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News & Press: Founder Story

Olanrewaju Oniyitan on her journey to rewrite the story of Nigerian education

30 April 2019  
Sustainable Education & Enterprise Development (SEED) | Nigeria | Supporting 715 schools

I was born in Lagos State, Nigeria to a middle class family. I am the youngest of three daughters. Growing up, we attended the best schools, travelled abroad for holidays, and enjoyed all the great things life had to offer. Then when I was just 10 years old, tragedy struck. My mum was gone and we lost almost everything. The result? I had to move from one of the top private secondary schools in the country to a missionary school in another State. This was the only school we could afford, as I was very clear public school was not an option. It was not the same quality of education but it allowed me to complete secondary school and on reflection gave me insight into schools that serve children from low-income families in Nigeria today.

When asked on my 10th birthday, a few months before my mum’s passing, what I wanted to be when I grow up, I said a businesswoman -- just like her. My mum is forever my inspiration. Coping with the loss of my mum has been the greatest challenge I have encountered in my life but I have turned it into a motivation to do all I can to make her proud of me. The 10 short years I spent with my mum, she taught my sisters and me to be hard working, kind and selfless and not to give up. She taught us never to waste anything, to give even when we thought we didn’t have enough and to always lend a helping hand to those that are disadvantaged around us.

I went on to study Business Administration in Babcock University finished with First Class Honours and started my career in KPMG in the Business Advisory Unit and later the Risk Management Unit. I went onto University of Lagos for my Masters Degree in Industrial Relations & Personnel Management where I finished with a Distinction. In 2007, I took the bold step to start my own consulting firm, W-Holistic Business Solutions to provide the same quality of advisory services KPMG offered to large companies & government to Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSMEs). In my mind, I was trying to replicate the support my dad (a banker) provided my mum as she ran her business. I believed every business should get the same quality of advisory service, no matter their size.

My quest to make a difference with my business, despite the fact that we were a small boutique management consulting firm, lead me to education. I was concerned about the number of out-of-school children, unemployment rates and the quality of graduates I encountered when conducting interviews for clients. So, I started by using part of our turnover (not profits -- as we were making losses at that period) and organized campaigns to support children to go to school, buy school supplies and send public school teachers on trainings.

At some point, I decided to make the education work a CSR project and to work formally with public schools. I met a very high brick wall and I abandoned that project. A few years rolled by and in 2016 my firm was invited by a UKAid funded project, DEEPEN (Developing Effective Private Education Nigeria) to a forum where they shared the results of their research work about low-cost private schools. They subsequently invited us to develop a concept note on how we could provide tailored sustainable business development services to these schools.

I was disappointed that it took a foreign project like DEEPEN to educate me about what was going on in my country. A foreigner took me on a field trip in the State I was born in to show me schools that needed my help. I was sick to my stomach. I wept. Although, I had come across some research about low-cost private school chains in Kenya and Ghana, I never knew of how huge the low-cost private school space was in Lagos and the state of the education sector in Nigeria. This all led to the creation of the project Sustainable Education & Enterprise Development (SEED).

SEED provides holistic and inclusive solutions to setting up affordable schools and helps existing schools that serve children from low-income families build lasting pathways to education quality. My current goal is to grow SEED to be a global network of 10,000 schools providing quality education to 1 million children by 2030. We want to have a core network of schools with children that are equipped to lead change in their country, continent and the world. DEEPEN was a very supportive project, providing almost all the data and technical assistance required to start SEED on the right footing. All I needed to add was grit, determination, nimbleness and the mindset that I am in this to make a difference.

Having moved from a pilot of 51 schools in year 1 to a cumulative of 715 schools by year 2, what I learnt is that you should be clear about the intention for your organisation to scale from the very beginning. This was how we were able to attract the support of the UKAID funded, DEEPEN Challenge Fund. We also learnt that technology is critical to our scaling process. Surround yourself with smart people who buy into your vision and are ready to work (even if it’s for free as a volunteer). At the beginning (and even now), we have not been able to afford the kind of talent we need but we have delivered exceptional results with our staff, interns, faculty and volunteers. Finally, have a coach or a support organisation you go to for advice and guidance. Entrepreneurship can be a lonely and tedious journey. You have to grow at a faster rate than your organisation in order to forge ahead. Having strong mentors and advisors can make the journey a lot smoother.

Nigeria, with 13.2 million out-of-school children, the highest in the world, faces a unique challenge of ensuring that every child has access to quality education in accordance with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4. While we understand the need for governments in developing countries like Nigeria to commit to ensuring quality public education for all, we are resolute that “education cannot wait”. We cannot leave our children devoid of an education while we continue to advocate for free public education. Private schools for the poor exist and these schools can serve as an unconventional pathway to ensuring education for all, so we work mostly with them and are open to working with public schools too.

Joining GSF has helped shape many of our plans towards reaching our goal. The network, connections, webinars, research papers, working groups, and all GSF have to offer is what we need as a springboard for our next phase of impact and growth. I see GSF playing the role DEEPEN played at our proof of concept stage. I will definitely recommend GSF to other organisations.

I am a proud Nigerian and I want to rewrite the story of my country, my continent and my world. Everyday I take at least one action that brings me closer to that goal. Starting with Nigeria, then Africa and other developing countries around the world, I am committed to the global education and enterprise agenda (SDG 4 & 8). I am also very proud that I am raising my children with the same values my mum taught me. Today, my 9-year-old twin girls are award-winning philanthropists, kidpreneurs and authors. They run their social enterprise, MIMI’s and take part of their profits and donations from their campaigns for their Mimi’s Give Back initiative where they pay school fees, provide school supplies, run book drives, create libraries for children from low-income families in Nigeria.

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