Entrepreneur Kemi Lewis inside her flagship KLS Beauty salon in Lagos.

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Six years ago, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur Kemi Lewis realized there were no salons catering to women with natural hair in Lagos, Africa’s second-largest city. Instead of bemoaning the fact, she opened the first one.

Lewis began modestly, with only two chairs and two stylists. Today, she has three locations, 36 employees and runs an online training academy to help stylists master natural hair in other parts of Nigeria, Africa, and even in the United States and United Kingdom.

“I love being a small business owner,” Lewis said from her flagship KLS Beauty salon in Lagos. “There are no boundaries to what I can create for myself, my family and for Nigeria because we are building the nation.”

Networking and small business capacity building have been vital to Lewis’s business success. She  attended the first Access Bank Womenpreneur Pitch-A-Thon in Nigeria and was selected through a competitive application process to participate in a 10-day mini-MBA in partnership with IFC. In November 2019, all the graduates received their certificates.

The mini-MBA was an intensive program of nine courses including digital marketing, bookkeeping, cash flow management and strategy design. Thanks to the program, Lewis began implementing new digital marketing strategies at her salons, among other improvements.

“When you have programs that target women, women can take advantage of the opportunities and increase their confidence, increase their network, and their worth,” she said of the course.

Banking on Women

Lewis is proof that a timely idea and hard work can lead to success. However, even though women own an estimated 19 percent of micro, small and medium businesses in sub-Saharan Africa, few can access the finance they need to grow. IFC estimates there’s a $49 billion finance gap for women who own small businesses in Africa.

“The major challenges Nigerian women in business face include a lack of access to finance, business networks, and training, as well as limited property rights and poor digital connectivity,” said Eme Essien Lore, IFC’s Country Manager for Nigeria. “That’s why initiatives such as the mini-MBA play such an important role linking women entrepreneurs to networks and skills to help them grow their business.”

In July 2019, IFC provided $87.5 million to Access Bank, Nigeria’s largest bank by assets and customers following its merger with Diamond Bank, to support increased lending to small businesses and women entrepreneurs as well as for climate-smart projects. IFC backed the investment with the IFC Banking on Women advisory-led mini-MBA project to provide women a full package of training, capacity building, and networking opportunities.

“Access Bank is extremely passionate about supporting women,” said Roosevelt Ogbonna, Access Bank Group Deputy Managing Director. “It makes business sense. Women are 50 percent of the population, and they make up a significant portion of the labor force.”

IFC’s support for Access Bank complements the World Bank’s Nigeria Women Entrepreneurship Finance Initiative, aimed at developing innovative instruments to unlock commercial financing for women entrepreneurs in Nigeria.

“IFC is committed to helping improve opportunities for women in the private sector,” Essien said. “To this end, IFC collaborates with financial institutions and other clients to continue to unlock funding opportunities for women entrepreneurs in Nigeria.”

Small business owner Bolupe Adebiyi is growing her fashion brand Cotton Loops beyond Nigeria.
Small business owner Bolupe Adebiyi is growing her fashion brand Cotton Loops beyond Nigeria.

Designing the Future of Women Entrepreneurs

Another business owner benefitting from the mini-MBA training is Bolupe Adebiyi, who is applying her newfound skills to her latest enterprise, Cotton Loops, a clothing manufacturer and boutique in Lagos.

“We are now expanding to three new African markets,” Adebiyi said from her Lagos shop, where she creates black and white patterned designs and employs 15 people. “Following the mini MBA, we have better results from what we do in the store and we have a clearer vision of where we are going as a business.”

Cotton Loops is now expanding beyond Lagos to Accra, Ghana, Dakar, Senegal and Nairobi, Kenya. In the year and a half since starting, Cotton Loops has produced more than 2,000 pieces of unique clothing.

“It’s tough being a woman-owned business,” said Adebiyi. “So, for me, having this program for women only has helped us be in a safe space and to believe it’s possible to not only have a successful business in Nigeria but one you can also scale globally.”

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