What will you buy as a man if you accidentally find yourself in a women-only market?
This was the situation Wani Joseph, a regular at Regency Hotel in Juba, South Sudan's capital city, found himself in on November 26, 2022.
He had arrived to eat and have a drink at the hotel's restaurant like he does on weekends. But this very Saturday, most human traffic inside the hotel headed towards a hall next to the reception instead of the restaurant and the bar. Prying, he followed the crowd and found himself in an exhibition hall.
The 30 by 40-metre vast hall was organised spaciously with a display table for each woman to exhibit her products, a chair for her and her clients, and extra salespersons.
Like a stage-less ballroom, there was a mixture of colourful lighting and exhibited products ranging from handmade wares like baskets to groceries to juice to cakes to boutiques and fragrances - all sold by women.
After glancing left and right, Joseph walked to a table of two girls in their early teens by a crowded craft corner.
"How much is this?" he asked, pointing to a well-packed fancy cake. "5000 South Sudanese Pounds (about $6)," one of the girls responded.
Impulsively, he signalled for two. After the purchase, he exited the hall, facing his head downward in a mix of disappointment. He had followed others into the hall, thinking it was a party or entertainment event.
But for the women selling here, the hall and the exhibition represent freedom and independence.
'Ambushed… from every corner'
Until three years ago, most of the women selling in this exhibition used to sell their wares under small umbrella shades along the main road leading to Nyakuron Market in Juba because they could not afford stalls in the market. Life and business were fairly good until the city council started extorting and brutalising the women heavily under the pretext of keeping the streets clean.
"We persevered with the daily collection until they changed their tact. They will ambush us from every corner, with no escape route," said Eva Ayen, a 28-year-old mother of two who sells fruit juice at the exhibition.
"They will ferry us like criminals with our stocks to the police station. We are detained until we pay exorbitant fees that sometimes exceed our operating capital, thus forcing most of us out of business."
Running down these women's businesses gravely impacts the country's general economy. According to the only available data from the World Bank, South Sudanese women in small businesses constitute 60% of the country's workforce.
To the rescue
In November 2020, Babra Akita, a budding entrepreneur in her early 40s with a focus on clothing, witnessed firsthand the brutality of the city council officers on underprivileged women, which made her sad.
"I could not believe my eyes when I saw a city council officer cum bouncer throwing the stocks of these women in their pick-up trucks, with no regard for if they get spoiled or not, yet most were perishable goods," she said.
Akita, who also started her boutique business from scratch, then vowed to do something to help the women.
"I discussed it with my friends, Ajak Kuol and Sarah Nyibak, on how they could help these hard-working and enterprising women who lack access to markets," she said.
The three friends then resolved to create a market for the women who could not pay for shops and license fees.
"The main idea was to train them on entrepreneurship. After that, unite them through the exhibition such that they can network and market each other's products or business to friends and potential clients," Akita told Prime Progress.
They secured an exhibition hall inside the Regency Hotel's main conference hall, a venue they had chosen anticipating patronage from its high-end clients.
"We agreed on a co-pay system. We raised the capital to hire the hall and charge the women 10000 South Sudanese Pounds ($20 that time) for the two days of exhibition," Akita said.
Next, they informed the women that instead of facing harassment and paying council officials exorbitantly, they could exhibit their wares at the exhibition every last weekend (Saturday and Sunday) of every month and get patronage from high-paying customers.
The first two-day exhibition was held in January 2021, but the turnout was way below expectations.
"With only 21 female entrepreneurs registered till the last days before the exhibition, we were left with no choice other than holding the exhibition and counting our losses later," Akita said. "Despite the proper social media publicity and the use of foot soldiers (door-to-door volunteers), most women were reluctant, for we didn't realise the cost was a challenge to many would-be-women exhibitors."
But help came. "Luckily, some expatriates cum customers liked the idea and offered to pay for the next few months. This helped us remove the exhibition fees, thus a more than threefold increase in participants to 75 in the second month," she explained.
The number shot to above 100 in subsequent months, and the hall at Regency Hotel kept getting smaller by the month.
These days, the hall is full of shoppers comprising the middle class and a handful of expatriates, including the hotels' clients, and the number of women registering to exhibit their products keep rising.
"I haven't missed any of the exhibitions since my first one in March 2021," said Ayen, now one of the beneficiaries of the exhibition initiative. "There are times I will go back home with over $100 in profit in the two days of the weekend. It's not enough for all the needs of my family, but it keeps us going,"
And words about the exhibition have travelled beyond South Sudan, according to Akita.
"We are currently getting orders for exhibitions from female South Sudanese entrepreneurs from the neighbouring countries who want to participate. In the long run, we are looking at an open ground to cater for a bigger number where we only pay for tents and security, though we are still discussing with relevant authorities," she Akita.
As some people have suggested, Akita and her team also intend to expand to South Sudanese states outside the capital. But there are challenges.
"Unlike in the city where we rushed straight to the exhibition, in the states, we will have to first train them on entrepreneurship, and for now, we are understaffed," she explained, adding that the second challenge is bringing the women together, plus the conditions and cost involved for securing exhibition locations could sometimes be strenuous out-of-reach.
"In Juba, we used social media platforms to inform women about the upcoming exhibition and related marketing activities. We also have a team (foot soldiers) that moves to the rural women who do not have access to social media to sensitise them on the need to take part. And the use of radio has also brought many on board. [But in the states], there is little to no access to the internet," said Akita.
This story was produced with the support of Nigeria Health Watch through the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.