THELMA EKIYOR is innovating to invest in female entrepreneurs in Nigeria
Thelma Ekiyor has over 21 years’ experience working in the development sector, as an Impact Investor, donor, philanthropic advisor, and social entrepreneur. She has experience working in 22 African countries. She has pioneered, founded, and led several organisations and initiatives focused on impact investing and women’s economic empowerment. In 2020, Ekiyor was listed as one of the 50 most influential women in the development sector in Africa. In August 2021, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, USA named her as one of the top 10 Black Women Give Back global Honourees.
Ekiyor is currently the Managing Partner SME.NG – Nigeria’s impact investment platform, which has set up two impact funds for women entrepreneurs. She is the Co- Founder/Chairperson of Afrigrants Resources and served as its pioneering CEO. At Afrigrants, she led the establishment of ‘Market Women’s Quick Cash’, a financial inclusion solution to provide micro-loans to women in disadvantaged communities, impacting 3000 women in northern and southern states in Nigeria.
She also led the conceptualisation of ‘The Ebi Fund’, an impact fund for women entrepreneurs. Thelma is the Founder & Co-Convener of The Funding Space, a mentoring and access to finance platform for social entrepreneurs in Africa, established in 2017. Prior to establishing Afrigrants, she was the pioneer CEO of TY Danjuma Foundation, setting up and building the Foundation to become a Leader in Nigeria and Africa. Before that, she served as the Pioneering Executive Director of the West African Civil Society Institute (WACSI), which was established by the George Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute for West Africa. She also served as the first female Director of the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP), working in war torn countries in West Africa providing developmental and humanitarian support.
Thelma holds an MBA (Entrepreneurship & Innovation) from Imperial College London, UK; a Law Degree (LLB Honours) from University of Buckingham UK, and she is a Stanford University (USA), Fellow. She also holds Senior Executive Education Certificates from the Imperial College, and the African Institute for International Development respectively.
Ekiyor served as Strategic Policy Adviser to UN Women Nigeria (2017- 2019). She is currently a Board Member on ALL ON, the renewable energy impact fund in West Africa established by Shell plc. She is a Member of the first National Advisory Board on Impact Investing in Nigeria, and also on the Advisory Board of The WISE Fund (USA). She is also the current Chairman of Black Philanthropy Africa, a global community for philanthropists of colour. She has received several awards and citations for her contributions to women’s economic empowerment and philanthropy in Africa.
Take us through your childhood memories
I had a very inspirational father. We are seven girls in my family, and my dad spent a lot of time and resources building our confidence. He knew culture discriminates against women, so he made us believe we could do anything and be anything. I am glad he brought us up that way because in our daily dealings, we can clearly see the influence of his positive impact and the result. The roles parents play in the lives of their children cannot be overemphasised. I am a product of my father’s positive influence, nurturing and guidance and the results speak for itself.
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What lessons have you learnt from your 23 years’ experience?
I have had the privilege of living and working across the world and in particular Africa. The main lesson from this experience is that I am part of a bigger divine plan. It does not matter where you live or work, we are part of the global jigsaw and we all need to play our part.
Why the drive for pioneering, founding and leading several organisations and initiatives focused on impact investing and women’s economic empowerment?
The part of pioneering part was not me at all. I only noticed by the 3rd organisation I was hired to establish that it had become a trend for me to be the first CEO. People are gifted to be planters or builders. I guess I am a planter and as God gives me strength and grace, I will always accomplish His will and purpose for my life to the fullest.
The focus on women’s economic empowerment is deliberate. I worked across Africa and in each, particularly those coming out of wars e.g. Liberia, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire, women held families and communities together but were never included in decision making. Even worse in the post conflict rebuilding, they would not be involved in the economic wheeling and dealing. This infuriated me. I realised that if we want women to be in leadership of any kind, we need to invest in women. Until women are writing cheques and calling shots, their influences will be limited.
Why did you set up SME.NG?
SME.NG was established by me and my partners Bolaji Balogun and Phil Southwell of Chapel Hill Denham. I had always admired Bolaji’s drive and we had aligned ideas on how to support female entrepreneurs. We realised that combining my experience in philanthropy and impact investing with Chapel Hill’s vast experience in private equity and asset management could create magic.
That’s how SME.NG was born. We have created an indigenous business, started with local capital that invests in female-led businesses. We also invested in Nigeria’s first all women non-tech accelerator ‘She Works Here’ and to date, 560 have passed through the accelerator programme. Furthermore, we have provided technical assistance grants to 25 businesses in 9 states across 7 sectors. We have also created the Ebi Market – Nigeria’s first access to finance, markets and advisory e-commerce platform for women. We have a patient debt facility with financial institution partners.
Share on co-founding and being Chairperson of Afrigrants Foundation
Afrigrants Foundation is my legacy Foundation. It is my vehicle for giving back. God has been incredibly good to me. I want to support women and girls through strategic philanthropy. We have impacted 3,000 women in Nigeria and 600 girls in 4 countries in Africa. The Foundation’s work brings me joy.
Tell us about ‘The Ebi Fund’
The Ebi fund is a patient debt fund for female entrepreneurs that serve bottom of the pyramid communities. We are delighted that Bank of Industry has partnered with us on this.
What is The Funding Space about?
God gave me the idea for The Funding Space 6 years ago. It is an annual convening of impact investors and social entrepreneurs. It brings people looking for money with people who have money. It has convened 4,000 people to date. Deals have been closed, grants given, partnerships developed but most importantly, friendships forged. COVID made us switch to virtual formats in 2020 -2021. We are looking forward to hosting our first in-person event in September of 2022.
Share on being Chairman of Black Philanthropy Month Africa
Black Philanthropy Month (BPM) started in the US. It was conceptualised by my good sister and friend, Dr. Jacqueline Copeland, a veteran in global philanthropy because she saw the inequities in investments to communities of colour.
It is a movement that brings together black philanthropist or people of colour working in philanthropy. In 2020, the global BPM commenced, in Africa, Brazil and Caribbean. I have had the privilege of serving as the Africa Chairperson since the global series started. Africans want to impact their communities through philanthropy. BPM makes Africa part of a global movement that is becoming very influential to ensuring that social capital flows to black communities across the world.
Tell us about the challenges of funding for businesses as experienced by women
It is true that access to finance continues to a challenge for female entrepreneurs. Investors and financial institutions are mostly established on patriarchal principles and this has affected the flow of capital. It is improving with more women in leadership but there is still a lot of work to be done.
The key mistakes women make include: Not having a long term plan for the businesses, not separating business and personal accounts, not keeping records or financial reports, not gaining the requisite skills in their areas of operation and staying up to date with trends and not understanding the kind of capital they need for their business at different stages of growth. Not all money is good!!
Women are integral to Nigeria’s economic development. We need to stop playing lip service to supporting women and put real capital behind them. 2023 is also an opportunity for women to ensure that those we vote in represent our interests. We should not be observers in our country’s development.