Conversations About Nigerian Education: Interview with Omotola Akinsola
Sustainable Development Goals: 4
- SDG 4 - Quality Education
Omotola Akinsola is the founder of JumpStart Dream Academy, a nonprofit organization in Nigeria that works with youth to develop them into agents of positive change. She has worked and consulted for various nonprofit organizations in different capacities such as creating and designing and evaluating programs, structuring, budgeting, grant proposal writing and reviewing, and ideating fundraising strategies. Omotola holds a Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee and a master’s degree from George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.
When Omotola Akinsola was 18, she left Nigeria for the US in pursuit of higher education. With her, she carried a dream to change the landscape of education in Nigeria. Years later, while completing her master’s degree at Washington University in St. Louis, she took her first steps towards fulfilling this dream by sending out an informal survey to over a hundred schools in Ibadan, the third most populous city in Nigeria. She wanted to create a program for students that would be tailored to their academic needs and so she began her search by asking questions. This singular act formed the bedrock of Jumpstart Dream Academy, an NGO focused on educational development which Akinsola co-founded with UN Young Leader for the SDGs (2018 class), Madelle Kangha.
When she started her academy, she was met with a plethora of challenges, the same ones that have caused Nigeria to top the list of countries with the highest out-of-school population. Despite being Africa’s largest economy and having enterprising citizens, the country counts poverty as one of its persistent problems. Unsurprisingly, it is also a leading factor in Nigeria’s education challenge.
“A lot of families have to decide between keeping a roof over their heads versus sending their kids to school, ” Akinsola said.
When Akinsola was in the process of establishing JumpStart in 2012, she received over a 1000 applications and responded affirmatively to 100 students. Yet, when the doors of her organisation were finally open, barely anyone showed up. A little probing revealed that students could not afford to pay for transportation from their school to the JumpStart center.
Asking the right questions and engaging in conversation are common motifs in Akinsola’s methods at Jumpstart, and it was her first port of call in trying to tackle what seemed to be a money matter. Yet, a negotiation with the parents of her prospective students shed light on another pertinent problem: some parents viewed education as a waste of time.
“They would prefer to have their children with them at the marketplace or at the farm helping them because they feel they would be more productive there,” Akinsola explained.
Observing that parents were cash-strapped and had little faith in the education system of their country, Akinsola turned to dialogue as her first resort. She started by engaging in conversations with parents.
The JumpStart team offered to pay 70% of students’ transportation fees while parents would pay 30%. If and when they observed a positive improvement, they would pay the full price. Parents took the offer and the strategy worked. Not only did the students’ grades improve by sizable amounts, the students began to grow as individuals as well.
“We didn't just focus on education, we also focused on entrepreneurship, leadership and community service. The parents began seeing their children become well rounded, more respectful and more responsible and these changes made them see our programme as a worthy investment.”
Another thing Akinsola did in the early stages of JumpStart, was to dialogue with her country’s leaders.
“One of the things that we did at first was to go talk to the leaders in government. We told them that we were not trying to replace them or make them look bad; we just wanted to enhance the system,” Akinsola recalled.
For her, one major way of ‘enhancing the system’ is to widen the scope of education to include vocational training, in order to give students more options as they think of what to do after graduating.
“My PhD research showed me that people think vocational education is only for people who are not smart. That’s not the truth,” Akinsola said. “I think we need a combination of both academic and vocational education. That’s how we can really be effective and produce young people who can become solution providers.”
Akinsola believes international organizations such as UNICEF can do a great deal to help local NGOs that are trying to advance the goals of Sustainable Development Goal 4. Having consulted for over 300 NGOs across five African countries in the past year, Akinsola has seen similar barriers hinder the work of NGOs. During our interview, she emphasizes that funding is indeed critical, but so too is personnel development. According to her, some NGO leaders have the heart and zeal to create change in their countries, but because they have little training in the field, there are fundamental issues with the way their organisations are run.
“I am lucky to have a Master’s Degree in education. Majority of the NGO leaders I have come across started their organisations out of passion and used their own money. They have no coaching in the areas of structuring, fundraising, administration and management,” Akinsola analysed.
She admits that she too fell into the trap of being led by passion rather than the hard facts and important questions.
“I struggled in the beginning too when I started, because I also started out of passion. Even though I had my formal education at some point, I forgot about my formal training; I just wanted to help people” Akinsola confessed. “Then I realised that more people wanted our help, and then we were taking on more but the money and the resources we needed were not multiplying.”
Akinsola suggests prioritising collaboration whereby larger organisations both within and outside the country help local NGOs learn basic but crucial how-tos such as upholding a strong organisational structure and creating a workable budget.
“It starts with training first. If they're trained right and they're shown the proper way to run nonprofits, they’ll be able to manage their funding well. So beyond funding is mentorship: the opportunity to have dialogues or just to check in monthly, and also peer learning with other nonprofits founders in order to share problems and solutions.”
In addition, she adds that getting an endorsement from the biggest players in the non-profit field globally, will enhance the relationship local NGOs have with their government.
“If we get that approval, if an international organisation like UNICEF recognises our work, that may help us get attention and be taken seriously,” Akinsola said.
“If UNICEF or similar bodies can encourage the government to invest in that sector, in the education sector and in the nonprofit sector, I think that will go a long way’,” Akinsola added.
When asked how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected her work, Akinsola pauses to think. It’s as though she tries to decipher the best way to communicate her bilateral view on the impact of the health crisis, which has kept the world on its toes since the beginning of the year. She states that COVID-19 has been damaging in some ways. Although the novel pandemic has inspired Jumpstart to find technologically advanced ways of doing things, particularly through Whatsapp groups and Zoom meetings, it has added a new cost to the organisation’s budget.
“We've increased our budget to provide a stipend for diligent students so that they can be online and still participate in all that is going on,” Akinsola said.
Despite the fact that the pandemic has exposed the ways by which the Nigerian education system lags behind, Akinsola sees the positive in this watershed moment for change.
“The structure of the current education system has been in existence for 60 years or more, and the world is changing. I think COVID-19 is really helping us to see the big gap in where we are and where we can be.”
Despite the many hurdles and discouraging statistics, Akinsola is hopeful. With warmth, she says it’s the children that give her hope.
“In the end, what gives you hope is that the youth are really thirsty and hungry for more. They want to learn, they want to see how can they better their lives but beyond that, how they can give back to the society.”
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