Before colonisation by European powers trade in Somalia was limited to a few local commodities such as ghee, myrrh, ostrich feathers, livestock and gum arabic, and imported items such as rice, dates and clothes. Writing from the period makes no mention of women’s involvement. However, oral sources suggest that some women, mostly elderly widows, accompanied caravans from the interior to the coastal towns to sell ghee, which was regarded as a ‘women’s domain’. With the money thus acquired they would buy dyed yarn – for making a carpet-like material (caws) used in building the nomadic hut – and sell it to other women.

As the economy became more commercially-oriented with the introduction of livestock trade by the British, many people began trading livestock to acquire basic commodities. This was initially in the hands of men. However, given women’s important role in handling livestock products such as ghee, milk and meat, many took this opportunity to start trading in these items in the emerging towns. An observer in 1957 commented:

Shops are concerned mainly with the sale of imported goods, while the open marketplace deals mainly with local produce and is dominated by women. Women bring in milk and ghee daily from the surrounding countryside and sell it in the market. They also sell woven bark containers, mats, rope and string, charcoal and grain, and some poultry and eggs, vegetables and fruit. (Lewis 1957)

Some rural as well as urban women were involved in trade. But they were limited to taking livestock and livestock products to the urban markets, selling them and using the money to buy basic supplies.

Elderly informants told how women, mostly elderly, started trading in sorghum. The sorghum trade increased during the Second World War, when Italy occupied Somaliland and the ports of Berbera and Zeila were closed. Many people were then forced to depend on grain from Ethiopia. Most sorghum traders were women, who took grain from Jigjiga in Ethiopia to sell in Somali towns. Known as qumman (a word connoting rich females) these were the first female traders to accumulate capital and become successful. According to an elderly man who when younger had worked for these women traders:

The sorghum traders were tough women. Each one would hire a truck and two young men to load it. The truck would go straight to the farms, and after the woman had bought the sorghum, the other boy and I would put it in big bags. The women would then sew these and we would load them into the truck. We used to call these women ‘mothers’, because throughout the trip – which usually took four to six days – they fed us out of their own pockets. As soon as the truck reached town, we would unload it and receive our money. The traders had women agents in other places, whom they paid and who sold the sorghum on their behalf. (Author’s research)

At about the same time other women went to Ethiopia to trade in goods such as ornaments, spices, household utensils and onions. These women were known as qararaflay (a word associating the women with the sound the items made upon loading) and were less successful than the sorghum traders. Unlike the sorghum traders, who were wholesalers, the qararaflay sold their goods in the market places.

Age, poverty and marital status were significant in determining which groups of women could normally engage in trade, or in any other sort of income-earning activity. There was a predominance of elderly women, poor women, widows and divorcees among the traders. It was thought to be shameful for young or married women to engage in trading, which requires sitting in public places or mingling with men.

With the establishment of towns and the gradual movement from the pastoral areas to these emerging administrative centres, many women took advantage of the increasing populations in the towns to diversify their trade. The kinds of things sold by women were mostly foodstuffs (traditionally considered a women’s domain), including milk, thin flat pancakes (laxoox), sheep and goat meat, deep-fried minced meat preserved in ghee (muqmad), fats collected from camel bone-marrow, household utensils and vegetables.

In the main, the types of trading done by women do not require a big initial investment, which could explain women’s concentra­tion in these petty activities.2 Another reason could be the practice of buying commodities on credit through kinship networks. My study of market women in 1986 in Mogadishu showed both these factors to be significant in determining women’s income-earning activities.

During the late colonial period the Yemeni port of Aden became an important trading centre, and some Somalis, among them women, migrated there. Most migrant Somali women did domestic work or were employed as incense cleaners. Some later used their earnings to trade between Aden and Somali towns. Other women living in the then British Somaliland would travel to Aden to trade. According to an ex-resident of Aden during the 1930s, they took gold and clothes from Aden and on their return home sold them to neighbours, or in the case of clothes, to retailers. From Somali towns they took ghee, dried minced meat and honey, to sell to the large Somali community in Aden.

The period following the Second World War saw progress and economic options for many men, and for a small number of women too. Soon after the British recaptured the country from Italy, in 1941, the authorities exempted people from taxes for six months, facilitat­ing increased trade and diversifying the commodities brought into the country.3 The post-war period was a significant era in northern Somali entrepreneurialism and in the build-up of economic resources.