Isoken, The Force of A City


By Nkanu Egbe

Benin City was the playground of a little girl, Isoken, who was the daughter of a medical doctor and a market trader.

Let us rephrase that.

Benin City was the workspace of a little girl who was born to a medical doctor – Dr. Efemwenkeankean Yellow Igbinigie and his wife – Enegbegbana Stella Igbinigie, a market trader. Workspace, because at a very tender age, soon after the death of her father, when her mother had to work to raise money to fend for the family, Isoken was introduced to trading in the most basic way – hawking. She did not have to, for her mother’s income was fairly stable and could adequately take care of her and her older brother, John.

“Nobody knows what the future will be,” her mother reasoned.

Her mother’s uncle’s wife even once admonished the mother, “But this is your only daughter.”

“Yes, even if she’s the only one, I have to put her right,” Mrs Igbinigie responded, “I can’t think that because I have money today, I’ll always be there for her.”

Her mother schooled her well so that she would not fall prey to male human predators and so she was well-guarded even as she was that young.

It was as if Isoken’s mother saw the future, for as the years would go by, she lost her vision and her only maternal brother, John, (her father had children from another wife, but they would be separated at the man’s death) would be very sickly, leaving Isoken to increase her trading energies to contribute to their upkeep.

And so, Isoken applied herself to a task, which many would ordinarily look down upon, but which she did with enthusiasm and decency. She hawked different wares during her teenage years and when she would relocate to Lagos after secondary school in search of more fulfilling income, just armed with a secondary school certificate, it would be hawking that would sustain her. She started with hawking Elephant detergent powder at Mile 2.

Her hawking background would lead her to become a successful salesperson, vending fire extinguishers and then hair products. When she branched out into her own business, she was not afraid to dare to trade in commodities that most people would be terrified of venturing into.

She sold stationery and printing supplies. She set up a fashion business. She ran a beauty and wellness salon. And she sold motor spare parts! She was successful in all because she thrived in them for many years before switching goods or services to sell. The only business that was a slight setback was, ironically, selling of gold trinkets, because she had not done what she would term her ‘due diligence’. Otherwise, everything she touched turned to ‘gold’. She had native insight and was intentional and calculative about whatever business she went into, except jewellery.

Her guide was primordially her mother, who in her heyday was a dealer in food commodities and butcher. Yes: butcher. Her mother killed animals and supplied the meat to the markets. Stella Igbingie, not daunted by her husband’s passing, threw herself into enterprise and was so successful at it that she was able to buy land and build their own home from her profits.

Unfortunately, Madam Stella’s eyes would be affected by glaucoma, and she would lose her sight first in one eye and then years later, in the other. Nevertheless, she struggled through it all, not allowing herself to be considered an invalid. Isoken, unfailingly, made monthly trips from Lagos to Benin as she had promised her mother when she was first leaving for Lagos to start life. It was on one of such trips that she would meet her future husband, Dr. Godwin Nwabunka.

Benin City holds some significance. It not only has been home for Isoken and her mother, but the city also once lodged Emotan, who was, herself, a market woman, who ran what has been ascribed as Nigeria’s first day-care centre. Emotan is a legend because she quartered Prince Ogun and assisted him to become Oba Ewuare I. Incidentally, the present Oba of Benin is Oba Ewuare II. In this instance, Emotan is mentioned because she was first, a market trader.

Benin City is where Isoken returned when she was to be trained in the basics of microfinance by LAPO, a microfinance organisation. After having been an accomplished businesswoman, she had previously sought self-development by studying for a first degree in English and then, a master’s degree in International Relations and Strategic Studies. Added to these, she had been IMP-certified (International Management Programme) by the Lagos Business School. But when her husband, while with the UN, convinced her to consider going into microfinance, himself, a microfinance consultant who had been working with microfinance organisations and small groups in Nigerian communities, she saw the opportunity of making an impact in the lives of women, especially market traders and artisans. It was from this crucible of a city that Isoken and a group of women returned to Lagos to start the Grooming Centre for Better Livelihood in 2006 at an open hall in a suburb called Ejigbo.

It was a daunting task at first because she and her team had to deal with the fears of the horde of market women who had previously fallen prey to fraudulent people. But when she got their confidence, Grooming Centre would go on to meet the needs of at least 700,000 women, the centre establishing no fewer than 600 branches across Nigeria. They have thrived for 10 years, and Dr. Godwin Nwabunka has since retired from the UN to become the CEO, Grooming Centre. Today, Grooming Centre can boast of assisting struggling market women, who in turn have been saving their kings as Emotan did Oba Ewuare I.

But Isoken is not done yet. Apart from authoring a book, Isọkẹn, which has all the nuggets needed to make a young entrepreneur succeed, she looks forward to mentoring a community of young persons – male and female in the fine art of entrepreneurship. She comes from a place of hard work and success and has seen it all – ‘been there, done that’. As she has done with Grooming Centre, where she started with 26 clients, she would start from small numbers, and then grow her world. Her trajectory can only be up.

  • Nkanu Egbe is the publisher/editor of the Lagos Metropolitan newspaper. More about Isọkẹn can be read at

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