Okocha Nkem: The Mother of Money

No one needs to tell Okocha Nkem what it’s like to struggle, wondering how you will pay for your child’s school fees or where the next meal will come from. She understands what it’s like for the Nigerian women her micro-credit and skills training social enterprise supports because she’s been there herself.

“I remember when I was working as a house help, my future was bleak. But I passed through that journey to prepare me for what I do today. Due to discipline, determination, and the grace of God, I’m in a position to help others break that cycle of poverty. Whether the husband is there or not there, a woman should be financially independent and able to take decisions about her own welfare and that of her family. Getting finance to do business as a woman is challenging, but as a low-income earner, it’s impossible. Our goal at Mamamoni is to bridge that gap.”

Nkem got off to a hard start in life. As a young teen, she lost her father, and her mother, a full-time housewife with no work experience, suddenly had to fend for the family of five. A friend of the family gave her a small loan and she wisely decided to use it to start a vegetable business. Nkem chipped in, hawking shampoo on the streets of Lagos before becoming a house help and then a child-carer for a Lagos family.

“I was tired of seeing so many women in the community, like my own mother, who wanted to do more to support their families but didn’t have the resources or training to do it. I thought if I keep waiting for the day when I have enough money to make a difference, I will never do it.”

“We really had no form of financial support when my father passed so going to school was a big challenge. Starting that business, no matter how small it was, enabled my mother to sustain us but without that friend, I’m not sure where she would have found the funds. I was lucky to find work and especially with the family that supported me as they did.”

Nkem’s employer paid for her to attend secondary school and helped with the exam fee to get into a polytechnic. The employer also told her about a position as a note counter in a bank and encouraged her to apply. Nkem placed second in the exam for the job and earned a position in customer service. During that time, she completed her studies in banking and finance at Lagos State University and started a small business selling motivational books and offering internet services as a side hustle.

After 14 years with the bank, she resigned.

“I’d been unhappy for some time. People knew I worked at a bank and were always asking me for help. I was tired of seeing so many women in the community, like my own mother, who wanted to do more to support their families but didn’t have the resources or training to do it. I thought if I keep waiting for the day when I have enough money to make a difference, I will never do it. So I quit and opened a non-profit to help women build the skills needed to generate income.”

Mamamoni  – which means “mother of money” in pidgin Nigerian – began with funds generated from savings and income from her side business. With a mission to eradicate the poverty she saw around her, Nkem offered free training to women on how to start microbusinesses and manage finances in exchange for their commitment to use their earnings to educate and support their children. Where she could, she provided funding and was supported in her work by the US General Consulate in Lagos who committed to fund the free vocational training. Although Mamamoni has impacted about 4000 families, funding was limited until the Tony Elumelu Foundation stepped in.

“I was not focusing on what I did not have. I believed in myself and knew I had the skills to help these women. After I did the Tony Elumelu 12-week fellowship and with the guidance of my mentor, Mrs Oluwatoyin Sanni, I was able to refine my business model, get help from people with more experience than me, and connect with potential investors. The US$5000 grant was a God sent because I was able to secure office space and finally start a proper micro-lending programme,” Nkem explains.

Less than two years later, with a team of five and two Board members, Mamamoni has become a fully fledged fintech social enterprise with the creation of a platform (online and mobile) that enables individuals to invest in women and their businesses. Over 100 loans have been made with a 98% payback rate. The women are vetted and required to undergo the Mamamoni training. And while anyone can lend (or donate) – to women like Alioha Beatrice who’s seeking about US$160 in her 4th loan to sustain her kerosene, engine oil, and local insecticide shop – Nkem explains the goal is to keep it local.

“We have a relationship with these women. Mamamoni has a few lenders from outside of Africa, but a majority of our users are from Lagos. Our goal is for the wealthier Nigerians to support the less fortunate by enabling these women to generate an income and support their families. Although we are building a culture of doing good, for the most part this is not charity because the women are earning the money and paying it back with interest. But although people like Tony Elumelu himself are lenders on the platform, we are still struggling to build capacity to make it a success.”

As Mamamoni gains momentum the accolades keep coming in. Its 35-year-old founder and mother of two has been recognized by the Nigerian presidency, made it to the list of YNaija 100 Most Influential Women, won Ebony Life in partnership with WIMBIZ Sisterhood Award, won a Leap Africa US$3000 award, and recently was nominated by Leading Ladies Africa as one of Nigeria’s 100 most inspiring women. But there’s no denying the challenges ahead.

“We used much of our funds to ensure the robustness of the tech platform, but now we need to go out and get testimonials from the women and follow-up on the welfare of the families to communicate progress as this builds credibility. We also need partnerships to scale up to create an impact as we’re still small and not that well known.”

With her vision of becoming a fintech business in five years that’s impacting 10,000 women across Nigeria through training and lending, Nkem has her work cut out for her but she’s taking it in her stride.

“In the beginning, I didn’t have a clear cut plan, just the heart to help. So I took little steps, all the time. I still have the heart and the patience, but now I have a plan, support, and people who believe in me.”

Nkem Okocha startup tips
  • ‘Whatever your hands finds to do, do it well.’’ The Bible
  • “Whatever the mind of a man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.” Napoleon Hill
  • Start small and don’t focus on what you don’t have.