She is the first female mechanic in Nigeria whose passion started far back at the age of 13 in Benin City the Edo state capital. The passionate and fearless head of the Lady Mechanic Initiative, Sandra Aguebor-Ekperuoh, a mother of six, met with OGIEVA OYEMWENOSA in Benin and revealed how she was taking mechanic as her extra-curricular activity in her secondary school days. In this interview, she also calls on the Federal and state governments to support her Lady Mechanic Village initiative, which she says will empower thousands of female folks in Nigeria and reduce drastically the rate of human trafficking in the country Excerpts:
Who is Sandra Aguebor-Ekperuoh, the Lady Mechanic? Tell us about your background.
I attended Ivbiotor Primary school in Benin City, before I proceeded to St. Maria Goretti Girls Secondary school from where I started my mechanic job. When I finished from secondary school, I went to the Benin Technical College where I studied automobile in the automobile
department of vocational studies for three years. In my class, we were 34 and only three girls but because of my practical knowledge way back, I was able to tackle a lot of technical problems.
From there, I went to Auchi Polytechnic. When I finished from the polytechic, I got a job with Bendel Transport Company, which is now Edo line. Two years later, I left there and got another job with the Nigeria Railway Corporation in Lagos where I spent another two years before I left because they were no longer paying staff salaries. After that, I decided to start my own workshop. I wanted to travel abroad for greener pastures but after I got my visa for Switzerland, I was about traveling to buy ticket when a voice urged me to buy a set of tools instead and start up in a virgin land and that is how I found myself as a lady mechanic. I also attended Pan Atlantic University, formally Pan African University, Lagos, where I did management studies.
I am married with six children. I want to tell every woman out there, especially married women, that they do not have to think that because they are married and have children, life has finished for them or that they do any other thing. Of course, they still do much; they can still acquire skills. We have a 49-year old woman who is running her own gas station in Lagos. She is the one who is doing the quick service and she is the one servicing the car. She is from Imo State. We need to start doing a lot of things so that our children as would emulate us as they grow up.
What is the Lady Mechanic Initiative all about?
The Lady Mechanic Initiative is about empowering women through free mechanic professional training; it is about wealth creation for sustainable livelihood. We teach them to be skilled auto mechanics, female generator repairers, female household water-pump machine repairers and installers, female mechanic/drivers as well as female boat engine repairers in the coastal areas.
How did it start?
It all started in 2004, but I have had my own workshop since 1994, that is for about 20 years now and it goes by the name Sandex Car Care Garage. So, I am not just starting what I am doing but I started at the age of 13 through dreams.
Since 2004, we have been able to train over 700 female mechanics in Nigeria with over 500 alumni members now grouped into the Association of Lady Automobile Technicians of Nigeria.
Where did the inspiration for the Initiative come from?
It was from dreams. It was ordained that this is what I will do. It was what God ordained for me to do and that is why I started going to the mechanic workshop at the age of 13. It is not my making but it was through dream and I accepted and pursued it.
What are your challenges and successes so far?
Seeing girls work in different car companies in Nigeria, year in year out; seeing girls setting up their own garages and training other women. These are some of the success stories that make me happy. Some people think it is very easy but I will tell you today it was not a bed of roses. It was a very tough one. For me to break the hurdle to become the first female mechanic in Nigeria to the extent of receiving a federal government honour in 2012 couldn't have been easy at all. In 2012, the federal government honored me with a National Merit Award of Productivity for the good job they thought I was doing. That also gave me some encouragement that my country is recognizing me and what I am doing. Also, the Centenary Book of 100 years of women where I was gave me a lot of encouragement. I was also a panelist at the opening of the Centenary celebrations. So, I will tell you that the challenges were enormous but I saw them rather as a stepping stone, an opportunity.
I started the Lady Mechanic Initiative without going to the government to ask for anything. I started and made sure that what we were doing became a subject of case study for international media. We have been on CNN four times or so. They came in 2001 and came back in 2010 when we had so many girls we
were training. We have been on BBC, Aljazeera, indeed, we have been all over the media, telling the world that Nigerian women are strong and can do better and that not all girls from Edo State where I come from are prostitutes in Spain or Italy. I say to people that Benin girls are very strong; all they need is mentorship, somebody to counsel them to be able to change their mind set so that they will know that going abroad or crossing the desert to Libya is not the right thing to do. When you acquire a skill, it takes you a long way into the future and your generation will see it. So, what this Lady Mechanic Initiative is trying to do is to reduce social vices in Nigeria, reducing poverty among women and creating economic independence for them.
With funding from different organizations, I have been able to train and graduate about 700 female mechanics in the past 10 years. Now, it is time for the government to do its part. In Edo State, the challenge for me is how to partner with the government to push this initiative. I have written up to six letters to the governor asking for a courtesy visit but nobody is calling me. We are in the same Edo State; we see girls everywhere at night at popular night clubs almost naked. This is not the Benin I knew. When I was growing up, every family knew each other, and Edo State was like a community where a girl would always be found doing something. So what is going on?
I am here to support the government; I have been able to train over 100 female mechanics in Benin. As I speak to you, there is no car company that you cannot find a Bini or an Esan girl. You find Edo girls everywhere working. So, I am appealing to the Edo State Governor to see the Lady Mechanic Initiative as part of one's effort to assist him in creating employment for jobless youths who would otherwise expect government to do everything for them.
We need to do all these things together with government so that the world will see that female mechanic village is achievable. It is first of its kind in the world and it is starting from Benin City. I have been sponsored by the US government to over seven states in the US free of charge. I want to impart a lot of knowledge in people in the Lady Mechanic village that we are seeking fund to build. In the village, you will find Rita AC shop, you will find Sandra
break system garage and you will find Kiemute's quick service shop just like the Jeffery Loops in the US. These garages will be meant for different kinds of skills like body work and baking, suspension, transmission shop, spare parts, and quick service and other things will be done in the mechanic village and these things will be done by female mechanics and we are from Edo State.
But, we are not going to stop here; we will of course move to other parts of the country but without funding, we can't do much because these girls are paid to learn. Our youngest CEO is 22 years and in Abuja and she is currently training three girls in her own workshop. I am telling the world that if Lady Mechanic Initiative can train over 200 women in Lagos, over 100 in Edo State, Kaduna and now in Kano, we can do more. We recently got funding from McCarthy Foundation in the US to train 20 female mechanics, 20 generator repairers, 20 female water pump repairers and installation technicians and 20 professional drivers in Kano State. I believe that as long as vehicle manufacturers are in business, lady mechanics will always find jobs to do.
Seeing these Challenges, how far do you hope to go?
I see the FG and the state government buying into the Initiative because it is one way by which that they can reduce poverty, create employment and eradicate insurgency and other social vices. As long as manufacturers continue to produce cars, lady mechanic will remain in business. We will continue to fix cars so that the economy can move forward.
How do you think Lady Mechanic can curb insurgency and unemployment?
I believe strongly in the Initiative since it started in 2010 with the help of Coca Cola and NBC to train 100 female mechanics in the state. Since its inception, we have been able to reduce trafficking in our own way. This is because as we are training these girls, we are paying them to learn. Everything is free. They go to Kaduna for training tips in PAN Automobiles and by the time they graduate, they get jobs where they are paid N50,000 to N60,000, how will such a girl decide to go abroad and cook or wash plates in a restaurant? I have travelled a lot and I see what these women do there. It can reduce because trafficking will only continue when these girls are idle.
Another way is for parents to learn to keep their children busy while when they are still in school. Parents can send their children to our garages during vacation instead of to movie houses or to visit friends. Send me to a carpentry shop. I started going to the workshop at the age of 13. My father saw the vision for us - my other sisters and me. I have a sister who is a panel beater and electrician. It is like the money still rotates within my family. When I want to do anything, I go to my sister and all that. So, let these children go and learn something. You can start it with your children today. Send them to Lady Mechanic Initiative. We want to support the Federal Government of Nigeria and the Edo State Government in their development efforts, because I, the first female mechanic in Nigeria, am proud to be a pure Edo woman and to show to the whole world that Benin girls are strong and not all of them are prostitutes!
What kinds of support have you got so far and from whom?
When I came to Benin, the Omo n' Oba n' Edo Uku Akpolokpolor, a wonderful father said 'Sandra, if you want anything, come to the palace' and he donated one hectare of land in Eyaen community to the Lady Mechanic Initiative. A lot of thanks to the Enogie of Eyaen because he said this place must be built for the lady mechanics. I am using this medium to appeal to the people of Nigeria, to the people of Edo State to support us to do more. I started it alone but we can do more for our sisters so they can have their own workshops. I am also using this medium to appeal to the bank of industry and all other banks involved in SME, to get in touch with the Lady Mechanic Initiative head office in Lagos. I am here to do more for my country but I need the Bank of
Industry, National Automotive Council, Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, Ministry of Interior, I need everybody to join hands to see that we have the first African female mechanic village in Nigeria. It is breaking news in the world!
What certificate does a lady mechanic get after graduation?
The Lady Mechanic Initiative students would, at the end of graduation, have learnt a lot of practical work as well as theory in the classroom and will go home with a lot of certificates. The certification they now have is the Pan Automobile Certification for three-month industrial attachment, learning assembling of cars from component parts to moving car, and learning diagnostics. Also we are NABTEB-approved centre. The girls can take up whether NABTEB exam, proficiency exam or further their education if they so desire. Also we have the Federal Government Ministry of Labour and Productivity Trade Test Examination Certificate called the Trade Test Exam. We equally have the Lady Mechanic Certificate. With all these, the girls can defend their certificates and also work in any car company of their choice around the country and anywhere in the world.
BBC world news sent us a student from a technology school in Scotland to come and acquire skills and idea about lady mechanic. That was an exchange programme. But the truth remains that if we don't have a Lady Mechanic Village, we can't really do much in terms of student exchange programmes.