With zero or little revenue, some Nigerian women have developed businesses, which not only guarantee respectable income but also provide job opportunities for many thus contributing to the growth of the national economy
Her story is one of those people are never tired of hearing. Kehinde Kamson built a business empire from the guardroom by the gate of her family house. That was in 1994. With no training as a caterer and no experience in the hospitality sector, some of Kamson’s friends did not give her any chance of survival in the food business. But she plunged into the business determined to make a success of it. Her passion for cooking and her experience as a chartered accountant helped her to manage the business well. The business she established and named Sweet Sensation has today grown to become a distinguished brand with about 25 locations across the country, providing thousands of direct and indirect employment to Nigerians. With the inclusion of African delicacies to the usual continental foods and snacks in 1996, Sweet Sensation’s patronage among individuals, groups and corporate bodies soared. Kamson admits that the growth of Sweet Sensation, a fast food and confectionery company, surpassed even her dream.
Like Kamson, when Stella Okoli started her business in 1977, all the indices did not suggest a major success, at least not on the scale it turned out to be. Her capital was only N5,000 when she opened Emzor Chemist, a pharmaceutical retail store located in Fola Agoro, Abule Ijesha in Lagos State. Against all odds, Okoli has been able to grow her business into a multi-billion-naira company with branches in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, and India. Her company, Emzor Pharmaceutical Industries Limited was incorporated in 1984 and commenced manufacturing in 1985, after graduating from retail to importation and wholesale of pharmaceutical products. Today, Emzor Pharmaceutical Industries is reputed to be the leading indigenous manufacturer of pharmaceutical and medical products with a range of almost 60 products from just four in 1987. Emzor has become a household name in Nigeria and in West Africa and it has affiliate companies, which include Emzor Hesco, Frontwave Limited, Zolon Healthcare Limited, Emzor Chemists and Emzor Services. According to Okoli, “The idea to manufacture locally was predicated on the need to develop local capability, create jobs and provide high quality pharmaceutical products and services to the Nigerian people at prices that are not only affordable but represent value.” Many say Okoli dominates a sector hitherto the preserve of foreign firms.
In recent times, there has been a surge in women entrepreneurs in Nigeria. Rather than just climbing the corporate ladder of success, more Nigerian women are creating their own businesses in virtually every sector of the economy. They are also responsible for the fast growth of small businesses in the country. By virtue of their entrepreneurial pursuits, women are becoming increasingly relevant in the economic development of the country. This is a clear departure from what obtains a few decades ago when men tended to have a higher preference for entrepreneurship than women. From only five per cent in the 1980s, the percentage of women-owned business rose to 20 per cent in the 1990s and now it is said to be about 50 per cent, most of them in the retail business. However, a growing number of women are making incursions into the mainstream formal economy, some with little or no start-up capital, yet with success stories to tell.
Such is the case of Emilia Akpan. As a young girl, she had learnt how to sew clothes from her sewing mistress mother and also sold oranges when she was in the secondary school. When she started work, she used to make biscuits in her home and sold to her co-workers. All these skills acquired at that time became useful when she needed to go into business full time. With only N2,000 as start-up capital, a staff and a sewing machine she inherited from her late mother, Akpan entered the garments making business. Her factory then was the dining table in her home along Aba Road in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, from where she made clothes for her customers. As the business began to grow, her husband asked her to relocate it to the back of the house where she had more space.
Her confidence in the business got a boost when her customers began to commend her work. “They would bring fabrics from Europe for us to duplicate them and you won’t know the difference save for the label,” Akpan said of some of her customers. As the business advanced, one of her staff suggested she went into production of coverall. After the initial reluctance, she agreed and that made a turning point in her business life.
“The first coverall I produced was for Dumpster, an oil services company; they use it for drilling. The coveralls were so admired by the Germans who own the company that they paid me about N40,000. I was given N10,000 advance payment, with which I bought the materials for the job. That was in 1986. Those people were the ones who promoted us, telling other oil companies they knew about our product,” she recalled. Her patronage especially from the oil and gas sector increased astronomically as many that hitherto imported their coveralls began to place orders with her. Her list of clientele includes Shell Petroleum Company and Elf, among others. She also engaged the services of a coverall expert whose business had folded up due to bad management and was then doing menial jobs for companies as a steward. Besides coverall, she produces all types of uniforms.
Akpan’s company, Showers Limited, has ventured into large-scale production of uniforms and coveralls for organisations spread across the country. She has also made an incursion into the educational sector by establishing a secondary school – Shower International High School – reputed to be of international standard. The students in her school are made to offer courses that can make them self-employed. Akpan explains that she veered into establishing a secondary school “because we found out years ago that if we don’t have an educated workforce, we cannot achieve the objectives of Vision 2020.” Akpan, the chairperson, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, Rivers/Bayelsa states chapter, is banking on the African Growth and Opportunity Act, AGOA programme to export garments into the United States, US.
Muni Shonibare belongs to the league of women who opted for personal business rather than climbing the corporate ladder of success. She has worked at Unitex Textile Mills Kaduna, designing African prints and also as a teacher at the Federal School of Arts and Science before joining Habitat Associates, a Kaduna-based architectural firm, as an interior designer. After quitting her job at Habitat Associates, she co-founded Avante Garde, a company that specialised in developing interior design schemes for homes, offices and hospitality outfits. She went ahead to establish Interior Options Limited in 1987 that is into interior design and furniture manufacturing in Nigeria. Her products are noted for their creative and innovative designs that are said to compete favourably with imported ones. Her business has since grown from the one-room showroom she had in Kaduna to many showrooms in Lagos and Abuja and also a large factory. And so has her clientele. Shonibare broke into the male-dominated furniture manufacturing business more than two decades ago and has achieved success. Her company is rated as one of the top furniture and interior design companies in the country.
Like Shonibare, Ibukun Awosika is also an entrepreneur of note, making waves in the furniture business. But it was not her first love when she chose her career path. In fact she considered various occupations including medicine, architecture and accounting. Though she studied Chemistry in the university, she chose to serve in an accounting firm and ended up with Akintola Williams and Company (now Akintola Williams Deloitte) and was subsequently offered a job as an audit trainee. With no job satisfaction, Awosika secured another job with Alibert Nigeria Limited, a furniture company owned by a Lebanese as a showroom manager. While there she had a strong feeling that was what she wanted to do. She quit again after three and half months to establish Quebees Limited, thus commencing her entrepreneurial journey.
The company later transformed into The Chair Centre, which has now become a household name in the country. Through a joint venture with Sokoa SA of France, the company became known as Sokoa Chair Centre. Awosika’s company is into office furniture and banking security systems. According to Awosika, she did not have any start-up capital when she began. There was no machine, no workers and no factory also; she was only equipped with her passion. But she got jobs and hired furniture makers to make them for her after which she would pay them. She also got supplies from Sokoa. But after the ban on importation of furniture in 2004, Awosika partnered with Sokoa to produce high quality furniture in the country. With an investment of $200 million, the core production team was trained in France and a facility was developed on 8,000 square metres. She has since expanded the business even beyond the shores of the country. Awosika’s business has continued to net hundreds of millions of naira in turnover.
Many of these women who plunged into entrepreneurship between the 1970s and 1990s have continued to be a source of inspiration to the upcoming women. One lesson they have all taught is that money is not the most important factor to start a business but passion. Akpan told the magazine that passion is what a woman needs to have. “If you don’t have passion for the business you are considering, you may not make any success out of it even if you have the whole money at your disposal,” she said.
This lesson is not lost on Tinuke Adelakun, who perhaps belongs to the younger generation of entrepreneurs. Adelakun has had a life career, which covers consulting, media and telecommunications. For five years, she was a producer for the popular television programme, ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire.’ But she quit the job. Her reason: “My background is in quantity surveying and I had wanted to go back to my profession but not in construction. I wanted to do something that is related to the environment and development of society.” So she became interested in issues relating to climate change and decided she could, in her little way, make a positive impact on the environment. “I was very interested in waste management from the beginning but in terms of specific area of waste management, I wasn’t definite about what I wanted to do. I spent about two years researching into it. I met Taiwo Adewole who has been at it for six years and we decided to synergise rather than dissipate energy in different directions,” Adelakun explained.
When she realised the absence of a formal waste recycling industry, she decided to fill the gap by taking up a narrow aspect of it – ridding the environment of plastic bottles. At the initial stage, many considered it abnormal for someone with Masters in Business Administration to pick bottles for a living as it is considered well below her level. But her tenacity changed such views. Many now gather plastic bottles even at parties for her. Adelakun established Rabo Solutions and started the business with “Zero kobo.” Besides, she does not need to rent a place as the space at the back of her house was enough for her business. “Initially I thought we would need to set up a big recycling plant, we would need some kind of collaborative efforts with the government, among others, but then we realised that these things were not just happening. So we delved deeper to know what exactly we could do, because it is a whole value chain and you can plug into any level of it. So we devised strategies for collection and establish relationship with existing recyclers. So we started to function first as intermediaries.” Sharing her thoughts, Adelakun said, “I used to feel that finance was the biggest challenge for businesses but I do not think so anymore. I think there is a lot you can do if you understand the entire value chain of the business you want to do. You can actually identify the ways you play on a small scale and if there are service components of that industry, you can do that as it does not cost so much.”
Adelakun began this vocation about two and half years ago after she graduated from the Lagos Business School. From zero capital approach, the business now costs her some money in terms of engaging more people to do the pick-ups, fuelling of her vehicle and other operational costs. She collects a minimum of 500 kilogrammes of pet bottles which she supplies to recyclers. She is also into advocacy as an integral part of her vocation, on the need for people to separate their wastes. Adelakun’s vision is not limited to picking and supplying plastic bottles. She is already into talks with a foreign partner on the issue of setting up a recycling plant in the country. If she pushes her vision further, she might, like Kamson and Akpan, surpass her dreams.
These women entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly important drivers of growth in the Nigerian economy. And they operate in diverse sectors such as manufacturing, agriculture, service industry and commerce. Many who entered the retail business on a small scale have grown them to become big commercial ventures. With the unemployment situation in the country, the number of women entrepreneurs is expected to increase in the years ahead. However, many of them still operate within the small and medium-scale enterprises sector due to a lot of constraining factors within the environment one of which is finance. Despite their avowed importance as drivers of economic growth, resources targeted at women entrepreneurs are inadequate.
Many women entrepreneurs are of the view that their contribution to the socio-economic landscape is usually underestimated despite the huge potential they have. Besides they say there are numerous challenges in the environment that could limit their potential such as lack of access to finance, cultural boundaries and lack of empowerment. For many years, entrepreneurial activities had been dominated by men. With the changing scenario, many recognise the need to empower women to contribute more to the nation’s economy. Alaba Lawson, chairperson of the Business Women Group of the National Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines & Agriculture, NAWORG, stated that, “women entrepreneurs face a lot of difficulties and challenges in doing their business to enhance their homes, create wealth and promote commerce.” Lawson, though, has made a success of her business, having developed her Lawson Group of Schools from the small childcare and nursery school she established in 1977, she insists that government needs to rise to the assistance of women entrepreneurs to enable them excel in their business.
Lawson, who is also the Iyalode of Yoruba, disclosed last week that the Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, has already created a platform for women entrepreneurs in the sub-region including Nigeria to dialogue and promote entrepreneurship. The platform, known as ECOWAS Federation of Business Women Entrepreneurs, ECOWAS FEBWE, was established in Ghana two years ago. The Nigerian chapter is expected to be launched on February 27 in Lagos. The group, according to her, would help to empower women entrepreneurs to contribute their quota to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, and the economy of member states.
Under this initiative, women entrepreneurs in Nigeria have been promised the support of National Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines & Agriculture, NACCIMA. Gabriel Ajayi, director-general of the association who made the promise concedes that women are making positive impacts in the economy of the country. “I have travelled wide in the sub-region and I can tell you that those who are behind the economy of West Africa are women,” he said, and urged financial institutions to extend credit facilities to more women as they have high loan repayment rate than men. He cited programmes such as AGOA, NEPAD and MDG, stressing that they are promoted by the western world but driven by women.
Already a number of individuals, groups and even government agencies have recognised the need to promote women entrepreneurship. Awosika, for instance has been committed in equipping the women folk with entrepreneurial skills through career talks. She is not alone. Omowale Ogunrinde, founder of the Foundation for Skills Development, FSD, has been engaged in the training of women to be self-employed for many years. When the foundation was established in 2003, Ogunrinde said it was to equip, enable and empower people to start their own businesses. Besides training people in vocational, technical and entrepreneurial skills, the foundation links entrepreneurs to policymakers and fund providers to make positive impact on their businesses. But over the years the training has been dominated by women, which explains why special attention is paid to their training. “When a woman is in the small and medium-scale enterprise, SME, she is a creator of jobs for other people,” said Ogunrinde.
Besides individual efforts, the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency of Nigeria, SMEDAN, also has a lot of programmes for women entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. Yinka Fisher, centre manager, SMEDAN, Lagos, told the magazine that though the agency does not apply gender discrimination in the implementation of its programmes, some programmes are organised specially for women to equip them with skills they require to manage their businesses. “In SMEDAN we let you know there is a difference between vocation and entrepreneurship. You can acquire a vocation but that does not make you a good business player. You can only become a good business player when you add entrepreneurship knowledge into your business because it is what will take you to the next level,” he said. Realising that women entrepreneurs need more than bank loans to sustain their businesses, Fisher said, the agency teaches them business skills and proper cash flow management so that they can manage their businesses effectively.
Fisher disclosed that the agency trains between 500 and 700 women in a year in their locations at the expense of government except for a few ones conducted within the agency for which a token is charged. He said so many women have applied the training received to establish or grow their businesses particularly in the manufacturing sector, adding that “all these women in micro businesses are nation builders. Without them the economy cannot grow. They provide employment and give value to the economy.”
Indeed, the horizon for women entrepreneurs appears to be getting brighter. The Global Banking Alliance, GBA for women, for instance, provides customised products for women entrepreneurs. The GBA, which consists of about 22 banks from Africa, Europe, Asia and America, works in collaboration with the International Finance Corporation, IFC. They seek to boost women’s participation in the private sector worldwide. Access Bank appears to be the only Nigerian bank in this alliance. Aigboje Aig-Imokhuede, group managing director of the bank said, “Successfully reaching the women’s market in Nigeria is key to achieving our retail and small businesses goals. Our partnership with GBA has assisted us in realising this goal.” There are 11 projects in sub-Saharan Africa, including Nigeria, said to be funded by the IFC’s women in business programme and about $53 million is said to have been disbursed as loans to the operators of the businesses. The impact of the programme in Nigeria is yet to be determined.
Still exploring ways to boost women entrepreneurship, the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, also appears poised to introduce a special fund devoted to ensuring that women-owned businesses have easy access to single digit interest loans. Lamido Sanusi, governor, CBN who made this known recently said, “We are working at establishing a special fund by the end of the year, which would provide credit facilities to women at a single digit interest rate.” Sanusi said 2012 has been dubbed the year of “Women Empowerment” by the Bankers’ Committee, adding that a sub-committee on women empowerment headed by Biola Adesola, chief executive, Standard Chartered Bank, has been formed.
The information, however, has been received with cautious optimism. Since the commencement of the banking reforms in 2009, banks have denied credit to the real sector thus stifling business activities. It remains to be seen how this programme will be implemented. However Lawson observed that government has never been short of ideas on how to tackle the problem faced by women entrepreneurs but that implementation has always remained the problem.
It is believed that if all these windows of opportunities opened to women entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs are effectively applied and utilised, the sky would not only be the limit of women entrepreneurs in the country, but would be a springboard towards achieving greater heights for the benefit of the Nigerian socio-economic development.