• Saturday, December 09, 2023
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Olori Boye-Ajayi, dedicated to empowering women, driving Africa’s trade transformation

Olori Boye-Ajayi, dedicated to empowering women, driving Africa’s trade transformation

Olori Boye-Ajayi is a visionary leader and catalyst for change, dedicated to driving Africa’s trade transformation and empowering women across the continent. She started her export journey in 2017 in the textile and apparel industry with a sourcing and manufacturing hub for other businesses fit for export.

She facilitated exports to Australia, the U.S., and the United Kingdom. With over a decade of experience in trade and investment, women empowerment, and sustainable development, she has established herself as a thought leader and expert in Africa’s structural transformation strategy.

Olori is an accomplished gender expert and Afreximbank MANSA Champion.

She has successfully collaborated with multilateral organisations that focus on diversity, inclusion, and gender equality, making her a sought-after consultant in these areas.

In her current role as a member of the AfCFTA Trade and Industrial Development Advisory Council Continental Working Group, Olori actively contributes to the development of strategic work plans, policies, and private sector engagements to drive the growth of regional value chains.

As the Managing Director of OBA Inc., she spearheaded empowerment and trade facilitation programmes for thousands of women entrepreneurs.
Her negotiation skills and extensive network enabled her to secure funding and trade finance exceeding $1,000,000 for women in the export community, propelling their growth and expansion.

Share your growth trajectory with us

Although I was born in London, I grew up with a lot of love from my maternal grandmother (of blessed memory) on the streets of Ladipo, Mushin. My grandma played a very significant role in my life, she is the earliest memory I have when I think of who introduced me to family, life and money – how to make it. She contributed significantly to my foundational understanding of who God is and ensured I treat all (wo)men with love. Above all, she showed me what it meant to be a resilient warrior at the age of 6. Her bible in one hand and her business in another, we could overcome anything, and this still holds true for me today. At some point during my teenage years when I moved back to England for my education, I encountered a great man in my youth community centre in Islington, London. He was by far one of the strongest influences and voices in my life after God before I went to university. He introduced me to the concept of self-awareness, understanding everything I am looking for is already within me and in abundance. At 18 years old I didn’t believe him because I couldn’t see anything great about me or life then. Little did I know, his words were seeds that over time, say 2 decades later, I would begin to see and be the woman he saw at 18 years old – a woman helped and recklessly loved by God.

Why the passion to drive Africa’s trade transformation and empowerment of women across the continent?

I am first a Kingdom Ambassador then a proud African woman. I love being African woman, but it has its challenges. I won’t call them disadvantages because I am not disadvantaged, and neither is any woman. We’ve been using the hashtag #AfricaRising for close to a decade and I look at the dreams of our forefathers Kwame Nkrumah and Nelson Mandela and the vision they had for our beautiful continent ‘A united and prosperous Africa’ – how far have we really come in realizing this dream?

My unwavering passion for driving Africa’s trade transformation and empowering women across the continent stems from a deep-rooted conviction in the immense potential and resilience of Africa’s people – especially its women. I’m inspired and committed to the visionary dreams of Nkrumah, Mandela, Sirleaf and carrying forward their legacy by actively contributing to the realisation of their visions for a united and prosperous Africa. In the last 5 years, we have seen the role women will play in birthing the Africa We Want agenda. Future-forward women can no longer be sidelined or ignored – we carry Africa’s miracle in shaping culture, education, healthcare, governance, arts and entertainment, finance and all other areas of economic development. By championing their empowerment, we pave the way for the birth of new dreams and aspirations that will shape Africa’s trajectory in the years to come. The real hashtag should be, The Future is Africa, The Future is Female.

Why the decision to go into textile and apparel industry? How can the sector be best enhanced?

This is a funny one. It wasn’t exactly my decision, I stumbled into the industry. The textile and apparel industry presented a unique opportunity for me to start my export journey. Returning to Nigeria in 2010, I was in search of other streams of income. I was a natural at sourcing and the sales of apparel, so I made it into a business. At the time, the T &A industry had low barriers to entry and the demand for what I was offering was there – I took a risk, and it paid off. The business eventually grew into an aggregated manufacturing hub solution for MSME’s looking to export, most of whom were women and we facilitated getting their brands/manufacturing services into the UK, US and Australia at the time. During the pandemic, we expanded and partnered with the Assembly Hub to set up a bigger operation which led to the creation of more jobs and of course our primary focus at the time, a quick response and availability of personal protective equipment for Nigerians.

In recent years, Nigeria has taken commendable strides in strengthening the textile and apparel sector. For instance, the partnership between the Nigerian government and India has led to knowledge-sharing programmes and the establishment of textile-focused training institutes, equipping local talents with cutting-edge skills and expertise with trade departments from the UK and US that I am personally aware of. There are ongoing efforts by the new administration to address infrastructural challenges, such as inadequate power supply and inefficient logistics. However, we need the implementation of targeted policies to improve energy access and optimise transportation networks, creating a more conducive environment for industry development, we still have a long way to go where industrialisation in textile and apparel industry is concerned.

The sector can be enhanced through initiatives aimed at skill development and vocational training need to be prioritised, fostering a skilled workforce capable of driving innovation and quality production capacity. Additionally, we need urgent investments in modern infrastructure, including advanced manufacturing technologies and efficient supply chain networks, these are all essential to enhance the industry’s competitiveness on a global scale. Most importantly, fostering strategic partnerships with leading textile-producing countries, such as India and China, can facilitate knowledge exchange, technology transfer, and market access, fostering a mutually beneficial environment for growth and collaboration. The Nigerian Export Promotion Council’s trade houses across Africa and China is a step in the right direction.

Let’s not forget it’s a labour-intensive sector with significant potential for job creation and export revenue for Nigeria, which the country is dire need of.

Read also: Deadly trade (III): Regulatory gaps that enable sale of banned bleaching creams

Tell us about utilising co-creation models to develop and implement impactful community-based programmes

Co-creation models involve collaborating with various stakeholders to design and implement programmes that address specific community needs. Between 2020 and 2022, the Borderless Trade Network held almost 100 different intervention programmes in collaboration with domestic and the international institutions and development agencies. All programmes were developed and implemented with the input of all key stakeholders including beneficiaries – this gave us better outcomes and programme objectives were met in a more predictable manner. The WSME’s we were targeting with access to information, financial literacy, finance or whatever the intervention had a higher participation level when they had an input in the way the programme was conceptualised and/or implemented.

In what ways are you practically driving inclusive growth by leveraging technology and simplifying programme processes?

Technology plays a crucial role in reaching a wider audience and streamlining processes. We use tech-driven solutions to provide online training and support for women entrepreneurs, making it easier for them to access resources and connect with mentors. This approach ensures that our programmes are scalable and inclusive. Project ‘WINHer’ is one our flagship programmes which we launched in 2021 in collaboration with the office of the Honourable Commissioner of Vanuatu to South Africa and Nigeria.

Share with us on being a member of AfCFTA Trade and Industrial Development Advisory Council Continental Working Group and your role

As a member of the AfCFTA Trade and Industrial Development Advisory Council Continental Working Group, my role involves the formulation of a comprehensive 5-year strategic workplan for the development of the continental fibre-to-garment initiative. We will also be responsible for creating infrastructural, policy-driven work-plans to drive the development of regional textile and apparel value chains and private sector engagements. My role in the Working Group is to affirm my commitment to preparing women for the opportunities presented by the AfCFTA, especially as they make up over 70% of the T & A industry in Africa.

In what way has your expertise been instrumental in identifying infrastructural and policy-driven initiatives that unlock investment opportunities and promote value chain development?

My expertise in trade and development has enabled me to identify opportunities within the African market, for example in the apparel industry, agro commodities, mining and most recently energy sector. By analysing the specific needs and challenges of different sectors, I can recommend policy changes, reforms and infrastructure investments that unlock new investment opportunities. This, in turn, promotes the development of value chains and creates a more conducive environment for trade.

Tell us about spearheading empowerment and trade facilitation programmes for thousands of women entrepreneurs and how you do it through OBA inc.

Empowering thousands of women entrepreneurs has been my driving force at Borderless Trade (BT), subsidiary of OBA Inc. Our mission at BT involves creating opportunities for women-led businesses across 42 countries, with a significant focus on the African continent. Through our strategic partnerships, such as the Africa Export-Import Bank MANSA platform and the collaboration with the US State department’s Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE), in association with Ascend Studios Foundation, we have cultivated a thriving community of 20,000 WMSMEs (Women Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises). Our innovative programmes, ‘Go Global with Tech,’ delivered in collaboration with the Nigeria Export Promotion Council was designed to bridge the digital divide that many women in Nigeria and the continent face. By utilising technology, we aim to connect 1 million women by 2030 to global and regional supply chains, providing them with the necessary tools to navigate international markets seamlessly.

Access to markets is a pivotal aspect, and we recognise the technological barriers that often hinder women’s participation. To address this, we developed a user-friendly tech solution tailored to the specific needs of women entrepreneurs. This platform facilitates easy access to essential trade information, enabling them to explore potential buyers and expand their businesses globally. Additionally, our collaborations with various funding companies have provided crucial financial support for WSMEs seeking to venture into the export market. At OBA Inc., we are committed to breaking down barriers and fostering an inclusive ecosystem where women can thrive and leave their mark on the global trade landscape.

How were you able to secure funding and trade finance exceeding $1,000,000 for women in the export community, propelling their growth and expansion?

Securing funding and trade finance for women in the export community requires building strong relationships with financial institutions and international development finance partners. It’s about showcasing the potential and track record of these women-led businesses and ensuring they have the support they need to access capital for expansion which we were able to do and come into a strong partnership with a trade finance and logistics company from the US. The terms of the facility were offered at single digit interest rates with no collateral required, all terms that are very welcome by WSME’s.

Read also: Textile mills under strain as gas to power cost doubles

Share with us on Borderless Trade Network Nigeria & Liberia. The story-vision, challenges, triumphs, and projections.

The Borderless Trade Network Nigeria & Liberia was born out of the vision to connect and empower women in both countries. We faced challenges, but through strategic partnerships and collaborative efforts offered by the good women leaders in the private sector and government, we were able to sync our efforts to help women in Liberia. We have delivered impactful workshops, seminars, and capacity-building programmes for hundreds of women MSMEs. The triumphs include the growth and success of many women entrepreneurs in the area of entrepreneurship, financial literacy and sales.

The Borderless Trade Network Nigeria & Liberia launched ‘Project WINHER,’ which is aimed to empower women in business and connect them globally. ‘Project WINHER’ is a wealth creation project for women, and it complements the network’s mission by emphasizing the importance of inclusion and financial literacy. These initiatives work together to foster a supportive ecosystem for women in both trade and investment.

Tell us about consulting and advising international development institutions and multilateral organisations on their trade development initiatives.

When I’m not being President of the Borderless Trade Network, my day job is facilitating trade and investment deals and projects within Africa and into Africa. My core areas of specialisation are agro commodities, textile and apparel and more recently in the mining and energy space. My role in advising international development institutions and multilateral organisations involves sharing my expertise in trade, women’s empowerment, and sustainable development in these sectors. My skill set is transferable so I get to work across sectors and identify investment gaps and facilitate investment into those deficits. I help them design and implement programmes that align with their goals and contribute to positive change on the continent.

How do you envision the role of women in Africa’s development, and what steps can be taken to ensure more gender inclusiveness and empowerment?

Women, no doubt, have tremendous power, but we know that the challenges that women have been facing have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and other major global ongoing crisis.

Women leadership in critical economic spaces need to be encouraged and empowered in leading the spaces they find themselves. Their leadership and influence can lead to more equitable policies and greater representation. We need to encourage the formation of advocacy groups and associations that represent the interest of women ensuring their voices are heard and they participate in policy-making processes. To ensure gender inclusiveness, we must focus on education, skills development, and creating an enabling environment for women-led businesses. We need to address cultural and societal norms that hinder women’s progress and promote policies that support their economic and social advancement.

Women contribute significantly to various sectors as I mentioned earlier (they make up of over 70% of Africa’s informal sector), it is my belief that we must position them to embrace the opportunities in the AfCFTA which represents a borderless Africa.

I just want to say this here, women entrepreneurs are ready but don’t necessarily need gender specific interventions only – we need to ensure equity not just equality.

What message would you like to convey to the youths of Africa who aspire to be catalysts for change in their communities and beyond?

Dear African Youth, you are our biggest asset as a continent. You can’t choose where you were born but you can choose whether to live in purpose or adrift. There is no mistake about you, you were designed to thrive in chaos, so bet on yourself if nobody takes a chance on you. I was raised in Mushin but that wasn’t going to define me, I didn’t let it. What you don’t have doesn’t have to be a disadvantage, you can use it as a stepping stone – that’s what I did, and you can do it too. Find your passion, get a solid mentor, put in the work required, collaborate with others, and leverage the power of technology to drive positive change, start where you are. Africa’s future is in your hands so who are you not to be great?

What is next for you?

As I said, it’s a great time to be African. My NEXT is always in a state of evolution anchored in providing solutions for some of Africa’s biggest problems and the most vulnerable groups on the continent which are women and youths. All I can let out of the bag is look out for cross-Atlantic projects that will unlock the potential of 100 million women and youths within the next 7 years.

Concluding words

All eyes are on Africa, and I mean all eyes in the global community, we are the ones that don’t understand our value. For different reasons, we are emerging as the next frontier for investment, trade and sustainable development. It’s a great time to be African and we must all play our part in whichever sector we find ourselves. Remember, when you create a good name for us being a Nigerian, it has a ripple effect and opens the door for another Nigerian or African elsewhere. For women on the continent, it’s time to scale and skill up, the world is big enough for everyone to play in. Don’t wait to be invited to the table, create your own table and invite others to it. Lastly, God has given us all what we need to develop and make Africa great, we just must use it and be it.