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Women in cooperatives: Builders of family and the economy

By Josephine Agbonkhese, Ebun Sessou & Naomi Tenebe

“Mummy ‘cares’ for me…Daddy ‘provides’ for me…”  says a line in a shockingly contemporary pre-school rhyme. For a generation of women who taught the world had gone past the days of “Mother in the Kitchen, cooking rice…Father in the parlour, watching film (of course relaxing from the day’s economic work)”,  nothing could more easily amuse the ears than hearing that women are still perceived to contribute, by no economic means, to the growth of the home and general society.

Bunmi Lawson

From the educated woman who takes up a 9am-5pm job to the illiterate woman who passionately, daily, maintains a micro-enterprise, women have gone beyond being caregivers to becoming co-providers in their families. As at 2011, according to a World Bank Report, more than half (57 per cent) of women 15-64 years old in Nigeria, were in some form of employment. This included women with the least amount of schooling. Even Hausa   women   in   northern   Nigeria who were erroneously perceived for ages as subjugated people with marginal, or even counterproductive economic role in the   society, happen to, through hidden   economic activities  in their households, bypass the open market  and contribute   significantly to the economic progress of   the society.

Also, in the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, MSME sector which employs 84 per cent of Nigeria’s labour force and contributes 48.47 per cent to Nigeria’s GDP, women entrepreneurs account for nearly half the owners of micro enterprises. This contribution to national economic growth is, however, regardless of the common challenge of access to finance suffered by women-owned small businesses in the country in particular, as majority owns no collateral.

Federal Government interventions

Unfortunately, not even the various policies of the Federal Government to support businesses have been able to resolve this challenge of access to funding. Even the recently launched Government Enterprise and Empowerment Programme, GEEP, MarketMoni scheme, which targets ultra-micro business owners like market women (traders), artisans and enterprising youths; and promises collateral-free loans ranging from N10,000  to N2 million, petty traders in each state of the federation before the end of the year, has already begun raising concerns over transparency in its disbursement.

Cooperatives to the rescue

Nevertheless, millions of women in micro-businesses across the country have learned, through self-discipline, to personally ensure availability of funds for their businesses through cooperatives and even thrift contribution popularly known as  Ajo in Yoruba, Adashe in the north, and Esusu in Igbo. While cooperatives allow access to collateral-free loans to these women after a duration of contribution,  Ajo  is  a contributory savings scheme in which a group of people come together to put an agreed amount of money into savings daily, weekly or monthly, and then at the end of every month, someone in the group takes all the money (interest-free) saved for that month. This is subsequently rotated among all the group members throughout the period of the contribution.

Microbusiness owners narrate experiences

“My experience with cooperative society has been awesome. A friend introduced me to one in my area and  it has been helpful. My husband left me with three children to marry another woman and I was a stay-at-home mom by then,” said 40-year-old, Mrs. Moji Adisa, a trader in Isolo area of Lagos State.

Through cooperative I expanded my biz, employed others

Adisa, who added that she later joined a micro-finance bank for business support, said: “I had nothing before joining the thrift and the micro-finance bank. When I joined the microfinance, I did all that was expected of me and was given a loan.

“Every day, I ensured that I saved at least N1,500 so as to meet up with the loan repayment as well as invest. Since I started the business, it has been a good experience although with challenges. I started with N120,000 three years ago and today, with the help of God, I have been able to expand the business such that I have workers who are working with me.”

 I have been supporting my husband with payment of school fees – Trader

For 45-year-old Mrs Roseline Ogboye, a trader in Ebute Metta area of Lagos, she joined a thrift and collection cooperative society in Ebute Metta five years ago.

“I was into rentals services but, a friend introduced me to the cooperative society in Ebute Metta. I joined the society so as to boost my business and support my husband in taking care of the children. When I joined the cooperative society, I started moi-moi business as a wholesaler and I was distributing to those who would resell. I also had workers who were hawking the product for me. The business started small but today, with the help of God and the cooperative, it has expanded,” she told Woman’s Own.

In affirmation of the assertion that women have gone beyond being caregivers to being co and even major providers in their homes, Ogboye said: “With this business, I have been supporting my husband in the payment of school fees. My children are in higher institutions and with the business, my family has been living comfortably. The cooperative society ensures that we have functional businesses to be sure that you are able to pay back your loan when due. Currently, we are about 150 women in the cooperative society.”

I encourage people to form cooperatives – Bunmi Lawson, former ACCION MD

Speaking on the relevance of cooperatives to the growth of micro-businesses in a telephone interview with Woman’s Own, Mrs Bunmi Lawson, former Managing Director at ACCION Microfinance Bank where she worked with SMEs for 10 years until her retirement recently, attributed the relevance and success of cooperatives and micro-finance institutions to the industrious disposition of women towards their enterprises.

“We must first consider the fact that these women are hardworking. The Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency, SMEDAN, did a survey sometime ago and discovered that there are over 33 million businesses and micro businesses make up 98 per cent of those businesses. So you can see they are very critical to the development of the Nigerian economy. We also found out at ACCION that majority of those businesses are women-led, through our own survey. In fact, 68 per cent of the businesses we funded were women-led and they repaid their loans promptly.

“Number two, when you are hardworking, what support do you now need? Most businesses complain about access to finance. In fact, SMEDAN also did a survey of how these people raise money when they needed money to start or grow their businesses. Almost 98 per cent again came from family, friends and these contributory schemes or Ajo you are talking about. Whereas, if government provided access to finance, i.e if wholesale lending so Microfinance Banks are properly run, they will be able to do much more than they are doing.

“We did a survey on those people who started with us 10 years ago, 10 years later, we found that their businesses had grown by more than 800 per cent. So, you can see that when there is access to finance, businesses will grow. Without it, there is restriction on business growth. That is why when there is no access to finance, even when there is demand for your product, the business cannot grow. Although access to long-term affordable funding will help businesses grow faster, I encourage people to form groups and save together to be able to raise money to grow their businesses where necessary. That is the critical role of cooperatives.

Contribution of women-led businesses to economy

According to a 2014 World Bank Report, when women are able to earn an income, they typically reinvest 90 per cent of it back into their families. This multiplier effect has social and economic impacts for entire communities.

Corroborating this claim, Lawson, further speaking on the contribution of women-led micro-businesses to the economy, said: “Aside the multiple taxes they pay such as levies for use of space, the more critical role they play is the provision of employment to the youths. If empowered, these businesses stand the chance of saving Nigeria from the doom of youth unemployment.   “Youth unemployment is a major problem Nigeria faces right now and the number is increasing. It is estimated that 60 per cent of our population are currently below the age of 18. In fact, there are about 80 million people aged 18-35. There are projections that show that by 2050, Nigeria as a whole, will become about 400,000,000 people. That means 220,000,000 people will be born between now and 2050. What job will they have? It is these micro and small businesses that will give them jobs. That’s the significant role that they play.

“Aside that, from the income they generate, these women are able to send their children to affordable private schools. Those affordable schools take the burden of free education off government. DFID did a survey which found that 2/3 of Lagos State children are attending private schools. When we calculate how much it would have cost government to build public schools, and consider that these women are saving them that burden, we can estimate their contribution to national development. When you have a business that fetches you income, your reliance on government subsidies will be reduced. If the earlier stated population growth projection is true, considering the roles of micro-businesses, the key thing is for government to just create an enabling environment.”

Role of job creation

To more effectively accomplish their role of job creation, Lawson advised every woman running a micro-enterprise to start putting structures in place towards grooming a successor.

“Train your children so that they can expand your business and make it a global one. Micro-business is the foundation of many big businesses you hear of today; Nestle, Guinness, and all. Go and read their histories.

“I know of a fabric seller who used her income to send her children to school. Today, those children have revamped that business, employed significant number of people, set up branches all over, began printing their own fabric, and more. Even if it is fish you are selling, train your children to move that business higher so that it becomes a multinational. They could add a cold room and other aspects to it. That is job created.

“Education is very key and takes a lot of burden off government. That’s one of the things I am moving on to right now. I’m setting up a micro-finance bank that offers study loans.  We will also support schools with funds. We are hoping to start in October and lending will begin in December. It is currently called Vineland Microfinance Bank but we are going to change that name to Ed-Fi (Education Finance).”


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