As I continue to look for personal stories of women entrepreneurs in Southern countries (for lack of a better definition), I share my conversation with Chii Akporji, former Senior Advisor to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who is now the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation. Chii has become an expert in housing finance in Nigeria and beyond, founding the consulting firm Alphacities Africa and breaking the glass ceiling of gender discrimination in the sector.
Hi Chii, great to find you here. Tell me a bit about yourself and what you have done in recent years.
I worked for the World Bank for many years, particularly on an alliance of governments and local authorities aiming to improve the conditions of slums around the world, for example in places like Cairo, Lagos, Nairobi, Manila, etc. Our tag line was ‘cities without slums’. We would work with local partners to find out if government efforts to improve living conditions had been successful.
Of course, you can’t talk about cities without talking about housing, it’s a fundamental need. At the World Bank we promoted two programmes, one to upgrade slums and another one to develop city strategies to prevent the formation of more slums and ensure that basic infrastructure be in place. It all circles back to the idea of migration. People move to cities to look for opportunities because cities are the centre of economic growth. We wanted to help cities grapple with economic growth by putting in place systems, such as infrastructure and housing.
Underlying all this is finance. Cities also need to improve their image as businesses capable of attracting investments.
That was my initial foray, then in 2012 I was seconded to work with Ngozi-Okonjo Iweala, then Nigeria’s Minister of Finance. As her senior Advisor, one of the programmes we introduced in Nigeria was to ramp up housing. It was both a major problem and an opportunity. Nigeria has a 17-23 million housing unit deficit for a population of around 200 million people. People struggle to secure housing for many reasons. First, access to land is difficult due to our laws. Second, access to finance is difficult due to high interest rates. Third, developers want quick returns on their investment so they only supply housing to rich people – about 0.2% of the Nigerian population – who are able to pay off their debt immediately.
That’s why Ngozi and I decided to focus on access to housing finance. We worked with partners to create the Mortgage Liquidity Facility to help people buy a house. Our thinking was that greater access to housing would lead to building more houses, which in turn would create new jobs with a positive domino effect. The World Bank estimates that for each house built eight direct jobs and eleven indirect jobs are created. For this reason, I coordinated the set-up of the Nigeria Mortgage Refinancing Company (NMRC) to provide mortgage banks with long-term funding. NMRC’s primary clients are mortgage banks, not individuals. By issuing bonds, banks can refinance existing mortgages and catalyse more individual mortgages.
Why and when did you decide to become an entrepreneur?
As a political adviser, my position depended on elections. In 2015, with the defeat of the then government Ngozi had to leave. I stayed on until 2018. At that point I felt I needed to be in greater control of my time and my project. After spending 25+ years working for someone else, I founded Alphacities Africa to look more widely at housing finance in Africa. So far, it’s gone well. I am also a representative of the Board of Shelter Afrique, a pan-African housing financial agency co-founded by 44 African governments, the Africa Reinsurance Company and the African Development Bank.
The UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 deals with the issue of affordable housing. It is a ‘connector goal’ because it links to access to better water, equality, private sector enhancement and more. This is what I’m doing now and I hope to do more. These activities also give me more time for myself.
Rather than an entrepreneur, I see myself as a development finance specialist who leverages resources from domestic markets for people around the world.
What challenges did you meet on your way to success? And how did you overcome them?
A major challenge has had to do with gender. Housing finance is a male-dominated industry, especially in the Nigerian context. It’s gradually changing but when I started, I would be the only woman in the room. There would be resistance in reply to my questions. In Nigeria, until recently women were not allowed to buy a house without a man signing off on the loan documents. Part of the work I do has been to allow women to have direct access to credit. It’s a major development issue.
As a woman, you just must work 200% harder than your male counterparts. You must make the evidence of your hard work seen. This takes patience and multitasking, and women are good at that. You also need to be good at engaging stakeholders and never give up. Even state governors talk down to women in Nigeria. Once, while I was trying to convince a state governor to sign up a housing finance law, a male counterpart told me he would have given up if he had been in my place. Eventually, not only did that state governor sign the law; he turned out to be the first one to sign up in the entire country. That’s just an example of how I was able to overcome gender bias. The World Bank has a ranking for doing business in each country, even at sub-national level. In Nigeria, the ranking covers all 36 states. As the housing finance law passed in several states, their ranking moved up. This encouraged other governors to follow suit.
I remember another time, back in 2018, when I was elected as Secretary of the Board of the African Union housing finance association. I was the only woman in the group picture. Before then, when I set up NMRC, I remember I had to fight – that’s the right word – to implement programmes because of my gender.
A second challenge has had to do with the work itself – working with partners in the country. Culturally, in Nigeria people don’t believe in owing money to a bank. They think you should be able to pay immediately. The whole concept of a mortgage is considered a sign of weakness; it’s seen as debt. At NMRC we had to do a lot of advocacy work to change people’s mindsets. On top of this preconception, we had to grapple with the evil of corruption. Often in Nigeria, if you have the opportunity you steal, you pilfer. We’ve also had to work on this.
Another challenge has been to pressurise Nigeria’s state governments to release land for building purposes. Since 1978 the Nigerian government has had ownership of the land. Our advocacy has been about showing that if the government releases the land, people can build houses and have access to housing. That in turn will create jobs. Homeowners will then bring revenues by paying property taxes. It’s a win-win situation for both state governors and their people.
What about the surrounding environment – how does Nigeria support female entrepreneurs like you?
There’s been a sea change in recent times. Let me preface that by saying female entrepreneurs have been doing business for a long time, but limited to the informal sector. For example, informal women-led small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have had limited access to credit, and that has increased mainly thanks to the private sector. The business world has worked on formalising female entrepreneurship to understand it more clearly. The female economy is supposed to be Nigeria’s third sector with potential for growth in the future. ‘Ignore this potential at your own risk’, we used to say with Ngozi. We are still witnessing the early stages of this change, but it’s happening. All it needs is a greater push. I know the leaders of at least three major banks in Nigeria who are women.
What would you do differently if you could start all over again with AlphaCities?
Maybe I would have planned the set-up differently to better manage the workload. I should have focused more narrowly on a limited number of cities instead of the whole of Africa. However, I have adapted fairly easily.
What role can international investors or donors play to support female entrepreneurship in Nigeria? And how can they support more affordable housing for Nigerian women?
They can offer support in many ways: access to whatever resources, personnel, partnerships to share knowledge, innovation, and technology to better run businesses. In terms of affordable housing, a major innovation has been to replace capital-intensive methods of building housing with renewable resources and energy. We look forward to more support on this. We could build 3D-printed houses based on examples from Germany and elsewhere. Leveraging this kind of knowledge will enhance housing. Access to technology is a key contribution from donors.
Would you like to say anything else?
Focusing on access to housing and housing finance is key to unlock poverty alleviation, create jobs and enhance development. I have seen a sea change in recent years, both in thinking and in practice. I look forward to partnering [with others] on these issues.
Photo credit: advertsinnigeria.com