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Women are natural leaders— Zenab Jaji

Women are natural leaders— Zenab Jaji

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The immediate past National President of the Nigerian chapter of the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Programme and current Secretary General of AWEP West Africa, Zenab Jaji, tells KORE OGIDAN the essence of helping  women to grow their businesses

How would you describe your background?

I was born in Lagos but I’m from Adamawa State. I am the third of 19 children; I have seven brothers and 11 sisters. For my elementary education, I attended Tenderfoot Primary School, Surulere, Lagos. I then went to Queen Elizabeth School, Ilorin, where I spent two years of my secondary education. We moved to England with my dad and I attended Millfield School in Somerset, England, where I obtained my school leaving certificate. After that, I attended the University of Warwick, where I studied Politics and International Relations. I went on to obtain a Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of Reading. I came back to Nigeria to do my NYSC and decided to stay back in the country. I am married to a wonderful and supportive man and we are blessed with delightful children. I had a great childhood that I look back on with such fondness and nostalgia. Nigeria has changed so much in recent years.

Prior to becoming the president of the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Programme, what were you doing?

I come from a family that believes in entrepreneurship and striving for the best. My father is a businessman who knows that for any country to grow, there must be a virile economy. With this in mind, I joined the family business from the operations level until I was appointed by the board to manage the manufacturing and trading arm of the organisation. I was in charge of manufacturing drums, candles and steel. I also oversaw the poultry and poultry processing arm of the business while exporting sesame and ginger to Europe. It was quite tasking but was also a great learning experience for me. I did not envisage myself in that role at first, as I thought I might turn out to be a psychologist, despite studying International Relations. Before I joined the family business, I worked with other organisations to gain experience on how the business terrain in Nigeria worked. I moved to Abuja to join my husband, and did a complete U-turn on my profession. I joined a brilliant team of consultants and we created a company that focused on project management and content creation in the IT sector, by helping to deliver projects that made major impact in the public sector and I enjoyed it for the time. Now I have ventured out on my own in the agricultural sector, where I rear cattle, grow maize and other things; don’t forget I am a Fulani girl. Consulting is still a large part of what I do in the corporate world.

What is the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Programme about?

AWEP was inaugurated in Nigeria in April 2013 by the then US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr  Terence McCulley. It was the initiative of the State Department when it was under the leadership of Hillary Clinton. Basically, it is an opportunity given to African women to benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which is to help African countries export to the US without tariff, especially in areas concerning apparel, agriculture and the likes. AWEP is currently in 31 African countries and we are all linked through a self-created platform. In Nigeria, you join through your zone, so that we are able to help you join a cluster to grow your business. We also charge a small fee for administration and training upon joining. However, we did face some challenges in the beginning. We had the issue of creating awareness. And, there was that of getting women keyed into appropriate programmes that helped solve their business problems; to get them export ready.

How did you get into the programme?

The Ministry of Trade and Investment is the guardian of AWEP in Nigeria, as well as it being overseen by the US Embassy in Nigeria. I was invited as an entrepreneur to join and I became the vice-president representing the North-East geographical zone of the country on the executive. My job was to make female entrepreneurs in the North-East aware of the programme and how they could use it as a vehicle to improve their businesses. At the time, our economy was not as deep in the doldrums as it is now, so it was not taken seriously. Now that people have seen the benefits and the exposure it has given them, they are eager to join.

What were you able to achieve with the programme?

 I can confidently tell you that of all the AWEP chapters, Nigeria is leading the pack. We have got funding for members to scale up their businesses through grants. We have taken many members out of the country to learn best practices for their products, especially in the agricultural and clothing sector. We work very closely with SMEDAN, NEPC and the Ministry of Trade. They have been extremely supportive to our members.

Has AWEP been able to attain the heights planned for it?

AWEP Nigeria is certainly not resting on its laurels. Our members are now processing rice, sheabutter, producing exquisite underwear, fashionable clothes, herbal teas, and so on. We can only go up.

Do you think the programme has succeeded as much as it has because of its foreign influence; as compared to if it was managed by the Nigerian government?

No, we can’t attribute its success to foreign influence. From the onset, we decided to be above board and do things properly. We are role models to our children and communities, so that was important to us who started it. AWEP is a collaboration, so we are lucky to have both the local support of the US Embassy through their economic section, and the Ministry of Trade and Investment with its parastatal who always seek us out.

Is there a programme that attends to men in this regard?

AGOA is male dominated, hence the creation of AWEP.

How did your position in AWEP impact your life?

I have always seen myself as a leader and it was a position I was privileged to take on. I learnt that leadership is selfless and you have to go the extra mile. Women are generally natural leaders so it was easy for me. I learnt that once you work with women and you explain the objective of something to them, they come on board with enthusiasm because they want to prosper and help their families.

What were the memorable experiences you had while on the job?

Honestly, I had quite a number of memorable experiences. One was getting a grant from the United States Government to help us with more efficient data collection of women businesses. Another one that I’ll always cherish is representing AWEP in the US and Hungary. A very impressive highlight was also seeing the growth and success of my fellow AWEP sisters as they formalise their businesses and reap the benefits. We have done a lot in the last five years. Also, we led the creation of AWEP West Africa, where I represent Nigeria now as the Secretary General. The head office is in Ghana. This is to help unite us further for business collaboration within our region to enhance multi-country trading. It is important that Africa trades with itself and women are leading in that area.

What are you up to now?

I was recently selected by the State Department to attend the International Visitor Leadership Programme in the United States and I spent a month there. The IVLP Programme is the premier professional exchange programme of the State Department. I was one of the 22 African women invited from 13 countries this year. We spent time in four states, meeting businesswomen, lawmakers in congress, impactful community leaders, and innovators. We also participated in community service and some volunteer work. It was an exciting experience where we also showcased our businesses and built bridges.

What should we be expecting from you going forward?

I would like to volunteer my time more to mentor young entrepreneurs, whether male or female. I want to be more involved in Nigeria, contribute to policy and perhaps the political space too.

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