Picture 1: Women cooperatives at work.

Amid concerns about coronavirus’ (COVID 19) socio-economic impact on the most vulnerable populations, UNICEF collaborated with the Government of Rivers State to initiate labour market interventions directly benefiting 355 female headed households and 572 children as secondary beneficiaries in some of the poorest communities (i.e. Kaa, Bane and Okwali.) of Khana LGA. The intervention was premised on generated evidence which showed that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities of poor households in terms of access to daily income; as well as magnified a range of barriers to complying with COVID-19 containment measures; necessary to reduce the risk of transmission. An assessment of immediate results of the project saw beneficiaries making weekly profits of between $1.32 to $1.84 from sale of their products. This increased over the course of the intervention by more than 20%. Also, the availability of handwashing products at home for use by memebrs of the family, including children provided the added vaue of  a safegurad against the transmission of COVID-19. Given these results, a scale-up of the intervention is planned for the remaining poor communities in the State as a cash plus strategy for enhancing financial inclusion and equity for the most vulnerable populations.


Labour market intervention is a social protection instrument known to drive growth and productivity, especially in rural communities. This is more so needed in the context of COVID-19 where there have been economic downturns with major impact on the poorest populations, including women and children. The World Bank predicts that COVID-19 “…could drastically increase the number of people living in extreme poverty by 88 million to 115 million” (World Bank, 2020). UNICEF assessment of the impact on children, reckons that up to 117 million children could be monetary poor by the end of 2020 (UNICEF, 2020) In Nigeria, 82 million (40%) people live below the national poverty line of $1/day (i.e. N377/day) (National Bureau of Statistics, 2019). In Rivers State, the poverty headcount is 1,790,219 (23.9%) with 52.1% represented in the rural areas. Buttressing the severity of the impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable populations, Celine Salcedo-La Vina, posits that,  the “…pandemic and experience from previous disease outbreaks and other crises show that it’s rural women who will disproportionately bear the resulting socio-economic hardships. As critical contributors to their households and communities, rural women must play a key role in any response and recovery agenda (Celine Salcedo-La Vina, et al., 20200. Characteristically, “…across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is therefore less than that of men” (United Nations, 2020). The reality of challenges confronting women, especially in the context of COVID-19, played a key role in determining the target population for project implementation.

Khana LGA is home to some of the poorest communities in Rivers State. A collaborative review of specific datasets for children living in poor female headed households using the Rivers State social register, sheds light on dimensions of poverty which have been exacerbated by the pandemic; a situation which also makes adherence to COVID-19 prevention measures difficult. According to available records, 45% of the children in Khana LGA live in households with poor access to water and sanitation facilities and are noted to be practicing open defecation. An estimated 45% of them also live in poor shelters that are overcrowded; with five or more people per room. In terms of access to information or devices needed to facilitate continuous learning during school closure, 48% of the children do not have access to radio, cell phones and television. Eleven per cent of the women responsible for the households where the children reside, are unemployed; while those with informal employment lost their jobs and have no source of daily income, given COVID-19 lockdown measures (Rivers State Coordination and Operating Unit, 2020). Eighteen per cent of the women have children in school, while 30.3% lack formal education; raising concerns around the plausibility of parent-assisted learning during school closures. Building back better for these poor households will require more than monthly cash transfers of $13.07/per households of more than five people, to mitigate increased vulnerabilities and exclusion, as well as ensure the wellbeing of children living in the poor households. It was therefore against this backdrop that UNICEF partnered with the Rivers State Government to implement a pilot labour market intervention targeted at increasing the women’s economic recovery and resilience through income generation.

Selected communities and criteria for participation in the pilot project

As a pilot intervention, Bane, Okwali and Baa communities of Khana LGA were identified for the income generation initiative. Communities with access to local markets and minimal security risks (Khana LGA is a high threat environment) were some of the selection criteria applied at the stage of implementation to assure the safety of implementers and potential to demonstrate proof of concept within available time limits. To reinforce the importance of handwashing as the first line of defence against COVID-19, and leveraging on the increased demand for handwashing materials, the income generation initiative prioritized the production of soap, bleach and Izal. Broad-based consultations with relevant partners at the State and local government levels were undertaken to build consensus on the approach and solicit for commitment and ownership, in furtherance of the sustainability agenda. Community entry meetings with selected beneficiaries and respective decision-making structures provided opportunity for project clarity, acceptability and participation in the organization of beneficiaries into cooperative groups; an idea intended to foster peer-to-peer learning, social cohesion and accountability. In total, 355 women were capacitated with skills and knowledge in the production and sale of soap, Izal and bleach; with the potential to ensure the wellbeing of 572 children living in the poor households.

Key results from the women empowerment pilot project

The income generation intervention provided opportunity for the women to acquire new skills; translating into a source for daily income. Three weeks after the intervention, women who hitherto were unemployed, were making a weekly personal profit of between N500 to N700 (i.e. $1.32 - $1.84), from the sale of their products. Today, the weekly profit margin has increased by 42.8% (N1,000 - $2.58/weekly). Although, the profit margin is way below the national poverty line of $1.045/daily, the women consider these initial gains a refreshing start to financial freedom for themselves and their children. The women leader for Bane group B cooperative reckoned, “…the new source of income has empowered the women and they are happy to have something to look forward to every week.” The additional benefit of having handwashing products to use at home for the safety of their children against COVID-19, was also expressed as added value of the initiative.


Picture 2: A line up of products from the women cooperatives

A review of the sales chart for week three, after the intervention, showed 100% sale of Izal produced, 42% sale of bleach produced, and 62% sale of the soap produced by Bane Group A women cooperative. The most improved performance of all the cooperatives compared, came from Bane Group B women cooperative which sold a 100% of all soap and Izal products and 85% of bleach produced. Okwali Group A and B women cooperatives sold 20% of the Izal; 20% of bleach and 11% of soap produced. Kaa women cooperatives made no sales for the 3-week period under review.

Figure 1: A 3-week review of sales by the women cooperatives

A mix of marketing strategies deployed by the different groups including the identification of new clientele (e.g schools, hospitals, and laundry services) outside the operational location of the women cooperatives, and the setting-up of competitive price points for each product contributed to the rate of progress achieved after the 3-week period. Further interactions with the cooperatives in Kaa revealed a string of challenges which impacted their ability to expedite production and sales. This included challenges with the identification of a safe and accessible production site, unofficial taxation and intimidation by some militant youths, and the reluctance of some women to work together as part of the cooperative. Continuous engagement and subsequent resolution of identified problems by the traditional leader of Kaa facilitated the commencement of production and sales by the women. By the end of week 5, most of the cooperatives had registered complete sale of items produced at the outset of the intervention and proceeded to initiate the production of new stock.

Lessons learned and next steps

Targeted engagement of key decision makers at the State and community levels contributed to the positive results recorded on the pilot project. At State level, resources across the different partnerships established were leveraged to meet specific needs of the project at no cost. This included transportation logistics, media presence for digital and electronic documentation of the project, and real time monitoring of activities by the cooperatives. The resolution of initial challenges experienced by Kaa cooperative would not have been possible without the intervention of the community leader who made targeted efforts to address issues raised. The liaison with the local government authorities at Bori mitigated security risks encountered during project implementation and provided a free and safe location for the trainings.

Setting up a project management team consisting of multiple partners had positive and negative effects. On the positive side, it allowed for the consolidation of differing views on the approach and design of the project; allowing implementers to execute the most effective integrated response and engagement strategy for the pilot project. On the negative side and in the context of an emergency, there was not enough time to fully assess the benefit or shared value of each partnership that was brought onboard and this resulted in arguments and lengthy periods for consensus building. The timely decision to prune the partnership cluster to those in alignment with the vision of the project made a huge difference; resulting in prudent management of limited resources and timely delivery of attendant project goals and objectives.

The intervention also presented the opportunity to demonstrate integrated programming. Although, the women empowerment project responded to resilience and recovery building, it also provided a platform to disseminate accurate information on handwashing hygiene and its potential to promote optimal child development across different social sectors like nutrition and health. Other elements of the project such as financial bookkeeping and savings, and practice of good customer relations sharpened the business acumen of the women; allowing them to explore new grounds in business. In fact, the group B women cooperative introduced a new product (perfume) to their production line; contributing to increased sales and reach. One can also not overlook the importance of participation by the local community. UNICEF in collaboration with the Government of Rivers State assured the effective participation of all relevant stakeholders at the local level, in the verification process of women identified through the social register to participate in the project. Entry level meetings also held at community level to sensitize everyone on the project. This contributed to elevated levels of accountability and made for acceptability and ownership.

Christine Lagarde, IMF Managing Director, in her address at the APEC CEO Summit, in Peru said, “…there is a compelling business case for women’s empowerment …. and as countries around the world struggle to grow their economies more quickly and to reduce inequality, tapping into the huge potential of women can be a game changer” (IMF, 2016). Indeed, the empowerment of poor female headed households with skills and knowledge on income generation is an investment towards sustainable development with equity and inclusiveness. As the women cooperatives begin to make financial decisions and optimize the benefits of financial banking, they become key contributors to the economic recovery and resilience of the State, post COVID-19.

Concluding, pilots are meant for building evidence and convincing people of what works in a project. The women empowerment project in Khana LGA has worked, given all indicators assessed. Immediate next steps will therefore include working with the private sector in the State to identify and expand new markets for the women cooperatives, to enable them to increase their profit margin and reach. Having attained a voice in society, the cooperatives will be engaged as agents of change or entry points to accessing services that impact children’s wellbeing such as immunization, birth registration, nutrition, education, water and sanitation, to mention a few. Re-echoing the words of Isabelle Allende, the famous Chilean novelist, “If a woman is empowered, her children and her family will be better off. If families prosper, the village prospers, and eventually so does the whole country.” (Christian Lagarde quoting Isabelle Allende, 2016). This is the ultimate vision of the women empowerment project in Khana LGA. The commitment to reduce poverty and ensure broader economic inclusiveness is in alignment with the global SDGs mandate to “leave no one behind”, hence plans to scale up to other poor communities in furtherance of the realization of children’s rights.


World Bank, 2020. Reversing Setbacks to Poverty Reduction Requires Nations to Work Together for Resilient Recovery: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/immersive-story/2020/11/09/reversing-setbacks-to-poverty-reduction-requires-nations-to-work-together-for-a-resilient-recovery?cid=ECR_TT_worldbank_EN_EXT&s=03

UNICEF, 2020. COVID-19 and Childrenhttps://data.unicef.org/covid-19-and-children/

National Bureau of Statistics, 2019. Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria.  https://taxaide.com.ng/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/2019-POVERTY-AND-INEQUALITY.pdf

Celine Salcedo-La Vina, et al., 2020. Rural Women Must Be at the Heart of COVID-19 Response and Recovery. https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/09/rural-women-must-be-heart-covid-19-response-and-recovery

United Nations, 2020. The Impact of COVID-19 on Women. https://www.un.org/sexualviolenceinconflict/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/report/policy-brief-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women/policy-brief-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-women-en-1.pdf

Rivers State Coordination and Operating Unit, 2020. Social Register.

IMF, 2016. The Business Case for Women. https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2016/11/18/SP111816-The-Business-Case-for-Womens-Empowerment

Christian Lagarde quoting Isabelle Allende, 2016.  The Business Case for Womenhttps://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2016/11/18/SP111816-The-Business-Case-for-Womens-Empowerment



Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Labour market / employment programmes
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Programme design
    • Targeting
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Informal social protection
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Financial education and inclusion
  • Gender
  • Health
  • Productive / Economic inclusion
  • Inequalities
  • Labour market / employment
  • Poverty reduction
  • Resilience
  • Water, sanitation and hygiene
  • Nigeria
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
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