Creating new dreams for 65 million illiterate people in Nigeria
With 65 million illiterate people in Nigeria, the country is facing an urgent challenge of ensuring they can keep up as the population continues to grow at a fast pace. And with many other challenges facing the country – poverty, corruption, Boko Haram, power shortages – this group of adults is often forgotten about. But on our recent visit to Nigeria, we met inspiring people like Erezi Edoreh who don’t want to forget about them.
We spent a week in busy Lagos earlier this year, meeting with alumni of our SE Outreach Accelerator to see the impact they’re having on their communities and countries. One of them was meant to be Elvis Austins who was one of our first participants in 2013 but due to Elvis being in Paris for business development purposes, we instead had the opportunity to meet with his business partner Erezi Edoreh. And we were blown away by his passion and determination to help other adults make better lives for themselves and their families. A passion he’s had since he was a young boy.
“I had the privilege of going to a private school but was perhaps taking it for granted, so my Dad, who was a teacher in a public school, made me do an exam when I was nine years old with teenagers several years older than me. My results were much better so this is when I realised that the youngsters in the public school weren’t getting the same good education as I was. So, without my Dad knowing, I started doing classes in the evenings with them, and then others in the community started coming along”, says Erezi on how he found his calling.
Growing up in the same neighbourhood in Benin City in southern Nigeria, Elvis and Erezi shared the passion for education, so when Elvis decided to set up a business focusing on adult education, he asked Erezi to join him as a business partner and Spell Africa was born. The SE Outreach Accelerator in 2013 was a starting point for the enterprise and the two Nigerians have since been developing a range of tools and programmes to support adults in need of further education, especially in terms of the English language.
A passion for change and education
The current big project is Back to School, and we had the pleasure of seeing the developments of the project first hand during our visit. It’s based around free afternoon classes for adults in the community who, for various reasons, haven’t had the opportunity of education. It’s early stage for the project and they’re discussing partnerships with local authorities and corporates to expand into other communities and schools, but at the moment, the team relies on volunteer teachers who give up their time to teach and inspire the students. However, they’re no ordinary volunteers. Over the last few months, Spell Africa has had all sorts of celebrities and well-known professionals join the line-up of passionate people who want to create change through education.
A lot of this is thanks to the radio station Wazobia FM, a grassroots station using Pidgin English, the basic spoken English that most Nigerians understand, which means they have a huge reach. Wazobia and its DJs are very popular amongst the general public and early on, Erezi thought they could be very influential in the success of Back to School.
“I wanted to create a buzz and raise awareness, both amongst potential students and teachers, so I called DJ Yaw and managed to arrange a meeting with him. He was supportive from the very beginning and gave me the amazing opportunity to launch the project on his show”, remembers Erezi.
Yaw is a multi-skilled DJ, producer, TV presenter, philanthropist doing a million things at once, but we managed to squeeze in a breakfast meeting in a local café close to the radio station on Victoria Island in Lagos.
“People tell me I should probably start a foundation but I just do things where I can help. I don’t have a specific focus, but I help where I can, whether it’s health or skills training or education”, Yaw says when asked about his charitable work. “I find Spell Africa’s work really inspiring and it’s a huge market no one has thought of before.
“The students are very much willing to learn, to move to the next level, and Spell Africa gives them the opportunity to improve, to think bigger. They get to see something else, so that they can dream bigger”.
Yaw also highlights the change in Nigerian society where people are becoming more Nigeria conscious. Most things you see and use are imported – even the tooth picks on our table Yaw points out with disappointment – but things are starting to change with the younger generation. They’re more Nigeria conscious and they’re doing things for passion. When speaking to Yaw, Erezi and some of the Back to School volunteers, we can only agree.
Huge challenges to overcome
By 2050, Nigeria will be the third largest country in the world, but for the population growth to result in economic growth, there is a lot of work to do. The current economic hardship is particularly hard on the disadvantaged, and the 65 million illiterates are struggling to sustain a decent living and work their way out of poverty.
“Not being able to read of write means they struggle to find jobs or progress in their small businesses”, says Erezi. “They find it embarrassing and difficult to engage with banks which means most of them choose not to keep money in the bank, and if they’re running a small business they won’t register it, and therefore won’t pay federal or state taxes, causing problems for the wider Nigerian economy”.
But they dream of being a rightful part of the Nigerian society, of becoming lawyers, accountants, and engineers, and we saw such passion and dedication amongst the students we met as we visited and afternoon class in a local school. And it’s truly making a difference. Students who haven’t been able to speak in front of people previously are now presenting in English, and they are able to help their children with homework to keep them in school. One student with a small business used to pay a security guard at the bank to deposit his money every day because he couldn’t fill in the forms, but as soon as he learnt how to write his name and the amount, he was able to do it himself, saving both pride and money. Another student has done so well, she has won a Lagos State spelling competition. And all of this after just a few months of running the classes.
“The students are working so hard and they really want to change. They believe that it’s never too late to learn and to create a better life for them and their families”, Erezi points out. “And I want to inspire them in our classes, so we’ve introduced Live Classes where professionals living abroad teach the students in the classroom via Skype, exposing the students to the world outside of Nigeria. To inspire them to dream big is also why I thought of bringing in celebrities to do Celebrity Guest Lectures in the classroom”.
Inspiration to dream big
One such celebrity is actress and radio DJ Lolo who also took time out of her busy schedule to meet with us to tell us about her support for the Back to School project.
“I messaged her on Instagram to explain the project and she actually replied!”, tells Erezi and Lolo said that although she receives a lot of messages on Instagram, she clicked through to the Back to School profile and was convinced right away.
“I want to do projects that others don’t focus on. Others support causes like cancer, kids, girls, but no one focuses on adult education”.
And as we spoke to the people involved, this became rather clear. With huge challenges of all kinds across the whole country, it’s difficult to know where to start. But Erezi is very clear on what he wants to do to create change, and he’s got great potential to make a massive difference to an often forgotten group in society. But as a group of 65 million, these adults cannot be forgotten about. They have the will and with initiatives like Back to School, they also have the means, to break the cycle of poverty, change their lives and make their children grow up with the dreams and opportunities they never had.
Photo credit: Tove Nordström on site in Lagos visiting Wazobia FM and afternoon class