By Josfyn Uba
The world is a global village. The digital space is open to accommodate everybody but when Aisha Abubakar-Falke found out that women from northern Nigeria are left out and there is no provision for their needs and all that they yearn for, she quickly moved to fill the gap.
She created a digital platform where they can access and measure up with their counterparts in other parts of the world. Unfortunately, many people did not understand the concept. It backfired. The backlash was monumental for the social entrepreneur.
People became judgmental. Even clerics criticised her and reminded her that married Muslim women should not be heard but seen.
Abubakar-Falke is the founder/initiator of Northern Hibiscus, a social enterprise devoted to touching the lives of society’s downtrodden in the North. She told Daily Sun recently in Lagos that she is determined to see her vision through, in spite of the attacks, giving a picture of the price of speaking out in a conservative society.
You studied Applied Chemistry. Fashion has nothing to do with it. So, how did you get into the industry?
At the time I attended Dan Fodio University, aged 17 years old, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. My parents wanted me to study Medicine. So, after my secondary education, I enrolled for remedial studies but I didn’t get the admission immediately. My mother wanted it, and I applied for Medicine. I didn’t get it. I got Applied Chemistry instead and that was the course I ended up studying, despite the fact that my mother wanted Medicine. After my studies in 2008, I knew I wasn’t going to practice it.
I can still recall when I was young that I would draw outfits for my tailor. I did the same thing for my aunties and siblings. After I got married in my 200 level, I was encouraged by my husband to explore my artistic and creative side. That was how I ventured into fashion designing. I started with a friend who was getting married. I did something nice for her and she was very happy. The rest, as they say, is history.
Your platform, Northern Hibiscus, what is it all about?
Northern Hibiscus stemmed from the thirst I had for northern content. Over a period of time, I found out there was no provision in the digital space to take care of northern women and they yearned for it, couldn’t relate.
So I decided to create a platform where they could access, and feel like it was theirs. I started it in 2016. Secondly, I wanted to start a multi-vendor online mall. To start that kind of thing, you need a lot of money for marketing and publicity. I didn’t have that kind of money, but I found out I could reach my target market through blogging. So, I started writing, though anonymously, but at a point, people started identifying it with me. I was already a bit popular with my fashion brand and I didn’t want the two to mix. I aimed to reach the youths where we had a summit, which was attended by 1,400 youths and other stakeholders.
My friend and I started a pro-bono school in Kano, with about 100 students. We figured that, if they were properly educated, they would take their own families out of poverty. So, the idea was, if we could create one breadwinner among the poorest of the poor, they would go on to create 100 breadwinners themselves.
We got teachers, a building and the students poured in. That was how Educate Academy was born. We have also been doing food drives, raising money to pay hospital bills. When COVID-19 came, we launched the NH Community School with 100 facilitators to teach thrice a day on Telegram. A lot of people learnt from the platform within that period.
We also started a food drive campaign tagged Survive Covid, Survive Hunger Campaign. In Jos, where we had the first drive, we provided a month’s worth of food supplies for 337 families. We have been to other states, including Kano, Zamfara, Katsina, Adamawa, Gombe and Kaduna.
It seems you left women out of your programme…
No. We launched the NH Community School, which helps people learn at least three skills daily in areas like social media marketing, food business, fashion and so on. Of the over 35,000 students on Telegram now, at least 80 per cent are women. We also highlight businesses owned by women that are doing well in the North as a way of encouraging them and others.
What do you think could be done to better the lot of women in northern Nigeria?
When you see an educated northern woman, you can’t help but fall in love with her. She is progressive, very intelligent and knows what she wants. We are trying to educate on several fronts, the regular and the street education. I am trying to push for financial literacy among northern women. We want women to be able to do businesses even from their bedrooms.
With over a decade in the fashion industry in Nigeria, how do you think the industry can be repositioned to make it more impactful nationally and internationally?
I have experienced the various facets of the problems plaguing fashion designers. One of the biggest problems is the lack of production companies. Outside the country, it is easy to be a fashion designer. But here, it is a different ball game. There are so many problems you have to deal with yourself. It is tiring. We need factories that manufacture different aspects of clothes. That is the major solution to our problem. It would lower costs, make fashion faster and more affordable. I am more of a fashion marketer than a designer. That is an area I am tilting towards more.
What are the benefits of mentorship in the life of a woman?
I didn’t have the benefit of a mentor when I started, and that made things difficult for me. It took me considerable time to achieve things. If I had had the benefit of a mentor, I probably would have achieved a lot more, faster than I did. At the outset, my tailors saw how vulnerable I was and took advantage of me. So, I learnt the hard way. Mentorship is the key towards achieving success in any business. It is the foundation of entrepreneurship and more women need to be mentors for those coming behind them.
What were your hurdles in this business and how did you scale those hurdles?
One of the challenges was that the northern community couldn’t understand the concept of what I was trying to do for them. They just couldn’t relate to the idea, at all. When we took off, I had a lot of backlash. People would come online and abuse me and my family but I had to endure and ignore all that. The TV show I had on Arewa24 came with a lot of restrictions and judgments. And because I am very vocal on social media, people often remind me that I am a married woman and as such shouldn’t be too audible but should simply say “yes” and “no, sir.”
When you are outspoken as a northern woman, you would get backlashes from everyone, especially from clerics who would often remind you that a northern Muslim woman shouldn’t be heard but seen.
People tell me that my husband should be ashamed of me. I struggled with infertility and people would mock me by posting pictures of pregnant women, praying that I would never experience motherhood. I get a lot of attacks and backlash but I can’t be broken.
What is your advice to women in general?
You can do it. Let nobody tell you that you aren’t good, worthy or pretty enough. Think wild dreams, go out there and achieve them. Don’t allow anyone to restrict you.