By Bola G Ajayi
It’s no exaggeration to say that gender equity is inscribed in the very DNA of LAPO Microfinance Bank and the other components of the LAPO Group.
The first beneficiaries of this multi-faceted institution, long before the advent of the current wave of feminism, were three women entrepreneurs who were supported with friendly loans in the early 1980s by LAPO founder Godwin Ehigiamusoe, then a young staff of the Cooperative Department of the old Bendel State.
Since then the LAPO Group has consolidated this foundational focus by giving women and girls pride of place in its plans. This women-friendly focus is not an act of charity. Rather it is a practical expression of the wisdom captured in the words of Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: “Investing in women is smart economics, and investing in girls, catching them upstream, is even smarter economics.”
The truth in this statement is self-evident. In all aspects of its corporate strategy and execution, LAPO MFB takes this to heart. This is because women are responsible for about 70% of food production in Africa and also constitute a significant proportion of the entrepreneurial class. Experts have estimated that 40% of entrepreneurs in Africa are female.
A study by the Cherie Blair Foundation captures the centrality and importance of women in the economic life of societies across the world:
“UNDP studies have shown that when women control cash from businesses it is more likely to be used in child survival and other human development issues. Therefore when more and more women engage in entrepreneurial activities they increase productivity and contributions to their local economies and promote development with social stability. Thus, there is need for governments and communities to recognize the unavoidable link between women’s economic empowerment and the national economic development of a country.”
Women entrepreneurs are of course key beneficiaries of all LAPO MFB initiatives targeted at supporting enterprise in different sectors of the economy. But they also benefit from specific bespoke initiatives designed specifically for women. An example is Supporting Female Entrepreneurs (SUFEN). This product is a loan scheme whose purpose to enhance the business potential of female clients through access to finance and capacity building. The broad objective is to support and promote the economic growth and advancement of women entrepreneurs in Nigeria. The goal is to accelerate the growth and success of women owned businesses through capacity building workshops and seminars, high-level networking events, leadership development programs, entrepreneurial training programs, mentoring, and business support services.
Expectedly, one category of women who are prime beneficiaries of LAPO MFB products and other initiatives are widows who are recipients of the institution’s entrepreneurial and charity support. According to a World Bank report, nine percent of Nigerian women are widows. That translates to almost 10 million women – a significant population. And they constitute a vulnerable population because of economic difficulties caused by and exacerbated by negative cultural practices such as retrogressive and cruel inheritance practices. The poor plight of widows in Nigeria is well documented as the same World Bank report observes:
“The mistreatment of widows is a grave and recognized concern as evidenced by the many Nigerian- based NGOs focusing on the rights of widows and by special modules in the most recent Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) concerning violence and dispossession following a husband’s passing. Over 42 percent of Nigerian widows are found to be completely dispossessed.”
Against this background, the significant and sustained support of LAPO MFB to women entrepreneurs and by extension, Nigeria’s hardworking widows, certainly deserves acknowledgement and support.
*Ajayi is a policy and development analyst