The slums of Lagos are dotted with single-parent households, most of them headed by strong-willed women facing widespread discrimination as a result of divorce, separation or widowhood.
Patriarchal societies and deep-rooted traditions have made life here pretty hard for women going solo. According to UN Women, African widows are among the most vulnerable and discriminated-against women in the world. In Nigeria, widowhood isn’t just a question of heartache but often of losing property, land and any money saved prior to a husband’s death.
What’s more, in the developing world women are 20 percent less likely than men to have a bank account, being frequently turned away by financial institutes simply because of their gender—and the rate is much higher for widows and single mothers. Getting credit is also extremely difficult. The reality is that for many of these single-parent households, mothers are obliged to turn to their children to help prop up the weekly household income, with much of the responsibility falling on daughters—perpetuating gender-specific poverty.
This was the case for Nkem Okocha, whose widowed mother struggled to support her four children, “I had to hawk goods in the Lagos markets to make money to pay for my exam fees,” said Okocha. Still, she was luckier than most; when someone gave her mother money out of pity, she didn’t spend it right away; instead, she invested it, buying vegetables she later sold at a profit. With that small gift of money, she had effectively launched a micro business, using profits to support her family and re-investing money into more goods to sell. It was a valuable lesson for Okocha, who sold shampoo at the market to help her mother; later, she managed to get her university degree and a job at a bank.
In 2013, she founded Mamamoni, a social enterprise that offers low-income women training in finance and vocational skills, and provides them with access to microcredit loans through mobile banking. “Our aim is to provide capital for those who cannot access it through commercial banks,” said Okocha. “Mamamoni was started out of empathy, I wanted to help women in my community. I saw them idle and their children staying at home because there was no money to send them to school.”
Okocha, who also has experience in web and mobile development, took a page from the Kiva playbook, setting up a web platform to fund loans. “Socially conscious individuals can invest in low-income women by making loans to fund their businesses,” Okocha explained. They are invited to lend any amount from 10,000 to 100,000 Nigerian Naira (US $28 to $280) and may read over business plans prior to choosing the specific businesswoman they would like to invest in.
Women who enroll in the programme learn vocations such as how to make soap, insecticides, pastries or handicrafts. They are provided with mobile phones at the beginning of their training, and funds are transferred from Mamamoni’s account to theirs. Mobile money is very common throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, and women can easily use their mobile phones to buy materials to set up their micro businesses. This process, Okocha explained, helps to bypass the discrimination many of these women have experienced at formal banking institutions.
Staffed with just five women, Mamamoni’s impact has been impressive. To date, it has trained more than 4,000 Nigerian women and provided some 100 micro loans. The loan payback rate is nearly 100 percent, and more than 90 percent of those who have received training have started a business. And while selling soap or crafts may seem like petty trades to some, these simple businesses have provided a source of income that has enabled more than 7,800 children to go to school.
One proud Mamamoni beneficiary is Beatrice Alihola, who is now able to send her young children to school thanks to the small business she set up in her community with funds and guidance from Okocha and her team. Prior to taking part in the programme, Alihola sold produce under a tarpaulin canopy at one of the local markets; during the rainy season, she frequently had little or no income. Now, with the assistance of microcredit, she is able to rent a small shop where she sells insecticide and kerosene, a much more stable source of income.
An alumna of the 2015 Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme, Okocha is eager to reach out to many more women like Alihola. She recently began working with teenagers, the idea being to empower the upcoming generation of Nigerian women as well. Soon, she plans to introduce the Mamamoni concept to 20 more Nigerian states, providing training and microcredit access to an additional 10,000 women—and breaking the cycle of poverty.