Nigerian Women In History

A Brief History Of Omu Okwei – The Woman Who Built Chain Of Businesses In The 19th Century

   

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Born Felicia Ifeoma Ekejiuba in 1872, her father Prince Osuna Afubeho was a wealthy warrior.

As a girl-child, her mother knew Okwei would inherit nothing of her father’s properties,  she made sure her daughter had a good knowledge in trade so that she would be able to provide for herself.

When Okwei was nine years old , she was sent to her maternal aunt in the Igala tribe to learn a trade. At that time, the Igala language was very important for trade, and during her apprenticeship, Okwei learned both the language and how to transact business. By the time she returned home, she was successfully trading in food products.

In 1889, she got married to an influential brass trader but her family disapproved by not taking her brideprice. Less than a year later, she divorced her husband.

Before she divorced her husband, Okwei started a lucrative business in palm oil trading, using her husband’s business connections to build her business.

In 1895, she got married again, and went into business with her mother in law. By 1904, when Okwei dissolved her partnership with her mother in law , she became an agent of the Royal Niger Trading Company.

Okwei continued to grow her business as she engaged in clay and iron goods. She also grew her network of trade contacts by marrying off her maids and foster daughters to European shop owners, translators, and government officials.

When the palm oil industry collapsed during World War1, Okwei changed her trade focus from selling palm oil to selling ivory and coral beads. She exported and sold ivory, and also gathered a large selection of ceremonial ivory jewelry which she rented out for a profit.

In 1918, when the ticket system was abolished, Okwei set up a business as a money changer, as well as a money lender.

She also owned many houses, some of which she rented out. She provided business loans to local businesswomen, and invested in her local market. Her vast wealth also made it possible to import goods directly from England.

She was given the title of omu (queen) of the Osomari (Osomari is in the present day Anambra state)in August 1935. In the traditional dual-sex government, the omu was co-equal to the king, overseeing women’s needs and settling disputes.

She was elected Market Queen, Chairwoman of the Council of Mothers after amassing a fortune. She was the last merchant queen before the British replaced the Council of Mothers’ traditional role supervising retailing.

Okwei died in 1943 in Onitsha, Nigeria.

 

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