As the world celebrates International Women’s Day tomorrow, Solomon Elusoji writes about two non-profit organisations dedicated to enhancing the economic profile of Nigerian women

In 2007, Orode Ryan-Okpu visited Nigeria and realised that there was a widespread unawareness about breast cancer. She was worried. Some years back, she had lost a very close Aunt to the terminal disease. So, she had a first-hand knowledge of cancer’s creeping nature and how a single piece of information could be the difference between life and death.
“I would ask people what is breast cancer and they would just be looking at me,” Ryan-Okpu says. “So I knew I had to do something.”

She decided to organise a concert to raise money and a seminar to raise awareness. The plan was to do just that one concert and seminar, donate the proceeds to a medical mission, and call it a day. But there would be no “call it a day”. The first time out, Ryan-Okpu reminisces, they had a population of over a thousand people at the seminar. “And I was like ‘okay, I would do just one more.’”

Her “just one more” cancer concert and seminar would morph into the Pink Pearl Foundation, a non-profit that is dedicated to providing high-quality breast and cervical cancer, screening and diagnostic services for women who are disadvantaged. Since 2007, the organisation has now done over 80 concerts across Nigeria and screened over 20,000 women.
“But there was one complain that we got regularly from the women we screened,” Ryan-Okpu says. “These women, everywhere we went, always complained that they couldn’t do screenings because they didn’t have money.”

The ubiquitous complaint soon became another cause for worry for Ryan-Okpu and she decided she was going to do something about it. In 2011, she decided she was going to set up a school where women could come to and learn bankable skills like make-up, hair styling, catering, and digital media, tailoring, fashion, industrial production, bead-making and catering. But she didn’t implement that decision until 2013, when she finally decided to take the plunge, propped up by her personal savings.
“When I started the company wasn’t even registered,” she says, “the first set of women came from my mother’s fellowship; our first training was at a hall where my mum does her fellowship. It was a random thing.”

But the randomness soon became something solid. By the time she called for the second set of trainees, with an original plan of empowering 80 women, hundreds of women showed up. The number would inspire Ryan-Okpu to strive to expand the training programme, but what deepened her resolve more, was the stories of the women.
“There was one whose husband had left her for the past nine years with three kids,” Ryan-Okpu says. “Then there was the woman who was driven out of her home after her husband died. At the time she came for our training, she and her daughter were staying under a bridge in Asaba.”

In Nigeria, women are not expected to be economic champions. The place of women in the nation’s culture is within a social framework, the family. In recent times, harsh economic times and western education have forced more women into the marketplace, competing favourably with their male counterparts, but, in terms of economic opportunities and privileges available to women, the shadow of patriarchy continues to loom.

In 2016, Ryan-Okpu’s Rubies Vocational School (the name bestowed on her women school) will partner with another non-profit organisation, SME 100, to train 1,000 women in various skills, ranging from agriculture to catering to make-up.
“Rubies Training School is into capacity building, so we looked at it and realised we could do so much more together, we could train 1000 women in one year,” the Chief Executive Officer of SME 100, Charles Odii, tells THISDAY.
SME100 Nigeria is geared towards supporting and stimulating entrepreneurship in Nigeria amongst women and young people. And they do this by providing access to finance, access to market, capacity development, mentorship and networks. The company is named SME 100 because of the disturbing statistics that show that 70 per cent of small businesses die in their first two years in Nigeria. And they think that these companies die because they are not 100 per cent ready to triumph in the Nigerian economy.

“So, we are presenting these SMEs to be 100 per cent ready for the market,” Odii says.
Odii’s passion for accelerating businesses is borne out of a personal experience. Some 10 years ago, while he was studying at Covenant University, Ota, he started a fashion business. But despite getting some recognition for his work, the business could not survive for lack of cash and necessary skills.
“There were no networks to go to, no communities to refer to, no mentors, no focus group sessions, nothing at all,” Odii says.

He would later go on to acquire a Masters degree, relevant working experience and enrol into a PhD programme, before starting SME 100, with a mission to help small businesses avoid the pitfalls that doomed his little venture 10 years ago.
“I won’t allow other entrepreneurs to go through the same 10 years to be able to know how to run a business successfully without having a network to come to for help,” he says.

On his partnership with Ryan-Okpu to train 1000 women in 2016, Odii says he wants to see more women play a significant role in the nation’s economy. A lot of economists have long argued that societies who stifle the entrepreneurial creativity of women never grow faster than societies who allow such creativity to flourish. Odii subscribes to that school of thought.
“We are looking at a situation whereby the industry will not be dominated by males,” he says.
And the partnership is looking to key into the International Women’s Day tomorrow to launch the train-1000-women programme. On March 9, they will organise a conference with the theme “Pledge for Parity” at the Civic Centre in Lagos.

“The conference is just like an avenue to rub minds together,” Ryan-Okpu says. “What we are really focused on is moving past that conference and training these women in their different skill-sets. So, for us, this conference is to tell people that in 2016 this is what we are doing – to train a thousand women and invite everybody to come on board. We also want to use the conference to launch the training programme.”
The Chairperson of Access Bank Plc., Mrs. Mosun Belo-Olusoga and the Chairman of Better Life for Rural Women in Nigeria, Hajjiya Aisha Babangida, will be speakers at the one-day conference.
Apart from Belo-Olusoga and Babangida, other eminent speakers expected to grace the conference include the Senior Special Adviser to the President on Foreign Affairs, Hon. Abike Dabiri-Erewa, the Editor of New Telegraph Newspaper, Mrs. Funke Egbemode, the Founder of Women in Technology, Ms. Oreoluwa Somolu-Lesi, and many others.
There are no criteria for participating in the conference; everyone is invited to the gathering, which will focus on politics, technology and agriculture, three sectors that women need to start playing a bigger role in.

But the different training programmes will have to be applied for. Depending on the type of skill, applicants might be asked to pay a token. But the organisers say what will be paid will be little, compared to the results that would be achieved. The little payments are made possible by the training partnerships that have been entered into. For example, the baking training will be done in collaboration with Nuts About Cake, while the make-up training will involve the House of Tara. For the agricultural training, an agricultural institute in Shangai has extended its hand of fellowship.

Ryan-Okpu’s dream is coming true. Her ultimate plan is to have a physical structure for her school, where training classes can take place and more women can be empowered. For her, everything is about empowerment.
“It’s all about being empowered,” she says. “I don’t believe that if you are a career woman, you should disregard your home. I don’t preach that. I believe that you can still hold your ground doing both. I’m a mother of two and I run businesses. The men can’t do it alone, so we need women to be in different sectors, to be able to rebuild our economy. I encourage women to work and get empowered. You don’t even have to step out of your house nowadays to begin a business.”