The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted socio-economic life throughout the world and continues to pose heightened threats to the health and well-being of already vulnerable communities. The World Bank projects that despite lower prevalence of the coronavirus in Sub-Saharan Africa, the region will be “hit hardest in terms of increased extreme poverty,” with an estimated 23 million more people going into extreme poverty.
It is in light of this glaring reality that Strong Enough Girls’ Empowerment Initiative (SEGEI) – a Nigerian based non-profit organization dedicated to empowering girls and women through education, mentorship and life skills development – implemented the COVID-19 Community Health & Economic Empowerment Project (CHEEP) from May through August 2020 with funding support from AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) and in collaboration with Stand With a Girl (SWAG) Initiative and Markengee Touching Lives International Initiative.
The project addressed the immediate humanitarian, health and hygiene needs of adolescent girls, women and their families in vulnerable and marginalized communities in the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja), Kaduna and Lagos states in Nigeria. Community needs assessment reveal that adolescent girls, women and their families remain in dire need of food, income, hygiene products, proper COVID-19 sensitization and sexual and reproductive health service provision to keep them healthy, safe and to prevent further community spread of the raging disease.
According to a statement from the Founder & Executive Director of SEGEI, Onyinye Edeh, “many women in rural communities are the main providers in their homes and the current movement and business operation restrictions mean they are not able to go to work and get an income. Parents/guardians who are cleaners are no longer able to clean schools and get paid. Hence, there is no in-home provision for daily necessities.”
Experience with regional and global health crises such as the Ebola epidemic in West Africa have also shown that in times of a crisis, there is increased unwanted pregnancy and risky behaviours among adolescents.
This four month project provided sensitization on COVID-19 and food and hygiene (sanitary pads and antiseptic soap) palliative items to 400 adolescent girls and 500 households in the FCT (Abuja), Kaduna and Lagos states. Eighty (80) women petty traders received business information and financial seed capital of N20,000 per person to promote income generation. The selection process for the 80 women petty traders was done in such a way that the recipients were mostly widows and young single mothers including vulnerable women living with HIV in the communities.
The project has recorded several success stories as ongoing monthly follow up visits to the 80 women has seen the majority of beneficiaries testifying that the funds enabled them to re-strategize their businesses and increase the quantity of goods and also introduce new products that are in high demand. Notable among the women is 29-year-old Ogechi Faith Godwin, a Lagos-based recipient of the economic seed grant whose story is memorable.
She was married at a young age of 18 after her secondary school. When asked why she got married at an early age, she said “I just wanted to leave the village. I saw an opportunity to go to the city and I felt it will be nice. My parents were against it but I insisted on going”. After a turbulent marriage, she became widowed at the age of 26 with 2 kids.
Ogechi manages to take care of her two children by herself with no help from extended family. Her father is late but her mum and nine siblings are still alive and unable to provide support. Ogechi moved to Lagos with her children to make ends meet and with her little savings she was able to start a fruit business which she hawks around. She presently sells fruits, and following the CHEEP business training, has added Chicken Suya which she sells in a bar in the evenings.
Another remarkable success story is that of Taiwo Ogungbade who is a 60 year old widow living in Abuja with her 2 children. She had previously attached herself to another fund recipient who sells Agbo, a traditional herbal liquid. Taiwo helped her hawk and a little share of the profit was given to her weekly and she sustained her household with the meagre amount. Taiwo benefited from the funds and training and started her own Agbo business immediately. She was also able to add peppered meat to her new business. She was all smiles and grateful as she showed off her wares when the project team visited her community.
The women also took the advice given them during the training seriously as most of them who could not afford savings previously were able to start a daily/weekly savings by registering with a community cooperatives savings and proudly showed off their cards during the project team visit. Some others who were already into savings were able to register for a second registration card. The older women mostly preferred the good old Esusu (piggy banks) savings and others are involved in the group contribution.
One of the recipients (madam Esther) in Kaduna expressed her happiness following the dramatic change her business has experienced after receiving the grant and training.
She said “I used the 20,000 Naira grant to purchase honey, groundnut and dry fish worth 18, 500 Naira and made a profit of 5000 naira after deducting transportation and communication fees worth 1500 Naira. I am able to save 2500 naira and re-invest the other 2500 naira. I am very excited to be able to save for the future. Also, my shop was almost empty but now I am happy because it is filled with goods.”
When asked how they are faring since the business training and fund handover, some of the women said they are fine and just grateful, others shared struggles including pressing family needs still taking a chunk of their meagre profits, financial struggles as widows, frequent rain disrupting their businesses as they mostly do not own shops but display wares in front of their houses or hawk, and making some alternatives for seasonal goods for sale like stopping yam sales for now and focusing on maize and groundnuts among other things.
One of the insights gained is that no amount of money is too small when given to a female entrepreneur, educated or not. “During the pre selection interview for the 80 women grant recipients, most women mentioned exactly what the money would do for them and we see it playing out. They stayed diligent and as a result, growth has occurred,” says CHEEP Project Officer, Linda Raji. Financially empowering a woman gives her the confidence and capacity for growth. A financially empowered woman will be faithful and resilient to her business no matter the odds stacked against her.
It is hoped that following the success of the CHEEP project, with the availability of more funds, it can be replicated in more communities.
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