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When considering female micro-entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa, I often remember the stark images of the women of Yaba market in Lagos. Some of the market women sell food produce, others focus on the textile business and a greater number work as the “Jacquelines” of all trades.

I often wonder if they designed and wrote out a business plan before they started their respective ventures and how they and their businesses have survived through the years. More importantly, I think about what can make their businesses more profitable and sustainable. During my last trip to Nigeria, I spent a few hours buying gifts at Yaba market and engaging different micro-scale womenpreneurs. My goal was to gain insight as to how these women got started in business, how their businesses were structured and what their biggest needs were.

Unsurprisingly, many women talked about limited access to loans and credit. However, I was more struck by the desire of many of the women to get an education. The conversations inspired me to think of creative and effective ways to empower women in the market with customized business skills and education.

I dug deeper to gain a clearer understanding of what can be done to empower these women, many of whom didn’t complete secondary school but still had a strong desire to obtain some formal education. The biggest challenge to getting formal education for many of these women was time, money and the opportunity cost of leaving their businesses for extended periods of time. Many women simply could not leave their kiosks during business hours to attend class at a school that would most likely be far away.

While auditing a Coursera class on Social Entrepreneurship, I applied the Principles of Design to the problem.

My solution: take the training and education to the women. 

I crafted a model that will function as a daily or weekly lunch-and-learn, allowing micro-womenpreneurs leave their kiosks for forty-five minutes to an hour and take skills-focused business classes at a location within the market infrastructure. To increase the chances of success, the program must be skills-focused and be offered in bite-sized digestible format. Many of these women manage shops, stalls and boutiques; hence they need an education that is timely, tailored and convenient.

Listed below are the reasons that having a skills-focused business school in the market will be beneficial to small-scale women entrepreneurs:

Timeliness and applicability of information

Given the focus on skills-based learning and real time application of information, women can learn about how to build a budget and exercise their knowledge of different commerce topics on their businesses the same day.

Their learning is further complemented by their respective business challenges, which can serve as case studies from which everyone else can learn. Additionally, women can real time advice from their teachers, mentors and fellow womenpreneurs.

Creation of a Womenpreneur ecosystem

A market-based schooling approach creates a network of entrepreneurial women who come together to share business experiences, engage with business lessons, and form a coalition. This creates a support system whereby women can rely on each other for support or even micro-credit; an ecosystem where women can share issues they are having in their businesses and find ways to learn from each other’s experiences promises to create trust among the women.

Women may also discover that they are serving different levels of the business chain and may decide to integrate or partner; hence creating potential value to be realized in efficiency gains.

Convenience and flexibility

It is difficult to convince a middle-aged woman who is the breadwinner of her family to leave her kiosk for hours at a time to attend school. However, if that education is right there in the market and is fitted into mini-education sessions, it creates a more compelling and readily available opportunity. Bringing education to the micro womenpreneurs creates the flexibility that has been missing in obtaining an education.

The Girl effect

Many of the women I’ve seen running shops over the years tend to have some help from another younger woman. Usually, it’s a daughter or a niece or a relation of some sort. Some of these relationships with younger women can be structured as apprenticeships with defined learning outcomes, which further fuel the entrepreneurial spirit of the young women. Coupling that structure with formal education (right there in the market) can create a powerful domino effect for years to come.

A program of this nature can take many forms. There are number of parties from the private, public and non-profit sectors who could come in as partners. From a funding perspective, the program can be sponsored through philanthropy, whether from an NGO, the government or a Private Corporation.

It can also be structured as a public-private partnership. While there are obstacles facing women entrepreneurship, most of these are in fact solvable. Education continues to be a primary issue, however, with some creative thinking we can develop meaningful responses and improve these solutions as ideas further develop.

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