N-POWER TO THE RESCUE

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The N-Power programme is quietly taking many out of poverty, writes Tochi Eze

I spent my childhood in the company of poverty. My father, a civil servant at the time, had enough money to keep his family in a spacious flat at Ilasa and ensure a driver took my sister and I to school in the mornings. Still, poverty sat in our living room, in the damp heat of the Lagos afternoon. Poverty ate our garri and ogbono, it gave its opinion on government and politics— it scolded us, asked us to do our homework, wash the plates, sweep the floor, and at the end of the day, or the week, or the month, poverty shuffled its feet into my father’s downstairs office—shame on its back, asking for money for transport to return to the village.

It is hard to forget the many names and the many faces of the poverty of my childhood — aunties who called and wrote from the village demanding rent, school fees and money for kidney dialysis; cousins who barged into our city lives on rainy evenings without the formality of a prior notice; a grandfather who died abruptly, a grandmother who moved into the extra room with a stroke, and uncles with no education deported from foreign countries. There seemed to be always one extra mouth to feed, one extra fee to pay, one dying person or business to save. Eventually, my father began to soak in the weight of these needs. He swelled from them, scraping off his resources and savings to measure up with his extended family messiah status, until poverty, once a far and distant thing that dwelt only with those around us finally became our own.

However, my family’s complicated relationship with poverty is not one to be assessed singularly. It mirrors wider socio-political realities. According to a 2010 report by the National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria has an alarming 60.9 % poverty ratio. These figures are not abstract numbers conjured out of thin air, they are embodied by millions of unemployed graduates, most of them on the fringes of an expanding global economy, lacking marketable skills. This demography reflects what one of the greatest tragedies of the Nigerian state, and repeated failures of governance.

Recently, I stumbled into the story of a young woman called Hadiza from Bauchi State. Hadiza was an unemployed graduate of over six years who had taken to selling recharge cards to keep poverty outside the doors of her family. Entrepreneurial as she was, her efforts were abysmal, and the pressure to pay her bills and care for her aged parents began to spiral out of control. This was until she got into the N-Power programme, an initiative of the government’s National Social Investment Office and Job Creation Unit. The programme, which is domiciled in the office of the Vice-President, is many things; a skills acquisitions programme with 250 vocational training centres across the country, an internship and job creation effort that has so far engaged 200,000 graduates from various disciplines and deployed them across the 36 states of the federation, and an attempt to increase the provision of services across four key sectors – health, education, agriculture and tax – to most parts of the country. All of these are glued together, and driven forward by technology. N-Power graduate volunteers receive an internet enabled android device that trains them in a wide range of knowledge areas and helps them interface with communities effectively.

Initiatives like N-Power invite a more nuanced view of what we consider the encompassing failure of the governance structures in Nigeria. Many things are not working. Some things are. How can we get them to work better? What can we learn from their successes? And from my perspectives, what dents are they making to the country’s worrying poverty statistics?

Hadiza, now a trained teacher in Bauchi under N-Power, has been receiving a N30,000 stipend in the last 11 months. And if you understand the nature of poverty in Nigeria, you will understand Hadiza’s gratitude to N-Power, and how far this sum has gone in loosening poverty’s grip and setting her on the journey to self-actualisation. There’s a win-win element here worth underscoring; Hadiza receives a stipend, develops skill, her community gains a qualified teacher, society is a little relieved.

Before Emmanuel joined N-Power in 2016 as an N-Agro volunteer, he was an anthropology and sociology graduate from Benue State University, struggling to make ends meet. In 2017 he was deployed, under the programme, to Benue State, to work with local farmers as an agriculture extension agent, a designation that puts him in touch with modern agricultural techniques, as well cutting-edge skills and knowledge in the sector. Today Emmanuel’s ideas have become indispensable to the local farmers he interfaces with, and also to himself who, utilising the new knowledge gained in the agricultural sector, has launched a mid-sized poultry farm, using the savings from his monthly stipends, and launched himself and his dependents out of poverty as a result.

It is hard to go through the testimonies of these beneficiaries and not remember the faces of poverty from my growing years, the lives filled with aching need, the sometimes constant and entitled demands, and the burden of provision that breadwinners and family patriarchs constantly have to bear. Emmanuel, before N-Power, too chased after favours from family members, requesting stipends for survival, small souvenirs of grace to meet his daily needs.

There is no overstating the importance of technology in tackling the complex socio-economic realities of the Nigerian experience. Yes there are huge cost implications to lifting over 100 million people out of poverty. But programmes like N-Power show how much leverage technology gives us to provide solutions at scale, and how central public-private partnerships are to achieving this, much like the National Social Investment Office and Job Creation Unit’s partnership with Softcom, an indigenous company with a global outlook, working in the private and public sectors to deliver transformational value using technology.

It might seem overly ambitious for the N-Power programme to claim an outright answer or solution to the question of poverty in Nigeria. However, if all it does is take 500,000 people like Hadiza and Emmanuel out of the cycle of dependent youths, if it can propel them into self actualisation and empower them with resources and skills they need, if it can monitor and assess like the scheme has positioned itself to do, then maybe there is hope for the rest of Nigeria, nestled in home grown initiatives leveraging on ubiquitous technology.

Eze wrote from Lagos

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It might seem overly ambitious for the N-Power programme to claim an outright answer or solution to the question of poverty in Nigeria. However, if all it does is take 500,000 people like Hadiza and Emmanuel out of the cycle of dependent youths, then maybe there is hope for the rest of Nigeria