Bukola Adeniji, 39, has a simple invitation to treat strategically etched on her Whatsapp status: “Cakes for birthday and valentine. Call 08068078439.”

The visually impaired entrepreneur actually does more than that to survive the harsh conditions that persons living with disabilities endure on the streets of Lagos and elsewhere in Nigeria on a normal day.

She also produces and packages bean flour, which she supplies to supermarkets around Ebute Meta area of Lagos where she lives.  Blind Bukola Adeniji busy baking for survival

“I also do home deliveries when people make orders via my online marketing drive,” she explained to the reporter.

And the woman was enjoying a huge patronage especially from her cake-baking business because “it targets children, and they are always eager to buy”, according to her.  

But that patronage and profit have disappeared out of sight already – gone with the 2 billion jobs in the informal economy around the world. The International Labour Organization estimates that small-scale entrepreneurs “have suffered massive damage to their capacity to earn a living” due to declining working hours induced by lockdowns to rein in the spread of Coronavirus.

In Nigeria alone, over 40 million of such informal businesses including Ifeanyi Nwafor’s beads and jewellery enterprise have gone down with the lockdown. 

Now in a quandary on the wheelchair, she has been perpetually confined. Ifeanyi is only left to wonder where the next meal will come from after losing her customers and start-up capital to emergencies triggered by the initial five-week lockdown.  Ifeanyi Nwafor perfecting her beadmaking craft

“I was making N20,000 per month before the lockdown, but now I don’t have patronage again,” she groaned, adding that, “People are more concerned now about eating than buying jewelleries.”

Already, the UN labour agency is predicting a 10.5 per cent deterioration in working hours during the second quarter of the year and that is equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs, compared to pre-crisis levels

So, in the coming days, it can only get grimmer for Bukola, Ifeanyi, and the crowd of PLWDs struggling to gain economic independence in Nigeria. 

“For millions of workers, no income means no food, no security and no future. Millions of businesses around the world are barely breathing. They have no savings or access to credit,” ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, said on April 29.

Ryder sure has a bother. PLWDs and the vast crowd working in the informal sector are the real faces of the world of work. And if they don’t get an urgent help now, Ryder worries, they will simply perish.

That’s a doomsaying Bukola is desperate to stave off now. “My major source of income is the schools where I sell my cakes, but now schools have shut down, so I can’t sell again,” she said.

“I really need some support financially now because my capital has been eroded with the lockdown,” she lamented, adding that, ‘I didn’t get the palliative promised persons with disabilities during the lockdown, so virtually all my business capital have gone into taking care of personal needs while we were staying at home.”

Not that there were no palliatives, just that the conditional cash transfer was initially designed to capture a particular set of beneficiaries under a 'normal' social and economic environment.

Ene Obi, Country Director at ActionAid Nigeria, argued, “COVID-19 has altered that environment.

“Yet, government’s palliative measures are not prioritising women. The exclusion of the Ministry of Women Affairs from the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 further hinders the voices and needs of women being captured in governments’ response strategy.”

In April, the Federal Government claimed it spent at least N2bn on cash transfer to 148,176 beneficiaries in 22 states. 

That is approximately N13,500 each for the faceless beneficiaries, which did not include Bukola, Ifeanyi and the crowd of special needs persons reeling under the economic hardship brought on by the lockdown.

Why the denial will linger

The breather entrepreneurs with disabilities desperately desire will not come soon if indeed it ever comes. For one Nigeria, teeming with no fewer than 20 million PLWDs, is still struggling to include this minority population in its public spending—how much less floating a special relief fund to get businesses by special needs entrepreneurs back on their feet.

Funding has always been the excuse. And the government will sing it out louder in these trying times as Nigeria’s oil fortunes dip and its economic handlers watch on helplessly as COVID-19 ravages everything in sight. 

For instance, of the 80,000 households and small businesses that scrambled for the N50bn credit facility which the CBN proposed to dole out to households and SMEs through the Nigeria Incentive-based Risk Sharing System for Agricultural Lending Microfinance Bank, only 3,256 – less than five per cent of the total applicants, made it through the shortlist, the CBN announced in May.

The list of potential beneficiaries did not include Babatunde Mohammed however. Also, an entrepreneur living with visual impairment, Mohammed could not meet the conditions stipulated by the apex bank for anyone seeking to access the credit. 

“I didn’t have the insurance requirement they asked for and that automatically disqualified me from the application process,” Mohammed said.  

If he and other Nigerians with special needs had not been schemed out by the CBN stringent conditions for loan applicants, Mohammed, whose enterprise involves procurement of assistive technology and mobility devices for persons with disabilities, would have saved the livelihoods of two families whose breadwinners work as staff in his TBlaze General Services.

“I pay at least N100,000 in salaries to the two members of staff in my employ, and that’s aside from other ad hoc staff I use every now and then as my business demands.

“But as it is now, I will need urgent capital to be injected into the business to make it survive. There are devices I need to procure before my clients begin to make their orders,” Mohammed told the reporter.

Only a swift cash relief intervention that makes recovery effective and sustainable for special needs persons and their businesses will help lift Mohammed out of his present quagmire. 

And Switzerland is offering a global example in this regard – creating rapid access to credit facilities through its Federal Council to its SMEs so they can bridge liquidity shortfalls. 

Over 76,000 small businesses in the country have benefitted from the emergency loans already, more than other countries in Europe, according to the Financial Times.

The success of the Switzerland intervention can be traced to partnership between government and private sector players. The rapid credit plan, for instance, is the brainchild of Thomas Gottstein, the Chief Executive of Credit Suisse, who worked with Finance Minister, Ueli Maurer, and others to set up a task force.

If implemented, that kind of coordinated partnership is capable of fast-tracking small business aid in Nigeria actually.

But for small enterprises run by Mohammed and his clan of entrepreneurs with disabilities, there is a snag. Paucity of credible data on the population of PLWDs in Nigeria as well as their geographical spread will likely make access to credit facility by members of this community a nightmarish experience.

Obviously outdated now, just one national eye health survey has ever been carried out in Nigeria since over a decade ago, for instance. 

The survey, at the instance of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, shows that well over four million Nigerians are visually impaired.

Visual impairment among those, who cannot read and write, according to the survey, also stands at 5.8 per cent nationwide. This is against 1.5 per cent among those who can.

Accurate population figure or not, people are skeptical already that relief funds won't trickle down to the small business owners and traders that need it the most. 

And in the case of entrepreneurs living with disabilities, the odds are stacked high against them, according to David Anyaele, Executive Director at Centre for Citizens with Disabilities.

“They (PLWDs) may never be able to access any support fund from government,” Anyaele said, adding that, “Because the program is not designed with a disability eye lens.”

That’s a glaring discrimination for entrepreneurs with disabilities looking to recover from the blow dealt their businesses by the lockdown.  

And the impact for this disadvantaged community can only get more dangerous in the coming days as infection rate spikes across the country. 

This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its COVID-19 Reality Check project.

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