‘A total overhaul of the current system has to be considered to achieve women empowerment in northern Nigeria’

Hafsat Dange

Hafsat Sahabi Dange is a corporate lawyer; business innovation and leadership expert with over 11 years experience and currently head the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), Sokoto. Passionate about women and youth’s economic empowerment, she works towards advancing this cause through the Association of Northern Women Entrepreneurs (ANWE), Young African Leaders Initiative Network Sokoto and Muryar Mata Initiative that she co-founded. A 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow and member, Mandela Washington fellows Alumni Association of Nigeria, she is a Certified HP learning initiative for Entrepreneurs trainer, a 2018 African changemakers fellow and an active member of many other professional organisations. In this interview, she talks about her journey to the top, her work in empowering northern women in all areas, including women in Nigeria’s key sectors, how to use innovation to improve the lots of women in the North and how she didn’t allow getting married at 17 deter her from becoming a lawyer amongst other issues.

Take us through your corporate journey till date, how has it been for you?
I did my National Youth Service in 2007 and actually explored litigation and legal practice for the whole service year and afterwards, just like any other youth, I began to evaluate my life experiences and the environment I found myself in order to get a grip of what I really wanted to do, that was when I started exploring entrepreneurship. I wanted to create a social enterprise that will not only bring me income but also solve a social problem.

As a lawyer, I wanted to get it right by going through all the traditional requirements for starting a business, business plan, business registration and paperwork and this sparked my interest in applying to the Corporate Affairs Commission, even though I didn’t have any hope of getting in but I still applied.

As fate would have it, my appointment with the commission came in 2008 and I was posted to the head office in Abuja. This was the first challenge for me because I was based in Sokoto with my family, so I was torn between taking the job or declining but we reached a decision to report to Abuja and pray for a miracle. Working with the CAC is a dream job for most new lawyers so I was both excited and also worried about my family back home and all efforts to get a transfer proved abortive, as there was no vacancy at the Sokoto office. This made it so hard for me as I was trying to settle in at work and also appease my husband to be patient. I intensified prayer as the tension grew though I didn’t see how my husband could leave his job to support mine, I felt I had a future with the commission and believed God will be in control. From time to time, I would go to the HR department to find out if anything had changed and finally, one day, I received the good news of a vacancy. My excitement knew no bounds and shortly after, I redeployed to Sokoto as an assistant manager in charge of the registry unit. In 2012, I was appointed head of Sokoto office; I was shocked because I didn’t expect it, and that was how I became the first woman and youngest head of Sokoto state office.

As state head, I represent the Registrar General and oversee the affairs, operations and management of the office. It was easy for me to settle into this position because I was not a lazy, laid-back assistant. I graciously carried out my duties to the best of my abilities and fortunately for me, I had mature and professional staff who are very supportive and contribute to the success and growth we experienced in the Sokoto office till date.

Tell us how you are using your position to impact change?
The commission is responsible for the registration and regulation of companies, business names and incorporated trustees (NGOs); basically, we are business enablers and stand as the first point of call for entrepreneurs and anybody who starts a business in Nigeria. CAC has branches in all the states in Nigeria and more than one in some states. As state head, I am responsible for the operation and management of the office, ensure prompt and efficient service delivery to the people of the state in which we serve. This role gives me the opportunity to network with people from different walks of life and I ensure that everyone has access to information and support required to access our services and also attend programs to sensitize people as well as create awareness on benefits of registration, how to go about it and this has helped enormously to change the mindset of people who before now, were unwilling to register their businesses.

There’s a lot of uncertainty as a result of Covid-19, how would you say the pandemic is affecting women around you?
The pandemic has led to a lot of uncertainty, especially with regards to the economy not just in Nigeria but globally. The economic challenges experienced now pose a serious threat to women’s work and business activity as most women are into micro and small businesses which will eventually die as a result of the sudden shutdown, leading to loss of income and this may expose them to exploitation, abuse and violence. Women facing severe economic shocks are more likely to take on high-risk work for their economic survival to protect their children, so responses to this pandemic must protect and support women’s economic empowerment. 

What does ANWE seek to achieve and how is it helping women now?
The Association of Northern Women Entrepreneurs is an NGO that focuses on women and youth’s economic empowerment and their overall wellbeing in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The reality is that government and development partners are mostly concerned about teaching women skills and handwork, but fail to realise that they cannot turn these skills into businesses without business and entrepreneurship developments training. ANWE seeks to provide business support, mentoring, networking, promote innovative solutions for peace, stability and sustainable economic development for women and youths as well as be the leading entrepreneurial network for fostering business prosperity, peace, stability and sustainable development in Nigeria. We currently have programs like the “talk to me campaign” against gender-based violence and school-related gender-based violence, different categories of business development trainings, motivation and mentorship series, business, trade fairs and exhibition and the women product development project.

A lot of entrepreneurs are being affected negatively by the ongoing pandemic, what would you say to them at this trying times?
I would tell them not to lose hope and use this time to re-evaluate their businesses, embrace technology, develop skills or learn new ones and most of all, key into the support by federal government and other stakeholders for entrepreneurs so they can access grants and loans that will support them to stay afloat.

As someone passionate about northern women’s economic empowerment, what are some things you are doing to make this a reality?
I personally believe that a total overhaul of the current system has to be considered to achieve women empowerment in northern Nigeria. The reality is that the culture, tradition and religion of the people must be considered in order to design innovative solutions that will empower the women sustainably. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, some need to be wage earners, therefore we need culturally appropriate workspaces, cottage industries, factories with women managers, flexible working hours and innovative support systems like the prayer and child care spaces within the workspaces that will cater for the needs of these women and increase productivity and impact.

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