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Nigeria’s ‘lady mechanics’ show how young African women can be empowered

Florence Iria at work

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D.T. Autocafe & Empowering African Women. All rights reserved.

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“My friends and family used to laugh at me when they see my greased hands, overalls and coveralls. Even my male counterparts sometimes try to intimidate me at work. But I am a go-getter. I never let anything deter me from reaching my dreams to be one of the most successful female mechanics in Nigeria.”

These are the words of Florence Iria, an ever-smiling, vibrant 25-year-old woman. She is an outstanding trainee of Empowering African Women, a learning platform that I set up with friends to enable young Nigerian women to unlock their potential through vocational training.

Iria’s family had registered her at a school of nursing, but she opted out for lack of funds. Luckily, she had a long-term dream: to become an auto mechanic. She had a passion for cars and had always aspired to be a ‘lady mechanic’, as women who work with cars are known in Nigeria.

In February 2018, an opportunity to pursue that dream came her way through the government-sponsored N-Power Build vocational training and apprenticeship scheme. A year after completing it, Iria, with other female graduates, was sponsored by Empowering African Women programme to pursue an extra year of paid internship in auto mechanics.

Today, Iria continues to work at D.T. Autocafe Limited, a government-approved training centre that partners with Empowering African Women. In addition to her job as a tyre and wheel alignment specialist, she presents an online video series about car maintenance which encourages more women to come into the industry.

It was for young women like her that we created Empowering African Women. Some years ago, I considered the plight of girls in my country, Nigeria, who, though hard-working and diligent, could not free themselves of the constraints that society placed on them due to limited education and other opportunities.

I would watch as these young women delicately set down their wares on a busy street of Lagos, looking for prospective buyers of their merchandise, ranging from biscuits to plantain chips. I would watch them sit down wearily and gaze through life’s lenses, perhaps to the woman they could have been if economically empowered.

I had a vision of providing skills training for young women. As Serena Williams said: “Every woman's success should be an inspiration to another. We're strongest when we cheer each other on.” It was a ‘eureka’ moment: I saw that this could remove a major barrier to women’s empowerment in Africa.

The seed

As a graduate of the Alliance Manchester Business School, I heard about its Ignition Award, which is provided to graduates who have innovative ideas for positive social and economic change. I put in my application in January 2017: my pitch was an online platform designed to enable the young African woman to unlock her potential and provide the opportunity and incentive for her to become more economically empowered via digital tutelage.

I was awarded a seed fund of £500, which boosted my confidence, knowing someone believes in my dreams. With the Ignition Award and my personal funds, by the end of the year I had invited a few friends to form the board of a non-profit organisation, Digital Business Tutelage for Women Empowerment in Africa Initiative, and its digital platform, Empowering African Women.

Several people working on a car
What economic empowerment looks like | D.T. Autocafe & Empowering African Women. All rights reserved.

Look at the headlines and you might think Nigeria is a land of plenty for all. There has been a proliferation of media stories over the past five years about how it has overtaken South Africa as the largest economy in Africa. This is not just about petroleum. Industries like information technology and telecommunications, music, e-commerce and film production have experienced growth. But does this matter for young women around the country?

In the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Index, Nigeria is ranked 128 out of 153 countries. Out of 34 African countries in the index, Nigeria is 27th. Though the WEF calculates that Nigeria has closed 63.5% of its gender gap and finds that the country offers comparable economic opportunities to men and women, average annual incomes are US$4,600 for women and US$6,300 for men. Women form a higher proportion of skilled professionals than men (64.6%), but hold a significantly lower share of senior positions (30.3%). Only 58% of girls are in primary school, only 47% of them attend secondary school and just 8.3% go to university.

Key amongst the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals is the achievement of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. Just ten years away from the deadline, many young African women continue to perform below their full economic and social potential. Despite the global acceptance of the numerous benefits of educating girls, traditional discrimination against the female child has left most young women with a little chance for educational advancement beyond secondary school.

The key to success for Empowering African Women is to make inroads and establish gender equality in industries that traditionally provide limited opportunities for women. This is only possible when young women can get the practical education required to perform in a targeted sector. The e-learning platform has had its challenges, particularly in developing countries, as the young women I planned to reach would prefer a hybrid of learning – online and offline. I knew a more effective way was first to reach the target audience offline, then transition to online learning. This is the motivation behind Empowering African Women’s Female Mechanic Incubator programme.

First run

In April 2019, we received our first intake for the Female Mechanic Incubator programme in partnership with D.T. Autocafe Limited, a one-stop automobile repair company in Lagos that my family owns. D.T. Autocafe was already involved in the government-sponsored N-Power Build programme, which was targeted at training young people in specific industries for a period of one year. Empowering African Women also sponsors trainees in other vocational pursuits such as tailoring, fashion design and catering, but my focus here is the auto mechanic sector.

It may take more than a year to acquire the skills required to become employable. So Empowering African Women sponsors the women trainees graduating from the N-Power Build programme under D.T. Autocafe’s tutelage for a further year of paid internship, earning monthly allowances above the national minimum wage.

At present, ten young women on the Female Mechanic Incubator programme have found success in different specialisations, ranging from air-conditioning system servicing and maintenance to engines repair, body works, tyres and alignment. The enrolees are taking up new opportunities in the auto mechanic industry, and we continue to track their progress as they become socially and economically empowered. Some of them, like Florence, are still under Empowering African Women sponsorship after graduation from the N-Power programme, and are now training other ‘lady mechanics’, online and offline.

The way forward

Our efforts are not isolated. Other groups are representing and promoting women’s interests in industries previously considered male-dominated, including female mechanic programmes with similar objectives to ours. One such is the popular Lady Mechanic Initiative, whose founder Sandra Aguebor-Ekperuoh is often associated with the ‘lady mechanic’ brand. There is also Joy Obi, who specialises in working with Mercedes-Benz vehicles brand in Nigeria and is now known locally as ‘Lady Benz’. However, we are still far from the Sustainable Development Goals target, and 2030 draws closer.

Florence Iria at work with car on lift
Iria hands-on | D.T. Autocafe & Empowering African Women. All rights reserved.

On the part of Empowering African Women, our goal will be achieved if we are able to enrol more participants on a large scale. With more funding, we can engage more female trainees. For instance, another trainee, Monica Abdulkadri, is now a specialist in complete mechanical repairs including suspension works and complete engine overhaul. Vivian Onwuatuogwu is a specialist in automobile air-conditioning repairs and maintenance. The rest of the young women are doing well in this chosen career, and we are proud of all of them.

Mentorship is another area where young women can make a difference, providing guidance to girls in the career path. The bigger ambition is to build a free training institution for women to provide skills-acquisition vocational programmes beyond the automobile sector, for instance in building and construction, welding, and agro-allied services.

Partnering and collaborative working arrangements between public, private and civil society organisations are crucial. The £500 seed funding from Alliance Manchester Business School’s Ignition Award started my journey. The partnership with D.T. Autocafe ensured that the young women gained employment following their initial sponsored training by the public sector. We have not reached all young women in Nigeria; however, small steps can initiate the journey.

A popular African proverb states: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.” Training and development are sure steps to empowering young African women to contribute to the economy of the country. With synergised efforts from both the government, women’s advocacy organisations and private sector agencies focused on women empowerment, the future is bright.

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