While African countries continue to drag their feet in improving literacy and the quality of education, private drivers similar to what the UBA Foundation is engaging in will become more and more relevant in securing the continent’s future, writes Solomon Elusoji
Last September, UBA Foundation, the corporate social responsibility arm of the United Bank for Africa (UBA) Plc, invited entries for its annual National Essay Competition in Nigeria.

The essay competition which is put together for senior secondary school students across the country is organised as part of UBA Foundation’s Education initiative to promote reading culture and encourage healthy and intellectual competition amongst secondary school students in Nigeria and across Africa.

The Chief Executive Officer of UBA Foundation, Mrs. Bola Atta, who announced the call for entries, said the essay competition provides an opportunity for students to win prizes in the form of educational grants to help them realise their goals in life.

“We are well aware that if you help get one child educated, you help support an entire family as that child will eventually positively impact his/her community,” she said at the time. “The competition is a key aspect of our investment drive in human capital and we will continue to sustain the initiative because education is very important to UBA and we are more than committed to providing the necessary support for students in Nigeria and throughout the African continent.”

This month, at the grand finale of the competition held at the UBA headquarters in Marina, Lagos, winners of the essay competition emerged and it was an all female affair as 15-year-old Samuella Sam-Orlu of British Nigerian Academy, Abuja, emerged the overall winner, winning an educational grant of one million naira to study in any African university of her choice, as well as a laptop.

Samuella clinched first position ahead of 11 other finalists selected from over 1,000 entries received by the UBA Foundation from students of senior secondary schools across Nigeria.

A visibly elated Samuella – who was escorted by her guardian, Mrs. Jacqueline Uzoadibe – said winning the competition would propel her to do more in attaining her dreams of becoming a Medical Director. “I am very thrilled, and thankful to God,” she said. “I want to say that I was very grateful to hear my name announced as the winner. I am indeed very grateful to UBA for this huge opportunity and making me believe in myself. This grant will go a long way to support my bid for quality education.”

The second prize was bagged by Deborah Chinwendu Innocent, 15, of Enal International Schools, Abuja, who won N750,000 educational grant and a laptop while the third prize went to Yahofon Ettah Essien of Nigerian Christian Institute, Akwa Ibom State. As second runner-up, she received a N500,000 educational grant and a laptop. The other nine finalists were given laptops and all 12 finalists went home with certificates.

Atta, who was present at the grand finale, while congratulating the winners commended them for their exceptional brilliance. “Every student who sent in an entry is on a winning streak already,” she said. “To be confident about your writing skills and thirsty enough to enter a competition to further enhance your educational path is laudable. For those that did not win, I would say do not be discouraged. Take it as a challenge to perfect your writing skills and enter for the competition again in 2018.”

According to Atta, UBA Foundation, being the CSR arm of UBA Plc, makes it a point of duty to give back to communities where UBA operates. Education, she noted, is one of the Foundation’s focus areas as it is the bedrock of any nation.

She went on to encourage finalists to be good ambassadors of the competition which is in its sixth year in Nigeria, affirming that the competition will be held every year.

In his remarks, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of UBA Plc, Mr. Kennedy Uzoka, said UBA as a bank was happy that it is touching lives and making solid impacts through this competition and the grant it gives out to those who emerge winners.

“Seeing past winners tell their stories on the impact the grants have made on their education and particularly how the financial burden was lifted off their parents, gives us joy that our foundation is unique and stands out from others in touching lives,” Uzoka said.

He informed the gathering made up of parents, students and the media that the essay competition has produced over 100 winners, since its inception in 2011 in Nigeria, with winners studying varied courses in universities in Nigeria and within the African continent.

“I must also state here that we want to make sure that the grants are given to those who really need it. That is why we restrict the grant to schools within Africa alone. If by chance the parents of any winner send his or her ward to an elite school outside Africa, we would not go ahead with that support, because what we are really after are those who need the grant as we contribute to the development of Africa,” Uzoka added.

He went on to encourage the winners to be of good character, and ensure that apart from academic excellence, they must avoid any negative action that might dent the foundation’s image and that of their families.

One of the past winners of the 2011 edition, Ms Enitan Amodu, who is now a graduate of Physiotherapy, from Babcock University, said the grant took a huge burden off her parents financially, and has also helped to build her confidence. “Being a winner of this grant gave me a platform to shine and has helped to reinforce my determination that I can achieve anything I set out to do,” she said. “That is why every day, with heartfelt gratitude to UBA, I have decided to be a worthy ambassador of the foundation by keeping the fire burning most importantly because I don’t want to be another unemployed graduate statistic.”

The judges, led by a Professor of English (Gender Studies) and Director of Pre-degree Studies, University of Uyo, Mrs. Ini Uko said they were impressed with the participants who showed lots of promise as to what to expect of the future of Nigeria, noting that the students wrote intelligently and their ideas were well articulated, new and refreshing. She noted that the judges were also encouraged by the fact that entries came in from students from all parts of the country.

The essay competition is just one of many ways through which the UBA Foundation supports Nigeria and indeed Africa’s frail educational system. Each year, the Foundation donates thousands of books to students in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, under its ‘Read Africa’ initiative to encourage and promote the reading culture in secondary schools. Last July, the Foundation visited Our Lady of Mercy Girls Secondary School in Nairobi, Kenya, to donate over 500 copies of the novel ‘The Fishermen’ written by Chigozie Obioma. Before going to Nairobi, the Foundation, that same month, had visited Emma High School in Kampala, Uganda

The initiative, which was launched in 2011 with the aim of encouraging students to improve their vocabulary and communication skills through reading, has been changing the lives of African students across the continent for six years. Over a hundred thousand books and educational materials have been donated to various schools across Africa under the initiative. “The pursuit of knowledge should be a lifelong activity that starts at a very young age,” Atta, the Foundation’s Chief, has said.

When the Foundation visited the C. William Brumskine Elementary School in Monrovia, Liberia, to introduce ‘The Fishermen’ to a delightful group of young students with hopes and aspirations for the future, Atta, while she read passages of the book to the children, said: “We, at UBA Foundation, are eager to better the lives of people across the continent. I am here to tell you a bit about the importance of reading and how it can change your lives dramatically. Reading will encourage you to dream; it will broaden your knowledge, your vocabulary. You can read yourselves into very successful careers in the future.”

While African countries, especially Nigeria, continue to drag their feet in the business of improving literacy and the quality of education (Nigeria’s proposed 2018 budget allocated just about seven per cent to Education), private initiatives similar to what the UBA Foundation is engaging in will become more and more important to secure the continent’s future.