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‘Empowerment narrative has made most women develop victim mindset’

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Mercy George-Igbafe

Mercy George-Igbafe is a digital strategist, agile and data enthusiast. A certified scrum master and professional digital marketing consultant with years of experience as a project manager and business analyst, she is a coach, trainer, mentor obsessed with the goal of digitally upskilling 5000 Nigerian women in agile and digital marketing. She currently has a growing community of over 1000 entrepreneurs and professionals and has trained over 2000 participants and certified participants in partnership with Scrum.org, Scrum Alliance and Kanban University. In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she speaks on her career, Learntor initiative and her goal to bridge the digital skills gap in Nigerians.

Take us briefly through your career journey?
I am the first graduate of my parents and I’m sure we all know what that means. I am an orphan and it was very difficult from the get go, but one still has to survive. I started working from the age of 15 as a receptionist and was schooling at the same time because I had a lot of responsibilities. It was not a walk in the park, as I had to go to school and still take care of my young daughter. I am a rape survivor, not a victim and this changed the trajectory of my life and pushed me very quickly into survival mode.

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My career path started like that, from a receptionist at a microfinance bank all the way to Ecobank; I was employed as a customer experience personnel even though I wanted I.T, which was unfortunately not prevalent then in 1998. But because of my passion and hunger to learn I.T, my boss at the time, an Indian, Ami Udim, saw my passion and promoted me from customer experience into the I.T department. I was self driven and taught myself; I didn’t go to any school to learn anything, but my passion drove me. I worked in the U.K for a while, but came back to Nigeria to hustle, which is a big part of the Agile mindset.

How did Learntor come about after all this?
To be honest, it stemmed from a midlife crisis; I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with myself. I had since left the bank, went on to work with FRCN, Channels Television, worked with my husband, did event management as well… I basically did any and everything. I basically wanted to survive at the time and I think this is part of what has helped me with Learntor. If I knew what I know when I was dabbling up and down then, I would have since changed my life before now. Trying different things doesn’t allow you scale.

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Learntor is under a year and I can say COVID-19 helped accelerate us. I wanted to focus on digital marketing, especially women-owned businesses, but I quickly realised that the market is oversaturated with so many quacks. So, I pivoted into what I do now which is heavily led by data. Data is very helpful as it helps bridges the gap and I can confidently say that in the space of five months, I have been able to gather 6000 data sets and trained over 2000 people. Now, I am focused on the agile side of digital marketing. I asked myself then that what can Nigerians learn and have competitive global edge in and agile is the key. Nigeria has the human resources, but we lack the technical know-how so as much as we talk of the future of work, who are the people that are going to fill in the future of work if they don’t have the skilled relevance to compete within that space? So, I got to work and decided to gather data in changing how we operate. We are still focused on bridging the gap for women but we are not excluding men. We recently held a three months training to help Nigerians become proficient in Agile and Scrum and all the students passed and were certified. We intend that they have a global, competitive edge, sit here in Nigeria and earn money.

You have talked about Agile, what exactly is it and how can people earn a living with it?
Agile is a mindset and heart set and personally; I see Nigerians as number one agilists in the world because we adapt easily to change and we evolve. But the disconnect is that we miss the processes involved in it. 20 years ago, a group of people came together and said, let us uncover better ways of doing things. For instance, they will pick a minimum viable product, and start working incrementally, iteratively, just to ensure it is customer focused to meet the customer’s needs. In simple terms, agile is a mindset of working in an incremental, iterative approach so that you can deliver optimal value to the customer. It is guided by four value and 12 principles, but under agile, there are 27 frameworks, but the most popular are scrum, kanban and safe. If you implement scrum in your organisation, it gives you the opportunity to take feedback, make alterations and continuous improvement. Organisations like Amazon, Spotify, Facebook, Apple all use it; they keep delivering incremental changes to the customer, get feedback and release again to the customer until they perfect it. The more feedback you get, the more changes you’ll want to make.

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Sadly, Nigeria is far disconnected from this and even when people are certified to do this, where exactly are they going to do it? Agile promotes flatline leadership, which doesn’t work well in most Nigerian organisations. Agile promotes transparency and gives visibility to what everyone is doing at any given time. For instance, I am working with my team, everyone is seeing what I am doing and what every other person is doing; it’s not a command and control structure (the waterfall approach), which is the project management structure we practice here. There are no multi-generational businesses in Nigeria, except maybe the Dantatas, because we lack the structure, processes and the people that have the technical know-how and this is part of what Learntor is trying to bridge.

How do you intend to bridge this gap?
By training and re-training Nigerians in Agile learning. My first training programme had 26 people, including two of my children and they’re 100 per cent certified scrum masters now. 80 per cent of them came into the training not knowing what the word ‘Agile’ was, but today, they’re all speaking and doing Agile. One of my students today sits as a trustee on the board of a U.K company because of agile exposure that helped her fit into this company even though she is here in Nigeria. With this training, we want to expose people to this life and make it holistic not just getting certified.

Nigerians are heavy on obtaining degrees left and right but what can you really do? It would shock you that with all your degrees, you would struggle to be employed if you travel abroad. I strongly believe that true greatness isn’t in being great, but the ability to make others great and this what propels every single thing I do and I believe that we can make a lot of changes if Africans are onboard. Taking a holistic training with us gives you the exposure needed to understand data analytics; design thinking and so on because this is what organisations are using to create digital products.

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We have a training that is starting this month and it pains me that Nigerians are not taking advantage of this. Unemployment has spiked, there are no jobs even in the U.K and U.S and our unemployment levels are going up daily. We don’t even know what it is now because we don’t have accurate data and these are the gaps we want to bridge. I am the country ambassador for Agile 20 Reflect Festival, a celebration of the Agile manifesto that was uncovered all those years ago. If any Nigerian agilist, even if you are very green, needs to reach out to me, we can collaborate and let the world know what you are doing.

What are some of the impacts Learntor has created so far?
We have trained over 2000 people in less than seven months, created over 6000 data sets that has informed every decision we make. The best part is that over 75 per cent of those trained are women. Our first impact that we made in the Agile space is our first iteration of cohort 1 students, they’re all 100 per cent certified scrum masters. I got a partnership with scrum.org, scrum alliance and Kanban University; these are all major milestones. They saw what I was doing, I am heavily focused on changing the trajectory for Africans and making the entry level easier for us; these are major milestones for me.

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Even scrum was shocked at the result we recorded and 75 per cent of the participants in the cohort 1 were women. This gave me so much joy but what pains me is that every time I put out applications for digital marketing and scrum certification, it is mostly men that apply. We wonder why men dominate the ICT space, but the simple truth is that women don’t want to apply themselves. There is a disparity and disconnect because women believe they should simply buy and sell, but you cannot scale with buying and selling. That is why you see them today selling clothes, tomorrow it is shoes and bags; the next week it is hair, the following month they are selling Senegalese. Women, this cannot work. It is only women that can change this country because we are the most agile; women are not afraid to fail. If more women can get into this space, do you know what we can do to change this country and this continent? We need to begin to educate more women on getting into this space.

The average salary of a scrum master is about $135,000 per annum. This is what those Chinese and Indians are earning sitting at home; they will now create a product and come and sell to Africans. We sit and consume, not producing anything, how do we want to command global wealth? We train you in all the necessary skills, create opportunity for international mentoring and place you where you can obtain hands on experience. From this point, you can work in any job you like and earn proper money from the comfort of your home.

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For women that feel marginalised in this space, do you think patriarchy plays any role?
Personally, I think this is victim mentality. I am not marginalised and I am a woman. Truth be told, I believe this narrative of women empowerment has made a lot of women develop a victim mindset. Though we need more women to embrace hitherto male traditional jobs, we still need one another to succeed and survive. Women have too many distractions that are in their way, but we cannot alienate men; men have to be a part of the conversation if we intend to make headway.
I refuse to see myself as a victim despite so many challenges I’ve faced, including abuse. The rate of unemployment in Nigeria is high but women are the worst hit. The Nigerian Bureau of Statistics in 2019 reported a 6.3 per cent gap in the rate of unemployment between women and men and according to the global gender gap report, 2019, Nigeria is ranked 122nd out of 144 countries. This is as a result of lack of relevant skill.

How many women are you looking at training this year?
Our target is to help at least 10, 000 women; we did 2000 last year but we are going big this year. I need 10, 000 hungry people that are ready to change their lives and I need 75 percent of this number to be women. It pains me to say that our education system has failed and if only our children are learning the right skills at school, imagine the game changer it would be. I am speaking with Ecobank to help sponsor at least 10, 000 Nigerian students but I need more partnerships and collaborations to sponsor more. I don’t need money, if you sponsor these students and they gain the technical knowhow, they can work in your organisation. Our graduates today are unemployable; they can’t write letters or C.V, how can they compete globally?

What is the future of Learntor?
I wouldn’t call it the future, it is the now and I want to get 10, 000 Nigerians to be skilled and certified in Agile, Scrum, Kamba and digital marketing, data analytics, GDPR, project management and business analysis. I am not focused on the future of work, I am focused on the now. Not everyone has to be a developer, programmer or coder, but we must know that some jobs are going to die off very soon. Jobs like receptionists, secretaries and even accounting would soon die off. Many things can be done online while bots have taken over other jobs. Even as a reporter, you need to innovate and evolve, else the job would be taken over.

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I am not doing what I do presently for the government, I am doing it because I want to add value to the Nigerian value chain because the more value you add, the more you will attract. We need the media to support us more and show the world what we are doing. All the work I have done, I did it without having a website, not for the lack of not paying for website but because the ‘developer’ lacked the relevant skill to build a customer centric website whilst leveraging data.

How will Agile learning impact on the economy?
The problem with Nigerian government is that they bring westerners here to come and solve a traditional, cultural problem, which would never work. Until we begin to look inwards at the intellectual capability that we have and not bring in expatriates that do not understand the Nigerian mindset, we can’t make headway. Yes, they can train but they cannot solve our problems. Our solutions have to be locally driven with local data. Nigeria does not have data; we always rely on the West to give us data. Can the West know our problems more than us? This is why I am begging for more sponsors so we can train more students that will help us solve our problems. We must kill that ‘West is better’ mindset that we have in Nigeria if we want to develop this nation and change the trajectory of our story. We are not producing locally, we only consume what other nations produce; if we want to improve this economy, we need to begin to think local and grow local.

How do you measure feedback from those you have trained?
There is constant feedback; they are within a group in a community, engaging and supporting one another. I am not just training and sending you out, we place them with international professionals and organisations for mentorship, internship and employment opportunities.

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How do you measure your success?
I have already zeroed my mind that I won’t be profitable for there years, but after this time, I expect a turnaround. For most of us, when we start a business, we expect profitability at once, but for me, I am reverse engineering the process. The people I have trained have become our ambassadors and mouthpieces, telling others about it. To be honest, I am not charging what I am supposed to be charging because it is not the money that drives me, but the desire to add value.

How can we get more women onboard this field?
I wish I could scream this to every woman out there; women, you are the number one agilest! You are not afraid to start or fail so come and learn the right way to start so that you fail less because every time you fail, you lose money without taking in the reason why you failed. Agile would help you set up systems that would guide you and help your children in life changing career selection. Come and learn skills, the entry is low and you’ll get support, hands-on mentoring, exposure and opportunities for internship placement.

If you could change something for Nigerian women, what would you change?
Our mindset. You are not a victim, no matter what you go through, you can change the course of your life and you don’t have to beg anyone for money. You have all it takes within you to make money if only you can learn right.

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