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Nigeria rural women rise to the occasion in paying back loans

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Nigerians can be notorious for not promptly paying back loans, and women for being unable to unite – even in their own best interests. The rural woman is especially thought to be too dense to recognise what these interests are, much less organise themselves in their pursuit.

Well, the Nigeria for Women Project (NFWP) is pulling down these assumptions, brick by brick, and erecting new and powerful truths in their stead.

The project has been able to bring together thousands of women in each pilot state (Abia, Kebbi, Niger, Ogun, and Taraba), most of them living in poorly accessible places, some so uninviting they require courage to traverse in these violent, combustible times.

The roads are so bad that a bumpy ride ceases to be a figure of speech as vehicles routinely hit cobblestones and ridges, lifting off the ground only to come down hard on any number of large potholes available. In the idyllic travelogue of rural areas, writers often speak of undulating roads, suggesting a rhythmic, almost rocky-chair movement so soothing sometimes they lure you to sleep.

The road to Agaie, Niger State, is not such a road. The disrepair apart, the traffic of articulated vehicles driven with no care for other road users is often of pressing concern. At Takuti we left the road for Evutagi, a dubious shortcut that cuts off Lapai town and leads directly to Agaie.

We soon met cows decorating the road with their dung, unperturbed by the sound of our vehicle, or the sight of our cameraman striving to record their languid tail swishing, cud-chewing and blank stares, and exciting the flies. Their minder, a mild mannered fulani man ambled over to inquire why we were filming his cows and we gathered he needed us to move on.

More than the cows were the women walking in droves to their farms, carrying food, wood, babies on their backs. Babies, babies, everywhere, and one can only marvel at the phenomenal juggling powers of these rural women who work, cook, trade and conduct meetings while also looking after children. Those with some means took bikes, best for these winding rural roads gullied by erosion, sandbagged and hollowed by rivulets of water which continuously narrow the road for vehicles.

Remnants of the infamous Biwater Project, with the reverse funnel shape pump shining metallic against the rising sun, reminded me of a previous effort to change the lives of rural dwellers. The thought hit me that more often than not government projects fail to live up to their billings, being tall on promises and short on delivery.

The Nigeria For Women Project in Niger State which has so far registered some 54,000 women in Agaie, Gurara and Wushishi local governments promises to be a departure from all past interventions. There is a certain simplicity to the project, a lack of grandiosity that makes it easily accessible to locals. The rules are plain, the processes democratic, the procedures familiar to any woman who had ever participated in thrift contributions.

The World Bank assisted project under the auspices of the Ministry of Women Affairs came with a template that is a study in economic mobilisation. The women form groups which are called WAGs (women affinity groups) made up of 25 women who are all above 18 years and trust one another. It is all patently transparent, every decision is put to the vote; democracy has never been better served.
They make their own bye-laws, choose their leaders for a term of one year, and meet once a week to donate an amount already agreed upon amongst themselves as Savings and a lesser amount as Social Funds. You may borrow three times the amount you have saved up with little interest, and usually to improve on your business.

According to the template given to these women by the NWFP, there are negative lists, lists of things that you may not do, including drugs and prostitution and anything that degrades the environment. Project staff, consultants and volunteers have one basic rule, the famous principle of medical practice: Do no harm.

The World Bank supports the programme with a 100million dollar grant with the hope that the money would improve the livelihood of exactly 324,000 women in targeted communities, quash those negative social norms that tend to hold women back, limiting their growth, killing their dreams. Of course, considering that it is a World Bank project, the major policy thrust is economic, or in the language of Michael Gboyega Ilesanmi with the long title of World Bank Senior Social Development Specialist and Task Team Leader for the Nigeria for Women Project, “the project is working with relevant bodies to deploy diverse user-friendly and context-specific innovations that can bring about scalability.”

In the long run the project plans to give these women loans to pursue their business interests but not before making sure the women know their business. So the project trains and pays Ward Facilitators who set up and manage five to ten batch of women affinity groups, each group made up of 25 women, a total of 250 women, maximum. These WFs are almost always local to ensure that they continue to provide their communities with relevant advise long after the project circle ceases.

Then there is a group known quaintly as the Barefooted Business Counsellors or BBCs who meet with each woman and advise her on a business plan, record keeping and the best savings and loan schemes that would benefit her business.

Niger State is generally considered to be a pace setter in the project and this is due largely to perhaps the most important officials in the project, the Local Government Field Supervisors. There are three of them for Agaie, Gurara and Wushishi local governments respectively and they, all of them, exhibit the same can do spirit, the same knowledge of their environment and the same resilience that is a credit to their gender and to their communities.

When we reached Agaie, Talatu A Kawu who is the LFS for the local government was in mourning for a close family member who had just died in childbirth. As soon as we arrived she left the funeral to take us round to meet the WAGs. No less a person than the Emir of Agaie himself, the cerebral Etsu Yusuf Nuhu has been known to praise her dedication.

“I commend her commitment,” he said when we interviewed him. “Talatu is up and doing in organizing the women and the result has been spectacular. From the reports I have received the project is impacting so much on the lives of the women who I now understand are able to do certain things to assist their husbands. And the men are happy too.”

Mrs Zainab Abubakar, the LFS who heads Gurara LGA is a similarly gifted organiser and accomplished mobilizer. The state project coordinator, the even more hardworking but self-effacing, Mohammed Bello Sarki, has been heard to say that in his estimation, she deserves credit for the progress made in that place in such a relatively short time.

The LFS for Wushishi, Hafsat Abdullahi Usman is a tough fulani-like woman who took us on one of the worst road trips in recent memory, from Wushishi to Lokogoma, a 24km trip that went on agonizingly for one hour because of a hellish terrain which combines rapid elevation gains and losses, and has more gaps on the road than there was coal tar, requiring that the vehicle frequently wobble rather than run. She was riding on the back of a motorcycle, hijab bellowing in the wind and once her cap flew off and she had to come down and retrieve it from the dirt.

“How long before we get there,” we asked again and she replied with a wan smile, “soon.” Of course, it was not anywhere near soon.

When we finally reached Barwa ward to see the “chi gaba ba baya ba“ WAG, we understood that she was so proud of what the women were able to achieve that she was determined to get us there even by subterfuge.

Together, these three women have been able to make local women selling beancake, groundnuts, melon, soybeans, garri, rice and other edibles to form over 2000 women groups or WAGs in the state, comprising over 50,000 members who collectively have a cash deposit of N261 million of their own savings. It is a staggering amount for mostly illiterate women who each saves between 100 and 500 naira weekly and reinvests the profits into their business.

In order to understand what these Niger State women have accomplished, we need only to compare the figures with the four other pilot states of Abia with 24,350 beneficiaries and N42.6 million in savings; Kebbi with 28,565 beneficiaries and N44.4m in savings; Ogun with 18,884 beneficiaries and 90.7m in savings and Taraba with 26,409 beneficiaries and N26.3m in savings.

According to Mr Sarki, the man whose arrival redeemed the state from a less than sterling position and placed it at the top of the pile within six months of his taking over, the project owed its success to the choice of stakeholders for community entry. These are mainly conservative/religious societies and the right influence was required.

The Nigeria for Women Project will be moving to its next stage of granting these WAGs grants, some as soon as next month, knowing that there is a very high probability that they would repay these project loans as they had repaid the loans they took in their various affinity groups. To all intents and purposes, the project has been a roaring success.

“It started like a joke,” said Etsu Agaie in wonder, reminiscing about his first intimation with the project.
Well, the women of Niger State have shown that when it comes to the business of improving their livelihoods, they take matters seriously.

By Olu Jacobs

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