empowHer: Hope Through Empowerment

Nigeria is often a country that creates news because of its vast oil fields.  There have been countless negative effects from being one of the world’s largest oil producers.  Few Nigerians actually reap the benefits from being such an oil rich country while limitless violence and corruption haunts the Niger delta.

EmpowHER  womenLast year I met Brittany Atchison in Rwanda.  After our human rights delegation in Kigali, she was going to Nigeria for nine months. I knew that she was going to learn and gain immeasurable life experiences but I didn’t know what a powerful impact she would have on the north-eastern community of Jalingo.

Brittany and her Nigerian counterparts, Hannatu Robinson and Yusuf Jatutu, with the assistance of a 20 year partnership between the Iowa United Methodist Church and the United Methodist Church of Nigeria, started EmpowHERa microfinance initiative that supports women to start their own businesses.

A little hope in a struggling city

To start, the team performed an immeasurable amount of interviews and research to find the needs of the women in the community.  Then they began to configure a proper procedure and framework for the loan repayment system.  The decided process looks like this:

1. Form a 10-person female group.  I was concerned that some individuals would be left out because they had to come forward with nine other Nigerians. However, apparently it is quite easy to form these groups as everyone in Jalingo is looking to become involved.

2. Internally select group officers (Chair, Secretary, Treasurer). It was important to Brittany and her team that each group selected roles without any outside advice.  This way, the group could be held accountable and support one another effectively.

3. Register with EmpowHER Field Coordinator and pay registration fee. There are four field coordinators.  Each one is assigned a group to assist along the way.

4. Complete EmpowHER loan contract and sign as guarantor for another group member. “People are in group with friends – they will cover for each other,” said Brittany.

5. Complete business plan and individual interview. Each entrepreneur creates a business model with the EmpowHER team.

empowHer Women 26. Upon approval, sign complete documents.

7. Receive EmpowHER accounting book and N10,000 loan (approximately $75 US dollars).

8. Take individual and group photo.

“This is our structure now, things will likely change a lot,” said Brittany as the team is looking to greatly increase their capacity.

Targets and aspirations

“The goal is to expand to all 60 districts in Nigeria. Build more capacity, have vehicles, a salary.” At this point in the interview, Brittany caught me off-guard – “everything was done on paper”, she said.  All organization, data, reports, the list goes on was handwritten.  One of the main goals of capacity expansion is to provide a laptop to each field coordinator to assist with creating a central database.

The coming ambitions don’t stop at the material hopes.  EmpowHER is looking to grow and increase the amount of people it reaches.  The team is also searching for international finance training for Brittany and Hannatu to attend.  Brittany quickly added, “if anyone wants to fund us…”  She is in the process of creating a presence in the online world, including a website and social media.

Most commonly, women have started business in food preparation and cooking – akara (fried bean cake), maringa leaf soup, or masa (Nigerian rice cake).  However, one of the most innovative businesses was a cell phone charging station.  Because of the limited electricity in the area, one of the entrepreneurs bought 30 phone chargers, a generator, fuel, masking tape, and a permanent marker.  Now her community is given the opportunity to charge their cell phones on a regular basis.

Nigerian rice cake

Life lessons

Taking on such a phenomenal project doesn’t come easily.  “Going in I knew there were going to be language and cultural barriers,” said Brittany .  There are over 500 dialects and four regional languages in Nigeria.  “The woman I worked with (Hannatu), she was absolutely phenomenal,” Brittany said.  “She was fluent in the regional language and English.”

Beyond language, Brittany had to get used to being the only American. “I was the only white girl in a very large area.”  Being completed immersed in such a different culture and unique traditions can be overwhelming, but also life changing.

“The biggest thing I learned – the importance of people and relationships,” said Brittany.  “People before product and relationships before results.” She quickly realised the importance of building trust before trying to enhance EmpowHER.  “The relationships are so important.  That’s the only way we got to the place we are.”

EmpowHER women 4

Outstanding results

EmpowHER officially launched in November 2010.  When Brittany left in May, their goal had been reached: the creation of 40 microfinance groups, 400 entrepreneurs while sustaining a repayment rate of 100 per cent.  With these remarkable results, 20,000 Nigerians are being positively impacted by the outcome.

“You should continue to do what you have started – many lives are being transformed by this initative.” - Comfort Isifanus

I have nothing to say except thank you for helping me help myself…and to feed my family.” - Naomi Shagari

“I cannot live without EmpowHER in my life.” - Mary Inu

Brittany and the EmpowHER team have made such a large impact on the women of Nigeria so far.  Each day, these women struggle with corruption, lack of basic needs and the inability to provide for their families.

EmpowHER has given these women the chance to reverse these impacts by founding their own businesses. For more information, or to connect with EmpowHER directly, contact Brittany at brittanymarieatchison (@) gmail (dot) com

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