Iya Bisi, as she asks to be addressed, sits by the junction of Brown street at Oshodi, a popular Lagos suburb known for the diversity of its market space. She sits with her wares, eating roasted corn as she calls out to potential customers. Iya Bisi is attractive, not for the head-turning beauty of a young African damsel but her breasts. Under the black, polo shirt she wears, one sees the frame of her breasts, as they dangle down, resting midway to her stomach, just by the tip of the tray on which she displays her goods. It is a spectacle and figurative for how many Nigerian women put out their breasts to eke a living.
The struggle for funds demands from Nigerian female petty traders their breasts— symbol of their pride. Access to loan facilities is restrictive for many market women. The scale of their business is hardly enough to secure a loan in any conventional banks. When the business is big enough, many of them are illiterate, unbanked and have no significant collateral.
"Ori omo ni ere run si," says Iya Bisi. She means her children are her investments and collateral. Most women operating in the informal sector of the economy spend a chunk of their meager profit on upkeep and family expenses, hardly able or even considering long term investments. And until banks could accept mothers' dream for her children as collateral, women like Iya Bisi have no chance in any conventional bank.
Nigeria's economy is mostly informal. The informal sector accounted for 65% of the country's entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2017, says Nigeria's Bank of Industry (BoI). In the same vein, the sector accounts for 70% of industrial employment but, significantly, women hugely populate the industry. The International Labour Organization report finds that women dominate 46% of the informal sector in urban Nigeria. These women are in different market clusters across the country.
The pains of breasts on kindle
The advent of Microfinance Banks in Nigeria provides petty traders the possibility of small-scale loans to support their businesses. These banks target poor, often, illiterate market women. The traders can access N20,000 loans and grow it to N300,000 through the banks. The loan facility can potentially boost the business and increase profit over time for Iya Bisi, whose entire wares are less than N20,000.
However, the scheme is not without its shortfalls. The crude means by which banks recoup loans leave some of the women physically and emotionally bruised. The frustration and, sometimes, the humiliation that comes with repayment earn the financial scheme the Yoruba coinage; 'komu le lantern' (put your breasts on a burning lantern).
Shakira Abolore is unable to hold back hot tears as they roll down her cheeks. Her eyeballs red from memory she is about to share. She is completely overwhelmed by mixed emotions— mostly sadness and regrets. She weeps at the open market not minding the uninvited audience that now gathers around her as she retells the humiliation that sends her out of her childhood community.
The 35-year-old woman lived at Kosofe area of Lagos. She grew up there and moved in with her husband in the same neighborhood when she got married. Now, she hawks walnut at Berger market. Her small tray is filled with N100 packs of walnut tied in transparent plastics. It is her last resort following the crash of her oil business.
"It breaks my heart as I am telling you this," Shakira says, struggling to control the tears. "I was a housegirl for a year, to raise money to start my own business. I went back to where I did an apprenticeship, learning how to make palm oil. After my freedom, I opened my shop. I was making palm oil and selling."
Some months in, marketers of Lift Above Poverty Organisation (LAPO), one of the first and, perhaps, the most popular microfinance banks, approached her for a loan. She would later take a N50,000 loan which became laborious to repay.
"I was paying N3,500 every week, but when I could not meet up the first week, they came to lock up my husband's house. In the second week, I got money from my sister to pay for the weeks. By the time I got to the 10th week, I had totally lost all investment, the money I had borrowed and my own. There was nothing left in my shop.
"Once I remove the loan payment for the week, I hardly have enough to buy material for my business. The money gradually evaporates from my hands."
By the 11th week, Shakirat says she could no longer meet up. Already, her stocks were gone at this point. That was when she decided to come into Berger to begin hawking, in other to meet her weekly payment. By the 12th week, she had defaulted for two consecutive weeks.
"I was here when my sister's husband called that my sister had been arrested. I had gathered funds for two weeks; I sent to my brother-in-law to pay so they would let my sister go. I could not go back to my area. The shame was too much. They had locked my husband's house and then lock up my sister. I stayed back here to hawk so I can pay back the loan."
Eventually, she repaid the loan with the profit from her walnut sales with swear and sweat. Her savings with the bank was liquidated to augment payment, she says.
"Because of the incident," she explains, breaking into fresh tears." Ihad to put my two children in custody of different relatives. My first child is about to write WAEC; I have not been able to pay. I thought to get the loan so I could, but I was advised against it. I might have to put her where she would learn some vocation."
The love-hate relationship
The tales of loss, humiliation, and frustrations lace experiences of these women as they struggle to secure funds to boost their small businesses. Across various markets in Lagos State, Komu le lantern has a love-hate reputation. It is that friend one misses but becomes troublesome when around.
Mummy Olamide says she has palpitations and fear of possible embarrassments when she takes the Microfinance loans. But she continues to take up multiple loans, and from different banks, too. She takes loans from LAPO, Grooming Microfinance, and Eagle Eye.
"What can I do?" she asks. "I don't have any helper, and I have no one to give me money for this small thing I am selling."
Mummy Olamide is a dark, friendly woman. Unlike Shakira, she is lettered. She says she serves as secretary of three different women's groups. LAPO requires the petty traders to form a small group through which they access loans. Mummy Olamide says she has taken loans from all these groups. Surprisingly, her snack business is diminishing. The transparent rectangular plastic she keeps eggroll and doughnuts has less than 30 pieces of the varieties. Yet, mummy Olamide has taken four different loans to scale up the business.
"I have taken two N50,000 loans, N100,000, the last one I am paying is N250,000," she reveals. "But I cannot see the difference. By the time I finish paying, my wares have gone back to how I started".
She claims she always meets up payment hence escapes humiliation, but not everyone is as lucky.
"We've seen instances where they would put a signboard saying they are debtors around their necks and ask them to beg about the market. They could also bring a small crowd to your shop. The crowd would be shouting and singing insulting songs. They've locked people in public toilets. All the microfinance banks do it," she says.
In another instance, the strokes are different for Stephany Okoli, or maybe she chooses to see the good. She sells baby clothes by the roadside. She used to own a shop, but her shop was demolished. She now puts her wares on a tarpaulin spread so she can quickly fold and run to safety when law enforcement officials violently disperse roadside hawkers.
When Stephany got married in 2015, she needed money to start up a business. She had only LAPO to turn to. The 38-year-old, bubbly lady got on her feet with the help of her first loan. She managed well until the Lagos State Government demolished her stall.
"See, the loan is good so long as you do not default. When my shop got demolished, and I could not meet up payment. The officer came and wanted to start talking to me anyhow. I told her to take me to her manager.
"When the manager saw my books, he was surprised. I have never defaulted, I explained to him, and he understood. They gave me another plan for repaying. It has been good. I paid back and got another one."
The opportunity cost of faulty government's Frameworks
The Nigerian government has initiatives that could provide a more convenient credit facility for those in the informal sector and protect those who choose to engage the services of the commercial banks. But for lack of proper implementation, the industry suffers, and these helpless women become the opportunity cost.
A government scheme that could potentially provide credit facilities to small businesses is the TraderMoni interest-free loan. TraderMoni is a cash-based payment meant for traders like Iya Bisi and Mummy Olamide. It is positioned as a scheme to put money into the informal sector. The aim, as propagated by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, is to provide small loans for petty traders like the microfinance banks, but even better because it adds no interest.
"The TraderMoni, if properly scrutinized and well-implemented, can build our small and medium scale entrepreneurs and enterprises in Nigeria," says Lanre Suraj, the Executive Director of Human and Development Agenda (HEDA).
However, the implementation of the scheme has limited its intended impact. The process of disbursement was politicized; hence, those who should benefit could not access it. In an interview with SaharaReporters in January, Awwal Rafsanjani, Chairman of Transparency International in Nigeria, says the scheme is merely to score political points.
Rafsanjani re-echoes this position when he dubs TraderMoni as voters’ inducement hence its failure to achieve set objectives.
Also, one of the key performance indicators of the National Financial Inclusion Strategy of the Central Bank of Nigeria is consumer protection. The strategy says, "financial institutions are to provide financial services that are accessible, affordable, meet consumer needs and align with established consumer protection principles." The CBN says it is to prevent exploitation by service providers.
There is also the Consumer Protection Framework (CPF) to protect end-users of financial services. The CBN says that "CPF stipulates that consumers should be proactively engaged and given early notice of outstanding obligations before the commencement of debt collection actions.
"Where consumers are, however, unable to meet their financial obligations, financial institutions are to adopt fair and ethical debt recovery practices."
These guidelines are being neglected as microfinance banks continue to deploy crude means in recovering their investments.
The services of these microfinance banks are important, as they remain the only viable source of credit facility for these traders. Nonetheless, the banks must also ensure that the rights of their customers are not infringed on in any way.
The Lift Above Poverty Organisation (LAPO) Microfinance Bank denies it uses crude methods in collecting its loans.
Although the bank claims it does not engage in any unethical conducts and denies ever doing business with Abolore, it acknowledges other microfinance banks engage in "unethical practises".
"We, however, understand that LAPO has become a household name in the industry thus bearing the brunt of other microfinance banks unethical practices," the bank says.
"LAPO MfB is a development-focused Bank with set rules and policies that guide our debt recovery procedures in the event of default.
"LAPO Microfinance Bank is a Client Protection Principle certified institution with a wide range of products and services tailored to improve lives and lift people out of poverty.
"Our expansive network of over 490 branches are solely established to serve the needs and interests of over 3 million small, micro and medium entrepreneurs in Nigeria."