Nigerian women entrepreneurs set to explore opportunities offered by the Economic Community of West African States to expand their business horizon across the sub-region
Grace Ekpenyong, a reverend, is a typical Nigerian woman entrepreneur – creative, hardworking and enterprising. When she registered Widow’s Mite Integrated Development and Amazing Quality Limited in 2004, her aim was to be a producer of soap having learnt soap making at the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi, known as FIIRO. She has since expanded the business to include other range of cosmetics.
Besides cosmetics, Ekpenyong also acquired the technical know-how in cassava processing from the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, IITA, Ibadan, Oyo State. With time she was able to apply the knowledge to process and package agricultural produce for sale in and outside the country. Her packaged food products, which she said are ideal for the diabetics, hypertensive and weight watchers include wheat flour, bean flour, soya bean, soya maize, plantain flour, honey, garri and many others are in stores across the country. Her special garri is said to have been certified by Standard Organisation of Nigeria, SON, and is being exported to other countries.
Ekpenyong whose factory is located in Akwa Ibom State is just one out of the thousands of women entrepreneurs in the country. With the dwindling economic situation in the country, more women are taking to business to take care of their families. Though most of them are in the small and medium-scale enterprises, SMEs, sector, their contribution to the economic well-being of the nation cannot be ignored. The SMEs operated by women generate huge employment opportunities as well as contribute enormously to the nation’s gross domestic product, GDP.
These Nigerian women entrepreneurs are now taking their businesses beyond the shores of the country. They have become very visible in the business world across West Africa where they are considered the dominant group. To further consolidate the position of Nigerian women entrepreneurs, several women entrepreneurs gathered in Lagos, last week, to launch the Nigeria chapter of Economic Community of West African States, Federation of Business Women Entrepreneurs, ECOWAS FEBWE. This is said to be an indication that Nigerians are raring to take the lead in the area of business in the region. Alaba Lawson, the Iyalode of Yoruba and chairperson, Women Group of National Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture, NACCIMA, who was elected president of the Nigeria chapter of ECOWAS FEBWE, said: “All the ECOWAS countries are waiting for Nigeria to take the bold step for them to follow and we cannot afford to relinquish our leadership position in this sub-region to any other country.”
Lawson explained that ECOWAS FEBWE was set up “to promote and facilitate trade on a common platform for various groups or individual women entrepreneurs in this sub-region through intra and continental trade.” Noting the increased involvement of youths in drug trafficking, armed robbery, prostitution and other socio-economic vices across the ECOWAS borders, Lawson disclosed that FEBWE Nigeria would tackle the anti-social activities by organising sustainable development projects in small-scale enterprises, skills development, cottage industries using local raw materials, packaging, agro allied, food and energy security through renewable energy, gender equality, and marketing of semi processed products, as well as exports. The organisation would encourage women to start businesses and also expand their scale of operations beyond the country.
Members of ECOWAS FEBWE Nigeria include business women, companies owned by women, women co-operatives and associations operating in all spheres of economic activities, making it one of the largest business groups and a major flank of the country’s vibrant private sector. With its huge membership, the group is looking beyond the shores of the country to promote the goods and services of its members in the 15 ECOWAS countries. John Isemede, director-general, NACCIMA, posits that women are indeed the backbone of business in West Africa. Goddie Ibru, president, Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, urged the group to engage in positive activities that would create wealth for the sub-region and contribute significantly to the gross domestic product, GDP, of ECOWAS member states.
The platform ECOWAS FEBWE was launched in Ghana in July of 2009 under the auspices of Private Business Department of the ECOWAS Commission. The sole objective of the association is to help advance the economic integration process of the regional body. “Whether as national interest groups or a federation/association, their policy advocacy activities, promotion and marketing functions and roles as business intelligence sources for their membership, they provide excellent models for the ECOWAS private sector,” noted an official of the private business department of ECOWAS Commission.
So each country in the sub-region is expected to launch its own chapter. However, only six of the countries – Republic of Benin, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Republic of Niger, Togo, and Nigeria – have so far launched the group, with Nigeria being the sixth country though the chapter has been established since 2009. Candide Leguede, president, ECOWAS FEBWE, explained that the aim of the group “is to work tirelessly so that members have access to the best services, tap into the field of regional economic integration through an urgent and regular advocacy programmes targeted at our leaders, so that they can integrate the gender dimensions into national trade policies,” adding that the group would advocate for specific actions to be carried out to enhance the free movement of people, goods and services across borders in ECOWAS region and to eradicate the problems women suffer at the borders in their attempt to do business.
The failure of the governments of the various ECOWAS countries to harness the potential of women entrepreneurs made ECOWAS to initiate programmes to promote women entrepreneurship. The ECOWAS Commission had noted that women were playing critical roles in the private sector, which is in dire need of business expansion and investments. According to the body, every country in West Africa has substantial untapped opportunities in every economic sector, including commerce, manufacturing and services, and that women appear poised to tap into these opportunities. The over 300 million population of the sub-region also provides a ready market for the various products and services they offer.
One of the ways the ECOWAS Commission strives to improve the business climate is through the building of private sector institutions. Over the years, the commission has established the Federation of West African Chambers of Commerce, FEWACC, the Federation of West African Manufacturers Association, FEWAMA, and the NEPAD Business Group West Africa, NEPAD BG-WA. In recognition of the growing importance of women entrepreneurship, the commission in 2009 created a platform for women entrepreneurs in the sub-region to dialogue and promote entrepreneurship, thus contributing not only to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, but also to the economy of the countries within the region.
Describing the African woman as the epitome of strength, resoluteness and industry, Sarah Ochekpe, minister of water resources, noted that, “the informal sector in most African countries, Nigeria in particular, thrives principally as a result of women’s efforts in business and entrepreneurship.” She said the establishment of ECOWAS FEBWE was in recognition of the need to unlock and stimulate the economic potential of women’s entrepreneurship, which has been on the rise, especially in recent times.
According to her, women in the sub-region are gradually transcending from the position of the deprived to play strategic roles in the development of their nations. Expressing similar views when she visited Africa last year, Hilary Clinton, the United States, US, secretary of state noted that, “small and medium-sized enterprises run by women are major drivers of economic growth.” Clinton who said women are holding up half of the continent’s economy called for increased support for them. “Let’s give them the opportunities to bring along all the rest of us with their hard work and their success. Because when a woman prospers, she reinvests those earnings in her family and the positive ripple effects cross an entire community,” she stated.
Ochekpe, however, observed that women entrepreneurs are often constrained by lack of economic resources. Lawson also noted that women face numerous challenges in their attempt to initiate and facilitate wealth creation. “Some of these challenges include non-availability of adequate funding, high interest rates by financial institutions and numerous infrastructural deficiencies,” she said. The African Development Bank, ADB, brought the issue of funding to the fore recently when it says there is $19 billion unmet demand for financing from women entrepreneurs. Clinton maintains that some cultural factors help to dampen the potential of women entrepreneurs and called for a change of the business environment in order to break down such cultural barriers. She called for greater access to credit facilities, noting that as African economies work to attract foreign investment and expand cross-border trade, there should be concerted efforts targeted at enhancing the capacity of the continent’s businesswomen.
These challenges notwithstanding, a growing number of women are taking advantage of the business opportunities in the sub-region to improve their economic profile and contribute to the growth of their respective countries within the region. In this regard, Nigerian women are in a clear lead as they are said to constitute more than half of the population of women entrepreneurs within the region, engaging in diverse business areas such as textiles, fashion, artefacts, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, jewellery, raw and processed foods, tourism, service sector, among others. They are the dominant factor in cross-border business in the region whose high consumer population is a major attraction for European and Asian businesses. Data from the United Nations indicate that West Africa’s population has increased from 70 million to 318 million between 1950 and 2010. This is seen as an asset for the dynamic Nigerian women entrepreneurs to take advantage to increase the volume of cross-border trade in the region.
The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has noted that trade among African countries accounts for only about 10 per cent of their total external trade, the lowest of any world region. This is a situation which regional bodies like ECOWAS are striving to reverse by encouraging trade among member countries. For Nigeria, the journey has already started with the growing involvement of its women entrepreneurs in a significant portion of production, trade and services in ECOWAS countries.