Abuja — At a time when Africa's most populous nation and largest economy is reeling from intensifying attacks by a shadowy extremist movement, civil society efforts to address Nigeria's challenges are quietly continuing. Dr. Florence Etta-AkinAina is one of a wave of highly skilled professionals who left prestigious jobs in North America and Europe to make a difference in Nigeria. Many took jobs in government ministries, such as finance and agriculture, or in the booming private sector. But some are focusing on the left-behinds – the majority of Nigerians who have not benefited from the expanding economy and the growth of wealth at the top. Etta-AkinAina holds a PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of London. Her long resume includes work as an educator, a development researcher and an advisor and program manager for Nigerian and African institutions and for international agencies and philanthropies. Among her publications is Beyond Benign Neglect: Nutrition and Early Childhood in Nigeria. She talked to AllAfrica's Reed Kramer about her first year as executive director of the TY Danjuma Foundation, based on Abuja, Nigeria's capital but focusing on the rural poor.
We work in three thematic areas - community health, education and income generation.
In community health, we support free medical missions which offer consultations to rural groups. The team goes to a place, sets up shop for a week and takes care of any medical emergency or a medical problem that is presented. We do eye care, dentistry and general medicine.
Part of our health initiative is water projects. We invest in water because it's clear that water has a direct link to rural community health. The foundation has focused on renovating hand pumps, especially in Taraba State. It is young girls and women who collect water, and this can be quite harrowing. It takes a lot of time and effort to find enough good water. And sometimes water becomes a source for conflict because water sources are shared - by local residents, by animals, by people who want to use them for irrigation. So there is a lot of excitement in a community when they get a bore hole (well) and pump.
Development groups have given lots of money to dig bore holes and install hand pumps across Nigeria, but after some time they stop working. You have hand-pumps that are not working dotted all over the place. We found early on that there is no point renovating hand-pumps that might break down very soon. You need to teach the community to maintain and watch over the hand-pumps. You also need to train mechanics, which we support, and warehousing and stores to distribute the parts that are necessary to repair them. So now you have a new source of work and income!
You provide funding for local partners to do this?
We work primarily through NGOs and community-based organizations. We provide the money. For the Taraba water project, we have worked with the Tulsi Chanrai Foundation. They have expertise in hand-pump rehabilitation. It is exciting for us to see the results from this effort, but this is only one of many things that need to be done to make water available - which government really should be doing. We have no intention of replacing government in the places where we work. We want to encourage government to do their job.
One of our grantees - in fact a pioneer grantee of the Foundation - is the Mission to Save the Helpless (MITOSATH) that works in the area of river blindness. MITOSATH has been in in Taraba State now for 18 years, working systematically worked to eliminate Onchocerciasis (called 'river blindness'), which is endemic. It is very common to see places where large numbers of people in a village are blind. This is preventable blindness!
We have been told that river blindness has been very nearly eradicated in some parts of the state. It takes between 20 and 25 years to be certain, because you have to give repeated doses of a particular kind of medicine and at particular times in the year to the same sets of people. We are excited that MITOSATH is beginning to report that there has been eradication in some parts of Taraba State, and we are looking forward to when they report scientifically that river blindness has been cleared in this part of the country. MITOSATH is now going from a focus on one disease to a multiplicity of neglected tropical diseases. They are receiving a number of medications donated by the global pharmaceuticals, and we are supporting the work.
What are some of the education projects supported by the Foundation?
In education, we have our 'good schools' projects to support rural education by renovating classrooms and staff quarters, training teachers and supplying learning materials to really poor schools. On occasion we have constructed toilets where there are no toilets in the schools - sex-segregated toilets, particularly important for girls' education.
If you don't have an education there is not very much you can do in the world these days. You can't work in the formal systems and even in the non-formal sector. Agriculture is increasingly requiring at least a minimum level of education. You can't run away from education if you want to alleviate poverty.
The Foundation newsletter mentions a school-building project in a remote community in Bauchi state where the state government joined in. How did that come about?
The Foundation gave a grant to the Fahimta Women and Youth Development Initiative (FAWOYDI) to build a school in a rural village - the first one - with a classroom block, teachers' offices, school stores, separate toilets for boys and girls, and the provision of furniture. The community convinced the government to build a second block and supply the water. They also sent teachers to the school where there previously was no teacher. We say to our partners that we like you to work with government. For some NGOs, it's not easy and some are more successful than others, but we make it clear to all our grantee partners that we would like you to work with government, the ministry or department that is closest to the project that you are doing. We would like you to involve them as much as possible and work in a way that they would see that you need them to support the project.
So you believe this is likely to make projects more sustainable, even though there is no guarantee?
Yes we do, but there is no guarantee. Sometimes you don't get the level of involvement where the government builds another block or sends a teacher. Once the government sends a teacher to a school it's saying: we are committed to this school and to pay this teacher's salary. But in some situations it's difficult to do that. In other situations, even when the government does do something, there is no guarantee it would continue. A new set of elected officials might not think it is an important thing to continue to do.
Can you share an example of a project that falls under the foundation's income generation initiative, targets youth employability and the empowerment of women?
We support NGOs that are preparing youth with skills for employment, actual marketable skills like shoe making, fish farming, hairdressing, bead making - a whole range of skills that translate into setting up a small business. With our board (trustees), we visited one of those projects [in April] that was graduating forty students - all people living with disability. This grantee is ACCIF -the All Children Charity International Foundation - in Kaduna. View photo essay on the graduation.
The disabilities range from mental disability to hearing loss to speech loss to physical de-mobility - people who couldn't walk. Some of these 40 were trained to make shoes and some to make clothing. The third group has been trained to use computers for document production - basically to run a secretarial support outfit. This was the second cycle of that project that the foundation has supported since 2012.
The belief in the foundation is that along with training skills, you must give what we call start-up kits for the skill area for which you have trained somebody. So the minimum expectation of our partners is that if you certify a person is skilled enough in shoemaking, then you must provide this person with a beginning set of items to support his or her production of shoes. The shoemakers were given a contraption - I didn't even know what it was called! - for cutting and sewing through leather, along with materials so they can go to work upon graduation. For the ones who trained on dress-making, they got a sewing machine. And for those trained in computers, they got a complete computer. Tailors and dress-makers can sew when there is no light because some of the machines are manual. But the shoemakers and computer operators cannot work if there is no electricity, so they give them generators as well.
We hope [these initiatives] signal sustainability. We have to keep trying.