YALI Network member and 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow Nkem Okocha’s mission is to empower women by supporting them in economic industries like business and finance. Her goals started from viewing the benefits of financial support received by struggling women in her own life.
Nkem’s family lived in poverty and struggled to even guarantee that there would be food on the table each night. When a family friend gave a bit of financial assistance to Nkem’s mother, her mother took half of this money and put it toward feeding the family, while she put the other half toward a small vegetable business. Although it might not have been much, this little bit of help allowed Nkem’s mother to continue to provide food for her family through the revenue she was making from her vegetable business. Seeing the benefits of economic empowerment in her own household is what led Nkem to create a life based around economic empowerment of women. Nkem believes it is important to invest in women, especially because research shows “that when you invest in women they deploy 90 percent of their income back into their families.”
Nkem’s bachelor’s degree in banking and finance from Lagos State University, along with her experience working in banking, helped her learn how to devise a system in which she would provide loans to women as a way to help them jumpstart plans for businesses they didn’t have the means to start on their own. Her social enterprise, Mamamoni Limited, provides loans to poor women to help them lift themselves out of poverty through launching small businesses and creating sustainable incomes. So far, the project has allowed over 4,000 women to begin to break the cycle of poverty in their families.
The advice Nkem gives to young entrepreneurs who are hesitant to launch a project is for people to “start with what they have, because for me, I was waiting until I had a lot of money, but I discovered that the money was not forthcoming, so I had to start with the little finance I had.” Nkem was so dedicated to the launch of her own business that she started off by giving out small loans from money out of her own pocket to help Mamamoni Limited gain credibility. In addition to the loans, Mamamoni Limited also works on training women in the skills they’ll need for their new businesses to succeed. Now, Mamamoni receives funding from a variety of sources, including the U.S. government.
To hear more about Nkem’s mission to make a difference by financially empowering women, listen to the YALI Voices Podcast or read the transcript below.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE
“YALI Voices Podcast: Nkem Okocha”
NKEM OKOCHA: We focus more on women because we’ve seen that even research has shown that when you invest in women they deploy 90 percent of their income back into their families. Because most of the women that we’ve seen, when you empower them the money that they are generating, the livelihood income they’re generating is used for their family. So they are not thinking of buying new clothes. They’re not thinking of going to parties. They are reinvesting their income back into their family.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICE OVER: Welcome to your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast on iTunes and Google Play. And visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI.
OKOCHA: My name is Nkem from Nigeria.
VOICE OVER: Nkem Okocha grew up poor in Lagos, Nigeria. She watched her mother struggle to raise her and her siblings after the loss of her father. And then suffered the loss of a brother to an illness — an illness for which money could have saved his life. It was a life made harsher by her mother’s lack of education and opportunity. And she was determined to change the narrative for herself and thousands of other women in Nigeria.
In this edition of the YALI Voices podcast, Nkem tells how she went from selling goods on the streets of Lagos as a child to creating Mamamoni — a financial tech platform that enables individuals to invest in women-owned businesses in Nigeria. Nkem is determined to break the cycle of poverty and lack of education and skills training that disproportionately affects women.
OKOCHA: I started because of my experience as a young girl. Nineteen years ago I lost my father. So, my mother was a full time housewife, she was practically doing nothing, so there was no livelihood income for us to feed. So going to school was a very big challenge for us, and it was very hard for her taking care of four children, so there was no support. Practically eating every day was a big challenge. Until a family friend came, gave us some money to use for feeding, but instead of using it she used part of it to feed us that day and the other part she used it to go start a small vegetable business. From that business she started getting little finance for us to feed in the house, but it was still very difficult. At a particular time I had to go hawk in the streets, selling shampoos in major streets of Lagos. I had to become a house help, helping people take care of their children for me to get money to write my exams. It was very, very tough. After everything, I said, “No child deserves to go through what we did,” because at the time we lost our elder brother because we couldn’t get money to finance his kidney transplant. For my mother, losing a husband, losing a child, because there was no money. It was very, very, very, very — it’s an experience I don’t want anyone to go through.
So because I saw what she did, what she passed through — we were hungry, she wanted to feed us, but there was no money — I said if she was educated, maybe if she had enough money, if she had a good business, if someone had given her good money, maybe things would have been different. So I said immediately, I get enough money, this is what I want to do. So I finished high school. I was lucky to get into the banking profession and I worked in the bank for like eight years, working in the operations and marketing department. I got married, but I still had women that used to come to us to say, “Nkem, Auntie Nkem, I want money to feed my child, I want money for my child to go to school.” If I had [it] I used to help. After I resigned — and I had like a small office. In the morning when going to the office — because when I was working in the bank I used to leave the house as early as 4 a.m. because of the bad traffic on Lagos road — in the morning when I resigned, while going to the office I found a lot of women sitting outside, idle, doing nothing, most of their children not going to school. I said, “What is happening?” Some of them used to come, so I walked up to some of them like, “What is happening? Why is your child not in school?”
Like, “My husband doesn’t have the means to send our children to school and I’m practically doing nothing.” So, this continued. I was so uncomfortable with it. So I was waiting until I had a lot of money, but I just discovered that the money was not coming. So a family friend that had been good to — he used to train people on different skills. All the money I made in my office for a particular period I took it, I printed flyers, I gave him money to buy materials and I went into my community and I told them that, “Christian, Muslim, all women, anybody, any woman, you know you are not doing anything and you want an additional source of income. We’re having this training for free, you have to pay nothing.” That was how I started.
VOICE OVER: Nkem’s mother would tell her and her siblings that if she had gone to school maybe things would have been different, maybe she could get a job. It was a fate that Nkem’s mother was determined would not befall her children. Nkem talks more about this period in her life and then on how she came to create Mamamoni.
OKOCHA: So because she did not go, she wanted us to go. So, it was very important to her. There are times that she had to sell her clothes to help us get books. There was a time she had like practically one clothes. She could not buy anything. Every money she made she used it for our feeding then transportation to school and sometimes books.
I was able to go to the university while working in the bank. I went for part-time program. Because after getting … my first certification is from a polytechnic in Nigeria. I have like a diploma in business administration and management. That was what I used to get the job in the bank. While in the bank I knew that I could not leave the bank because there was no money to finance my education, so I was working in the bank and I was going for part-time education at Lagos State University.
Banking was taking up all of my time, there was no time for my family. I wanted personal development, but I couldn’t take excuses every time from my boss. So, I was not feeling fulfilled. Meanwhile in 2009, because I had this heart to help, because I wanted economic empowerment for, or let’s say community transformation for the community, I stayed to, I wrote a book on entrepreneurship, encouraging youths. I wrote the book … I searched for like 120 business ideas and I wrote the book. Because I was working in the bank I couldn’t go out to seminars, I couldn’t go to talk to people to make them know that with this book you can find an idea and you can start a business. So for me, I wanted more out of life. I wanted to give back to the community, but banking was taking up all my time and I was not feeling fulfilled. I’d go back and come back and I am sad, I was not happy with myself, so I told myself that I have to stop. I just took that decision and I resigned.
OKOCHA: Mamamoni, it’s in pidgin English, it means “mother of money,” because I want women to be financially empowered. Because when we started our trainings, our free trainings, we had women that after training they’ve acquired this skill. Some could talk to their family members to help them with like, little cash for startup, but others did not have that help. So, when I go through the community and I see some women, I’m like, “Have you started your business?” “Oh, I can’t start because there’s no money.” Some women would tell me that, “I love what you did, but there’s no money to start.” So, since I had that background in banking, so I started saying to myself that that means we could actually give these women small amounts of money to start a business, but I did not have the money. So I kept on telling them that, “Don’t worry, very soon we’ll start lending.” The ones that I could give money from my own pocket, I did to say, “Okay you can take this.” For some we gave them startup materials to start that, “After selling you can keep the cash and start using it for your personal use.”
The first training we did we had close to 70 women. We had close to 70 women from my community. So after that I started going to other communities, because when I started seeing the women, people did not understand because they say, “You don’t have money and the little money that is for yourself. Why are you using it for those people? They are not your family members.” I said, “No, I know how I met this woman two months ago. Look at what she’s doing,” and they come and tell me that I’m selling my product to schools, because we used to teach them how to make products that they can sell in their community. Taught them how to make homemade disinfectant, homemade liquid dishwashing soap, so they sell to people in their community. So they’re like, “I’m selling to this school, I’m making money. I’m selling to this hospital, I’m making money. They are using it for their bathrooms and their toilets.” So I said, “I know where I met this woman two months ago. This is what I want to do.” So we started going to other communities to do that. I used my money that I made from my shop, from the other skills that I had. Every month I was going to other communities to search for women to help them.
OKOCHA: When we started getting women that wanted us to lend them money, then I had the mentor. So we said, “Okay.’ He gave me some money for us to do a prototype. So we took five of my women, we lent them for six months and they paid back successfully. We said, “Whoa, that means this can work.” So I took that money, I gave it back to him. I was looking for somewhere else to get money to finance more women until in 2015, I saw this application for the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Foundation. They were looking for 1,000 African youths, to give them grants. So I applied using the five women that I financed as prototypes and we got the funding for 5,000 U.S. dollars. So from that $5,000, we started lending women money. From the $5,000 we got our first office, from the $5,000. So, that’s what we used to start. Then two years into when I started Mamamoni, the U.S. Consulate General in Lagos, they called for proposal, proposal for organizations doing women empowerment, youth empowerment, and we applied, and we got funding from the U.S. Consulate General in Lagos. So for the past two years, trainings for women in different communities has been funded by the U.S. Consulate General in Lagos.
So the women come for our training for free because when I had no money, there were trainings I wanted to go for, but it was expensive. I couldn’t attend. I said, “This training, if you really want to help this women, they don’t have any money. The trainings have to be free.” From the money we got from the U.S. Consulate General we trained them to acquire a skill, then we also trained them to be financially literate. We had to innovate a toolkit because we discovered that most of these women, some women that we talked to, when they sell, they sell let’s say $100, at the end of the day they have $50. They say to themselves, “Someone has come to steal my money.” I discovered that they were not keeping proper records. I told them that nobody’s taking your money. This money is because you’re not keeping good records. So we innovated a toolkit to help them keep records, keep sales, expenses, to track sales, to track expenses, to track their stock. That toolkit has been financed by the U.S. Consulate General, so we give it to them for free.
After training them we teach them marketing skills, how to brand their product, how to sell their product. It’s just like a mini business school for them, because most of them are illiterate.
OKOCHA: What we do is we identify a community. Let’s say that we go to a community and we train 100 women. We see women that would go immediately — we finish that training and that’s when they’ve started what we taught them. You see some women, they have like a brick-and-mortar store, just a small store selling other things, so they use what we’ve trained them as an additional source of income. We try to identify a leader in that community, because for every community we go to someone who’ll say, “Okay, this woman, she’s like a leader in this community,” so I identify that woman. So we group them. Because it’s a community, they know everybody. They know who is troublesome. They know who, if you give her money, she’s not going to pay back. So with this information — when somebody comes and say, “She’s owing too much money. If you give her this money she’s going to use that money to pay back.” So for those women that if we give them money, they won’t pay back, some organizations come to us to say, “Mamamoni, we love what you are doing. We want to give some of your women grants,” so those kind of women, we identify them and give them the free grants.
We hope to reach like 10,000 women in the next five years. After the grant from the Tony Elumelu Foundation, we discovered that, and paying for office, we had little funds remaining and we have this pool of women. So I innovated like my web platform and it was individuals, so individuals from different communities, they could practically go to a platform now to select any of our women and lend to them. So they lend, after six months they get their money back with the 5 percent interest on it. They could decide to re-lend the money or take back their full money. That is what we’ve been using to finance our women.
OKOCHA: Women entrepreneurs need to be very diligent. They need to be hardworking and focused, because one thing that has helped me has been focus. I’ve been so — and dedication. If you know you’re passionate about something, even when other people are saying it is not going to work, you just have to believe in what you want to do. And then getting the right skills, getting information, personal development. You identify areas that you know that you are weak and you try to attend trainings to boost your capacity in those areas. So for me, I would say focus, dedication, you need to be hardworking, because I don’t want to fall on anybody to motivate me, I push myself.
For me, I encourage every woman. Because for our women that we train, we tell them, “We are giving you all these skills, we’re empowering you with finance, for you to educate and train your children.” They know. So, there are times that we had to bring NGOs that are passionate about training children. We bring them, we invite them and we tell our women, “Bring your children.” Then we have like, they do trainings for their children. In Nigeria we have three sets of exams for the primary school education, secondary and — primary, secondary school and the university education. So, we had to bring NGOs to train children that wanted to go from primary school to secondary school, from secondary school to university. We brought educators to help them with their exams. So we tell them their children must go to school because all this money you are making is for them to live a better life. And most of them, they really want their children to live a better life, because they are not happy with their own situation. And for me, if I had not gone to school I don’t know if I’d be helping other women because my education working in the bank really exposed me. So if I had not gone to school I would’ve been one of those women. Maybe like my mother. So I tell my women that we are investing in you so that you can invest in your children.
OKOCHA: For YALI Network members who might want to do the same thing, I would tell them to start with what they have, because for me, I was waiting until I had a lot of money, but I discovered that the money was not forthcoming so I had to start with the little finance I had. Goodwill from somebody that I’d been good to. So when you look around, what you need to start is always beside you, is always in your community. So start with what you have. If you don’t have money to, say, start a business, or you want to start an organization that helps people, you can start with volunteering your skills, making people know that this is what you do, you’re passionate about this thing, and the universe just has a way of helping you when you help other people. So starting with what they have, looking within themselves to say, “OK, yeah I can do this,” and looking for somebody, let’s say a mentor, somebody that can help them become who they want to be.
I would say, for me, it’s just a way of thanking the YALI Network because the YALI Network, the U.S. government, they’ve really been a big help to me. Because after the grant from the Tony Elumelu Foundation, the only organization that has helped us to reach more women has been the U.S. Consulate General in Lagos. It’s where I get my joy from, it’s when we train the women. When you see these women that have no skills — because when people say “low income” I tell them there is no low income. They have no income. They have no income. You can’t say they are low income because they don’t have any income. So when we train them on these skills, so she’s jobless, she doesn’t have any money, she doesn’t have any skills, then with the skills we’ve taught her she can actually generate income. So for me that is huge. Through our work we have gotten recognition from the presidency in Nigeria. We’ve gotten three awards for the work we do in Nigeria. I couldn’t have done this if — I had the passion, but they helped reach more women with the funding. So it would be a huge thank you to the U.S. Consulate General, to the Tony Elumelu Foundation, to the YALI Network, because there are people I’ve met through the Network. I’ve gone to the RLC [Regional Leadership Center] in Ghana, so we have people, we talk to each other, we mentor each other.
If I need help in anything, there are some things that I need help with, I reach out to them. So the Network, the YALI Network, the other Nigerians that, if not for the YALI Network I wouldn’t know them, but now we are practically like family. The YALI Network has really, really helped me. Getting the support I need from this Network has really been helpful to me and Mamamoni.
VOICE OVER: Nkem is making a huge impact in the lives of thousands of women. To date, over 4,000 women have received investment financing and skills training. Nkem continues to look for ways to scale up Mamamoni so that she can continue to help more women becoming financially secure. Because investing in women means investing in families and breaking the cycle of poverty.
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