IDP Zara builds family biz in cap-making. But can that bring home her dream of being a doctor?


BY MOHAMMED M. ALI, MAY 15, 2022 | 01:54 PM

Zara Mustapha remembers how hard life was for her in the past few years living at Doron Baga IDP Camp as a displaced person. The 18-year old girl remembered how she lived a hopeless life, completely dependent on 'hard-to-come-by donations.'

‘It was very hard for me and my younger ones to even eat food sometimes. We ran from one tent to another to benefit from what others would cook,’ Zara said, while crying, reminiscing how things were for her.

According to her, her break-through came after she learned a trade. She learned how to knit and sell caps.

‘I pay attention to my neighbors when they knit caps. But whenever I ask them to also teach me, they would avoid me. They would say I will only waste their tread.

‘One day I asked my mother to give me N1, 000. I used it to put what I had observed to test. I ended up making one cap,’ Zara explained, as she relaxed on her mat knitting another cap. So far, she said she has sold over 19 caps – with another two about to be ready.

‘The knitting has been helping. Though my mother also weaves to help us, each time I sold my cap I would bring the money to her. Out of that, I will be given something for my personal needs,’ the girl explained.

Zara is an indigene of Konduga Local Government of Borno. She has lived in the camp for almost five years with her parent, elder brother and three of her younger sisters. Her father, 56, is now a mechanic, as he had lost his farming business to the Boko Haram crisis.

Zara further perfected her knitting skill after she attended a training program, along with 50 other young girls. The training, which started seven months ago, was organized by Street Child of Nigeria, a non-governmental organization in collaboration with the Borno State Agency for Mass Literacy, who certified the beneficiaries.

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Pictures of the beneficiaries holding their certificate

A visit to the camp by YERWA EXPRESS NEWS May 10 showed that of over 2, 000 households and 5, 000 displaced persons, there is hardly a group of ten without a cap maker, some as young as 11 years old.

According to Zara, many of them were beneficiaries of the training, while a few others learned it from their senior ones.

But Zara took the initiative further, by doing a step-down to her young sisters, which now appears to have given there family a business with which to support their livelihoods, with or without donations.

‘I have taught all my sisters how to knit the cap, and they are doing well now,’ said Zara, noting that they make at least five to six caps every month – with each one going for not less than N3, 000.

My dream is to be a doctor

Zara is a drop-out, as is the case with many other IDPs. She finished her primary education but her attempt to complete the next level did not yet yield. She went up to form four in Maimalari Day Secondary School Maiduguri at a time the school was hosted at Jajeri Day Secondary School, close to Doron Baga Camp.

She was forced to drop out after the school was transferred to its permanent site and lessons restored to usual morning hours.

Zara, who now complements her business with an early morning volunteer work with International Organization for Migration, said: ‘It is going to be very difficult for me if I abandon my work for school.’

However, at age the of 18, she said she has not yet given up hope. ‘I have always wanted to be a medical doctor since when I was young and I will achieve that by God's grace,’ she added.

We are being exploited

Zara, along with many of the cap knitters in the camp, especially the young girls, have complained that buyers do not buy their cap with value, stressing that the act has continuously dampened their spirit.

‘I sold three of my caps at a giveaway price because I seriously needed money,’ said 16-year-old Hauwa Usman, another beneficiary of the training in the camp said.

She complained that people come into the camp to buy caps in hundreds but will beat down the price to almost nothing.

‘If people will buy our caps in its true value, I think things will be better and I can also achieve my dream of going back to school,’ Zara said, while appealing for buyers to stop looking down on their products.

The caps, which are usually worn with caftan as part of a centuries-old cultural trait, are widely across Nigeria and beyond. From Borno, these caps are exported to as far as Cameroon, Central Africa, Chad, Niger, Sudan and other parts of the world.

However, as with every other product, middlemen have remained a major bottleneck.

Only months ago, President Muhammadu Buhari accused Nigerian middlemen as being responsible for high prices of foodstuff, while directing the ministry of agriculture and rural development to rehabilitate the national food reserve agency to address the continued rise in food prices.

In Borno, there is also an initiative by private firms geared toward improving value exchange.

One of these initiatives is Borno Tech Forum – aimed at identifying technology enthusiasts to further better their skill and to connect them with the market directly.

Engr. Abubakar Gambo, one of the founding officials and who oversees the day-to-day running of the initiative, when asked how their initiative can help the situation of Zara said an e-commerce platform that can help not only her but many other entrepreneurs in the region is being developed.

‘Since 2016 when Borno Tech Forum was established, our focus has been on nurturing technology enthusiasts. In 2020, we have trained over a hundred in our master class program. We are now planning an exhibition to showcase various skill and ideas of the participants. And after that, we will develop an e-commerce platform. And Zara’s problem can also be solved with the platform,’ Engr. Gambo said.

This story was supported by Journalists for Christ through World Association of Christian Communication (WACC) and Bread for the World – German Protestant Agency for Diaconia and Development.

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