Dédé Rose Gamélé Creppy, who has died aged 89, was one of west Africa’s most influential wax cloth traders. She was the youngest, and the last living, “Nana Benz” – the legendary first generation of women cloth traders from Togo.
Wax cloth was a European adaptation of a classic Indonesian batik hand printing technique which created designs using hot wax. Areas of design were blocked out by applying hot wax over them to resist dye. The cloth was introduced to west Africa by Dutch and English textile manufacturers in the late 19th century. Women traders – who became experts at predicting what the market wanted – started feeding design and colour suggestions back to the manufacturers. They were integral to the cloth’s success. The Nana Benzes were particularly skilled at this.
Wax cloth became popular because its colours stood out, it could be easily tailored into stylish outfits for both men and women, the colours are fast – they wouldn’t fade when washed. Its patterns also had messages and broadcast images, from power and politics to beauty and wealth. They could speak to joyful or complex relations between men and women.
The Nana Benzes, a group of about 15 Togolese women, started trading in the wax print. The word “Nana” is a diminutive form of “mother” or “grandmother” and “Benz” is for the Mercedes-Benz cars some of them liked to drive – and which they were able to buy due to their big success.
As an anthropologist, I encountered Maman Creppy – as she was affectionately known – several times during research for my book Patterns in Circulation: Cloth, Gender, and Materiality in West Africa.
Rose Creppy’s story is an incredible one. She was one of Togo’s original Nana Benzes, who created a powerful empire founded on a monopoly over patterns – manufacturers distributed specific patterns only to specific women. A successful Nana could be the unique wholesaler for over 60 patterns, sold to traders from all over the continent.
These design ownership rights, combined with her entrepreneurial savvy and a deep knowledge of regional tastes and style, made Maman Creppy, like other Nana Benzes, a legend throughout west Africa.
Their craft however is sadly in decline. Since the early 2000s production of the cloth has shifted to Chinese factories. Today, no wax comes near the process.
From beads to cloth
Born in the southern town of Aneho on 22 December 1934, Maman Creppy was determined to become a successful entrepreneur. She started her career trading beads imported from Ghana. But, as she recalled in one of our many conversations, “this was hard manual work”. So, once she had acquired a small trading stock, she switched to cloth.
Maman Creppy initially traded in European-produced fancy-prints. These were less onerous to produce and hence cheaper. Africa’s fancy-print textile industry started in the early 1960s and many newly independent countries were using the textile industry to bolster their economies.
As Maman Creppy accumulated more capital, she switched to English wax-prints from Arnold Brunnschweiler & Company (ABC) and later to Dutch wax cloth from Vlisco.
Maman Creppy became a Nana Benz – one of the super-wholesalers of wax cloth. They originally collected the wax cloth from Ghana’s capital, Accra, in the 1940s but, by the late 1950s, shifted the centre of trade to the Lomé market in Togo’s capital. They transformed the Lomé market into a site of economic power and national prestige.
Nana Benzes boom
The heyday of the Nana Benzes was from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Traders flocked to the Lomé market, not only from Abidjan, Accra, Kumasi, Cotonou, Porto-Novo, Onitsha and Lagos, but also from Kinshasa and Libreville.
They benefited from a unique trading position. Trade rules in some post-independence African countries made it hard to trade in the cloth. For instance in Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah’s nationalist-protectionist policies placed high tariffs on imports. This made wax-print imports unprofitable. In Togo, low tariffs made the cloth cheaper. Nana Benzes therefore became a key part of the wax print trade and enabled the Dutch to penetrate other African markets.
The Nana Benzes also had a monopoly over patterns – many of them unique. For instance, they intercepted Yoruba trading networks that operated along the coastal corridor between Lagos and Accra, selling so-called Yoruba and Igbo patterns in specific colourways in Lomé. It was their effective monopoly over pattern rights that garnered the Nana Benzes unparalleled wealth.
The Nana Benzes soon established distribution rights for these classic designs from colonial firms, such as Unilever’s United Africa Company (UAC). In the process, they strengthened ties with European firms. This allowed them to exercise control over an emergent urban cultural economy of taste.
The Nana Benzes had cleverly inserted themselves into the restrictive retailing systems of European trading companies with whom they negotiated exclusive pattern rights to cloth distribution.
Amid changing political regimes, the women consolidated their power and economic interests by creating their own professional organisation in 1965, L’Association Professionelle des Revendeuses de Tissu, a body that negotiated trading policies directly with the state. They agreed on a low-tariff regime that made their Dutch and English cloth imports relatively cheap in comparison to others in the region. In return, they lent their branding power to the state, providing it with a felicitously modern entrepreneurial façade.
The end of the Cold War and the democracy movement that liberalised political and economic spaces had serious consequences for the cloth trade. And for Rose Creppy.
A devaluation of the CFA franc (by 50%) in 1994 turned an everyday consumer good, wax cloth, into a near luxury almost overnight. Until then, wax cloth was available to most. When the price doubled, wax cloth became a luxury good. Many turned to cheaper alternatives, including counterfeits from China.
The liberalisation of the economy in post-Cold War Togo further derailed the Nana Benzes’ trade. The main distributor of wax cloth – Unilever’s United Africa Company – pulled out of the market and the Dutch manufacturer, Vlisco, took over its west African distribution points. This dismantled the system of exclusive retail rights that made the women’s trade profitable.
To add to the demise of the Nana Benzes, Chinese counterfeits entered the market in the early 2000s.
Maman Creppy’s legacy
Until her passing, Maman Creppy remained intimately connected to the market through her daughter, Yvette Sivomey, whom she initiated into the cloth trade in the early 2000s.
Like many of her older peers, Maman Creppy was married but lived independently with her children, whom she would later send to study in France; she owned a property in Lyon. In addition to her entrepreneurial activities, she held a ministerial position at the Lolan royal palace of her native Aneho.
Today a highly successful cloth entrepreneur herself, Sivomey works closely with Vlisco to rediscover and revive old patterns in new colour combinations.
The legacy of Dédé Rose Gamélé Creppy is preserved in her daughter’s work. It is alive and well, woven into the classic wax cloth patterns she co-designed and traded as one of the remarkable Nana Benzes, the women merchants of Togo.