Thelma Ekiyor is the Managing Partner at SME.NG, an impact investment platform she co-owns. Before that, she founded Afrigrant, an access to finance capacity building development platform focused on women alongside Afrigrant startup foundation, her give back legacy vehicle to support women in underprivileged communities. She has worked in the area of impact investing and structured philanthropy for 22 years all across Africa. She moved back to Nigeria in 2019 to set up TY Danjuma foundation as the first executive director/ CEO where she had the opportunity, through that experience, to see the amount of suffering across Nigeria and the difference a little capital can make to the lives of people.
Thelma is convinced that to change the face of poverty in Africa, you have to invest in women.
In this interview with MSME Africa, she shared about her passion for SMEs and women and the thinking behind SME.NG’s new initiative – Ebi Marketplace.
You do a lot within the SME Ecosystem through SME.NG, Afrigrants, and other initiatives, why are you passionate about SMEs?
I get this question a lot.I could indeed have a different career but you know I believe that first of all, it’s the truth that Nigerians are industrious and can use very little to do very much, but most times what they lack is the opportunity. Someone with a great idea who has the skills and is given the opportunity with access to capital or few connections can do so much. I see myself as someone who has had a very blessed life in a way that I can be supportive to be part of building a constructive society and the area I think I’ll be a strong change maker is through helping to transform SMEs.
What brought about the idea of the Ebi marketplace?
Excellent question! I was already overworked and now I have to take more. Ebi marketplace was established as a result of the pandemic. Last year when the pandemic struck, God indeed gave me the idea. The idea came that we should conduct a national survey of the impact of the pandemic on women. And so, in partnership with the federal ministry for women’s affairs, we conducted a national survey and I happen to be the chairperson of SMEs at NACCIMA, which has about 70,000 SMEs. We partnered with NACCIMA as well to conduct the survey. The survey revealed that the businesses that will survive the pandemic are businesses that could easily go on online platforms, businesses that could easily become digitized and the majority of women businesses do not have the know-how. Although I’m exposed I’m still not tech-savvy, now imagine what most women entrepreneurs are like. That was really where the idea of the Ebi marketplace came from. If women are going to recover from the pandemic, we immediately have to create a platform for women to onboard their businesses into the e-commerce landscape. The average cost to set up a website is N150,000, how many small businesses can do that? When we talk about SMEs, they will think about how N150,000 will be useful for something else. So, we decided to establish the Ebi marketplace as a platform where women can onboard their business for as little as N1,000 per month and we can offer it that low because we have partners that are supporting us to do these. So that’s the idea of the Ebi marketplace.
What differentiates Ebi marketplace from other marketplaces?
Okay, the Ebi marketplace is first completely free for women. Apart from the fact the Ebi marketplace will provide a platform for women to engage buyers for their goods and services, it also provides access to finance. We have signed several partnerships with financial institutions such that if you want a grant, you can access it, and if it’s a loan, you can access loans and access to equity. It’s a place where women get different types of financing. Women can come to learn about the available financing, and be able to access them. That’s quite novel because most marketplaces that exist will be tied to the bank, where a bank will open its marketplace for its customers, that’s not what we’ve done. We’ve opened our marketplace for every woman. Once you’re a woman, you can join. Ebi marketplace democratizes access to finance and access to the market. Once you’re there, regardless of the bank you use, you’re free to come to the marketplace and interact with local and international actors as well.
Why is the Ebi marketplace focused on women?
All the men in my life say I discriminate against men a lot but that really is not the case. The status quo in the society we live in marginalizes women and as I said, I studied business administration and have an MBA in entrepreneurship and so when we look at the data, it’s very clear that the only way you can tackle poverty in Africa, especially, is to create equity in how people access opportunities and capital. For as long as women are marginalized, we would always have enshrined poverty. Men are allowed to come on to the Ebi marketplace to provide advisory services, advertise their product and services for women but are not allowed to come to the marketplace as beneficiaries, that’s the distinction.
How do you think businesses can put behind the losses of Covid-19 and bounce back?
I hear people say COVID has introduced a new normal. I don’t think it’s a new normal, I think COVID has introduced a reset, an opportunity for a reset, all of us have to question the way we used to do things before COVID and say to ourselves, we need this new environment to be rebuilt. How can we rebuild a more equitable society, how can we rebuild a society that is not elitist or class conscious? It’s not as if there’s no money available in the system, but the money goes to the same people, all the time. This question is important because, when we talk post-COVID, we should be talking about opportunities, break down systemic inequality and try to put in place accessible measures. The average SME and MSME in Nigeria want growth, but if you are making 2M per month and you’re spending 900k on logistics, electricity and every other thing, it means it’s most likely not a profitable business. We must create a system whereby the cost of doing business in Nigeria is reduced so that people can break even and make profits. The natural sequencing should be that business who are micro become small, small becomes medium, and medium business becomes large. But that’s not the system here, the system we have in Nigeria is if you’re micro, you’re micro for the rest of your life, that’s not how to grow an economy. There must be growth within the levels so that people can see that there are opportunities and hopes in terms of business. If you’re in business and you’re not making a profit, it’s a frustrating experience and most entrepreneurs are frustrated in Nigeria.
How do you think Technology can help MSMEs to drive their business?
As earlier stated, I’m not the most tech-savvy person but I know that the now and future is for technology. Tech-enabled businesses are going to do better than businesses that do not incorporate technology and so you can see that right now, there are a lot of young Nigerian men making it on the global scale because they’ve created tech solutions and payment gateways for Africa. Right now, anybody who comes up with an idea that involves using technology to transform a problem in Africa will do very well. Young people are realizing you don’t have to run to America now, you can stay here and innovate for the problem here and once you’re able to do that, you’ll see that it’s a good opportunity to make money and also open up other opportunities for more entrepreneurs.
Ebi marketplace is a technology solution that enables more access. Technology is certainly something that should be incorporated into what’s happening now and be seen as a transformation tool for SMEs, either to access finance, products, network, develop products, etc. Technology is capable of doing all. It can also bring rural communities into conversations they have been excluded from. The average Nigerian woman can use WhatsApp or ask her children to help with it. This shows that there are untapped potentials where technology is concerned. And I’m sure organizations like yours and mine will start exploring this possibility.
Your parting shot/ advice for Business owners.
This is not the time to feel hopeless, not give up, or fold up to get a job. All the time there are problems in different societies, that’s when entrepreneurs should open their eyes and look around because entrepreneurs take advantage of opportunities to solve problems.
In a nutshell, don’t give up, everyone has been hit, COVID has happened, most of us should join the conversation on what can be done as individuals and companies, as collectives, what can we do together.
I must commend MSME Africa for reaching out and for looking for how to strengthen the ecosystem. I look forward to furthering this conversation where we can see how MSME Africa can help with what we’re doing through the Ebi marketplace.