Nkem Okocha is a banker-turned social entrepreneur who has found a way to combine her passion for financial inclusion, women’s empowerment, technology and entrepreneurship to create Mamamoni – a social enterprise designed to improve the economic status of women in Nigeria. She is a 2015-Tony Elumelu Foundation Alumnus, 2016 LEAP Africa Social Innovator, as well as a 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow. Excerpts by SEYI JOHN SALAU
What is the initiative behind Mamamoni?
Mamamoni is a social enterprise that creates economic opportunities for low-income women, through activities like skills building to make them diligently engaged, and access to credit so that they can be financially independent – the combination of these enable them to improve their economic status in the long-term.
The service is delivered through multiple tiers and channels: it exists as a financial technology platform which provides socially-conscious individuals to invest in poor women by lending to them; low-income women are enrolled in skills development exercises and trainings, and provided with market access opportunities; female micro-entrepreneurs are equipped with financial literacy skills and micro-loans to help them grow their small businesses. Since 2013, through Mamamoni, we have empowered over 6000 low-income women from different communities.
What is the motivation behind your focus on empowering women with credit facilities and financial education?
When I was a young girl, I lost my father, and because he was the sole provider for our family, his death created a life-changing spiral for my mother and I. My mother has no skills and no finance to start a business or create a source of livelihood through which to support us. As a result, growing up was extremely tough. This was a trend I saw repeatedly in my community – there was a significant level of poverty around, and most of the women had no stable source of livelihood; as a result, their children could not go to school. I realised early on that with a bit of empowerment – education and/or finance – these women could lift – not only themselves – but also their children, and eventually, their communities out of poverty.
This was the primary motive behind my starting Mamamoni. We began by training women in low-income communities so that they would acquire sustainable livelihood skills; this was then supported with micro-loans which would help to support entrepreneurship. The Mamamoni structure is also built to be centred on the specific needs of these women, and so after we conducted a series of interviews to understand where skills were particularly lacking, we found that most low-income female entrepreneurs lacked financial skills, and so we started training them on this. As a result, the Mamamoni programme has become truly holistic in enabling and empowering women at every stage of their progressive economic development, to ensure that the outcomes are strong and sustainable.
What techniques are used by your organisation to overcome the social and cultural barriers that deter women from accessing financial services in Nigeria?
Research suggests that women-owned small businesses face a credit gap of $1.7 trillion globally, limiting their ability to grow their businesses. However, this is not to say that women are averse to financial services, but access is skewed towards men – due to factors like illiteracy, and financial dependency; as a result, women are very reliant on informal financial services.
We work to tackle this by starting off with skills development training, which we also compound with discussions on the need for them to be financially-independent; the latter in particular is usually helped by past beneficiaries, who we bring in to share their own success stories. This is especially powerful, because when these women are given a glimpse into the positive outcomes for women like themselves, they become a lot more receptive, and are even driven to convince their husbands to support their decisions.
How are you working with partners and government to increase financial education for women?
Our partnerships are not limited to financial education alone, but rather, we are able to also ensure that other skill building efforts are pursued under their existing umbrellas. Since 2015 we have worked with partners like The Tony Elumelu Foundation, The United States Consulate General in Lagos, ACT Foundation, Union Bank, Edo State Government, Lagos State Employment Trust Fund (LSETF) to provide free sustainable Vocational/Financial skills training to low-income women for free. We recognise that the platforms that many of these organisations have can be extremely beneficial to propelling our work and our efforts to build a solid ‘femeconomy’; it therefore, becomes imperative to create and drive as many avenues for partnership as possible.
How do you work with existing formal financial institutions to increase and improve female participation in economic activities?
This year, in partnership with Union Bank, we created an Innovation Hub for low-income women in Amuwo-Odofin – the initiative is designed to create and provide a space where low-income women from different communities across Lagos can voluntarily opt-in and come to learn different skills. The unique selling point of this hub is the varied nature of the skills that are provided; from photography and video editing, to garment making, catering, understanding computer systems and digital skills, emotional intelligence, customer service, and branding, all for free. What we have found is that these women are more successful when they are empowered with the benefit of choice, and the hub provides an extremely important way to provide that.
What would you say are some of the immediate effects of female financial inclusion on the growth of the Nigerian/African economy?
In 2018, reports showed the shocking and disturbing reality of Nigeria becoming the world’s poverty capital with 87million (i.e. 43percent) living below the poverty line. This is even more disheartening when one considers that majority of these individuals are women.
Women are disproportionately excluded from basic services such as education, employment, and financial services. This automatically restricts their access to the growth factors that would enable them to grow, and to grow their respective communities.
A study conducted on female-headed households in Kenya showed that for women, the route out of poverty is not always simply access to credit or capital, but rather financial inclusion at a more basic level i.e. providing avenues through which they can leverage the access and the tools and channels they already have; which ultimately enhances their ability to manage these financial resources. In the same study, when these female-headed households adopted mobile money, there was a 20percent increase in savings; and a 22percent reduction in extreme poverty. A similar study conducted in Nepal revealed that female-headed households where women could access basic financial services experienced a greater ability to withstand health shocks, a 20percent higher spend on education, and a 15 per cent increase in healthy eating.
The evidence is clear: The potential for growth in Nigeria is significant, especially when you consider that many of these women already contribute to the country’s informal sector. I recently read a piece by Godwin Nwabunka, the founder of the Grooming Centre, which illustrated how 300 market women made N1billion in a 6-month period. That’s unbelievable, and it is further proof that the more these women remain excluded from contributing to national economic indices, it ultimately limits the amount of growth that the country truly experiences.