban markets in the West African colonial capitals of Accra (Gold Coast), Lagos (Nigeria), and Dakar (Senegal). They were based on substantial surveys and were more development oriented).69

Mid-20th century research on African markets by anthropologists and geographers has analyzed market trade in relation to broader theoretical debates about economic development but has barely noted the presence of women traders. The formalist-substantivist divide in economic anthropology in the 1950s and 1960s produced corresponding collections, with Peter Bauer on the formalist side and Paul Bohannon and George Dalton on the substantivist side.70 Marxists and neo-Marxists recast the theoretical discussion in terms of modes of production in the 1970s. Claude Meillasoux analyzed market trade as part of a subsistence or precapitalist mode of production, while Keith Hart counterposed his concept of the informal sector and Rey proposed a lineage mode of production.71 Extensive debate followed about the articulation of different modes of production and the petty commodity mode of production, notably by Chris Gerry, Caroline Moser, and Harold Wolpe.72 At about the same time, socialist and other materialist feminists like Bridget O’Laughlin and Claire Robertson critiqued these formulations of the relation between production and reproduction.73

Overlapping with this period, some pioneering African and expatriate women scholars in the 1950s and 1960s began to produce detailed studies of women traders specifically. Addae focused on cloth traders in Accra and Nigerians Bioboku and Ekejuiba wrote biographical studies of prominent Yoruba and Igbo women traders respectively.74 A number of notable United States PhD theses date from the 1960s and 1970s. Trager and Sudarkasa focused on smaller Yoruba communities in Nigeria; Gore and Schwimmer on smaller towns in southern Ghana.75 Robertson’s extensive and intensive studies of Ga women traders in Accra began in the early 1970s, along with the Sanjeks’ work in the same locale; both evoked modes of production analyses.76

Meanwhile, relatively few studies addressed Central, East or Southern Africa. Comhaire-Sylvain and Janet MacGaffey published brilliant books on Kinshasa (Zaire).77 Lusaka (Zambia) emerged as another focus of work by Nyirenda, Obersall and Hansen.78 All these works addressed men traders as well as women traders, but paid clear attention to gender issues. Another set of feminist studies focused on Harare, Zimbabwe.79 For East Africa, Kenya made its mark in Jean Hay’s work on Luo women in Kenya, soon joined by Robertson’s monumental new research on the bean trade in and around Nairobi.80

The 1970s also saw market women from many new locations depicted in feminist work on African women, notably the collection of Halfkin and Bay.81 Two special issues of African Urban Notes brought together many articles on trade and markets from established and newer scholars that featured women traders.82 Bay and Robertson and Berger included market women in their collections on African women and work or class.83 White’s work on Sierra Leone added a new West African field site. as did Moran’s on Liberia, although they analyzed ethnicity as much as market trade.84 Ethnographic and historical studies of women traders and their organizations from this cohort continued to be published through the 1980s and 1990s.85

Another series of volumes and articles dating from the 1980s features African market women in the context of newly emerging analytic frameworks, starting with studies rooted in urban studies and regional analysis.86 The idea of traders as entrepreneurs was contested in debates for and against various formulations of the informal sector.87 Globalization theory generated work on transnational trade, borderlands, and commodity chains.88 Most recently, attention has focused on the effects of Chinese goods and businesses in Africa.89

Primary Sources

Remarks on the presence and activities of women traders in African markets must often be sifted out by a careful perusal of the accounts of early travelers and traders. Both European language sources and Arabic language sources have been published.90 Additional manuscripts in African languages using Roman or Arabic script have been recovered for archival collections but little studied. Some indigenous leaders and Islamic courts have also preserved significant documentation of cases they decided. For most African countries, the reports of colonial officers and missionaries from locally active denominations similarly may include valuable first-hand observations with occasional photographs. A thorough search relating to any given location should include the appropriate national and regional archives, colonial archives in the relevant countries, court records, and church or private archives held by local and international religious organizations. Indexes to such collections, where they exist, often include valuable references to market women’s activities under headings such as hawkers, licensing, market administration, public health, and sanitation.

Field notes of historians and ethnographers who have worked on market women or in areas where they are important also constitute valuable primary source material. Like archival materials, they must be carefully interpreted in light of the methods and interests evident in recording them. The Smithsonian Institution, Cambridge University, Northwestern University, John Hopkins University, and other institutions noted for Africanist research preserve scholars’ field materials. African university libraries and research institutes often preserve student theses and in-house publications with valuable material not readily available elsewhere. Interviews with market traders are also readily accessible on websites such as the African Online Digital Library hosted by Michigan State University.91 Several educational videos released commercially also feature interviews with market traders, mainly from West Africa, which provide first-person perspectives when properly contextualized.92

Further Reading

Chalfin, Brenda. Shea Butter Republic: State Power, Global Markets and the Making of an Indigenous Commodity. New York: Routledge, 2004.Find this resource:

Chuku, Gloria. “From Petty Traders to International Merchants: A Historical Account of Three Igbo Women of Nigeria in Trade and Commerce, 1886 to 1970.” African Economic History 27 (1999): 1–22.Find this resource:

Clark, Gracia. Onions Are My Husband: Survival and Accumulation by West African Market Women. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Guyer, Jane, ed. Feeding African Cities: Studies in Regional Social History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Hansen, T. Karen. Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Hansen, T. Karen, and Marija Vaa, eds. Reconsidering Informality; Perspectives from Urban Africa. Uppsala, Sweden: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2004.Find this resource:

Kapchan, Deborah. Gender on the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Lourenco-Lindell, Ilda. Africa’s Informal Workers: Collective Agency, Alliances and Transnational Organizing in Urban Africa. London: Zed, 2010.Find this resource:

MacGaffey, Janet. Entrepreneurs and Parasites: The Struggle for Indigenous Capitalism in Zaire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Overa, Ragnhild. “When Men Do Women's Work: Structural Adjustment, Unemployment and Changing Gender Relations in the Informal Economy of Accra, Ghana.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 45, no. 4 (2007): 539–563.Find this resource:

Pietila, Tuulikki. Gossip, Markets and Gender: How Dialogue Constructs Moral Value in Post-Socialist Kilimanjaro. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Robertson, Claire. Trouble Showed the Way: Women, Men and Trade in the Nairobi Area, 1890–1990. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Sheldon, Kathleen. “From Frenzied Mobs to Savvy Businesswomen: Researching the History of Market Women in Africa.” In Changing Horizons in African History. Edited by Awet Weldemichael, Anthony Lee, Edward Alpers, 241–264. New York: Africa World Press, 2017.Find this resource:


(1.) Sidney Mintz, “Men, Women and Trade,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 13 (1971): 247.

(2.) Gracia Clark, “Introduction: How Gender Works in the Practice of Theory and Other Social Processes,” in Gender at Work in Economic Life, ed. Gracia Clark (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 2003), xv.

(3.) For a parallel exposition of trading roles, see Mimi Wan, “Secrets of Success: Uncertainty, Profits and Prosperity in the Gari Economy of Ibadan, 1992–1994,” Africa 71, no. 2 (2001): 227. More detailed descriptions are found in Karen T. Hansen, Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), chapters 6 and 7 and in Gracia Clark, Onions Are My Husband: Survival and Accumulation by West African Market Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), chapter 4.

(4.) Margaret Priestley, West African Trade and Coast Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 147–149.

(5.) Gloria I. Chuku, “From Petty Traders to International Merchants: A Historical Account of Three Igbo Women of Nigeria in Trade and Commerce, 1886 to 1970,” African Economic History 27 (1999): 1–22.

(6.) Linn Axelsson and Nina Sylvanus, “Navigating Chinese Textile Networks: Women Traders in Accra and Lome“, in The Rise of China and India in Africa, eds. Fantu Cheru and Cyril Obi (London: Zed, 2010), 133–134.

(7.) Akosua Darkwah, “Making Hay While the Sun Shines: Ghanaian Female Traders and Their Insertion into the Global Economy,” in The Gender of Globalization: Women Navigating Cultural and Economic Marginalities, eds. Nandini Gunewardena and Anne Kingsolver (Santa Fe, NM: SAR, 2007), 67.

(8.) Aissatou Diallo, “Yakaar, Dakar-Dubai-Guangzhou: Trajectoire des Commercantes de Dakar,” Revue Tiers Monde 217, no. 1 (2014): 109.

(9.) Jan Beek and Alena Theil, “Orders of Trade: Regulating Accra’s Makola Market,” The Journal of Legal Pluralism and Unofficial Law 49, no. 1 (2017): 34–53.

(10.) Fergus Lyons, “Trader Associations and Urban Food Systems in Ghana: Institutionalist Approaches to Understanding Urban Collective Action,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27, no. 1 (2005): 11–23.

(11.) Aissatou Diallo, Yakaar, 108; and Fergus Lyons, Trader Associations.

(12.) Nina Sylvanus, “Chinese Devils, the Global Market and the Declining Power of Togo’s Nana- Benzes,” African Studies Review 56, no. 1 (2013): 71.

(13.) Gloria Chuku, “From Petty Traders to International Merchants.”

(14.) Margaret Priestley, West African Trade.

(15.) See Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v., the Editors, Dido and Tyre.

(16.) See Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v, the Editors, and

(17.) See Matamba.

(18.) Dorothy Hodgson, Once Intrepid Warriors (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 30; and Jane Guyer, “Introduction: The Currency Interface and Its Dynamics,” in Money Matters: Instability, Values and Social Payments in the Modern History of West African Communities, ed. Jane Guyer (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995), 1–33.

(19.) Kwame Arhin, West African Traders in Ghana in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (London: Longman, 1979), chapter 4.

(20.) Pieter De Marees, Chronicle of the Gold Coast of Guinea (1602), trans. and ed. Albert van Dantzig and Adam Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 44–46, 169.

(21.) Kwame Arhin, West African Traders, chapter 3.

(22.) Ivor Wilks, Asante in the Nineteenth Century: The Structure and Evolution of a Political Order (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1975)

(23.) Ifi Amadiume, Male Daughters and Female Husbands (London: Zed, 1987).

(24.) Caroline Ifeka-Moller, “Female Militancy and Colonial Revolt: The Women’s War of 1929, Eastern Nigeria,” in Perceiving Women, ed. Shirley Ardener (New York: John Wiley, 1975), chapter 5; Judith Van Allen, “‘Aba Riots’ or Igbo ‘Women's War’? Ideology, Stratification and the Invisibility Of Women” in Women in Africa, ed. Nancy Hafkin and Edna Bay (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1975), 59–85; Misty Bastian, “‘Vultures of the Marketplace’: Southeastern Nigerian Women and Discourses of the Ogu Umunwaanyi (Women's War) of 1929,” in Women in African Colonial Histories, ed. Susan Geiger, Nakanyiki Musisi, and Jean M. Allman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), 260.

(25.) Felicia Ekejuiba, “Omu Okwei, The Merchant Queen of Ossomari: A Biographical Sketch,” Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria 3, no. 4 (1967): 633–646.

(26.) Bonlanle Awe, “The Iyalode in the Traditional Yoruba Political System,” in Sexual Stratification: A Cross-Cultural View, ed. A. Schlegal (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), 144–160.

(27.) Elizabeth Eames, “Why the Women Went to War: Women and Wealth in Ondo Town, Southwestern Nigeria,” in Traders Vs. the State, ed. Gracia Clark (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1988), 81–97.

(28.) Mutiat Oladejo, Ibadan Market Women and Politics, 1900–1995 (New York: Lexington, 2016).

(29.) Jane Turrittin, Men, Women and Market Trade in Rural Mali, West Africa. Working Paper No. 114 (East Lansing: Michigan State University, 1986): 4–6; Heidi Nast, “Islam, Gender and Slavery in West Africa Circa 1500: A Spatial Archeology of the Kano Palace, Northern Nigeria,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88, no. 1 (1996): 44–77.

(30.) Polly Hill, “Hidden Trade in Hausaland,” Man 4, no. 3 (1969): 392–409.

(31.) Gracia Clark, Onions Are My Husband.

(32.) Mimi Wan, Secrets of Success; and Mutiat Oladejo, Ibadan Market Women, chapter 5;

(33.) E. Frances White, “Women, Work and Ethnicity: The Sierra Leone Case,” in Women and Work in Africa, ed. Edna Bay (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1982).

(34.) Mary Moran, Civilized Women: Gender and Prestige in Southeastern Liberia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 73.

(35.) Gracia Clark, “Managing Transitions and Continuities in Ghanaian Trading Contexts,” African Economic History 32 (2004): 65–88.

(36.) Ragnhild Overa, “When Men Do Women's Work: Structural Adjustment, Unemployment and Changing Gender Relations in the Informal Economy of Accra, Ghana,” The Journal of Modern African Studies 45, no. 4 (2007): 539–563.

(37.) Mutiat Oladejo, Ibadan Market Women, chapter 5.

(38.) Bonlanle Awe, interview, 1980.

(39.) Elizabeth Schmidt, Mobilizing the Masses: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Nationalist Movement in Guinea, 1939–1958 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004), chapter 5.

(40.) Gracia Clark, “Twentieth Century Government Attacks on Food Vendors in Kumasi, Ghana,” in Street Economies in the Urban Global South, ed. Karen Hansen, Walter Little and B. Lynne Milgram (Santa Fe, NM: SAR, 2013), 29–48.

(41.) Gracia Clark, “Gender and Profiteering: Ghana’s Market Women a Devoted Mothers and ‘Human Vampire Bats’,” in “Wicked” Women and the Reconfiguraton of Gender in Africa, ed. Dorothy Hodgson and Sheryl McCurdy (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001), 293–311.

(42.) Emmanuel Awuah, “Mobilizing for Change: A Case Study of Market Trader Activism in Ghana,” Canadian Journal of African Studies 31, no. 3 (1997): 401–423.

(43.) Katherine Wiley, “Joking Market Women: Critiquing and Negotiating Gender and Social Hierarchy in Kankossa, Mauritania” Africa 84, no. 1 (2014), 101–118; and Deborah Kapchan, Gender in the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), chapter 4.

(44.) Deborah Kapchan, Gender on the Market, chapter 3.

(45.) Katherine Wiley, Joking Market Women.

(46.) Evelyn Early, Baladi Women of Cairo: Playing With an Egg and a Stone (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1993), 43–45, 89–195.

(47.) Claire Robertson, Trouble Showed the Way: Women, Men and Trade in the Nairobi Area, 1890–1990 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 74.

(48.) Meghan Vaughan, The Story of an African Famine: Gender and Famine in Twentieth-Century Malawi (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987), chapter 5.

(49.) Margaret Strobel, Muslim Women in Mombasa, 1890–1979 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), chapter 1.

(50.) Susan Geiger, TANU Women: Gender and Culture in the Making of Tanganyikan Nationalism 1955–1965 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997), 42 and 67.

(51.) Claire Robertson, Trouble, 65–72.

(52.) Trouble, 91.

(53.) Claire Robertson, “Comparative Advantage: Women in Trade in Accra, Ghana and Nairobi, Kenya,” in African Market Women and Economic Power: the Role of Women in African Economic Development, ed. Bessie House-Midamba and Felix Ekechi (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995), 99–119.

(54.) Claire Robertson, Trouble, 102, 128.

(55.) Trouble, 183.

(56.) Tuulikki Pietila, Gossip, Markets, and Gender: How Dialogue Constructs Moral Value in Post-Socialist Kilimanjaro (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), 79–82.

(57.) Donna Kerner, “‘Hard Work’ and Informal Sector Trade in Tanzania” in Traders vs. the State, ed. Gracia Clark, 41.

(58.) Aili Tripp, Changing the Rules: The Politics of Liberalization and the Urban Informal Economy in Tanzania (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 118–119.

(59.) Maud Shimwaayi Muntemba, “Women and Agricultural Change in the Railway Region of Zambia: Dispossession and Counterstrategies,” in Women and Work in Africa, ed. Edna Bay (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1982), 33.

(60.) Mary Osirim, “Trading in the Midst of Uncertainty: Market Women, Adjustment and the Prospects for Development in Zimbabwe,” African Rural and Urban Studies 2, no. 1 (1995): 43–64.

(61.) Jane Parpart, “The Household and the Mine Shaft: Gender and Class Struggles on the Zambian Copperbelt 1926–1964,” Journal of Southern African Studies 13, no. 1 (1986): 36–56.

(62.) Francie Lund, Women Street Traders in Urban South Africa: A Synthesis of Selected Research Findings. CSDS Research Report #15 (Durban, S. Africa: University of Natal, 1998), 19, 29.

(63.) Paul La Hausse, Brewers, Beerhalls and Boycotts (Johannesburg: Raven, 1988).

(64.) Mary Osirim, Trading in the Midst of Uncertainty.

(65.) Francie Lund, Women Street Traders, 27–30.

(66.) Victor Mudziviwa, “Gendered Nature Of Informal Crossborder Trade In Zimbabwe,” Journal of Social Development in Africa 30, no. 1 (2015): 121–146.

(67.) Kathleen Sheldon, “From Frenzied Mobs to Savvy Businesswomen: Researching the History of Market Women in Africa,” in Changing Horizons in African History, ed. Awet Weldemichael, Anthony Lee, and Edward Alpers (New York: Africa World Press, 2017), 241–264.

(68.) Margery Perham, “The South-East: The Aba Riots,“ in Native Administration in Nigeria, by Margery Perham (London: Oxford University Press, 1937); and Sylvia Leith-Ross, African Women: A Study of the Ibo of Nigeria (London: Faber and Faber, 1939).

(69.) Ione Acquah, Accra Survey: A Social Survey of the Capital of Ghana, Formerly Called the Gold Coast, Undertaken for the West African Institute of Social and Economic Research, 1953–1956 (London: University of London Press, 1958); Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain, “Le travail des femmes a Lagos, Nigeria,” Part I: Zaire 5, no. 2 (February 1951): 169–187; and Comhaire-Sylvain, “Le travail des femmes a Lagos, Nigeria,” Part II: Zaire 5 no. 5 (May 1951): 475–502.

(70.) Peter T. Bauer, West African Trade: A Study of Competition, Oligopoly, and Monopoly in a Changing Economy (New York: A. M. Kelley, 1954); Paul Bohannon and George Dalton, eds., Markets in Africa (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1962). Note that this volume appears in an abridged as well as a full version; see also Polly Hill, “Markets in Africa,” Journal of Modern African Studies 1, no. 4 (1963): 441–453.

(71.) Claude Meillassoux, ed., The Development of Indigenous Trade and Markets in West Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971); J. Keith Hart, “Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Development in Ghana,” Journal of Modern African Studies 11 (1973): 61; and Pierre-Philippe Rey, “The Lineage Mode of Production,” Critique of Anthropology 3 (1975): 27.

(72.) Bridget O’Laughlin, “Production and Reproduction: Meillassoux’s femmes, greniers et capitaux,” Critique of Anthropology 2 (1977): 3; and Claire Robertson, “Economic Woman in Africa: Profit-Making Techniques of Accra Market Women,” Journal of Modern African Studies 12 (1974): 657.

(73.) Chris Gerry, “Petty Production and Capitalist Production in Dakar: The Crisis of the Self-Employed,” World Development 6, no. 9 (1978): 1147–1160; Caroline Moser, “Informal Sector or Petty Commodity Production: Dualism or Dependence in Urban Development?” World Development 6 (1978); and Howard Wolpe, ed., The Articulation of Modes of Production; Essays from Economy and Society (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980).

(74.) Gloria Addae, “The Retailing of Imported Textiles in the Accra Market,” Proceedings of the Third Annual Conference of the West African Instititute of Social and Economic Research (Ibadan, Nigeria: University Press, 1956), 51–56; Saburi Bioboku, “Madame Tinubu,“ in Eminent Nigerians of the Nineteenth Century, ed. Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1960), 33–41; and Felicia Ekejuiba, Omu Okwei.

(75.) Niara Sudarkasa, Where Women Work: A Study of Yoruba Women in the Home and the Market. Anthropology Papers 53 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology, 1973); Lillian Trager, “Yoruba Markets And Trade: Analysis of Spatial Structure and Social Organization in the Ijesaland Marketing System” (PhD diss., University of Washington, 1976); Brian Schwimmer, “The Social Organization of Marketing in a Southern Ghanaian Town” (PhD diss., Stanford University, 1976); and Charles Gore, “Food Marketing and Rural Underdevelopment: A Study of an Urban Supply System in Ghana” (PhD diss., Pennsylvania State University, 1978).

(76.) Claire Robertson, Sharing the Same Bowl: A Socioeconomic History of Women and Class in Accra, Ghana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); and Roger L. Sanjek, “Notes on Women and Work in Adabraka,“ African Urban Notes 2, no. 3 (1976): 1–25.

(77.) Janet MacGaffey, Entrepreneurs and Parasites: The Struggle for Indigenous Capitalism in Zaire (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987); and Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain, Femmes de Kinshasa: Hier et Aujourd’hui (Paris: Mouton, 1968).

(78.) A. A. Nyirenda, “African Market Vendors in Lusaka with a Note on the Recent Boycott,” Rhodes-Livingston Journal 22 (1957): 31–63; Anthony Obersall, “Lusaka Market Vendors: Then and Now,” Urban Anthropology 1, no. 1 (1972): 107–123; and Karen T. Hansen, “The Black Market and Women Traders in Lusaka, Zambia,” in Women and the State in Africa, ed. Jane Parpart and Kathleen Staudt (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1989), 143–160.

(79.) Mary Osirim, Trading in the Midst of Uncertainty; and Nancy Horn, Cultivating Customers: Market Women in Harare, Zimbabwe (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1994).

(80.) M. Jean Hay, “Luo Women and Economic Change During the Colonial Period,” in Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change, eds. Nancy Hafkin and Edna Bay (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1976), 87–109; and Claire Robertson, Trouble.

(81.) Nancy Hafkin and Edna Bay, Women in Africa.

(82.) African Urban Notes, Spring 1976 and Fall/Winter 1976/1977.

(83.) Edna Bay, ed., Women and Work in Africa (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1982); and Claire Robertson and Iris Berger, ed., Women and Class in Africa (New York: Africana, 1986).

(84.) E. Frances White, “Creole Women Traders in Sierra Leone, 1792–1945” (PhD diss., Boston University, 1978); E. Frances White, Sierra Leone’s Settler Women Traders: Women on the Afro-European Frontier (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1987); and Mary Moran, Civilized Women: Gender and Prestige in Southeastern Liberia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990).

(85.) Gracia Clark, Onions.

(86.) There is only room here for representative examples of all the following ongoing directions:

For regional analysis see Brian Schwimmer “Periodic Markets and Urban Development in Southern Ghana,” Regional Analysis (1) (1976): 123–145; Charles Gore, Southern Ghanaian Town and Lillian Trager, Yoruba Markets and Trade. For urban studies see Anthony Obersall, “Lusaka Market Vendors, ” the entire special issue of African Urban Notes in 1976; and Kathleen Sheldon, ed., Courtyards, Markets and City Streets (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996).

(87.) See Emily Chamlee-Wright, The Cultural Foundations of Economic Development: Urban Female Entrepreneurs in Ghana (New York: Routledge, 1997); Nancy Horn, Cultivating Customers; Janet MacGaffey, Entrepreneurs and Parasites; Karen T. Hansen and Mariken Vaa, eds., Reconsidering Informality: Perspectives from Urban Africa (Uppsala, Sweden: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2004); and Ilda Lourenco-Lindell, Africa’s Informal Workers: Collective Agency, Alliances and Transnational Organizing in Urban Africa (London: Zed, 2010).

(88.) For globalization see Bessie House-Mudimba and Felix Ekechie, eds., African Women and Janet MacGaffey and Rene Bazenguissa-Ganga, Congo-Paris: Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000). For borderlands studies see Ayodeji Aduloju, “ECOWAS and Free Movement of Persons: African Women as Cross-Border Victims,“ Journal of International Women’s Studies 18, no. 4 (2017): 89–105 and Victor Muzidizma Gendered Nature. For commodity chains, see Karen T. Hansen, Salaula: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia, and Brenda Chalfin, Shea Butter Republic.

(89.) Concerning Chinese influence, see Aissatou Diallo, Yakaar, and Linn Axelsson and Nina Sylvanus, Negotiating Chinese Networks.

(90.) Pieter De Marees, Chronicle of the Gold Coast of Guinea; J. F. Hopkins and Nehemiah Levtzion, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000); K. Konadu, The Akan People: A Documentary History (Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner, 2013). Feminist Press has brought out Women Writing Africa in four regional volumes. Brill Publishing has so far issued five volumes of their massive series Arabic Literature in Africa.

(92.) Two early films that show market women in passing are Jaguar, directed by Jean Rouche (France, Icarus Films, 1967) and Fear Woman (McGraw-Hill 1972) directed by Elspeth MacDougall for United Nations Film Department, New York, NY. Distributed by McGraw-Hill, Asante Market Women, directed by Claudia Milne (London, Granada Television, 1982) features Kumasi Central Market commodity queens. Two complementary videos that focus on the West African wax print trade trace that commodity chain from Europe through Lome to Ouagadougou: K. F. Petersen, God Gave Her a Mercedes Benz (New York: SFINX Film/TV, 1993) and Karin Junger, Mama Benz and the Taste of Money (New York: Filmakers Library, 2002). Claire Robertson’s Second Face: Berida’s Lives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000, VHS) profiles a Nairobi trader in the market and her village home, paired with her life history in the book by Berida Ndambuki, We Only Come Here To Struggle (also Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000). Joanna Grabski’s Market Imaginary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013, DVD) vividly portrays young men trading in Dakar.