Aisha Abubakar Falke : ‘As an outspoken Northern woman, you get a lot of backlash, this must stop’
Aisha Abubakar Falke is a forward-thinking woman, committed and passionate about improving the living conditions of Northern Nigerian women and youths. Graduating from Usman Danfodio University, Sokoto where she bagged a degree in Applied Chemistry, she has since found her passion in fashion and education. A serial entrepreneur and founder of Falke by Aisha, she is also the brain behind Northern Hibiscus which has since grown into a not for profit organisation, devoted to touching the lives of the downtrodden in the society. In her quest and passion for a better north, Aisha organised the first Northern Hibiscus Initiative Summit with special focus on improving the entrepreneurial skills of Northern youths. A dogged and firm believer in education, her love for empowering people intellectually has seen her establishing Edu-Kids Academy, a tuition-free school specifically for orphaned and less privileged children in the North. The Academy provides free feeding and boasts of offering an inspiring and well-rounded curriculum of education to hundreds of pupils. In this interview, Aisha talks about her efforts to eradicate poverty in the North, improve financial literacy amongst Northern women, fighting stereotypes keeping Northern women subjugated and how more women inclusion in key areas of the country’s economy can lift Nigeria from poverty amongst other issues.
From Applied Chemistry to a career in fashion, what informed this turnaround?
I attended Danfodio University when I was around 16/17 years old. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life but my parents wanted me to study medicine. When I finished secondary school, I had a gap year (when I didn’t secure admission immediately) and I went to do remedial studies in Sokoto, which we called Matric then. I applied for medicine then, more because my mom wanted it but I didn’t get it, instead I got Applied Chemistry. My mom kept pushing me to change it to medicine but at the end of the day, I ended up studying it anyway. I told them the opportunities that abound in the field but after my studies in 2008, I clearly knew I wasn’t going to practice it. I didn’t like writing formulas and the only time I enjoyed Chemistry was during my I.T at a chemical pathology lab where I wore a coat and looked like a doctor. Whenever I wore my coat anytime I went to the hospital, people would be hailing me, “doctor, doctor,” and I felt cool. However, right from when I was young, I could draw and usually drew my outfits for my tailor, even drew for my aunties and siblings so I knew I had it in me. When I got married in 200 level, my husband pushed me to explore my artistic and creative side. This was how I ventured into fashion designing; I started with a friend that was getting married, I did something really nice for her and she was very happy and the rest as they say, is history 14 years later.
You described yourself as a multi-talented woman, what do you mean by this?
I don’t know if I should call myself multi-talented, I feel I learn very fast and because I’m creative and get very excited about new ideas, I jump on it quickly. I might not be multi-talented as such but I can easily and quickly adapt. I believe I’m very progressive so if there’s something going on at a time, I Google, learn and quickly exhibit it. I would say I’m more gifted as a fast learner rather than multi-talented. I can learn something under two hours and people around me are usually marveled.
You own and run Northern Hibiscus organisation, tell us about it?
Northern Hibiscus stemmed from the thirst I had for Northern content. Everyday I wake up, I go to Bella Naija and Linda Ikeji and check out things that interest me but I knew that a lot of Northern women yearned for these things but couldn’t totally relate. So I decided to create a platform where these women can access and feel like it was theirs. I started it in September 2016. The second reason I started Northern Hibiscus was because I wanted to start a multi-vendor online mall and to start that kind of thing, you need a lot of money for marketing and publicity. I realised that I didn’t have that kind of money but during my research, I found out that I could reach my target market by blogging. At the back of my mind, I knew it was going to be successful because there was nothing like it at the time but I never knew it was going to be this successful. Linda Ikeji is my mentor; I said if she could write everyday, I could as well. I started writing anonymously but it got to a point that people knew it was me. I was already a bit popular with my fashion brand, but I didn’t want the two to mix. I had and still have a strong yearning for a progressive north; we have a lot of poverty here especially among youths and I feel they can change the story of this region. My main aim is to reach youths and that was what birthed our very first summit that witnessed 1,400 youths, the Kaduna state governor and his wife, some senators and House of Representatives Members.
This summit created a lot of buzz and ignited my philanthropic juices. My aim was to train 20, 000 youths on businesses they could start with a minimum of N10, 000. I wanted to solicit support from the government but it became really difficult and I decided to just start somehow. To tackle poverty, we have to start from the ground up, so my friend and I decided to start a pro-bono school in Kano with at least 100 students. The idea was that if they are properly educated, they would take their own families out of poverty. If we can create one breadwinner amongst the poorest of the poor, they’ll go on to create 100 breadwinners themselves. So we got teachers, a building and the students poured in and Educate Academy was born. I went back to the community and told them that I couldn’t afford to do everything on my own and asked them to support me and, in a week, we raised N10 million and this is what we’ve been managing with since we started. We have been doing food drives, raising money to pay hospital bills and since COVID-19 came along, we launched the NH Community School with 100 facilitators to teach thrice a day on Telegram. We had people from different industries including food, events, Kannywood and so on. This helped me with my mental health as it gave me something to look forward to as well as others. A lot of people learnt a lot of things from the platform during that period. We also started a food drive campaign tagged survive COVID, survive hunger campaign and we held the first drive in Jos, feeding 337 families with a month’s worth of food supplies. Now we’re in Kano and soon headed to Zamfara, Katsina, Adamawa, Gombe and Kaduna.
What are some of the ways this on-going pandemic has negatively affected women around you?
The pandemic has caused a lot of problems. I have a lot of entrepreneurs as friends and we’re all experiencing low cash inflow. The lockdown affected a lot of us mentally, I saw myself crying sometimes for no apparent reason, dealing with paranoia of the disease and so on. There has also been a lot of tension amongst spouses that has led to quite a few divorces.
You said your love for education led you to setting up a school, tell us about that?
My mother has been a teacher for 30 years and I share in her passion. I think my driving goal in opening a school is to give vulnerable children a platform to learn. All my students are from very poor backgrounds; some are orphans, some, their parents earn less than N200 a day. Some of them, both parents don’t have a single source of income. For some, their fathers abandoned them to their mothers who wash people’s clothes to earn money. I’m saying this so you can understand how poor these people are: I want to break this chain of poverty and make these people breadwinners.
As an entrepreneur yourself, other women entrepreneurs have been/are being affected negatively by the ongoing pandemic, what would you say to them?
As I said, the pandemic has caused a lot of commotion for people’s businesses and I know a lot of people that have been affected but what I keep advising people to do is diversify. This pandemic is an eye-opener for many of us. If your business is offline alone, take it online; on social media alone, create a website; if it is boring, make it fun. Many businesses like Amazon, Zoom, Netflix, online based businesses and so on are thriving. Ensure you do delivery, diversify, research on what others are doing. Go on Google and see what others are doing, adapt and innovate. NH hasn’t been badly hit because we’re an online platform but the fashion business has been badly hit.
What are some things you are doing to improve the entrepreneurial skills of Northern women?
We just launched the NH community school which helps people learn at least three skills daily in areas like social media marketing, food business, fashion and so on and we have over 35,000 students on Telegram now and over 80 percent are women. We also torchlight on women businesses that are doing well in the North to encourage them and others.
How can we include more women in key areas of the country’s economy?
If men in politics would allow more women participation, I know it would help improve our economy. For example, I have a friend that runs a haulage business transporting food from here to the south. It’s a predominantly male business, but she’s doing it successfully. I have another friend who is an interior decorator but also runs a restaurant, she makes over N1million daily. I have friends that are doing very well in so many industries; imagine these women being a part of and running government, Nigeria would be different. I saw a report recently on countries that are doing well in curbing COVID-19 in their countries and all those countries have women as leaders. Women are very proactive and progressive; we are multitaskers, emotional and know what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Sadly, it is hard for Nigerian women to enter politics and even harder for Northern women. You are called all kinds of dirty names, it’s a rough game where you’ll be attacked physically and spiritually; it’s also a dirty game where you’ll have to be involved in all kinds of things like bribery and corruption. You also need a lot of money. If you manage to get there, there are so many factors that would limit you, so much bureaucracy. However, we may not necessarily have to be in government to influence, we can be successful business people and shape decisions that would create an amazing success story for Nigeria’s economy.
Available statistics show that Northern women lag behind in education, financial empowerment and several other areas; how can we change this?
Unfortunately this is true. We lag behind in education, financially, in independence and in so many other areas. Many men are not helping by insisting their wives or daughters not go to school or do business. This is a backward way of thinking. God forbid this man dies; the woman is left with several children to cater for. When you see an educated Northern woman, you can’t help but fall in love; she is educated, progressive, knows what she wants and is very intelligent. We are trying to educate on several fronts: the regular and the streets education. I am trying to push for financial literacy amongst Northern women. We want women to be able to do businesses even from their bedrooms.
As someone with over a decade experience in Nigeria’s fashion industry, what can we do to make it a force to be reckoned with nationally and internationally?
I’ve been in this industry for over a decade and what it lacks is production companies. Outside Nigeria, it is super easy to be a fashion designer but here is a different ball game. There are so many problems you have to deal with yourself, it is tiring. We need factories that manufacture different aspects of clothes, that is the major solution to our problem, it would lower costs and make fashion faster and more affordable. I have discovered that I am more of a fashion marketer than a designer and it’s something I am tilting towards more. It’s popular outside Nigeria but when I tell people that’s what I want to do here, they have no idea what I am talking about.
How important is mentorship to women’s career and lives?
When I started, I didn’t have any mentor and it was very difficult for me. It took me more time to achieve things compared to if I had one to put me right from the onset. When I started, my tailors saw how vulnerable I was and took advantage of me and I learnt the hard way. I learnt the hard way but another sister wouldn’t under my watch. Mentorship is very key, it is the foundation of entrepreneurship and more women need to be mentors for those coming behind them.
Getting to this position cannot have been without its challenges; tell us some you faced and how you overcame?
One of the challenges with blogging was the Northern community not understanding it then and they gave me a lot of backlash. People would come online and abuse my whole family and I have to ignore. I have a TV show with Arewa24 and this came with a lot of restrictions and judgments. Also, because I am very vocal on social media, people often remind me I am a married, Muslim woman and shouldn’t be too audible but simply say yes and no sir. When you’re an outspoken Northern woman, you get backlash from everyone especially clerics telling you that a Northern Muslim woman shouldn’t be heard but seen and similar things like that. People keep telling me that my husband should be jealous of me. I struggled with infertility and people kept mocking me by posting pictures of pregnant women, praying I would never experience motherhood. I get a lot of attacks and backlash but I can’t be broken. Physically, maybe, but I can’t be broken from the inside; I wouldn’t give anyone that satisfaction. If I feel broken, I take a break and come back stronger. People always ask me how my husband handles me and I am always surprised at that question.
How can the government help more women-owned SMEs survive now and beyond this pandemic?
I see the government recently launched a CBN COVID-19 relief project and I think that is a good thing. Women-owned businesses should be able to access loans more easily than what obtains now. There is too much stress and paperwork involved in the process now plus you have to bribe one person or the other, it turns people off.
Life as a busy woman at the top can be difficult, how do you make everything work?
It’s very busy; you always have things to do. At work, the home-front, on social media and so on. I have a lot of help at home and a very understanding husband. I have amazing staffs that help me at home and at work, this makes it easier.
What last words do you want to leave for women reading this?
You can do it. Let nobody tell you that you aren’t good, worthy or pretty enough. Don’t allow anyone rain on your parade, you are beautiful, you are a queen and can go places. Think wild dreams, go out there and achieve them. Don’t allow anyone restrict you.