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‘Women should be open to fairness in feminism’

By Ijeoma Thomas-Odia
30 April 2022   |   3:37 am
Solape Akinpelu is the founder of HerVest, a women-focused and inclusive fintech platform for the underserved and excluded women in Africa. She is also the Nigeria...

Solape

Solape Akinpelu is the founder of HerVest, a women-focused and inclusive fintech platform for the underserved and excluded women in Africa. She is also the Nigeria chapter director of Women in Tech Global, an international organisation on a mission to close the gender gap and help women embrace technology.

A Certified Financial Education Instructor and member of the Personal Finance Speakers Association (USA), Akinpelu bagged an MSc in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos, with a first degree from the Olabisi Onabanjo University.

As a financial feminist, Akinpelu is pro SDG5 and SDG10 and believes in achieving gender equality and reducing inequality through financial literacy, technology, and access to capital.

For over 12 years, she has worked on Nigeria’s top financial brands before moving to the client-side of communications at Meristem, a leading investment firm as the head of corporate and marketing communications. She is also a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (UK).

In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, Akinpelu who has attended impactful executive programmes at prestigious institutions, including The Lagos Business School and INSEAD, France, shares her passion for empowering women for financial freedom.

You have an illustrious career; share with us your journey into the world of finance?
MY voyage into finance started about 12 years ago while working on financial brands at Bluebird Communications. We were covering a vista of financial brands from banking, insurance, pension, and investment banking to the public sector. As a strategist, every brief got me distilling and each time the demographics came up, the financial gender gap was a constant issue; women were lowly adopting financial services.

I moved from Bluebird to SO & U before my immediate past role as Head, of Marketing at a foremost investment firm, Meristem. I am very particular about equity, experiences and access. Financial institutions globally are male-heavy, and board to clients.

You are a financial feminist, what does that entail?
Financial feminism in its simplest form is the belief in the financial equality of women. Speaking of equality, women are grossly excluded from financial services compared to men, blame it on design or culture that is our reality. The imbalance is greater in Africa and more acute in Nigeria, as we are the only West African country on the priority list for gender financial inclusion. Most emerging markets have a persistent nine per cent gap, but we stand at 12. The consequence of this is that many women are grossly underserved or excluded.

As I was sharing earlier, I am extremely passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion with great emphasis on building experiential products; that is the background of my financial feminism. We want to make financial services easy, accessible and affordable for women regardless of location or creed. There are many gaps beclouding the female’s financial growth space and these gaps are largely fueled by the gender pay gap, gender investing gap and financial literacy gap. 

The gender wage gap is a measure of what women are paid relative to men and it widens as women progress in their careers, with women at the executive level making $0.94 to every dollar a man makes even when data are controlled. The gender-investing gap is closely tied to that, as all things being equal, investable income is directly proportional to earned income.

The third gap, which is the financial literacy gap, drives the numbers further down, hence the low adoption of financial services by women. If you look at these tripartite gaps, you will then understand why we have women driving about 40 per cent of Africa’s trade, yet investing less. Firstly, women are not earning equally as men. Secondly, they are carousing cash and not investing enough for later years. As a financial feminist, I am leading a vibrant team at HerVest to tackle these challenges by creating a platform to bridge the knowledge gap, strengthen earning power for women and offer easier access to saving and investment. We solve these challenges inclusively, regardless of location, background or creed. We are for the women in Lagos, Owerri just as we are for women in the interiors of Oke-eri or Kuru.

You are quite versatile, how are you able to hone your skills? 
I honestly think everyone is capable of doing many things competently. I am a lifelong learner. It is not a walk in the park, but I try as much as possible to understand first principles; it helps me to apply the infinite laws of derivation in solving tough challenges. 

I love to work. The more I work, the more I find possibilities and challenges that help me to grow. These challenges, especially in this clime, may change your perspective negatively, so, I try to practice the art of gratitude. I have found that the benefits of gratitude for the simplest things are endless. While I have always been passionate about gender equality since my mum came home with a brochure from a CEDAW conference when I was about 11 years old, transitioning from Advertising to broad marketing and now into tech and gender space has expanded my scope greatly and I am grateful for the gift to learn and impact same.

Share with us your vision for HerVest, what informed this initiative? 
Some people call it a vision, but I call it mental image. When you have a mental image that you can’t let go of, it becomes a vision and in turn, it affects everything you do, because that’s all you see in what you see and understand when you hear. Our vision is to be the inclusive Digital Financial Services Provider for the advancement of women in Africa.

As I distilled the challenges earlier, weighing the problems rooted in wage, knowledge and investing gap, HerVest is here to offer greater access to and use of financial services for the woman, consequently for the economy and for the greater good. Evidence has shown that women do give back and are more impact-oriented. My usual analogy is that of underwhelmed machinery consuming flat inputs and giving really low outputs. Strengthening the resolve of women financially is then not a gender issue but an economic imperative. The vision is huge and scary at times, but it can be done with commitments from the public and private sector, philanthropic leaders, and decision-makers to make financial access and inclusion equal for women.

If you are still in doubt that women’s access to finance is equal even when the last CBN/EFInA (Enhancing Financial Innovation & Access) women’s financial inclusion showed exclusion of men to women at 24 to 36 per cent; this is as recent as 2019. Speaking with any of the thousands of female farmers in our community will clear your doubts.

Credit is often out of their reach because they customarily do not inherit land to use as collateral for loans. Agronomy and agribusiness knowledge gap is huge amongst them as well. With girls making up most of the out-of-school children thereby widening the general knowledge gap and financial literacy gap, is this challenge becoming clearer to you? Our approach is to strengthen the capacity of urban and peri-urban women in making decisive impact investments, particularly in female small-scale farmers who mostly lack access to capital and market, while also strengthening local and global economies.

What are your take on women and their financial literacy awareness? 
The truth is women have shown so much strength in managing the little they get. Necessity they say is the mother of invention; I believe that’s the case with women. The problem right now is that women need to be entrusted with more. McKinsey published that attaining full gender equality globally can increase the world GDP by up to USD 28 trillion by 2025. Also, over 160 trillion dollars is lost annually because of the economic gender gap as well as women functioning in underpaid roles.

We live in a time when the world is beginning to realise the potential economic impact of strengthening more women’s economic power. One is prompted to ask, what happened all these years and are we doing just enough to make up for these years of neglect? Add to that the reversal effects of COVID-19, which saw more women lose jobs compared to men, at about 5 to 3.9 per cent levels. I believe the ongoing digital revolution presents an opportunity for women to be supported by the government at all levels to skill up as well as level up in terms of economic empowerment.

You are quite passionate about women’s financial freedom, how have you been empowering female entrepreneurs?
It’s a beautiful pyramid; one empowers two, two empowers four and it goes on like that. Women have evidenced great rates of giving back. Our approach is to strengthen the capacity of urban and peri-urban women in making decisive impact investments, particularly in female small-scale farmers who mostly lack access to capital and market while also strengthening local and global economies. At the moment, we have over 15,000 women in the HerVest community with 10,000 women accessing our services via our mobile application and over 5,000 female farmers accessing our services at multiple locations with a hybrid delivery through savings, impact investments, credit and Gender lens investment insights. I believe this is also a rare opportunity to empower more women with the right information.

I honestly think I haven’t done enough for women. HerVest is here for women and we do so much at HerVest to ensure that women are empowered with the tools and right mindset to budget, save, invest, build credit and control debt. We are building a distinct community of empowered women who without a shadow of a doubt will change their local communities.

Are you satisfied with the number of start-ups and SMEs owned by women in Nigeria today? 
It really is not in the numbers, but the efficiency and ability to build legacy businesses. We need to build enduring institutions with effective processes and exportable models. Not all of us will own businesses, but having said that, we need a system that equips women to thrive by training them to be effective business managers and professionals. Equal pay at work, inclusion and gender equality will also help accelerate the change we desire. 

Do you think more entrepreneurs are leveraging the digital space to drive their businesses? 
Of course, the pandemic accelerated the ongoing digital revolution. The ongoing digital revolution and transformation give both entrepreneurs and female professionals a rare opportunity to apply digital technology in their discipline or area of interest to solve problems and commercialise them and also get more involved in solving wholly for tough challenges.

Tell us more about your role in Women in Tech?
Well, I am the Country Director of the Nigeria chapter of Women in Tech global. Women in Tech is an international non-profit organisation with headquarters in Paris; we are present in over 100 countries with growing members of over 80,000. Our activities are focused on advocacy, social inclusion, education business towards having more representation in tech, as well as future-proofing careers and businesses of women using tech.

We officially launched last year November and floated our first programme, the Vbank Women in tech makeathon, which is to skill up 1000 girls and women in tech roles. We are very confident of the impact we can make surrounded by a strong and supportive advisory team, amazing brands and partners who are committed to a gender-balanced world.

You wear many hats, how do you combine them including family life and still be at your best?  
Best? Oh well, we try. I am a thorough doer. I guess my attitude towards working, loving and playing hard creates a fine balance. I love upon my family just as they do on me. I work with great precision and I play as often as I can as well. It helps achieve a great balance. Again, I am always full of gratitude in place of an endless search. Gratitude creates balance.

How best can the nation deploy technology to drive financial inclusion and create social-economic opportunities, especially for women?
A large body of evidence demonstrates the positive relationship between women’s economic participation and a country’s prosperity. It is not by coincidence that the countries that rank high in the human development index (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland) correspond with the countries atop the gender equality list. I think it begins with policy advocacy and the implementation of the right policies that empower women.

Using tech to empower women requires comprehensive design thinking – Farming subsidy and the provision of farm inputs, training women on ICT and other crafts are scalable options for creating social-economic opportunities for women.

What do you hope to see Nigerian women do differently? 
Let me start by saying that I’d love to see a female President or Vice President. At the minimum, a female Vice President in 2023 should be a goal and not a tokenised female VP, but a qualified one. Women should also be open to fairness in feminism. A classic case is a woman who rightly says cooking/cleaning is not a gender-based role. She is right, but so is picking household and domestic bills, and none are gender-based. Let us live in shared values, partnerships if we choose to engage should not be defined by stereotypical gender roles, but let us take turns in leading and following, teaching and learning by the one who has the most capacity in doing so.

What is your life mantra? 
God First.