Financial inclusion is such an important issue in these times, and Nkem Okocha is one woman using her difficult childhood experience, her passion for empowering women along with fintech to make financial inclusion a reality for women living in rural areas and urban slums.
As a young girl, I wanted to be a lot of things, but being a social worker was not in my radar at the time. Circumstances of life pushed me into this calling. My father’s early death created such a huge gap in our lives because when he died, my mum was a full time housewife. So, getting funds for school and feeding became difficult. Later on, she s tarted a small business, which helped to feed us. To get funding for my education, I had to hawk on the major streets of Lagos and later became a nanny. This made me promise myself that when I grew up and had a lot of money, I would help women that were just like my mother.
However, when I grew older, the bulk money required to bring this dream to pass was not forthcoming. I was working in a bank at the time and on my way to work every morning, I would see a lot of women sitting idly with their children out of school. The sight of that made my heart bitter and reminded me of what my own family had gone through. After working in the banking industry for 8 years, I resigned and started a small business. I decided to start small and with what I had which was N5000, a friend who was a vocational skills trainer and my church’s zonal center as a location, then I went out into the streets to invite any woman that desired to be empowered regardless of ethnicity and religion. We had 70 women in our first training and from there, I started going to other communities and that’s how I got into this business. It is a business built out of empathy.
I think God was trying to prepare me for the path he had laid out for me, because if I had not lost my dad and experienced financial challenges, I wouldn’t understand what it means to want to provide for your children, but be unable to because of lack of startup capital or the skills to grow a business. Also working in the bank also helped me understand how to start lending to women.
The spark to my success was when the woman whose nanny I was, paid for my GCE and POLYJAMB examinations. After I finished from the polytechnic, she also helped me get my first job as a teller in the bank. She gave me the leverage in the form of education to do all I have achieved today. Also, winning The Tony Elumelu Foundation Grant in 2015 was another spark that helped us because after the training/mentorship and grant, we fully birthed Mamamoni.
My vision to uplift poor women in Africa from poverty through sustainable livelihood trainings, access to finance and employment in our factories is very important to me because of my childhood experiences. Imagine the ripple effect my education has now had in the lives of women from different communities, because a financially empowered women invested in my education. That’s why I remain committed to impacting low-income women in rural and urban slum communities, so they are financially independent and can take care of their children. My vision keeps me focused, because I know we have a lot to do, so I don’t waste time and resources on things that don’t matter.
My biggest challenge was once business support, that is, trainings, mentorship and funding. I have been blessed to get all this from different fellowships and funding organizations such as The Tony Elumelu Foundation, LEAP Africa, Mandela Washington fellowship, YALI RLC, The United States Consulate General in Lagos, ACT Foundation, GEM/AVDD and Union Bank.
I wish I had known earlier not to be afraid to speak and to share my story. I read a lot of self-help books, attended numerous trainings and listened to many messages, but I was afraid to speak because I was so shy and timid as a result of what I had gone through while growing up. I didn’t want anyone to know I was a former nanny, and whenever I met someone that could help me, I was afraid to speak up. After a training by the CEO of ACT Foundation, Osayi Alile during LEAP Africa’s Social Innovators training, I became a networking guru. Joining an online community World Pulse where a lot of women get to share anything and everything also helped me to start sharing my story.
For every fellowship that I have been part of, the network has been one of the best things that happened to me. Most of my friends now are from the different fellowships I have participated in. My mentor from TEF, Mrs Oluwatoyin Sanni, the GCEO of Emerging Africa Capital PLC has remained my mentor and board advisor till date. My best lenders are from The Tony Elumelu Foundation and Mandela Washington Fellows from 2017. Tony Elumelu, Mrs Parminder Vir OBE and MWF fellows Mrs Ukinebo Dare The SSA to The Edo State Governor on Job Creation and Skills, Dr Doris of Maldor Eye Care Center and many more are now part of my network. All these sustained partnerships have helped us scale our work and impact to different communities.
The day I got my first award, the Sisterhood Award from EbonyLIfe TV in partnership with WIMBIZ in 2016, was one of the most memorable days in my journey. I got to the award ceremony in Eko Hotel and when I saw the other nominees, I was so sure that someone else would get it because one of them was a former minister in Nigeria and had worked in the World Bank. Imagine how surprised I was when my name was called and all the women rose up to clap! That’s a feeling I can’t forget. It fuelled my passion to know that people think what I am doing makes sense.
I’m hoping to soon explore designing financial products that fit the lifestyle of low-income women across Africa to drive financial inclusion. We’re also aiming to build the capacity of poor women across Africa through our soon to be launched Innovation Hub.
For young girls with big dreams, I would tell them to learn every day, be diligent, focused and innovative, learn from your failures and bounce back, delay gratification, learn from life’s challenges, these traits build you up for success in career or business. If you decide to get married, marry someone who will help you grow, who is not afraid to let you fly and who is a friend to you. Associate with friends that will add value to your life in all ramifications.
I think some laws should be passed to favour women, because our culture and traditions has really not helped the African girl child. A scheme I will like to see work in Nigeria for women is monthly financial support for women to take care of at least 3 children from birth to age 16. For any family that refuses to send their female children to school, the girls should be taken from them and given to foster parents.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.