Aysha Othman Tofa is a communications strategist, the founder of Startup Kano and the Baby Bank NG Initiative. She is also the Director of Women Founders’ Conference, and an SDG advocate. In this interview by KINGSLEY ALUMONA, she speaks about her life growing up in Northern Nigeria, how to leverage technology in business start-ups and entrepreneurship, children and women issues in Kano State, human rights issues surrounding Hisbah police, among other things.
As a child, how would you describe your life and dreams growing up in Northern Nigeria?
I’ve always wanted to become a pilot. As a child, I see possibilities in everything because I had an amazing childhood. My parents were supportive right from the start, and I didn’t see the complications of the society then. So, I had amazing dreams of doing things, becoming things, and I believed it was possible. Growing up in northern Nigeria wasn’t different from any part of Nigeria for me, because I was given the privileged every child could have.
You studied Communications Studies. Was this what you really wanted to study? And, how are you using your communication expertise to impact your society?
I wanted to study International Relations because I’ve always wanted to represent people. I felt there was a gap to be bridged—in terms of our voices and strength—and I wanted to make many things right. But then I couldn’t get an admission to the course. I got Communication Studies, and it gave me many opportunities that built my career. I also realised that studying International Relations isn’t relevant for me to change the world or to advocate/represent. I can change the world as long as I’m passionate about it.
You are a co-founder of Startup Kano. What inspired the formation and what is it about?
After graduation from the university, I realised that there’s no job for me. I also realised that it’s not just me, but many other graduates and young people, and that made me want to change the situation. That was part of what inspired me to start the company and also leverage on technology/entrepreneurship because they drive the world today.
It’s a modern company that advocates for technology, entrepreneurship, agribusiness and self-employment. We incubate and accelerate start-ups and train them on how to secure findings from government grants and investors. We also offer bootstrapping strategies for start-up growth and technical services to organisations/businesses.
Kano State’s economy and education are not as strong as most states in the country. How do you factor these indices into your business to bring out the best in your clients/customers?
Technology is a very strong tool to make many things possible. We leverage much on technology to deliver. We find processes easier, services cheaper, and networks closer through technology. Over the years, we’ve worked hard to build a relationship with both local and international partners because we believe collaboration is the key to achieve more and to do more.
If someone without money/capital, but with innovative business idea, walks up to you and solicits your services for the start-up of his/her business, how would you advise and help the person?
I’ve come across this type of situation many times. If the idea or business will solve a problem or change the face of our society, I’ll offer every service to make it scale. I’ll go for equity in return. If I don’t have the resources, I’ll link that person with the right network. We can’t let problem-solving ideas to go in vain, especially at this point where we’ve been left behind in terms of innovation and technology.
Tell us about your Baby Bank NG initiative. And, at the peak of COVID-19 pandemic, what did you do to ensure the success of the initiative?
I started Baby Bank due to lack of support for children during the lockdown. People were sharing palliatives, but there was nothing for babies; and babies can’t be left hungry or uncared for due to their vulnerability. So, this is very dear to me because I also have a baby too. At the Babybank, we provide free baby essentials and foods to families during the COVID-19 period. I sought for donations/partnerships from people to fund the project. I’m happy that, at this point, we’ve impacted over 100 families with our packages within Kano State, and my plan is to continue even after the pandemic and also to venture into Baby health and wellbeing.
One popular northern Nigerian woman once said, “Being a northern woman is hard.” Do you believe this?
It’s very hard! It’s a society that does not allow women to express their talents and voices, or to express their strength freely due to family, spouses, society and traditional challenges. I’ve personally faced challenges in my career just because I’m a woman, or because I’m a mother which I believe doesn’t really have to be like that. I feel it’s good to give women a chance before actually judging them. Honestly, I’ve been fighting this for a long time. I just hope it’ll change. So, it’s hard. But, as a woman, fighting for all this is worth it at the end of the day.
Kano State is one of the leading states in the country with the highest number of out-of-school children, most of them girls. As an SDG advocate, in what ways are you advocating for these children and making the government responsible and accountable for them?
We usually advocate for women through their parents because the government is hard to reach out to or get some information from. And I believe the hard work here is making a parent believe that sending their child to school is one of the best decisions to make. We also try to empower the girls by teaching them skills so they can keep busy, depend on themselves and cater for their needs.
In the news, recently, in one of the towns in Kano State, religious police, Hisbah, were confiscating women’s phones and forcefully shaving the hair of young men with stylish cuts. Many consider these as human rights abuse. As a youth and women advocate, what is your take on these?
This is human rights abuse and the Hisbah should really pay for the damages they’ve caused. I don’t know what they think is on the women’s phones. But, whatever it is, it doesn’t warrant them to confiscate the phones but rather educate them on the potential danger such phones pose as religious teacher/security of the people.
Culture and religion are major barriers to women development in Northern Nigeria. As the Director of Women Founders Conference, what two piece of legislation would you recommend for Kano State government, as regards these issues, to help Kano women compete favourably with their peers in other states of the country?
Create interventions for women-led businesses and give them access to the right tools and regulations for them to run their businesses. I know many women running impactful businesses and some with impactful ideas, but due to lack of right business tools, tax, registrations, and other government regulations, they had to give up or shut down. Women led businesses are really important in the society and should be really looked into by the government.
If you were the Commissioner for Women Affairs of Kano State, How would you address these depressing narratives affecting children and women across the state?
Firstly, I would make education free or 50 per cent free for women. Health care will also be accessible—especially, focusing on maternal mortality, childbirth and family planning. I would build many skill acquisition centres, and provide soft loans and grants for women-led businesses. I’ll try and see every woman become self dependent in Kano. I think this is far beyond the work of a commissioner.
What do you like doing at your leisure? If you were to make a wish on your next birthday, what would it be?
I love reading and travelling. I love creating new things, creating new business ideas. I would love to visit and address the United Nations for my next birthday. I would also want to fly a plane.
What advice do you have for young people, especially the female ones, who are aspiring to be like you?
I would advise them to understand their purpose first, then be passionate about the process. Also be patient and consistent. I would also advise them to go for the things that their hearts want, and be strong enough to face their fears. I want young women to know that they’re powerful and they can make history. It’s going to be very hard and depressing sometimes, but it’s a journey worth going through.