Comfort Oseghale highlights how Intels Nigeria Limited is empowering Nigerian women through its empowerment programme

The third of seven children, 19-year-old Glory Aberepikima has just been accepted into the Women Empowerment Programme Scheme Synergy at Onne, Rivers State. A native of Okirika, Glory has been unable to further her education since the completion of her West African Senior School Certificate Examination.

Since her father’s death, the family has barely sustained itself with the meagre earnings from her mother’s petty trading. However, things began to change for the family when WEPSS was introduced into their lives. This is because Glory’s two older sisters are also beneficiaries of WEPSS. An initiative of INTELS Nigeria Limited, WEPSS began in 2013, with the vision of empowering 5,000 community women over a 20-year period through training in fashion design and tailoring.

Aberepikima said: “My eldest sister first enrolled for the programme in 2016. She is the only university graduate in the family but she was unable to get a job after graduation. Luckily for her, she did so well after the completion of the training programme, that she was given a sewing machine. With that, she has rented a shop and is now taking care of herself.

“The following year, my second eldest sister also enrolled for the programme and was shortlisted. She too completed it successfully but did not win a sewing machine. With the skill she has acquired though, she is working for another tailor and hopes to further her education with her earnings. I am the third person in my family to undergo this training and it means a lot to me that I scaled through the selection process.”
Aberepikima is one of the 125 young women out of 700 applicants who were chosen for this training. Many like Aberepikima come from similar backgrounds; financially handicapped, yet with big dreams hoping for a stroke of luck that would change their fortunes.

One can imagine Aberepikima’s happiness when she got the call that she had been shortlisted for the written test. She said, “When I saw the number of persons who came to write the test, I was worried. My confidence grew though when I was called back for the interview. My mothers and sisters really encouraged me to put in my best. My mother in particular was really excited for me. I not only want to acquire the tailoring skill; I also want to win a sewing machine. It is very important to me that I do; if I can be self-employed, then perhaps I can make enough money with the skill I have learned and return to school.”

Imenifa Pepple is another young lady who found herself at home unable to proceed further than her secondary school education. With a retiree father and petty trader mother, Pepple had to start fending for herself to support her family. In the one year she spent at home, she tried teaching and poultry farming. Unfortunately for her, most of the savings she invested into poultry farming was lost after the chicken were hit with a disease. So when she got the news about WEPSS training, Pepple jumped at the chance. After all she was at home, doing nothing.

She said, “I completed my secondary school education over a year ago. I could not go any further because the funds were simply not there. Instead of sitting idly at home, I worked at some jobs and tried several businesses. When I discovered teaching wasn’t for me, I went into poultry farming. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out well. Last month, a friend suggested I go for WEPSS training and I jumped at the opportunity.

“I got a call from a WEPSS staff and later received a text invitation for the test. On the day of the test, we all gathered at the gate, before being called into the canteen batch by batch for the test. We were then told we would get feedback for the next stage. I went back home that day. The following day I was informed that I had passed the test. I felt lucky to be called for the second test because some ladies were unsuccessful. After scaling through that, we were told we would be called upon for a one on one interview. For the interview we met with two Directors of the centre. One director would interview one girl. After a few weeks of waiting, I was finally called to come for the training. That I was among the selected candidates felt like an honour.

“Right now, I just want to go through the training before I make up my mind about my career path. Although I would still like to further my education, I might switch over to tailoring and fashion design if the training goes well. What is uppermost in my mind is acquiring a skill that would be useful to me in the long run.”

It was Pepple’s and Aberepikima’s first day at the WEPSS Centre and like the other successful applicants, they were excited. Being the first day, the girls would go through an orientation process which would entail filling personal data and bank information, taking blood pressure tests, getting their WEPSS identity card done, selection of lockers, introduction to the trainers and sewing machines, getting their sewing aprons and name tags. Being that an arduous process, the blood pressure test ensures that trainees are healthy and fit for the training. Trainees found to be afflicted with high blood pressure are informed and then monitored by WEPSS staff just to make sure they take good care of their health.

Held once every six months, the selection process begins with a written test, after which an oral interview is conducted. Applicants who successfully scale through the oral interview are then penciled down for the training. It is a competitive process because so many applicants vie for a few slots. The possibility of winning an electric industrial sewing machine also makes the training more attractive and sought after.

However, Head of the Centre, Abhina Ajamni, is quick to caution the girls not to direct their focus on the sewing machine prize. She stresses that acquiring the skill is much more important. “It is so competitive that you have women who are skilled tailors actually applying for this training because they want to win a sewing machine. That is why there is a declaration form where you must state if you have had prior tailoring experience because an experienced tailor can certainly not be assessed with the same standard used for a learner. Anyone who declares false information in the form is in danger of losing her spot.

“We always make it clear to them at the start of the training that not everyone can win a sewing machine. It is only for the top 10 or 15 best girls and they must score over 80 per cent to qualify for the prize. To also make learning more conducive, bank accounts are opened for reach trainee and a stipend paid into it monthly. This stipend takes care of their feeding during the training. The filling of the bank details is the most problematic session of the first day; most have WASCCE as their highest qualification,” Ajamni said.

Other information required to be declared by the trainees include, enrollment into another academic or training programmes and if they are pregnant or not. Ajamni explains that declaring your enrolment in other academic pursuits will enable the center determine if trainees are able to commit themselves to the classes for the four-month duration of the training. To ensure trainees were not motivated by the monthly stipend to apply for the programme, they were informed that missing five classes would disqualify them from going any further.

Ajamni added that there had been cases in the past where some pregnant women enrolled for the training and failed to disclose their condition. She said, “In the event that there is a complication with the pregnancy, some of these women have blamed it on the WEPSS. To avoid all that, we always encourage them to disclose pregnancy. Once we are aware of pregnant trainees, they are moved from the production to the support department. It is better to be safe than sorry because the sewing machine produces vibrations when in use. We cannot intentionally endanger a baby’s life.”
Luckily for these girls some of whom come from as far as Port Harcourt to undergo this training, the WEPSS Centre provided two 66-seater buses to assist with the daily commute to Onne. This also ensures that they are seated and ready for classes which begin by 8.30am.

WEPSS Head of Human Resources and Administration, Dorcas Ekong, said, “Two buses leave every day from the WEPSS centre to pick the girls. One is stationed at Onne junction for those who live at Port Harcourt while another is stationed at Ogubolo. The Port Harcourt bus usually takes off at 6.30am, while the Ogubolo bus takes off at 6.45am for the WEPSS centre.

“By the time the girls get here, it is usually between 7.30am and 7.50am Classes start at 8.30am so they use the extra time to settle down and get their aprons on.”
The classes continue uninterrupted till 12pm when they break for one hour and then resume at 1pm. In between lectures, the trainees are allowed a five-minute stretching exercise and this usually at 10am and 3pm. Classes close for the day at 4pm after which the trainees are allowed a feedback session with the project manager.

“The areas of concern are not limited to their lectures alone. The trainees are encouraged to talk about problems they may have even with their classmates, their trainers and the administration staff. The length of the feedback session is dependent on the trainees; there is no fixed time for the feedback session but it has to be concluded by 5pm. This is because the bus would leave the Centre at time to take the girls back to the agreed destinations from which they were picked,” Ekong added.