Cherie Blair

INTERVIEW

Cherie Blair is the wife of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair and founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, an organisation she set up in 2008 to help women build small and growing businesses in developing and emerging markets. She spoke to Chika Amanze-Nwachuku during the International Women’s Day celebration in Lagos about the barriers facing female entrepreneurs globally, how her foundation helps women grow and expand their businesses, as well as the Road to Growth project, an initiative that has worked with 500 women entrepreneurs in Nigeria to enable them grow sustainable and successful businesses. Excerpts:

Can we meet you?
I am Cherie Blair, the founder of Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s, from London.

What informed your decision to float this Foundation for Women? Apart from empowering women to be financially independent, do you handle violence against women, which is a major impediment to women’s mental health and development?
Well I think that was a mixture of things, It’s partly my history is a woman of business and myself because I am a lawyer and self – employed; perhaps I think I have always been my boss. I have always actually wanted to run a business myself, partly because in my history, my mom and my grandmother because they brought me up, they very much want to meet you be financially independent. Again after spending 10 years in Downing Street and having a front row seat on history, I wanted to do something positive with what I had learned from that amazing experience. One of the things that struck me most when I had the privilege of travelling around both the United Kingdom and the wider world was that we still haven’t got equality for women in absolute terms anywhere in the world. I wanted to help change that and really make a difference to other women – and I settled on the idea of financial independence because I truly believe that a woman who can make her own money can make her own choices – about her life and the lives of her children. By giving women the tools to become financially independent, we can help them play a full role in their economies and societies.
Studies have shown that when you empower a woman, you empower an economy, and indeed a nation. This is because women invest 90 per cent of their income back into their families and communities, which benefits both their immediate society and the wider economy.
We work with IFC, which is part of World Bank in east Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, where we do programme on women entrepreneurs, women in business and I went in 2006 to launch into this programme and I felt this is such a good programme, they should do it more with other women, that was where I got the idea.
My foundation doesn’t specifically focus on violence against women – but I support other charities, which support victims of domestic violence. Financial independence can also help women escape from violent partners – many women find it difficult to leave abusive partners because they have no money of their own.

Getting access to finance especially for low income earners and women at the bottom of the pyramid is difficult. How would your foundation help women who don’t have financial paperwork and collateral to access loans?
You are so right about this question. When we set up the Foundation, we were looking at what we called the 3Cs: capacity, confidence and capital, that is- helping women to be more confident, helping women have the skills with capacity to run their businesses and giving them access to capital. And pretty earlier, I realised that access to capital is the most difficult for us to manage and because of that I realised that if you can help women get access to capital, you have to adopt a two pronged approach. The first approach was that you have to advocate for their right, it is important women have their right places because across the world, actually, women have difficulties; they have difficulties because bank loans require independent collaterals, collateral means owning their own land even if they do, they may not have the paperwork; so how do you encourage banks to see women as a good investment and not a big risk. So across the world, what we do is to actually talk about these things, advocate and help do research.
On the other hand, what we do is to prepare the women so that they know the language; if you like, they know the right thing to say, they know the right things to write, so when the bank comes with their criteria for loan, they take the right boxes. And these things are instinctive and there for you but if you have somebody to help you. It speaks like when you do exam actually, you know people, they could teach you, will help you understand how you will answer the questions to get most points and that’s exactly the sort of thing we are doing in this schools, in fact it is helping women draw up business plan, do cash flow projections; I can tell you standing there talk with some of the women, how many of them said you have helped them, they are doing their own business, learning how to do cash flows projections because the cash flow projections help them see where the blockages were in their business, where they were wasting money, where they needed to stop for example, giving people credit. One of the ladies was saying to me, she realised 25 per cent of her customers didn’t actually pay and so she now takes a deposit before she is just making it and that has decreased the number of people who don’t pay. So this is so to say just taking some time to study that and learn about it, it really helps improve women’s business spirit.
The other thing we do is we work with banks so we try to encourage them to see women as assets, not as liabilities. Unfortunately many banks and financial institutions are reluctant to invest in women because they see women –owned businesses as ‘risky’ – because they are often informal in nature and micro in scale. We work hard to try and change these attitudes.
One of the controversial things is how to get more women into banking itself, have more women in the workforce; for many women going into a bank to take bank loans, is because only 20 percent of the financial industry is female, this is a very male dominated profession and with the male’s traditional attitude, then it can get more difficult. There is a lot of work to do for that.
In Rwanda for example, we organised a field trip for bank staff to meet women customers in rural areas so they could see for themselves that these women had pertinent questions about personal finance and that their need was real.
We encourage banks to: Increase their product range to include products specially designed for women, as we as providing flexible and longer repayment periods on loans; Allow all types of assets to be used as collateral for loans, including both tangible and intangible assets such as patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade names; Apply specialised interest rates for women-owned SMEs, preferably a single digit interest rate for small loans; Engage directly with women, for example by setting up regular SME-banking events for women entrepreneurs.
The good news is that there are some progressive banks out there – Diamond bank, for example, offers a wide range of products for women and are keen to serve more women running small and medium sized enterprises.

What level of research has your organisation done to uncover the limitations and barriers hindering women from banking?

Research is very important. What we tried and do with all our programmes is first of all we do some research where they are needed, because I don’t want to just do what other people are already doing, we want to try and add value.
So we look on research very well where there are some gaps and somebody could help, then we tend to test out some of our ideas, and then have those ideas assessed by independent people to see whether they work and not just me saying they work and then we like to publicise our research not only to show we can do more of the work but so we can encourage others to get into this area because there’s a great need and not one person can do it.
There’s huge body of research out there, which has been tracking the barriers to women’s financial inclusion. Over one million worldwide still don’t have access to a basis bank account – that’s over one billion women who don’t have a safe or secure way to save, invest, spend or borrow money. As part of the Road to Growth initiative, we carried out our own research to assess the needs of women business owners in Nigeria related to financial literacy and access to finance, the research concluded that women entrepreneurs need a greater understanding of a range of finance aspects to help manage and grow their businesses. This includes improved skills in issues such as managing cash flow, undertaking market analysis, determining financial needs, choosing financial products and understanding loan processes and requirements.
Women make up the majority of unbanked population around the world because they face additional barriers to accessing capital: Women often lack access to the collateral needed to secure loans, given social and legal restrictions around inheritance and land ownership rights; women entrepreneurs tend to have less experience with banking institutions and can therefore lack the confidence to approach a bank.
Banks generally consider women-owned businesses to be higher-risk as these enterprises operate mostly in the informal sector and are usually micro in scale; Banks regard women entrepreneurs as less attractive because they may lack proper records/documents as a result of poor financial literacy/management. They may think women are bad investments.
Also, banks can be intimidating because they are male dominated environment and finally there is this idea that they may be a higher risk and this is often associated with the fact that there are more small businesses, there are more women concentrated in small, micro and medium size businesses and so the more we can help women grow and expand their businesses, they will become not just small to medium, but medium to large and we are also helping them with their entrepreneurial skill, employ other people and everybody benefits from that.

Would your organisation conduct training programmes for these women?
We do, I seriously believe in partnership, I think we can do so much more together, then I can do on my own, that’s why we work with partners. The programmes that we do, we have a particular skill set in women business and entrepreneurial training, but we deliver that working with our partners. So it is not my ambition to have big branches like the Street Life Foundation for Women in Nigeria; employing lots of people in Nigeria, I will much rather work with local partners who are already doing it. For example here in Nigeria, we work with technology organization, in one of our other projects we did, we are working here in cooperation with an enterprising centre, so that way, we build up programmes…. just have to follow international standard and there are rules about cash flows and other things, but as well as that it just have to follow the Nigerian standard; so if you work with local partner, you are going to get the local content right, that is what we do and then we also of course work in partnership with organisations like ExxonMobil Foundation, which gives us the money and they helping with a number of projects – four years five years, we’ve been working with them; then we have partnership with banks, also with the mobile money, we also have with MTN in Nigeria here, and also partnership with Visa Inc., so we believe in working in partnership.

Approximately how many women has your organisation helped to become financially independent?

Overall in the last seven years, we have reached over 125,000 women in 80 different countries. Now why is that, one of the reasons is actually a 100,000 women are about Nigerian women, and that is because of our Mobile Phone programme and the ExxonMobil, which did this programme called the Business Women App, which focuses in intensive course, it wasn’t a higher level, it is this course we are doing now with 500 women – targeted tips and practical advice for starting and running successful businesses, teaching market women about how to improve their businesses and it is free service; it lasts for a year, and we ‘ve reached 100,000 women and 20,000 men with that project. So that was one of the ways we reached them.
Why they were saying we were in 80 countries; that is because we can use technology with our global mentoring platform. We have our mentoring platform exist purely on the web and in that mentoring platform, we match our mentees with mentors, men and women across the world. Remember we have twelve hundred people on the web for which for a year, we mentor for about two hours a month to help women entrepreneurs in the countries and because it is on the web, it is not tied to any particular country, we work with local partners across the world, who are already doing this training and this offers the opportunity for some of their graduates to come to the programme to get additional support so that’s why we can have things like a woman in Tanzania being supported by a mentor in Greece or we can have a woman in India mentoring a business woman in Kenya or we can have a Swedish woman, may be in Spain who is in whole Hair or Make-up business, mentoring a woman in Kaula Lumpur, who has a Hair Dressing business.

Culture and religion play very vital roles first in Nigeria and the rest of Africa, and most women lag behind today because they are relegated to the background, are not educated or even allowed to be financially independent. Do you see this as a challenge? What does your foundation do to turn things around for women on the continent?

Absolutely, it is a challenge and tragedy as well; and it is not just a personal tragedy for those individual girls but a main tragedy for their countries as well, because all the research shows that $28 trillion could be added to the world economy and if women have the same economic opportunity as men and yet we still hold our girls back. And what do we do about that, I hundred percent support all the efforts to keep girls in education and to allow girls not only to have primary education but secondary and tertiary education as well. I also welcome many women, who missed out on those opportunities because you can’t send them back to school; you can’t turn them back into school, they are mothers and they have responsibilities, some of them may be even grandmother that is why I feel what we do within our entrepreneur programme is important because what we are talking about is practical vocation training, which helps women catch up on the skill, which may be, they didn’t get when they were younger. Definitely, Turkey refused to accept that just because a women is 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 even, she cannot carry on learning and growing and doing new things.

What do you think about Nigerian women?
I think Nigerian women are fantastic, when you see how strong they are… …can I say the women were confident, they knew they were going somewhere. They don’t get enough credit, yet they were well driven. They can be formidable force…..and I feel they are a lot of blessing.

How do you feel about your humble background?
I feel very well so proud; I often think how lucky I was; I was a child, and grandchild, because if I had been born and my grandmother was born in 1903, would I have these opportunities and if I had been born and my mum was born in 1933, would I have these opportunities, the fact that I was born when I was, which was in 1954, I was so lucky to be born where I was, when I was, at the time when opportunities started opening up for women, I was lucky, God is good. I was able to make use of those opportunities, but I sometime think, gosh! my grandmother was a formidable woman, if she had my opportunities, what would she have done?.