Gender is Open for Business

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Ayodeji Rotinwa
Nokia has lost an asset to shoe racks and wardrobes across Nigeria. In 2014, after working the customary hours of 9am – 5pm at the multinational communications and IT company, Idongesit Harrison would resume at another duty post – this one, hers – a footwear production space where she created by hand and machine: shoes, slippers, accessories for men, women and children. The side career in shoe manufacturing had been a long time in coming, started in 2005 by an inclination to recreate a pair of slippers her mother had bought. She then trained with a cobbler for a few weeks, thereafter deciding that she could make higher quality and more original goods from what she had learnt. She did.

In 2014, she quit her job with Nokia. In the same year, she won a business ideas competition and was awarded a N2 illion Naira grant and free training at Nigeria’s best executive business education facility – Pan Atlantic University. In two years, with all her hours now hers to put into her shoe production company, Idong Harrie Limited, she grew her business to the point where it was ready to expand. She had always however had a confidence deficit when it came to accessing loans, seeking and trusting investment, capital. Her books were also not out of the reddespite her high inflow of revenue. She turned to the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Road to Women’s Business Growth initiative, ‘designed to empower women entrepreneurs grow their enterprises through financial and business skills training.’

Founded in 2008 by Cherie Blair, a British barrister, lecturer and wife of the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Tony Blair, the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women is a charity that seeks to help women like Harrison in emerging markets all over the world strengthen their capability, confidence and access to capital where they lack equal opportunities. Its work has been cut out in Nigeria since it started operations four years ago. According to the 2015 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, which covers amongst others, economic participation and opportunity, Nigeria ranks 125th out of 145 major and emerging economies measured. According to Cherie Blair and Sevi Simavi, C.E.O. of the Foundation, with regard to financial inclusion for women, Nigeria has one of the biggest gender gapsin Sub-Saharan Africa with women earning 23% less than their male counterparts and only 34% of women having access to bank accounts compared to 54% of men.

The Foundation’s attempts to contribute to close this gap in Nigeria started out modestly, albeit employing an increasingly familiar tool to solve global problems – technology. The Foundation launched an SMS-based learning resource titled ‘Business Women’ that delivered key business tips and hints to about 70,000 women owners of small and micro businesses. It was during this project the Foundation came to realise that there were bigger problems to be addressed. “Wefound that women with medium to large businesses also needed support – accessing capital and building more hardcore business skills to drive growth in the economy; women who are job creators in the market – they are not just benefitting themselves but giving opportunities to others in the community,” Simavi explains.

And so – with funding from the ExxonMobil Foundation- the Road to Women’s Business Growthinitiative was born. Before kick-starting, the Foundation with its partners carried out research to assess the needs of women owners of SMEs in Nigeria. The research found that the women need a greater understanding of a range of finance aspects to help manage and grow their businesses which 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.

The Foundation banks on technology and training to meet these needs and has since partnered with three different organizations to provide these two solutions: Diamond Bank, to provide specialist advice on financial services, and fill knowledge gaps to access to capital, loans, insurance, credit; Emerging360[EH1] , a American capacity-building consultancy firm to provide a bespoke online learning tool and the Enterprise Development Centre of the Pan-Atlantic University to provide in-class training on business skills and financial literacy.

The programme which has a rigorous selection criteria including: having a business in a high-growth area, annual turnover of N3 – N20 million and evidence of turning profit for more than two years;has so far trained 500 women across Lagos, Uyo and Abuja – selected from 3,000 applications – and a high-performing 100 of them will be selected for tailored business training and mentoring for six months. Their training was delivered through an innovative blended approach which allowed “the training to fit into the women’s lives, rather than the women fitting into the training,” Simavi says. The women were trained for six weeks, two weeks out of which were in class and the four via the online product created by Emerging360 with multimedia features which allowed women to learn through videos, case studies, peer-to-peer networking, and at their own pace, on their own time.

The training is already delivering returns. Dr. Maymunah Kadiri, a participant and Psychiatrist-in-Chief of Pinnacle Medical Services, a health and wellness business through new lessons learnt in financial projections and targets which she has passed on to her 20-staff strong team is thinking out of the box to find new clients, increase admission numbers. For monthly counselling and therapy patients she has seen the number increase from 3 in 2015, to 26 since she partook in the project.

Udoka Ahubelem-Nwosu, C.E.O. of Eudoka Multisolution Limited, a beauty products and services company has been able to build an accountability system in her business which was previously non-existent. She has been able to increase her profit turnover by remitting every amount earned into the company’s account which she didn’t do before. She leans on the network of women who attended the classes with her as an informal advisory board / consulting for day-to-day operational problems that arise in her business.

She projects that she will expand across the country by 2021. Idong Harrison has shored up her confidence deficit and will apply for bank loans, seek investment. In the meantime her quarterly profit has increased by 20% and she plans to hire more staff, upgrade facilities from a small production space to a manufacturing factory. Nokia’s ‘loss’will gain jobs, earning power It is building industry. It may even allow for more than a few happy feet.