Unleashing the Entrepreneurial Spirit of Nigeria's Girls

In a bustling neighborhood in the heart of Lagos, six teenage girls are huddled together in a salon learning how to braid a wig. They chat and gossip as they work, some with babies strapped to their backs or sitting in their laps, going back and forth over the best way to style the braids.

Tawa could hardly have imagined ending up in this cheerful place just a few years ago. At the age of 16, she was forced to drop out of school, unable to afford the fees required to attend. While her younger stepsisters continued to go to school, Tawa was stuck at home with an abusive stepmother. Left to fend for herself, she got by on a small income from doing laundry and washing dishes for her neighbors, all the while feeling a sense of hopelessness about her future. 

"For a girl that doesn't go to school, doesn't learn any hand work, the guys will be harassing her, they will be maltreating her every day of her life." 

But then things turned around for Tawa. A local school teacher who came to tutor her stepsisters noticed Tawa's despair and began mentoring her.

"I asked her if she wanted to go back to school, I told her we'd send her, me and my husband," says Iya-Eko, Tawa’s mentor. “She said no. I know because of what is in her family she thought she couldn't make it.”

When Iya-Eko became a learning coordinator with Mercy Corps, a leading global organization, she convinced Tawa to join a program focused on empowering out of school girls with the skills and resources they need to build a better future.

"Sometimes you find a girl dropping out of school for sometimes as little as a $5 levy. And that's it for her." 
-Rabi Sani, Mercy Corps
Nigerian school girls gather around a food vendor for an afternoon snack.

In partnership with the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, Mercy Corps creates safe spaces for teenage girls to increase their knowledge and confidence, and become self-sufficient by combining basic business, financial and life skills training, with mentoring and access to vocational training. The program also connects the girls to informal savings groups which can put them on a pathway to access formal financial services.

The Center's ultimate goal: expand economic opportunities for Nigeria’s teenage girls, and unlock their potential to help drive sustainable and equitable economic growth.

"What we want to do is help them start up a small business, acquire some skills, and be able to start up on their own because data has shown that they contribute to household income, even at this level, very significantly," says Rabi Sani, director of gender programs with Mercy Corps Nigeria.

"Since I joined the program they taught us everything…how to talk, how to negotiate with people, how to interact, how to have self-esteem, have confidence within ourselves."

Program coordinators matched Tawa to a salon apprenticeship based on her passion for hairstyling. She now trains daily at the salon, and in her off-hours, she operates a side business braiding hair for girls in her neighborhood. She charges between $1.50 - $7.50 per hairstyle, which can sometimes take as long as three to four hours to complete. 

She has also learned the value of savings. Each week, she attends group meetings where girls in the program contribute a small amount of their money to a collective pool of savings. They can borrow from the pool to buy supplies and tools for their entrepreneurial activities.

Hands-on experience with informal savings can enable a smooth transition to using formal financial tools to manage and grow assets

Tawa quickly saved enough money to purchase her own materials to make wigs, which she can sell at a profit of around $25. These wigs have been sold in other cities beyond Lagos, including one to a customer in the United States for $402. Her dream is to open her own salon where she can employ other marginalized girls. 

So far, more than 3,800 girls have been reached through the program. Many leave intent on becoming mentors and role models to other girls, and job creators for their communities.

"We started with very, very timid girls, girls that could barely look at a female to talk, girls that completely lacked self-esteem," says Sani. "Over the two years, we've been able to see and interact with girls that have become much more confident, girls that have a clear vision of what they want to do. They are daring to dream bold dreams, that before now they couldn't even imagine. They are beginning to see a whole world of possibility."

All photos by Corina Robbins/Mercy Corps

Learn more about how Mercy Corps and the MasterCard Center are working together to empower girls and women around the world at mercycorps.org/women-gender
The mission of the MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth is to advance sustainable and equitable growth and finanicial inclusion around the world. Join our community at www.mastercardcenter.org