Digitising Access To Finance For Female-Led SMES’


Tuesday, March 29, 2022

11.00 am 

All-Virtual Participation




According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, Nigeria has one of the highest number of female entrepreneurs in the world. Of the over 40 million Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in the country, female-led enterprises constitute about 40%. Yet, there is a consensus amongst relevant stakeholders that in spite of the numbers, female-led enterprises are simply not operating at their peak. A disproportionate number of female-led Nigerian enterprises shrivel and die within just a few years from inception, in the absence of accelerator programmes aimed at averting these ‘untimely deaths’ arising from a multiplicity of factors. Among these factors are discriminatory practices against women, limited capacity in terms of entrepreneurship and leadership, and lack of access to financial and other resources, as well as inadequate training and management experience, lack of access to information, inadequate infrastructural support, lack of strategies to develop financial literacy, limited access to external loans for business sustainability, and even poor family support.

As a result of these factors, the high incidence of not just failure and early exit, but also stagnation, and low return on investment among female-led enterprises in Nigeria has become a recurring decimal.  And this, stakeholders agree, has far-reaching consequences, because the role of female entrepreneurs in the growth of the overall economy of the country cannot be overemphasised.  From established female corporate and industry leaders across sectors who have not only made their mark but are able to mentor younger entrepreneurs; to the rising stars who challenge the boundaries with a combination of resilience and sustainable corporate governance in accordance with global best practices; to the creative start-ups, female entrepreneurs have proven their potential to cause a sea-change in the economic profile of the larger society.  

Of the barriers and challenges faced by women entrepreneurs and female-led SMEs, perhaps the most significant is the lack of access to funding – whether in the form of loans, grants or equity.  In 2021, for example, out of a whopping $3 billion attracted by Nigerian fintech (financial technology) outfits, female-led startups were only able to access an abysmal 3.2% of funding.

How do female entrepreneurs gain access to adequate funding to scale up their businesses? And where is this funding to be found? More importantly, in view of the overarching role being played by technology in redefining how business is being done in the 21st century, how do they digitise access to funding by leveraging on tech? Those were the questions that were posed at a workshop jointly organised by SME.NG – an impact investment platform that invests in Nigerian SMEs to realise measurable environmental, social and financial returns by bridging the gap in women’s access to finance through “gender lens investing” – and the Impact Investment Foundation (IIF). 

Thankfully, the experience of female-led enterprises in Nigeria is not only limited to challenges. There are opportunities as well – not least of them the determination of women entrepreneurs to no longer work in ‘silos’ but to collaborate with their counterparts in a bid to grow their networks and achieve scale – as well as connecting with organisations and accelerators that support their successes and mitigate the aforementioned challenges. By common consensus, these opportunities can be further enhanced with a pragmatic and supportive policy framework on the part of the government. It was all these opportunities and possibilities that the SME.NG / IIF workshop, was convened to explore under the theme ‘DIGITIZSING ACCESS TO FINANCE FOR FEMALE-LED SMES.’  


Setting the Tone 


Moderated by Lehlé Balde (editor of the BusinessDay’s Weekender, an intersection between business, lifestyle and living, as well as anchor of ‘Financial Inclusion Today’ a radio show on Rhythm 93.7), the Workshop featured an all-virtual participation by speakers, panellists and attendees drawn from the entire spectrum of the impact investment ecosystem – as well as representatives of organisations which have established a recognised footprint in that ecosystem. In her introduction to the event, Ms. Balde described the workshop as a platform to accelerate the conversation on mitigating the challenges as well as maximising the opportunities that present themselves to female entrepreneurs, as well as bridge the gender gap in respect of inclusion as far as access to financing is concerned. 

Welcoming participants to the event, Thelma Ekiyor, Managing Partner at SME.NG, noted that although the Covid-19 pandemic, at its height, accelerated digitisation across sectors, it also exposed deep fissures and an unacceptably wide gender gap as far as funding was concerned. In its efforts to grow the impact investing ecosystem in partnership with the IIF, she said, SME.NG is creating synergy by bringing together over 600 accelerators whose comparative experiences come together to influence positive outcomes for female-led enterprises. One of those outcomes, Ekiyor disclosed, is the Ebi Marketplace App – an indigenous, women-led solutions provider that eliminates the barriers faced by female entrepreneurs in their bid to access financial, market, knowledge and advisory services; helps facilitate real-time interactions with customers, vendors and service providers; and contains knowledge and networking capabilities that allow the busy female entrepreneur to improve her business knowledge and grow her network on the go. She concluded by asserting that the task of accessing a healthy slice of the global impact funding pie – estimated at $153 trillion – was a ‘must’, not an ‘if’. 

Also speaking, Etemore Glover, Projects Manager at the IIF, lamented about the high rate of unemployment rate in Nigeria (currently put at 33%) and the lack of access to basic commodities as well as energy and water suffered by a disproportionate number of Nigerians. This, she said, was a consequence of the enormous public-sector budget gap (at a mere N16.39 trillion, out of the required minimum of N125 trillion required to meet the SDGs by 2030). The paucity of funds at the disposal of the public sector on the one hand, Ms. Glover asserted, was in direct contrast with the relative abundance of funds at the disposal of the private sector on the other. Accessing these funds will require a collaborative effort on the part of organisations such as the IIF and SME.NG. Part of this effort, she added, was to identify investment-ready female-led entrepreneurs, and to counter the causes of unreadiness among others. The collaboration between both organisations is targeted at addressing the gender constraints is under 3 main pillars – workshop delivery; investment-readiness through a joint accelerator programme and providing impact-related content via the Ebi Marketplace App.

Panel Discourse 


The panellists who spoke to the topic ‘Women’s Access to Finance and Technology: Barriers and Opportunities,’ nevertheless did justice to it. Moderated by Grace Oluchi, Executive Director at Creative Space Startups, the panel comprised Patience Okala, Director of Legal Services at the Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC); Chioma Ogwo, Head, Non-Financial Services and Emerging Businesses at Access Bank Plc.; and Andrew Smith, who is an investment and access to finance adviser on value-chain development at the Nigeria Competitiveness Project (NICOP Nigeria). 

Kicking off the discourse, Okala gave an overview of the mandate and functions of the NIPC, which include promoting investments in Nigeria by both local and foreign investors through a myriad of incentives, as well as policy advocacy programmes based on its engagement with said investors and their respective concerns; resolution of investor disputes; facilitation of such programmes as SWIP (Single Window Investment Portal); promotion of companies that are RIBScompliant (Responsible, Inclusive, Balanced and Sustainable) in its bid to achieve its 3R mandate ( Rights, Resources and Representation), as well as the publication of the first-ever Nigerian Investment Policy Document – which is designed to align Nigeria’s business sustainability objectives with those of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). NIPC’s insistence of creating a level playing-ground for all investors, Okala said, has helped to position a great number of female-led enterprises for growth and success. She also highlighted the role being played in this regard by the Bank of Industry (BOI), Islamic Bank, and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), etc.   

Speaking on the barriers standing in the way of female entrepreneurs, Access Bank’s Chioma Ogwo was keen to make the point that these barriers were both internal and external. While the patriarchal and regimented cultural systems prevalent in this part of the world – which prevent women from owning properties of their own, for instance, and, therefore, cannot access loans for lack of collateral – have done a lot of damage to the economic empowerment of women, Ogwo said, the lack of managerial skills and self-confidence, have also militated against their economic prospects. Along with overcoming these internal barriers, she called for a greater awareness of opportunities. On the plus side, she described the typical female borrower as more reliable than her male counterpart. On the vexed issue of collaterals as a precondition for loans, the Access Bank executive said her organisation had come up with a cluster of products and services designed to help people – such as women entrepreneurs – to access collateral-free loans, notably the W-Power Loan Scheme, which offers loans ranging from N50,000 to N5 million.  In place of collaterals, Access Bank emphasises the quality of the applicant’s business model and its potential profitability as well as its current cash flow and sales record. In addition, she called on female entrepreneurs to be tech-savvy in terms of using the internet to achieve exposure and access to market for their products, and to invest in digital marketing training – some of which are free of charge.   

Also emphasising the importance of a sound business model founded on common sense and integrity, Andrew Smith of NICOP envisaged the emergence of a female Aliko Dangote in Nigeria in the foreseeable future, as the critical importance of female-led entrepreneurs becomes more widely understood in the investment space. Citing the food and agricultural value-chain as a case in point, Smith called for a deeper intervention in rural-based, community-focused enterprises, as well as the promotion of sources of financing other than banks – such as the traditional ‘esusu’ system, only more structured.  He had the following Standard Rule for the female entrepreneur seeking financing: 

  • Don’t make ‘it’ (your product) until you’ve sold ‘it’ – that is, you must know where your raw materials and customers are. 
  • Build robust relationships with your value-chain (above and below) as well as with your off-takers.  
  • Be realistic about who and where your partners are; they are all around you.
  • Start small.    

The panel discussion was followed by a short question-and-answer session as some participants expressed a number of concerns, especially pertaining to building sustainable partnerships, which the panellists threw more light on. 

This was followed by a couple of adverts highlighting the services offered by Access Bank Plc and LAPO Microfinance Limited in their support for female-led enterprises. A final highlight of the event was a video showcase of the aforementioned Ebi Marketplace App.  




In her summation, the Moderator, Lehle Balde said it was heartening to note the number of impact investors and organisations which were being intentional about women and the use of technology to scale up their businesses and called for more of the synergies and partnerships the panellists had spoken so eloquently about. 

In her closing remarks, Etemore Glover thanked all panellists and participants for attending the workshop. She noted as a matter of next steps, the following will be required:

  1. Strengthening ecosystem collaboration. IIF would continue to foster strong collaborations between ecosystem actors. She highlighted the need for partnerships between participating organisations/institutions – particularly the potential partnerships between Access Bank,  NICOP, NIPC and Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC).
  2. Ensure more women have access to international market starting with the continent. NIPC and NEPC have a role to play in ensuring this.
  3. Support the capacity building for women to increase their literacy in digitisation.
  4. Ensure capital flow towards the digitisation of women.

As Ms. Glover had mentioned in her opening remarks, the workshop was the first of two learning sessions being put together by the IIF and SME.NG.s. The second, under the theme, ‘Blended Finance for Social Impact ’ is slated for June 2022.  


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