“We need more women to participate in financial services” – Solape Akinpelu, CEO of HerVest
Gender inequality and bias in economics and financial inclusion is a long-running conversation. HerVest is an organization mobilizing to raise a generation of successful African women through financial inclusion.
HerVest is a social enterprise that provides financial inclusion to women through a gender-based approach. HerVest is designed to help women everywhere take control of their finances, one impact at a time.
During an interview on Legit.ng’s flagship program, Digital Talks, Solape Akinpelu, co-founder/CEO of HerVest, discusses how the platform is improving women’s lives through better access and use of financial services.
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Tell us about HerVest and what motivated the creation of the platform.
I would say HerVest is a story of insight leading to action. If you had asked me five years ago if I would do this, the answer would have been a big “NO” because I have a background in marketing and I love marketing. I started out in marketing as an agency copywriter before moving into what we call the client side, working with an investment company, Meristem Nigeria. With marketing, it has to do with people’s behaviors. And from the agency side to when I moved to the client side, I was constantly looking at the numbers as a marketer. You want to look at the numbers, the demographics, and that’s where I realized a lot of women weren’t consuming financial services. And in that way, it was disappointing, not only for women, but also for our economic capacity as a nation and as a world. This is not a Nigerian problem. It is not an African problem, but it is acute here. It’s a global thing and that’s when we decided to do something and look at financial services from a gender perspective. And that’s what HerVest does.
What are the packages and benefits offered by HerVest?
To date, approximately 30,000 women use HerVest. Our model is inclusive. It’s easier for me and for my female colleagues here because of the level of education we have and maybe because we can have income to participate in financial services. It’s more difficult for a woman who lives in a rural area and who constantly wonders where the next meal will come from to adopt financial services because really, how do you save what you don’t have? So, with HerVest, we have a model that caters to financially excluded women and financially underserved women. If you look at rural areas, they are generally agrarian, so we currently have over 10,000 women farmers in our network and around 20,000 users on our mobile app user network. So speaking specifically about the services, women using the mobile app can participate in financial education because we realize this was a major challenge where many women were not embracing financial services. For too long we have treated money as a primary issue. It’s even rooted in our makeup. We tell the little girl to cross her legs and look good. We tell the little boy to hustle. So we teach them about financial literacy and on the app you can now participate in automated savings, and you can participate in peer-to-peer investing with other small-scale farmers. You can participate in group savings with your friends. Collectively, you can save for your goals – travel, get a degree, get an MBA. All these elements are available on the HerVest solution which is available on mobile applications on Android and iOS. And of course we also have the web app.
Given the financial situation of some of these women, is it easy to convince them to opt for financial services?
For the moment, we do not collect savings from rural women. What we’ve done for them over the past two years is credit. And they are very absolved of it. We give them blended finance that includes training them on good agronomic practices, supporting them with technical assistance, opening up markets for them and then financing their business. You realize that with this they are able to refund us as they are due. We didn’t just give them funds and leave. We supported them, we put insurance because many of them sometimes lose crops as in the current climatic situation in certain regions of the country. Many of them lose their crops and are unable to repay, but with insurance they can make claims and then repay. So for a company that has given you credit and supported you, it’s easier to trust them and save with them because you know it also digitizes your financial history and helps you get more financial services from these companies.
Over the past decade, there seems to be a surge of women making bold statements in several sectors of the Nigerian economy. What do you think is responsible for this development?
I would even say that it is still in its infancy because for far too long, women have passed into the background. You have women who view jobs as hobbies or hobbies. So now I call it the decade of the woman. Many women go beyond self-limiting barriers and go beyond societal barriers. What has held women back for so long is an unconscious bias from their youth. There has been a lot of advocacy that has happened and people are now coming to their own devices. We see women building organizations, employing people and contributing to the economy. I encourage women to flourish and occupy spaces.
Speaking at a “Women in Tech” event last year, you said women are tech’s most untapped resource. Please can you explain this?
Tech, in addition to providing solutions, the roles are in high demand and we need more women to fill such roles. Women are the most untapped technological resource. Women need technology because it helps them build stronger roles, it helps them earn more, and it helps them make strong contributions to their homes, communities, and the global economy.
Many Company owners have often said that running a business in Nigeria can be very difficult. Is it more difficult for women?
I know that in general it is very difficult to run a business in this part of the world. It doesn’t even help with the recent brain drain and capital flight that we have seen in recent years. It was really difficult in terms of talent, funding and such. For example, globally, we have seen an increase of around 80% from 2020 in terms of venture capital funds that have gone to women. 83% is a huge margin year over year, but guess what? This represented less than 2% of the total funding that venture capitalists gave to women. This means that men have always raised 98% of venture capital funds. That means there are always those implicit biases. People might not realize their biases. It’s a skin bath. This is why we need more women in terms of participation and strength of proposal. The conversation gets easier from there and over time I believe we will overcome all of these perceived or real obstacles.
What would you advise Nigerian start-ups seeking global attention to attract the necessary funds from investors?
Start small but start with a big picture mindset. When we launched HerVest, we knew we were going to be a pan-African company. Second, I would say lead with integrity. I would also say try accelerators and incubators and there are tons of them out there right now. They are very helpful. This year alone we have been to four accelerators. Sometimes it’s really exhausting, but the truth is that we absorb a lot of information and grow our network quickly. There are several, but look around and find out what value they offer so you don’t waste your time. They are free. They say bring nothing and they have lined up a lot of mentors and so many things you need.
HerVest appears to have developed a strong foothold in Nigeria. Are there plans to expand to other parts of Africa in the nearest countries coming?
What we are solving is not just a Nigerian or African problem. The economic gender gap is global, but it is just that it is acute in Africa and Nigeria is on the priority list of financially excluded countries on a gender scale. Because we are solving a continental challenge, we should definitely leave Nigeria. The truth is that Nigeria is a market that anyone in Africa wants to conquer first. If you conquer the Nigerian market, it is easier to replicate the same in other markets. We have countries on our radar – Zimbabwe, Kenya and Rwanda.
Naturally, these are very demanding tasks. Who are some of your partners working with you to achieve these goals?
They say if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go with people. We have had the great honor and privilege of working with great partners who have helped us along the way. We have VFD Bank and Google. Currently, we are one of 60 Google Black Founders Fund companies in Africa. It took a while to get there, but we’re grateful for brands like this and progress. We have partners in all of these companies that are regulated by either the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Central Bank of Nigeria who have helped us pivot in the right direction.