September 10, 2012
LAGOS, NIGERIA – More than 200 people convened on International Women’s Day this month to promote entrepreneurship among women in Nigeria.
Entrepreneur Jibola Tobi Lawal, the chief organizer of the event, says she has never been in “paid employment” – a term she defines as working for someone else – aside from the compulsory one-year service to the nation that she fulfilled in 1988.
“I can say that the good far outweighs the bad experiences,” she says. “As I look back, I give thanks to God, and I will not mind doing it all over again.”
But more than doing it over again herself, she wants to share her experience with other women. This was the aim of the International Women’s Day event hosted by The Knox Centre Focus on Women, the women’s outreach arm of Tobi Lawal’s event venue business.
Tobi Lawal says that, despite the challenges of entrepreneurship, it offers more benefits than paid employment.
“Statistics show that three out of every four millionaires own their businesses,” she says. “Most of those in paid employment live from paycheck to paycheck, except if they do other businesses. Then when they retire, they can hardly keep up with their old lifestyle.”
She says that being an entrepreneur has additional benefits for women too.
“For women, it also affords us more time to spend with our children and be involved in their upbringing,” she says. “I say emphatically that entrepreneurship is the way to go to have a good life and leave a good inheritance for your offspring.”
The theme for last week’s event was, “Be outraged, be inspired, be informed, be active.” Tobi Lawal clarifies that the first clause carries a positive connotation, calling on women to change the state of things they are not pleased with.
“When we use the word ‘outrage,’ we are not encouraging violence,” she says. “We mean we should be angry enough about our present situation to want to get out of it and work our way into [an] improved situation.”
She says the event aimed to foster a dialogue among veteran and aspiring entrepreneurs.
“Women were encouraged to come out with their stories, their skills, their arts and crafts and their products to network, rub minds, exchange ideas, encourage and inspire one another,” she says.
Seasoned and aspiring entrepreneurs in Nigeria gathered on International Women’s Day this month to teach and learn from one another about advancing their businesses. While some cite societal obstacles, others insist that the only thing standing in between women and entrepreneurship is themselves. The event was free in order to encourage participation and collaboration, and organizers plan to hold future programs to continue to educate women about how to be successful entrepreneurs.
More than 200 people attended the event on International Women’s Day, celebrated annually on March 8. Thirty vendors also received space at no charge to display their wares to the audience.
Unemployment in Nigeria rose from about 21 percent to 24 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the 2011 Annual Socio-Economic Report of the National Bureau of Statistics. The number of new entrants into the active labor force declined from 2009 to 2010, after increasingly steadily since 2007. But it partially rebounded from 2010 to 2011.
Entrepreneur Brenda Uphopho, one of the organizers of the event, was on the move during it to ensure that everything went as planned. She says that the event was necessary because of the downward turn of the economy, mentioning recent waves of job losses and the partial removal of the fuel subsidy at the beginning of the year. The resulting rise in fuel prices limited the reach of her food delivery company, Early Bird Cafe, in Lagos, she says.
“With the fuel price increase, normally to deliver food on the island costs 1,000 naira [$6],” she says. “Now, I no longer do delivery to the island. I am constrained to the mainland, so that’s how the fuel subsidy has affected my own business.”
She says this made her consider how the change would affect other women too, so she started thinking of how to help her fellow female entrepreneurs.
“What else can I do?” she says she asked herself. “How can I do it in another way to also make [a] profit? From this experience, I thought of things to sort ourselves out. We need to do something urgently.”
Many of the speakers at the event were established entrepreneurs, including Sola Babatunde, chief executive officer and creative director of One Stop Celebrations; Wana Udobang, on-air personality for Inspiration FM; and Eyiyemi Rogbinyin, creative director of Olivia Concepts.
“Who knows the richest woman in Nigeria?” asked Babatunde as she opened her talk.
There were murmurs in the audience. No one could quite say.
“OK,” she said. “Who is the wealthiest man in Nigeria?”
There was a united response, “Dangote.”
Valued at $11.2 billion, Aliko Dangote is the richest man in Nigeria and Africa and the second-richest Black man in the world, according to Forbes. Oprah Winfrey remains the world’s lone Black female billionaire.
Babatunde says there was a reason for not only the gender disparity in wealth, but also in the knowledge of who holds this wealth.
“No one knows these facts because we do not keep the records,” she says. “There is no statistics. Our society hides it, makes us hide it. The day your husband knows you have money, trouble starts. Those who have the potentials, society and culture pulls down.”
But Babatunde says that despite the societal constraints, women themselves are their own biggest challenges. A lot of women are afraid of being different and doing what they really want to do.
“A lot of them say, ‘I’ve always wanted to do this thing,’” she says, using her hands for emphasis. “‘So why have you not done it?’ I ask. Then they begin to think of the excuses: ‘Oh, there is no light! Oh this! Oh that!’ So, the main problem is your mindset. If you believe that you can do it, you will do it. And other things will fall in place.”
She says she used doubts from others as motivation while building her business.
“The determination to prove most people wrong kept me going,” she says.
Tobi Lawal agrees on both points.
“Women are not only restricted in the business terrain in Nigeria, but in virtually all terrains,” she says. “Even the so-called traditional fields of business for women, such as catering, for example, are being eroded by men.”
Still, she echoes Babatunde on women getting in their own ways.
“It should be noted, however, that most of these restrictions are self-imposed – either through lack of knowledge, inability or deliberate refusal to adapt to new ways of doing business, our ‘feminine attitude,’ such as lack of assertiveness, shyness,” she says. “Even our customer service culture need[s] to be worked on.”
Rogbinyin spoke about her entrepreneurial journey during her speech. She said she turned her passion into a profession, but emphasized how running a business takes more than passion – and more than money too.
“It’s amazing how women think that if you have money, you can run a business,” she says. “It’s not true. It’s important to put structures in place.”
Though she started her fashion design business 12 years ago, she started putting structures in place only last year and opened a business account just last month. She says that she is learning the hard way.
“Now, I can’t pay myself a salary because my business was not well-structured,” she says. “Having a structure is not so hard. For everything you buy, take records. Write a business plan in your own words. Write a standard operating procedure. Open a corporate account.”
She encourages aspiring entrepreneurs to also take advantage of new opportunities.
“Use social media to advertise your work,” she says. “Open a Facebook page. It is free. The world has gone beyond manual. You can order everything online now.”
She says women can’t blame the government for entrepreneurial obstacles.
“We complain, ‘It’s the government – why you’ve not done this or that?’” she says. “But who is the government?”
Rogbinyin says that many things that female entrepreneurs call challenges are just excuses. For example, she says that it is a given that Nigeria does not have a steady power supply, so female business owners must learn to be more self-reliant.
“It is on ground that there is no light, so work around it,” she says. “So know that when you are starting business, you must buy a generator, so you include it into your costing as such.”
She encourages women to be resourceful.
“Work with what you have and stop going around saying: ‘This is not working. That is not working,’” she says. “If we don’t see things this way, we will never get up from where we are. All the challenges that we think we face are problems that we refuse to solve.”
Determined to educate, she speaks like a teacher.
“Do you understand?” she asks.
But others disagree.
Vera Akpan, creative director of OREMICRAFT, was one vendor at the event. She says that unreliable power is the biggest obstacle she has to face because it affects the prices of her products.
“I personally use a diesel-powered generator, so you can imagine how much I spend,” she says. “Clients don’t understand that because of our environment and overheads and the challenges we face. Our overheads are so high, which is transferred to the final consumer.”
She doesn’t blame the government but says it needs to support business.
“If I am told to tell the government to do one thing that businesspeople need, it is power for efficiency and production,” she says. “There has to be an enabling environment for businesses to thrive.”
The government has been promoting entrepreneurship through various initiatives. The winners of the Youth Enterprise With Innovation in Nigeria, a youth entrepreneurship competition, are to be announced today, according to the website.
Tobi Lawal acknowledges that all challenges aren’t self-erected.
“This is, however, not to say that there are no other restrictions that women experience through no fault of their own – challenges such as gender inequality, lack of equal access to resources and opportunities,” she says.
Tobi Lawal says this is one reason that the International Women’s Day event was free.
“It is our day,” Tobi Lawal says of women. “It is our opinion that we women deserve a break. People might not notice all that women do is giving and more giving.”
She says the event was also free to encourage further giving.
“Most good things in the world are free,” she says. “It is our belief that giving provokes further giving. The recipient would in most cases want to outdo the initial giver. This we experienced through the support from our media partners, some of our participant exhibitors, the DJ, emcee, the caterers, cleaning service providers. All offered their services for free.”
Some of the speakers at the event offered free mentoring and training sessions to the participants. There were discounts on products and services, and there was no fee for vendors to display their wares.
One vendor at the event, Temitayo Otekolade, 33, says this is why she attended.
“I attended the event because it was free,” she says. “I didn’t even know what it was about.
Otekolade makes accessories such as rings, bangles and earrings from beads, Ankara material and zippers. She lost her job with an Internet technology firm last year, so she decided to turn her hobby into a job. She says the event encouraged her.
“I left with a renewed belief that there is so much benefit to get as an entrepreneur,” she says.
In addition to this inspiration, she also picked up valuable tips.
“I learned the importance of networking with people who have experienced the challenges of being entrepreneurs,” she says. “I also learned the importance of having a financial statement or records.”
Also important, Akpan says, is offering a unique product.
“Being an entrepreneur in Nigeria is quite challenging,” she says. “You will realize at a point that so many people are doing what you are doing.”
Other vendors at the event offered products similar to hers.
“This means that to succeed, you have to carve a niche,” she says. “Get your products to the right target audience and give your products at a price that they will be willing to pay. You have to be constantly innovative so as not to be taken out of the market.”
At the same time, she says the event showed her the need to work together as well. Having attended many events for entrepreneurs in the past, Akpan said that the event hosted by The Knot Centre Focus on Women was unique because of its emphasis on collaboration.
“It emphasized woman power and the need for women to collectively come together to succeed – the vital need to network,” she says.
The event aimed to help female entrepreneurs move beyond initital challenges to achieve success in business, Tobi Lawal says. Beyond the one-day event, there are further plans for events at the center for female entrepreneurs.
“We have started on follow up on the attendees at the event because there are lots of opportunities yet to be tapped,” she says.
Beyond entrepreneurship, she says there are many issues women can tackle together.
“We call on women to let’s do it together because individually, we are a drop of water, but together, we are an ocean,” she says.
The organizers say that they have also learned so much through this debut event.
“It’s an eye-opening experience,” Uphopho says. “Nigerian women are not Internet-savvy,” she says. “They are not in touch with technology.”
She says they have a lot to learn.
“They don’t know how to push their business forward,” she says. “They don’t know how to register their company names. They are clueless. They just run businesses from their shops, pockets, handbags and cars.”
She says this information will help the organizers to more easily address in future events the issues that women face in entrepreneurship.
“We know how to tackle the challenges and start from the basics,” she says. “Do you know how to use a computer? How well? Can you browse? Those are the kind of simple, basic trainings.”
She advises Nigerian female entrepreneurs to do everything they can to learn.
“Get help,” she says. “Know you need help and get it. Ask anybody.”