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Nigerian Women Entrepreneurs That Inspire Me

Nigerian Women Entrepreneurs

As a child, I watched with keen interest how my mum, despite her 9-5 job still engaged in various forms of businesses. I usually wondered why she did “we were doing fine” I thought but as I matured, I understood better, that having more streams of income is indeed one of the best decisions ever.

From SMEs to bigger trades, women have found their way to owning various businesses and thanks to their natural nurturing and multitasking abilities, they are able to multiply the income and even do more.

In the report released by the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) this year, it shows that women in Nigeria accounted for 41 per cent ownership of micro businesses in the country.

The report further revealed that the percentage rate shows that 23 million female entrepreneurs are operating within the segment.

As a result of this statistics and according to PwC, it places Nigeria among the highest entrepreneurship rates globally. The reason for this number is said to be as a result of necessity, which according to PwC is the norm in emerging markets where there is insufficient formal employment.

Watching and learning from my mother birthed the desire to want to know more about women, their entrepreneurial spirit and their passion to make a living.

From my first day in BusinessDay over 12 years ago, it was clear to me that I was going to tell the stories of women. I was going to inspire others through the stories of the amazing women who warmly gave me access into their space, who saw the passion in me to want to tell the stories of women hence the birth of the page called Leading Woman, where various women have over the years been profiled.

In sharing their amazing stories, I observed that they had more to say, that a single page in the newspaper wasn’t telling it all. So I nursed the idea of having a conference where various women are chosen to share their inspiring stories with other entrepreneurs and women who generally desired a shift upward in their daily dealings could come and learn.

As such, in December 2010, the Inspiring Woman Series Conference was birthed. It has since become an annual conference which various discerning and inspiring women look forward to.

Starting off the conference 10 years ago wasn’t an easy feat. I had heard various stories of different women, I wanted the world to hear their story, I wanted more women to be inspired, I wanted them to know that they can own their businesses, I wanted them to know that if the invited speakers could thrive in their businesses, they could do same. I wanted them to know that it was okay to start small.

For these reasons and so much more, the speakers chosen always had inspiring stories of starting off, their struggles and challenges, their wins and losses and so much more. They could identify with the speakers and many of them were encouraged knowing that if the speakers could, then Yes! They could too.

Great women like various First Ladies of Nigeria, billionaire businesswoman and Vice chairman, Famfa Oil, Folorunso Alakija; South African singer, songwriter and entrepreneur, Yvonne Chaka Chaka; Chairman, First Bank Of Nigeria Ltd. & CEO/Founder The Chair Centre, Ibukun Awosika; Former Minister of Trade and Industry, Ghana, Hannah Tetteh; Founder, Leap Africa, Co-Founder, AACE Food Processing & Distribution, Ndidi Nwuneli; CEO, House Of Tara International, Tara Fela-Durotoye; President/CEO, Transnational Corporation of Nigeria Plc, Owen Omogiafo; Founder of the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy, Hafsat Abiola-Costello; Co-founder of Transparency International, Oby Ezekwesili; CEO, Eventful Ltd, Yewande Zaccheaus; Founder/CEO Ebonylife Media, Mo Abudu, CEO and Founder, By Design Africa, Zoe Molapisi to mention a few have graced the event.

I have been privileged to speak with many women over the years but will pick 6 for this article and share their stories and community impact from the angle of someone who has not only observed their business strategies and personal stories, but has also shared them through video and print publication whilst learning and taking notes even in my line of duty.

Ibukun Awosika
Chairman, Board of Directors, First Bank Nigeria Ltd.
Founder/CEO, The Chair Centre Group

Ibukun Awosika, Chairman, Board of Directors, First Bank Nigeria Ltd. Founder/CEO, The Chair Centre Group

This is one woman who believes in me. I have followed her career trajectory and business story so much that if you wake me up to ask me about her, I know what to say. The Chair Centre Group is indeed a story of perseverance and diligence. The business recently celebrated 30 years and I was honoured to have an exclusive video interview with her, where she shared on sustaining her business for 30 years.

30 years! If you have successfully sustained a business for 30 years, please speak, we are your students, we are taking notes, we are jotting things down.

I remember at the first edition of Inspiring Woman Series conference in 2010, I really wanted her to be a speaker at the conference. She asked me to come over to her office and she showed me her diary. I became dizzy instantly. She was booked for the entire year. Mind you, by this time, she was not yet the Chairman of First Bank. You can only imagine what her schedule looks like now.

I had never seen a diary so booked. She encouraged me and applauded my decision to celebrate women and we both agreed she would make the second edition. I booked her a year ahead and she came.

This is a proven fact. When Ibukun Awosika speaks at any event, your life can never be the same. Trust me when I say she was worth waiting for. Ibukun’s story and business acumen is one that truly inspires. When you hear the cliché ‘Breaking the glass ceiling’ please edit her story to ‘shattering the glass ceiling’.

Ask me why and I will tell you that when for the first time, you are the first female Chairman of a Bank which has been sustaining its development-oriented services for over 126 years, a bank that offers a comprehensive range of retail and corporate financial services through more than 57,000 business outlets to over 17 million customer accounts, then you are worth every accolade.

Mo Abudu
CEO, Ebonlylife Media

Mo Abudu, CEO, Ebonlylife Media

Africa’s first Global Entertainment & Lifestyle network, EbonyLife TV is owned by the daring Mo Abudu. EbonyLife TV is rooted in the belief of creating content that is representative of a progressive and burgeoning Africa. Since deciding to change the narrative, the company has created more than 5,000 hours of entertainment and lifestyle programming, with high production values. EbonyLife TV has the vision to be the preferred broadcaster for premium African entertainment and a mission to create original and inspiring content with an African soul that showcases the best of Africa for a global audience.

However, before the birth of EbonyLife TV, I have known Mo Abudu through the years and followed her rise closely. It was a pleasure reading some of my poems Live on her show Moments With Mo way back.

Mo is someone who sees obstacles as stepping stones to greater heights.
I remember asking her to speak at the third edition of Inspiring Woman Series and she said to me “Kemi, something major is about to happen. I want it to be when I will speak at your event. I am rounding up and it will be a good place to make the announcement”.

Knowing who Mo is, I knew it was going to be something spectacular and worthy of all the accolades.
True to her words, by the time it was time for the next edition of Inspiring Woman Series, she was ready. It was there she shared with all participants that EbonyLife TV was being birthed. The news was received with so much joy and till date, Mo never ceases to raise the bar.

She also began to release amazing record breaking movies back to back. I would always look forward to December because there was always a movie premiere from EbonyLife and I have never missed one. Never a dull moment!

EbonyLife Media, headed by CEO Mo Abudu, is Nigeria’s premium media conglomerate comprising EbonyLife TV, EbonyLife Films, EbonyLife Studios, EbonyLife ON (a global streaming service) and EbonyLife Place (a luxury entertainment resort).

EbonyLife Media believes in creating original and inspiring content that showcases a pioneering and progressive Africa. The content is strongly rooted in Africa and connected to a global black audience, through a shared identity and common values. EbonyLife Media’s vision is to be the most influential storyteller of a new Africa.

Tara Fela-Durotoye
Founder/CEO House of Tara International

Tara Fela-Durotoye, Founder/CEO House of Tara International

I have known Tara for several years. She is a Nigerian beauty entrepreneur, Lawyer and pioneer in the bridal makeup profession in Nigeria. She has also spoken at Inspiring Woman Series Conference.

Her entrepreneurial story and journey is one I never get tired of sharing or writing on. Because she gave her passion a chance to soar, her determination ignited what has now become an in-thing in the Nigerian make-up industry and beyond.

I went to Balogun market one day, Balogun market is a large market in Lagos state. As I was walking towards the area where I was going to get what I went there for, somehow, in the process of walking and looking left and right, in a quick flash, my eyes glimpsed her name boldly written on a product that looked like hers. I paused and walked back to the woman selling the product. She had other items she was selling. I picked up the Tara powder, looked at it in pain, imagining how many was being counterfeited like that and suddenly became sad and speechless. The woman asked me “Madam, how many you want?” It was like salt was poured on an open wound. I looked at her and told her I knew the woman who owned this brand and that it wasn’t fair that her product was being counterfeited.

She explained she didn’t know it was the fake, of course that was a lie, but I took a few minutes to advise her on the need to desist from buying counterfeit and destroying the business of anyone, especially a fellow woman like her.

I reached out to Tara who then let me into the challenges she was going through at that time. It was really a bad situation. In the campaign titled “United We Stand” she joined stakeholders in the industry to unite against counterfeiting of their products. This happened in 2017.

Again, recently, her shops were attacked by hoodlums who took advantage of the peaceful protest against SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) to loot her products in her shops. Even in that situation, she was helping to create awareness for other shops that were looted and encouraged everyone to support them.

If I say to you, that through her entrepreneurial journey, she has been through and seen all, both good and bad, trust me, she has gone through it all nevertheless, her brand stands sure and her spirit can never be broken. A truly inspiring story indeed!

Ndidi Nwuneli
Founder, Leap Africa
Co-Founder, AACE Food Processing & Distribution

Ndidi Nwuneli. Founder, Leap Africa. Co-Founder, AACE Food Processing & Distribution

Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli is a social entrepreneur, author and speaker. She is the co-founder of Sahel Consulting, a private equity and investment advisory firm. She is also the Founder of LEAP Africa and Co-Founder of AACE Food Processing & Distribution.

Ndidi is another dynamic woman whose entrepreneurial journey truly inspires and I have written about. She has over 25 years of experience in international development. Through her work with Sahel, she has shaped agriculture strategy and policy and launched innovative businesses and ecosystem solutions in partnership with clients in the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

In 2014, while preparing for the 5 edition of Inspiring Woman Series, I lost my father. It was a rude shock but the conference had been planned and there was no going back. Several women had registered and cancelling it wasn’t going to be an option so I put myself together and ensured the event was an astounding success. It wasn’t an easy season but I knew I had to be strong so the program went on and I mourned after.

The following year, same month, during the 6th edition of Inspiring Series, right at the peak of preparation, I lost my mum too, meaning I lost my parents in the space of one year.

Her death shook me to my foundation, she was like a rock and pillar for me. She always supported and encouraged me at every edition of Inspiring Woman Series Conference. My heart was broken and shattered but I knew the event had to go on.

Now, here is where Ndidi came in. She was one of the selected speakers for that day and while the speakers were being briefly hosted in the VIP lounge before they were taken into the hall, someone whispered to her that I just lost my mother. So, she pulled me aside and asked if I was okay. She wanted to be sure I could handle coordinating the event. “It is here already Ndidi, there is no going back, the hall is packed with people who want to hear your entrepreneurial journey and other speakers too. I can’t dash their hope, if my mother was alive, she would support me so I will go ahead” she gave me a stare of worry, I guess she saw I was internalising the pain.

She plainly told me that if she was the one, there was no way she would be able to go on. She hugged me and encouraged me with soothing words. She has such a gift with choice of words of comfort, hope and positivity. However, Ndidi certainly wasn’t ‘done’ with me.

Back at the event, one after the other, the speakers came up to share their stories to inspire other women and when it was Ndidi’s turn, she asked me to stand up. I didn’t understand what was going on, it was right at the beginning of her speech and while I was wondering what she was about to say, she told the audience I just lost my mother and lost my father same time last year doing the same thing, coordinating the Inspiring Woman Series Conference.

I could sense the mixed reactions in the room. They applauded me but I could see on the faces of the participants, worry, shock, questions and more.

It was encouraging to know that they cared and wished me well. I managed to put myself together throughout the event and yes, I did breakdown but that was after the event.

My joy was that I honoured my mother’s memory by going ahead; it is what she would have wanted me to do and I am glad I did.

Lucy Attah Enyia
Founder/CEO of Women and Children of Hope

Lucy Attah Enyia, Founder/CEO of Women and Children of Hope

Lucy is a BSc graduate of Public Administration. Her story is one that I can never forget. Her desire to live and make a living, her passion to help others is one among many others, the reason I chose to tell her story as a documentary and publication when I did.

Lucy is HIV Positive. According to UNAIDS, Nigeria’s national HIV prevalence is 1.4% among adults aged 15–49 years, women aged 15–49 years are more than twice as likely to be living with HIV than men (1.9% versus 0.9%.).

Though Lucy makes part of the statistics nevertheless, she is living life to the fullest and encouraging others in same ‘shoes’ to do same.

She has been HIV Positive for more than 20 years. A Nigerian wife, mother and Founder/CEO of Women and Children of Hope, established in 2000 to support women and children living with HIV.

Fortunately, her three children are negative, thanks to antiretroviral drugs. “When I found out my HIV status, it was a rude shock for me. I went through my share of stigmatisation, I lost some friends but others stayed. It was really a trying period for me but now, I am bold to share my experiences with people and educate people on HIV/AIDS and the way forward.” Lucy told me’

When she established the Women of Hope Foundation through which she rallies round to get support for those living with HIV/AIDS, the idea was (and still is) to make the life of people living with HIV/AIDS worth every minute and to ensure they know that as long as there is life, there is hope.

Her challenge has often been to get funds to support them however, sadly, the funds aren’t often available. “Many of them haven’t gotten used to the fact that they are going to be positive for life except a miracle happens, so I do my best to counsel them,” she says.

I remember during the interview/documentary, Lucy took me to another woman her foundation was helping out. Her name is Lilian Ode, a tailor who also had tested positive. As at the time we had the interview, she was staying in an uncompleted building in Lagos where she lived for months with her two-month-old baby.

She told me her husband had psychiatric challenges and was even taken to a psychiatric home to be cared for. “When it rains, it drenches me, when the weather is hot I feel it, because the place is open, I am open to a lot of things. Worst of all is that once this structure gets to a certain level, I will have to leave here because the owners will plaster their house, paint and move in.” Lilian said.

“I am still here because the structure hasn’t reached that level yet; when it does, I wonder what I will do or where to return to. I was a tailor but now sewing is a challenge; I don’t have my machines anymore, caring for my baby also has the challenges because I can’t breast-feed her.

I thank God for the people of Women and Children of Hope who sometimes help by getting baby food. As I speak with you now, I am feeling cold, my body temperature goes up and down, it has not been easy but I look to God for help and I know He will send help my way,” she concluded amidst tears.

I remember during the interviews, at some point, we had to pause. I couldn’t hold back the tears; I wished I could do something drastic to help her situation. I truly wanted her to go back into business, I wanted her to live, I wanted her baby to live too. I knew however, that I could use my platform to tell their stories and I am glad I did.

Lucy has continued to reach out to communities and people living with HIV and today, she has set up groups across 37 cities in Nigeria. Such an inspiration, what a testament! I am glad to have told her story to the world, it was worth every sacrifice and sweat. The challenges that came with the production (almost mobbed by hoodlums, thanks to her intervention) was all worth it.

Anthonia Ojenagbon
COO, Silton African Kitchen & Sexual abuse recovery specialist

Anthonia Ojenagbon, COO, Silton African Kitchen & Sexual abuse recovery specialist

Though an entrepreneur, Anthonia Ojenagbon had suffered sexual abuse for several years but what intrigues me most is how she has consistently turned her pain to purpose, inspiring abuse survivors and giving them hope.

She was one of BusinessDay’s Women’s Hub’s Women Champions, 2020. For our Independence celebration edition, in commemoration of Nigeria’s 60th Independence, I celebrated 60 Women Champions and she was one of them.

Her story never ceases to inspire me. Her struggles with guilt and low self-esteem started in her teenage years after she was consistently sexually abused by her relative, who was supposed to be her guardian. Having overcome the resultant debilitating emotional trauma, over two decades later, she made a decision to use her knowledge and experience to help lift others out of similar situations. In addition to setting up a support group for sexually abused people, she speaks to children and parents about sexual abuse and how to curb the menace.

Aside her passion for the abused, Anthonia’s business, Silton African Kitchen is one known by many and patronised by many. At one of the editions of the Inspiring Woman Series Conference, she supplied some finger foods and the guests surely enjoyed every bit of it.

Her business has truly grown from preparing various local and intercontinental dishes at events to creating bespoke packages for her clients. How she manages to maintain her sanity in the midst of various calls from sexually abused children, teens (male and female) and ladies, counseling, fighting for human rights, lending her voice to injustice and still running her business baffles me till date.
Indeed another inspiring woman and story I am glad I have shared.

Permit me to conclude that African women are strong, passionate, assiduous and goal oriented. For over a decade and counting, whether it be the weekly Leading Woman page, or Women’s Hub magazine or the Women In Business page (Friday back page of BusinessDay) or the Inspiring Woman Series Conference, or the ‘Inspiring Woman Series With Kemi Ajumobi’ (A weekly Live Instagram Show), all of which till date, I ardently embrace with the deepest passion and uttermost devotion, ask me again if I am passionate about women entrepreneurs and women making a difference in the society, and these will clearly be my evidence. I rest my case!