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Women Like Olabisi The Understated Significance of Nigerian Market Women

Olabisi is a market woman in Balogun Market, Lagos. I met her while researching my short documentary, Awani, which explores themes of colonialism and gender inequality. She is one of the hundreds of women on a stretch of road who sell food, household items, and textiles. Olabisi sells housewares and cleaning materials from her small roadside stall. The market strip is next to a busy highway. The few men in the market are electricians and car mechanics, and they have a separate area to themselves.

Olabisi is the breadwinner for her family of four children. Her husband worked in Lagos as a taxi driver, sending money to their extended family, but she hasn’t heard from him since he left her last year. Her days are long: she wakes up at four in the morning to catch a danfo from her house to the market and pays 200 Naira (25 per cent of her daily income) for the round trip. On a lucrative day, she prays that the bus is not stopped by police or robbers on the commute back. She prefers the dry season (even though it often gets as hot as 35 degrees Celsius) because in the rainy season, there is always a danger that heavy rainfall and flood would wash the stalls away.

Olabisi can only afford to send the eldest of her four children to school. This child is responsible for bringing home textbooks in order to teach their younger siblings. She prays that by investing in her child’s education, they will eventually get professional jobs in a bank or a hospital so that they can improve their quality of life.

Quick History: The Aba Women’s War

The economic and political contributions of market women in Nigeria’s diverse contexts have long been ignored and buried. Market women in the region we know today as Nigeria have, for a long time, been at the forefront of social transitions. A notable example of the significance of market women was the Aba Women’s War in 1929. The war is commonly referred to as the Aba Women’s Riot, but the term, ‘riot’ is a gross mischaracterization of the events that took place. When the British colonial masters tried to force Nigerian traders to pay taxes, Aba market women rebelled because the taxation would have resulted in a large financial burden for their families. These market women mobilized and resolved to fight back. News of the revolt spread across Eastern and Southern regions of Nigeria and hundreds of thousands of women took part in the protest. The women were not armed with weapons, but they stood up against the British in peaceful protest. The British forces were so threatened by these women that they shot over 70 of them who were unarmed. The women were unsuccessful, but their fight against colonial rule deserves acknowledgement, and perhaps even a national holiday. The Aba Women’s War was one of the largest anti-colonialist movements in Nigerian history and their legacy of protest continues among market women. As recently as December 2018, activists and market women joined forces to protest against groping women in public spaces in Lagos, this protest also occurred in Enugu. In 2016, market women in Edo state protested against unfair rental fees by blocking access to a major highway.

Women and the Informal Economy

In addition to their social and political contributions, market women also play a vital role in Nigeria’s economy. Nigeria, with a population estimated at 200 million people and a nominal GDP of $510 billion, is one of the largest economies in Africa. However, according to the International Monetary Fund, Nigeria’s informal economy accounts for 65 per cent of Nigeria’s GDP. The informal economy comprises unregistered household enterprises and small-scale businesses, a high proportion of which are street traders. Moreover, research from United Nations Informal Sector Development and the Bank of Industry demonstrated that women are the principal labour force in the informal economy, particularly in agriculture, food and beverages, retail, textiles, and cross-border trade. The informal sector generates 65 per cent of Nigeria’s annual GDP, yet the socio-economic status of these women in Nigerian society does not reflect their contributions.

Economists Cathy-Austin Otekhile and Oluwatoyin Matthews, argue in their paper, ‘An Explorative Study of the Contribution of the Informal Sector to Economic Activities in Lagos, Nigeria’, that the contributions of market women strengthen the economy by their sheer number. Women in the informal sector like Olabisi provide small formal manufacturing firms with marketing and distribution channels, boost formal wholesalers’ revenues, and attract consumers to their stalls. Olabisi, for instance, plays a crucial role in the agricultural value chain. She sells yams, onions, peppers, and other locally sourced food items; and, through her, farmers are relieved of the burden of having to sell their own products to end-consumers.

Unfortunately, the positive contributions of market women are rarely acknowledged or celebrated. When celebrating female entrepreneurship, market women are excluded from the conversation, and both the government and the corporate sector often ignore them. In the last decade, women have lobbied and campaigned for a seat at the table in entrepreneurship and business. Organizations such as Women in Management, Business and Public Service (WIMBIZ), Women in Successful Careers (WISCAR), and She Leads Africa (SLA) have championed the inclusion of women in leadership positions in the corporate sector and as entrepreneurs, but these efforts tend not to include women who make their living from the informal economy. This is not an indictment on the efforts of the foregoing non-governmental organisations but an observation and appeal to broaden the definition of what constitutes as a successful entrepreneur.

Market women are predominantly traders who sell agricultural products and food. According to the Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre in Nigeria, women represent 70–80 per cent of agricultural labour, though fewer than 15 per cent of these women are able to climb the socio-economic ladder. They are able to participate in trade, but few progress to landownership.

A market woman’s work involves long hours and physical labour. For example, Olabisi’s day starts before sunrise when she prays with her children. Afterwards, she gets them ready for school. When school is out of session, she drops her children with the neighbours. Then she collects deliveries from farmers and travels to her market stall. Every market has competition, so she has to be vigilant and look out for customers and aggressively market her goods to them before competitors notice them.

At popular markets like Aba and Balogun, you can find a range of goods—anything from Swiss lace to oxtail stews. However, upon close inspection the market stalls are rudimentary. The stalls are simply sets of tables and stools. There are no toilets, and there are no day-care facilities for children. Market women help to fuel the economy, but they do not benefit from the advantages of formal employment such as comprehensive health insurance, job security, and upward social mobility. Most market women do not pursue secondary or tertiary education and often sell their goods in an uncomfortable environment. Market women may have regular cash flow, but due to the limitations of an unregulated industry, these entrepreneurs struggle to scale-up. Since the women do not have bank accounts, their cash flows cannot be recorded and therefore they cannot obtain lines of credit from financial institutions to expand their businesses.

Government Intervention and the Cashless Banking Initiative

In 2011, when Sanusi Lamido Sanusi was the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), he fervently pursued and developed a financial inclusion strategy. He hoped to reduce the percentage of Nigerians excluded from financial services from 46.3 per cent at the time to 20 per cent by 2020. He launched Mobile Money via the Cashless Banking Initiative, aimed at integrating street traders and merchants into the formal economy by encouraging them to open and operate business accounts through their mobile phones.

There are potential benefits of opening a bank account to individuals within the informal economy. For instance, agency banking (using an agent to convert cash into mobile money or to accounts) reduces the risk of theft or loss of money. The tracking of cash flows through bank accounts may open up financing options (such as access to loans) where they were previously unavailable. This allows street traders to expand their shops and increase their net income. In addition, this increase in income could have a spillover effect on society, enabling market women to invest in the wellbeing of their family, their health, and their education.

However, the street trading community is self-made, self-regulating and self-sustaining. It is a cash business where very few transact through formal accounts. The traders have created their own ecosystem and their success is not linked to substantial government intervention or investment. Thus, Mobile Money is perceived as an extractive practice because it permits the federal government to collect tax revenue from workers in the informal economy.

Looking Ahead

At the end of the day, Olabisi has sold most of her wares. She packs up her stall and locks the table and chairs in a makeshift cupboard. She walks to the bus park and takes a rowdy bus home. She collects her children from her neighbour and begins to make dinner. Her back aches because she has been on her feet for most of the day. She and her children eat dinner and change into their nightwear. They say their prayers together and the children go to bed. Olabisi stays up counting what she made from the day’s sale. She puts her earnings under the mattress, gently so not to wake her children. She snuggles into bed with them and falls asleep only to wake up again 4 hours later.

Market women are not only vital to the economy, they have also played significant roles as activists. From a policy perspective, the government must try to understand their needs by engaging with these women to figure out how to serve them well. It would be useful to commission research on this specific segment of the informal economy. The government must also invest in these women, by building child-care facilities in the markets, and by providing low-cost health or free comprehensive health insurance. Intervention should not be circumvention; these women need to be engaged and asked what they need.

There is a historical and contemporary case for recognizing and elevating the contribution of Nigeria’s market women. The women fought against the British colonial forces to protect their families. They currently contribute billions of naira a year to the economy, fuelling Nigeria’s growth during a period of sluggish economic growth, and persistent economic uncertainty. Acknowledgement of their contributions to society is long overdue and a benefit to all Nigerians. In our capitalist society, where one’s value is measured by how much monetary value we generate, it is puzzling that market women do not hold a higher place of esteem in Nigeria. We can afford women like Olabisi the recognition that they deserve and make proper investments in their business in order to ensure their effective contributions to the economy⎈