An Interview with Comfort Sakoma
An interview with Comfort Sakoma
The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs sat down with Comfort Sakoma to talk about the Poize Insider Network, entrepreneurship, and challenges thereof in Nigeria.
Fletcher Forum: Let us start by hearing what makes the Poize Insider Network different.
Comfort Sakoma: The Poize Insider Network (PIN) was launched in March 2016 to bridge the gap in entrepreneurial experience and expertise amongst women in Nigeria.
Many women don’t have business role models who have mastered entrepreneurship in their immediate circles. If their fathers were entrepreneurs, chances are that they were shielded from the “stress of business.” If their mothers were entrepreneurs, chances are that the business was run informally without any accounting or inventory systems, customer relations management systems, employee management systems, or technology. Entrepreneurship therefore becomes the thing you stumble upon in times of need or in times of means. In both case, attention to formality is a secondary consideration and so, real growth becomes unachievable. It is in view of this, that among women in Nigeria and across Africa, entrepreneurship as nation building tool, the role of research in innovation, and the urgency of structure for growth are all concepts that are understood but hardly ever invested in.
Many of our fastest growing women-owned businesses manage to earn enough revenue to survive, but due to a lack of foresight, market research, and finances struggle to make it past the startup phase. Others struggle to replicate their success for a lack of understanding about the factors that created an environment conducive for the success they have achieved to date. As such, after a great start, they find themselves stagnating for years. This is why our tagline is “Entrepreneurship Beyond Survival.”
We are focusing all of our activities on augmenting the entrepreneurial know-how of women in Nigeria. Through this approach we are exposing them to new knowledge that helps in elevating their confidence to pursue and create new opportunities. Our program is designed to take the entrepreneur by the hand, reflect on where she came from, where she is, and in many cases, invigorate the passion for where she wants to be. Once that is decided, we work with her to chart a course that gets her closer to the ever progressing finish line.
FF: Do think that there are particularly strong challenges that women entrepreneurs face?
CS: Yes I do. Women entrepreneurs are confronted with many of the challenges that are often discussed in academic circles such as: defying social expectations, limited access to funding, owning their accomplishments, building a support network, balancing business and family life, and coping with the fear of failure. These themes have been the subjects of many conferences, research papers, and initiatives.
However, I once heard a man joke, “Men buy, women shop.” He was speaking literally about the differences in how the different sexes make purchasing decisions but I have recently come to see this as having a double meaning. I think it speaks to differences in the confidence, decisiveness, and in preparedness.
Also, the PIN has identified three additional threats to the advancement of women’s entrepreneurship in Africa. The first is the lack of formal business knowledge and experience by women. In the United States, a middle class teenager will get a part-time job by the time she turns 16 years old. By the time she has graduated from university, she would have worked 7,800 hours or for 6 years. In that time, by doing she has learned about customer service, business writing, presentation skills, technology skills, business planning, employee management and promotions, and business competition. On the other hand, a middle class Nigerian will most likely apply for her first job somewhere after university between the ages of 22 and 24 and she will likely exit the work force soon after she gets married usually before she turns 30. If both women decide to quit working their 9-5 jobs at the age of 25 and proceed to become entrepreneurs, the American entrepreneur will bring with her a wealth of experience (no matter how menial), that the Nigerian entrepreneur cannot offer her startup. To bridge that gap, women entrepreneurs in Nigeria and many other African countries need to know what to do and how to do it, and additionally, they need to have the necessary skills and resources required to do it successfully. That is the gap the PIN is currently trying to fill for women in Nigeria and beyond as we look to expand.
The second threat is the lack of access to local and global markets. The PIN is actively working to create linkages to African and global markets. This is done in order to connect Nigerian products and services to domestic and international buyers and create pathways for business expansion across Africa and the world. Very few women in Nigeria have any idea on how to expand their businesses globally, including to other major African cities. Further, they are not informed on Nigerian and International Trade policy and so they are unable to take advantage of opportunities that may help them increase their income. For example, we surveyed 2,500 women entrepreneurs in Nigeria to ask how many of them had heard of the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) - a United States Trade Act which significantly enhances market access to the U.S. for qualifying Sub-Saharan African countries - and fewer than 30 had heard of it before. Access to local and global markets can provide innovative businesses with learning opportunities and with products and services that support their innovation processes. Improved access to foreign markets may also increase the market size and the performance of innovative companies.
Third is the lack of representation in the media. Nigeria needs more curious storytellers in journalists because it is my view that our media has failed our entrepreneurs. By regurgitating the same people and same stories across various platforms and channels and by being too lazy to do the hard work of uncovering rising stars and talent, our media continues to fail to capture what is glorious about entrepreneurship: that the best businesses solve simple problems, failure is a precursor to victory, and overnight success takes an average of 10 years to achieve.
FF: Do you think that more changes need to happen in policy or are there larger changes in the community needed to get over some of those barriers?
CS: Nigeria has no shortage of policies and programmes specifically aimed at promoting women’s entrepreneurship. Although, I believe more can be done to loosen the restrictions on access to finances for women. Nevertheless, beyond policy, the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Nigeria needs to be strengthened if businesses are going to thrive and succeed.
As it stands, on the one hand, Nigeria has an army of globe-trotting millennials who are looking for ways to replicate the product and service offerings they have grown accustomed to in more developed countries, but are struggling to communicate this vision to an employment market that is largely unskilled, under-educated, and unmotivated. This results in a nation of overworked entrepreneurs who spend more time in production than in sales or marketing, and this stalls the growth of their companies.
Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are the future of employment in Africa and we are approaching a time when SMEs will hire more people collectively than government and corporations combined. To this end, I would like to see the emergence of recruitment agencies that prepare recent graduates for working with startups. These firms should be able to help founders create environments that are conducive enough to attract first class graduates from the oil and gas and banking sectors and prepare them to become the CFOs, CMOs, and maybe even the CEOs, of high-growth, high-potential small and medium sized business. The Nigerian Youth Service Corps – a mandatory one-year service for recent university graduates – time during which the federal government subsidizes the cost of labor, should make it easier for SMEs to recruit interns.
FF: What do you think would drive that innovation, especially from within Nigeria or its broader community?
CS: A better understanding of how to interpret data would drive greater innovation for my country. Innovation is born out of observation and that is all data is: a transcription of what is. If a fashion entrepreneur knows that Nigerians are estimated to spend $15 billion annually buying clothes and she looks at her revenue for the last year and sees that she earned $200,000, I imagine she might want to strategize on how to increase her piece of the pie. If a food manufacturer learns that Nigeria’s birth rate is four times higher that the U.S. birthrate, she might consider manufacturing baby food.
About the Interviewee
Comfort Avunze Sakoma is one of Nigeria's most sought after business development and growth strategists and is also among Nigeria’s leading experts on international trades.
She launched the Poize Insider Network (PIN) to boost the competitiveness of the Nigerian economy. Through this network she has provided business development support for more than 300 women-owned businesses, helping them to leverage technology, develop effective brand strategies, pursue global partnerships, and expand their trade capacity. The network has trained 3,100 women business owners in Nigeria since March 2016. She is also the CEO of Poize Capital Global, a market entry firm that helps foreign companies enter the Nigerian market and helps Nigerian companies enter African, U.S., and international markets.
Miss Sakoma is a member of the board of directors of the U.S.-Africa Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. She is a mentor for the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and a partner/mentor for the African Entrepreneurship Award by BMCE Bank of Africa.
She is Canadian-Nigerian and is an alumna of the University of Toronto, where she graduated with a B.A. honours in political science & African studies. She is an alumna of Yale Executive Education, for which she won the Yale Publishing Course Innovative Leader Scholarship.