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Catalysing Growth for Nigerian Women Entrepreneurs

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Udoka has grand ambitions for her Lagos-based skin care company. By 2021, she wants her customer base to cover the whole of Nigeria. Demand for her products is already high, but to realise her goal she needs to expand her factory, recruit more staff and formalise her finances. That's why she joined my Foundation's Road to Women's Business Growth project, an exciting new initiative we are delivering in collaboration with the ExxonMobil Foundation.

Today Udoka will be one of the 500 Nigerian women who are celebrating International Women's Day by graduating from the first stage of the project - and I am honoured to be hosting a special event in Lagos to mark this achievement. Over the last three months women across the country have undergone rigorous training to develop the business management and financial literacy skills they need to take their businesses to the next level.

It is an exciting and important time to be delivering this project. Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, thanks to expansion in sectors such as telecommunications and a booming film industry. And yet, despite this, a significant gender gap in economic activity persists.

According to the World Economic Forum's latest Global Gender Gap report, Nigeria has slipped seven places since the previous year in its ranking on gender equality, sitting at 125th out of 145 countries. On average, women in Nigeria earn 23% less than their male counterparts, and only 34% of women have access to a bank account, compared to 54% of men.

In order for Nigeria's economic growth to be truly inclusive women entrepreneurs must be empowered to realise their full potential. That's exactly what my Foundation is seeking to do.

The women I am celebrating with today are all established business owners running small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in a diverse range of sectors, from fashion, retail and health, to education and mechanics. These women have enjoyed some degree of success but are struggling to take that next step on their road to growth.

Our research showed that one of the biggest barriers standing in their way is access to finance. Of course, this problem is not unique to Nigeria - women run 30% of all registered businesses worldwide, yet only 10% of women entrepreneurs have access to the capital they need to grow. Our project is tackling this issue in three key ways.

First, we have mobilised the skills and resources of a range of partners. Training is being delivered by our partner on the ground, the Enterprise Development Centre of Pan-Atlantic University, an expert in SME business development. Representatives from our financial partner, Diamond Bank, have also connected with women at regular intervals, providing information on financial products and demystifying loan application procedures. Research shows that facilitating direct links between women and financial services is crucial. After all, it's not enough to simply teach women about abstract financial concepts; they need the opportunity to put those learnings into practice.

Second, the Road to Growth training course is completely unique. It has been built from scratch and customised to meet the needs of women owners of small businesses in Nigeria. Research we conducted at the start of the project showed that these needs centre largely around financial management skills, such as managing cash flow, interpreting financial statements and understanding loan processes. Our technology partner, Emerging360, designed a bespoke learning curriculum which fills these knowledge gaps.

Finally, we are using technology to deliver the project in a way that fits with the realities of women's lives. The training has been delivered partly in traditional classroom settings, and partly through online learning modules which the women can access via hand-held tablets. This 'blended learning' approach allows women to benefit from networking opportunities and peer-to-peer learning, whilst also giving them the flexibility to learn in their own time and at their own pace.

Over the next six months the women will continue to receive support to build their businesses, with one hundred participants benefiting from more intensive support. Udoka isn't wasting any time in putting her new-found skills into practice, however. Before she started the training, she struggled with basic financial spreadsheets and was juggling all aspects of the business herself, from marketing to human resources and book-keeping. Now she has become much more organised; she has got to grips with her growth plan, hired an in-house accountant and is even considering selling shares in her business.

Women like Udoka are poised to act as change-makers in their communities and economies. After all, research shows that when women earn, they plough the majority of their income back into the health and wellbeing of their families. Empowering women entrepreneurs is an economic catalyst we cannot afford to ignore.

Watch a video of Udoka talking about her business on our YouTube page.

HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today. Through blogs, features and video, we'll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you'd like to blog on our platform around these topics, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with a summary of who you are and what you'd like to blog about

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