How One Young Businesswoman is Paying it Forward in Nigeria

Mariam Abdulafeez is a young businesswoman who is using the skills she learned through a TechnoServe business accelerator program to empower others to transform their businesses and their lives.

Will Warshauer visits a young entrepreneur in TechnoServe's PAYED program
From left to right: Chichi Aniagolu, Mariam Abdulafeez, Will Warshauer, Larry Umunna, and Ayokanmi Ayuba.

As I arrived at the small office and shop located just outside of Abuja, Nigeria, I surveyed a vast array of t-shirts and computers lining the walls. It was hard to believe that this was the business of a young woman who just a year and a half earlier had lost her main source of income and needed to start all over again.

This young woman is Mariam Abdulafeez, an energetic and animated entrepreneur who burst in the door just a few minutes later. Sitting down with me next to a cabinet filled with the shirts that now bring her hundreds of dollars a month, Mariam told me the story of her business turnaround.

In 2018, Mariam was running a small corner store when she heard about a training program run by TechnoServe for young entrepreneurs like herself. The Pan African Youth Entrepreneur Development (PAYED) program is a partnership with the Citi Foundation. After joining the program, Mariam learned key business skills that would help her expand her sales and profits and received critical mentoring support from a TechnoServe business advisor. When I asked her what had been some of the most important things she learned during our program, she quickly spoke about how she learned to keep her personal funds separated from her business funds, and how this helped her be more disciplined and understand her finances more clearly.

Mariam had graduated from our program one and a half years before I met her, but her business was continuing to grow, and the skills she learned from TechnoServe were still useful for her.”
— Will Warshauer

And yet when she graduated from the program, what should have been a triumphant time was marred by a daunting setback: her small shop flooded, much of her inventory was ruined, and she was forced to abandon the business.

It was actually at the graduation ceremony for her TechnoServe course where Mariam met a man who told her about problems he and his wife were having with their own business. Without hesitating, she offered to help him using the lessons she had learned in the TechnoServe program. Sure enough, this problem of mixing personal funds with business funds seemed to be a big issue for them as well. Mariam’s advice was so helpful that the man even offered to pay her, but she declined, saying that she had received the training from TechnoServe for free and she was happy to share it with him for free.

As they discussed business, the man let slip that his profits over the past two months had been over $1,100. “Now that caught my attention!” Mariam told me with a sparkle in her eye. His business was selling t-shirts and polo shirts that had logos printed on them. Mariam, who had been searching for a new business idea, decided that this would be her next business venture.

However, she needed some capital to get started. Her first idea was to ask her husband for the money, but he refused. She told me how she pleaded with him to give her the money, but he always declined. She finally explained to him that he could give her a loan and she would repay it by the end of the year. “In our religion, it is a sin not to repay a debt,” she explained. Eventually, her husband relented and gave her the loan.

So, money in hand, she was finally able to launch her new business, Marfez Prints. The shop has been steadily growing — Mariam now has five employees and is making a profit every month of about $500, which is almost six times the current minimum wage in Nigeria. Listening to Mariam explain with such pride and confidence how she manages her business, I was not at all surprised by her success.

Will Warshauer and Mariam Abdulafeez meet outside Abuja, Nigeria.

When I asked what advice she would give to young people starting a business, she replied that her advice to them would be to “focus.” She described, with obvious bewilderment, the behavior of some of her employees, who will make good money one week but will not save it, and the next week will be begging her for money for transportation to and from the office.

Mariam seemed to be just the sort of person TechnoServe’s founder, Ed Bullard, had in mind when he started our organization over 50 years ago.”
— Will Warshauer

Mariam and I also talked about the challenges she faces as a woman in business. She said that often customers were hesitant to enter into a contract with her because she is a woman, but that her business is still thriving. I understood how gender norms in Nigeria could pose challenges for her, but this was clearly a woman ready to tackle any challenge.

After our meeting, I thanked Mariam for taking the time to meet with us and departed for the car. As we walked back, I reflected on the idea of “karma” and paying it forward in life. Mariam, who transformed her business after participating in a free program, donated her time to another business, and in the process gained the idea for a profitable new business for herself.

For me, spending time with Mariam also made me reflect on two things that I love about TechnoServe. The first is how we recognize the talent, agency, and intelligence of our clients. You can’t spend more than two minutes with Mariam without sensing her sheer talent and energy. The PAYED program simply gave her some helpful information that she could use and run with.

The second is that TechnoServe’s work is designed to provide lasting impact. Mariam had graduated from our program one and a half years before I met her, but her business was continuing to grow, and the skills that she learned from TechnoServe were still useful for her. Mariam seemed to be just the sort of person TechnoServe’s founder, Ed Bullard, had in mind when he started our organization over 50 years ago.

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