By Cherie Blair CBE QC
It will be years before the full extent of the economic and human devastation wrought by COVID-19 becomes clear. There’s no question, however, that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women and the impact on women-owned and -led businesses across Africa has been especially severe.
Research recently published by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women found, across low- and middle-income countries, that 4 in 10 women entrepreneurs may have to close their business as a result of the pandemic.
Not only is the closure of women’s businesses a devastating blow to women entrepreneurs and their families, but there are much wider consequences across societies and economies. At the Foundation we know the supercharged benefits such successful women-led businesses bring to families and local communities. Women are the drivers of significant economic growth – when societies permit them to be.
A study by the Council on Foreign Relations, for instance, projects that Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) could grow by 23 percent—or $229 billion—if women participated in the economy to the same extent as men. That equates to an extra $1,264 in income for the average Nigerian citizen – an extraordinary sum.
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These statistics suggest an opportunity to help the Nigerian economy more quickly bounce back from the body blows inflicted by the pandemic. How? By unlocking the power of women in business, whether in big cities like Lagos or small villages. Financial independence gives women choices, after all. It enables women to spend more on their families, drive growth in their economies, and inspire others in their communities.
I started the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women in 2008 precisely in order to support women entrepreneurs to close the gender gap when it comes to starting and running successful businesses.
With support from the ExxonMobil Foundation, we began a pilot of our flagship business skills initiative, the Road to Growth programme, in Nigeria six years ago. Since then more than 22,500 Nigerian women have participated and benefited from the programme’s training and the networks we have linked them to.
When the pandemic struck last year, we surveyed the women entrepreneurs across our networks and programmes to better understand what was happening and what the Foundation could do to support them. The results of our survey were alarming: virtually all were affected negatively, with almost half ceasing business operations at least temporarily. Many faced financial ruin. Not surprisingly, many reported vastly reduced access to customers, products or services, as well as problems in their supply chains.
But there were positive learnings as well: amongst these women, we found incredible resilience and ingenuity. Many women entrepreneurs, including those participating in Road to Growth in Nigeria, were setting about adapting and re-purposing their businesses in the short term, while trying to anticipate the longer-term implications of COVID-19.
The dire circumstances borne out of the pandemic required new ways of operating, using technology and focusing on online solutions and marketing. Nigeria’s women entrepreneurs were up to the task, and our Foundation was proud to support as many of them as possible as they pivoted, adapted and built new skills.
Ngozi Oyewole offers one such inspiring example. She’s the Managing Director of a company called Noxie Limited. In the two decades prior to COVID-19, her business provided logistical support to companies across Nigeria, offering everything from trucking and tugboats to office furniture.
She took part in our Road to Growth programme in 2020. “It doesn’t matter how much you know, or how long you’ve been in business,” she said. “There are always new things coming into play and as you grow, you expand.”
The programme taught her the importance of formulating a business plan for future growth, which served her well when the pandemic arrived. Ngozi was ready, well-positioned to pivot and act.
She focused on manufacturing and selling personal protective equipment and used marketing knowledge and contacts she’d acquired in Road to Growth to thrive – all while helping local communities manage response efforts.
The pandemic didn’t just change the way many Nigerian women approached their businesses, it has also led the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women to evolve our approach. By necessity, we began to offer content through our programmes and online resources on personal and business resilience, product diversification, crisis financial management, e-commerce, novel marketing techniques, and more.
We also adapted how women can access our services, with a focus on online learning that kept our members informed when in-person instruction was not an option.
For instance, our micro-learning app HerVenture, available to women entrepreneurs in Nigeria for free through the App Store and Google Play, offers essential business training and support ‘on the go’ with eight learning ‘tracks’ on a range of topics, including launching a business, accessing finance, expanding market access and e-commerce. COVID-19 has only magnified its relevance and it’s seen extremely high demand as a result.
I am proud of everything the Foundation has done to help Nigerian women protect, strengthen, and grow their businesses during COVID-19. More than that, I am proud to admit how inspired and humbled my colleagues and I are by the example these women set in extremely trying circumstances.
Nigeria and the rest of the global economy have their work cut out for them in making a full recovery from the pandemic’s ravages.
That work will be made much easier if we keep in mind women’s capacity to help drive economic growth and be engines of social change to create a world with a more level playing field. 40% of Nigerian entrepreneurs are women, the highest rate in the world – let’s unlock their power together.
A committed campaigner for women’s rights, Cherie Blair CBE QC set up the Foundation in 2008 to help women build small and growing businesses in low and middle-income countries so that they can contribute to their economies and have a stronger voice in their societies.