Simi Fajemirokun: Nigeria Needs Education That Prepares Children for the Future and Not the Past

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Interview

Committed, bold and driven by her desire to change the narrative in the Nigerian educational system, the founder of R2S Africa, an NGO dedicated to reviving the education sector, Simi Fajemirokun, is testament patriotism. Her involvement in a corporate social responsibility organised by a consulting firm she used to run opened her eyes to the decay in the sector. Her NGO has since impacted over 1,200 students in schools and is looking forward to impacting thousands more using the power of partnerships. In this interview with Eromosele Abiodun, she talks about the outcome of a field research in education conducted in a few states which showed that 50 per cent of children could not read or write in primary schools, and how Nigeria can become Africa’s giant in education

What informed your decision to set up an NGO that is solely dedicated to reviving Nigeria’s education sector?
The future looked very scary. While running a consulting firm, we conducted field research in education in a few states and the outcome showed that 50 per cent of children could not read or write in a primary school. The consulting firm also had a corporate social responsibility programme that reads to primary six class for an hour a week in a school in the community. We were horrified to see how low the literacy level was where some students in primary six could not spell basic words like cat, bat or sat. So between the experience and the facts, it was too big a problem to ignore. On the other hand, by showing up once a week, we saw the difference it made on the school – the school fence was built, security personnel were hired, making the school was now safe and secure. School taps were fixed and students now have access to water. The library became better equipped with books; teacher absenteeism reduced by 90 per cent; the school block connected to connected to electricity for the first time in 10 years; students went on excursion for the first time and 70 per cent of our students improved their reading and public speaking skills. The results were incredible; so we decided to scale up.
At R2S Africa, we are committed to improve the state of education in public schools. We constantly question the status quo of poor education in Nigeria and strongly believe that education should inspire tomorrow’s solutions. So we develop programmes that positively impact on the environment, teacher and pupils.

The standard of education in the country has fallen drastically. What has your organisation done to change the narrative?
We don’t assume we know the problem so we employ a scientific approach. We start by conducting research, interview students and staff to produce a needs assessment report. We adopt schools and transform them. We also advocate for private sector to adopt a school or sponsor programmes with schools because it’s the best return on investment for corporate social responsibility projects with measurable impact. We believe this helps ensure we are part of the solution and not the problem.

Read2Succeed Africa recently celebrated the opening of its modern African-Inspired showroom at Utako LEA primary school. What is this all about?
‘The future belongs to those who imagine it today.’ If majority of what we see about public schools are stories of degradation, neglect, broken furniture and leaky roofs, then we need new narratives so we decided to create that. In addition, cars have showroom, tech gears have a showroom, and fashion labels have showrooms. So, if education is really important then it needs a showroom where the best ideas for space design, functionality and more are showcased.

I understand that your idea is to have classrooms that feature unique designs that reflect the culture of the community and promotes a sense of belonging. Can you talk more about that?
We asked ourselves a question: what does a modern African classroom look like? We honestly didn’t know. We Googled and we couldn’t find any. Even the best schools seem to be preparing students to go abroad. When you see pictures of schools in England, China, Europe you have an idea where these schools are. But it seems like in terms of design, what is considered good is most likely considered Western and we completely disagree. We believe that modernism and Africanism are not mutually exclusive and if our classroom reflects our sense identity then we can stop perpetuating the colonial mentality that everything about our culture is backward and reserved for festivals and cultural day. We wanted to design spaces where you don’t need to sensitise people to come to school – the classroom itself tells them ‘you belong here’; a space where pride and confidence are instilled without even saying a word.

What do you think is wrong with Nigeria’s education system and what is the solution?
The list is so long and multifaceted but I’ll focus on just one thing I believe is fundamentally wrong. The biggest problem I see is attitude; the attitude that education is a sunk cost with little or no returns on investment. So the Universal Basic Education emphasizes access but not quality. So, we told ourselves to let everyone in and no child is allowed to repeat. So, whether you learn or not is inconsequential. 50 per cent of students in primary schools cannot read or write and there’s been no state of emergency declared in the sector. Teachers without training abound in schools and where there’s a shortage of teachers – we send a bunch of the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) members without training to go and teach in schools. Will you send a corps member to a hospital to perform surgery? If actions are a reflection of thinking then our actions show we simply don’t take education seriously.
The moment we begin to understand that the end of oil is near and that the greatest asset any country has is its people, and then harnessing this asset will become priority. When we begin to link the present to the future of the country with a labour force that cannot read or write or solve problems maybe then we’ll get serious. On that note, we need a business approach to education where performance and funding are linked, where competition thrives and a reward system exists. A business approach will allow our schools to create value and earn income to sustain them. A business approach will put competent, passionate people in leadership positions in education to ensure a clear vision is crafted and results are delivered.

What has been your greatest achievement so far and why?
My greatest achievement? We haven’t even scratched the surface yet and whatever we’ve done so far feels like a drop in the ocean when compared to the mountain of problems in the education sector. But I do believe that ‘as a man thinks so is he’ and so maybe a huge achievement could be the ability to look at the stark reality of how bad things are and dare to dream of an alternate reality. If the power of neglect got us here, then I am confident that the power of intention and planning can get us out of this mess.

What is your NGO’s vision for education?
Our vision is for the ‘Giant of Africa’ to become the giant in Education in Africa. We envision an education system that creates a competent workforce where companies will make Nigeria their hub for doing business in Africa. I want to see an education system that is competitive and rewards hard work and not tribalism or mediocrity. An education system that is relevant and provides opportunities that will reduce economic disparities and the vicious cycle of poverty. I want to see an education system that prepares our children for the future and not the past. We want to put in place an education system where learning actually takes place.

What plans do you have in the pipeline to take your initiative nationwide and across Africa?
We’ve got big plans to change the sector from a policy, technology and partnership level. Once we are done with our selected schools in Lagos and Abuja and we show clear results, we’ll work with corporate and private citizens to make this a movement across the country. We believe smart business should be engaged in building smart communities. It’s just common sense.