Enhancing Pupils’ Literacy Skills to Alleviate Poverty

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Uchechukwu Nnaike examines the efforts made so far by Lafarge Africa to promote basic literacy in Nigeria through its annual National Literary Competition, which was launched in 2014

The alarming rate of out-of-school children in the country has continued to draw concern and intervention from all fronts, among which is the annual National Literary Competition, launched in 2014 by Lafarge Africa to create more literacy enhancement opportunities for indigent students across Nigeria. According to the company, promoting literacy and education has proven to be an effective approach to alleviating poverty and improving the well-being of a society, as well as achieving equality and fostering sustainable development.

However it cited a UNESCO report, which stated that globally, approximately 758 million adults (15 per cent of global population) remain illiterate with women constituting two-third and Sub-Saharan Africa home to 26 per cent of world’s illiteracy rate. “In Nigeria, it is estimated that just a little above half of the adult population is literate (about 57 per cent), while youth literacy rate is less than 70 per cent.

“Yet, rates vary hugely between states, regions and sex. An in-depth survey by the National Bureau of Statistics reveal that Imo and Lagos States record the highest number of English literate adults at 80.8 per cent and 80.5 per cent respectively, while Sokoto State has only 22.1 per cent of its adult population literate in English Language. According to the 2010 National Literacy Survey, urban literacy surpasses rural at a huge ratio of 69.4 per cent to 38.5 per cent, while 65.1 per cent of males are literate as opposed to 50.6 per cent females.

“These estimates reveal that approximately 65 million Nigerians still remain illiterate, while over 10 million children are out of school (UNICEF 2014).” Thus with support of the Ovie Brume Foundation (OBF) and State Universal Basic Education Boards (SUBEB), the Lafarge Africa National Literacy Competition was launched in 2014 as an annual contest conducted at the state, regional and national levels. After being coached in spelling, pronunciation, essay writing, and summary writing using specially developed study guides, select pupils compete in a state run-off, which sees two candidates (one male and one female) emerge to compete at the regional levels. The winning regions then proceed to the grand finale, where six winners emerge.

The competition also aims at enabling pupils to further enhance their language and vocabulary skills with the overall goal of enhancing the participants’ literacy skills (reading, writing, pronunciation and spelling) and improving their educational opportunities. It features reading assessment test- a questionnaire of 40 objective questions in English Language; summary writing, written at respective venues; essay writing also written at respective venues; Spelling Bee – a spelling- off competition across primary schools in 374 local government areas in Nigeria.

The initiative started in 2014 as ‘Reading Project’- a community integrated literacy enhancement initiative across five locations (Ewekoro, Sagamu, Onne, Ashaka and Lagos). where Lafarge Africa employees under the Lafarge friends of Communities (FOC) go into schools and read with pupils and support them on literacy; 950 story books were distributed across five locations to reach 250 beneficiaries. The initiative recorded an increase in the literacy skills of beneficiaries ranging from 9 per cent to 63 per cent.

The phase II was implemented across five locations – Ewekoro, Sagamu, Onne, Ashaka and Lagos; it was implemented in five schools across the aforementioned project sites and the target was to increase by at least 25 per cent the literacy skills of 500 primary school children in communities where Lafarge Africa operates. A total of 668 pupils were exposed to literacy intervention and 234 were reached.

Since the inception of the initiative, the company said there have been remarkable improvements in literacy skills among beneficiary primary school pupils across the country. By 2016, it said a total of 77,144 primary school pupils were reached in 244 local government areas, of which the 1,465 who actively participated in the competition remarkably displayed the ability to spell quickly, accurately and with comprehension, due to the contents of the initiative.

The maiden edition of the competition was won by students from Akwa Ibom State, while Ondo and Bauchi States came second and third respectively. In the 2015 edition, participants from Rivers, Lagos and Kogi States came first, second and third positions respectively. For the 2016 edition, Lagos, Plateau and Enugu States produced the first, second and third place winners.

In the 2017 edition of the competition, Edo State came first, while Ondo and Kano States came second and third respectively. In 2018, Lagos State emerged winner, while Ebonyi and Gombe States came second and third respectively. In the 2019 competition with the theme ‘Bridging the Literacy Gap Together’, Master David Emmanuella and Miss Barikpoa Prosper from Community Primary School, Rivers State emerged winner, while Ogun and Enugu States came second and third respectively. The winners were awarded scholarships, trophies and various gifts.

The grand finale event, which attracted key stakeholders from the public and private sectors, was also an opportunity for the children to engage and interact among themselves, explore various book exhibition stands, take reading sessions and also participate in a spelling bee competition.
Speaking at the event, which held in Lagos, the Chairman of Lafarge Africa Plc, Mr. Mobolaji Balogun said: “Literacy is crucial to the development of any society and it is described by UNESCO as a driver for sustainable development in that it enables greater participation in the labour market. It improves child and family health and nutrition, reduces poverty and expands life opportunities.”

He said that as an organisation, Lafarge Africa continues to invest in educational interventions, including scholarship and bursary awards for children within its host communities, training programmes, renovation and construction of classroom blocks and other facilities within schools, computer training, skills acquisition programmes among others.

“For a country like Nigeria, there is an urgent need to work towards securing a sustainable future. We believe that a sustainable future will enable growth, global peace and security and technological advancement. We need to prepare our children for a future where they will compete globally with ease. That future begins with improving the literacy levels of every child in Nigeria today,” he said.

The Country Chief Executive Officer, Lafarge Africa, Mr. Michel Puchercos, who commended all the students that participated at every stage of the competition, said “it is rewarding to watch these brilliant children grow and improve every year. We dream of a bright future for every Nigerian child through basic education.

“Six years on, the visible outcomes we have seen encourage us to do more. We have touched the lives of more than 700,000 primary school pupils in 1,665 schools across 544 local government areas. The competition is delivered across all 109 senatorial districts in all 36 states of the federation and the FCT and is organised with the support of the SUBEBs in all the states, with our implementing partners- Ovie Brume Foundation and TEP Centre.”

Puchercos added: “As a company, we are proud of this achievement and do believe that it will inspire more well-meaning Nigerians and citizens all over Africa and the world to contribute to improving the lives of the people around them in any way they can.”

The special guest of honour, the Emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi II, commended the company for taking up the initiative to bridge the country’s widening literacy gap. He expressed his passion for children and women and urged more companies to join hands against illiteracy. “We spend a lot on government and infrastructure, but there isn’t enough being spent on education for children.”

Emphasising reasons for the initiative by Lafarge, the Communications, Public Affairs and Sustainable Development Director, Lafarge Africa, Folashade Ambrose-Medebem said: “We have been doing this successfully for the past six years and we are quite happy with the positive impact we have made so far. This year, we are excited to have existing and new partners on board with us, like the British Council, Sterling Bank and Oando Foundation. We look forward to what we will achieve together. We believe that as we continue on this journey, there is room for more partnerships as there is still a lot to be done. The literacy competition is part of our overall sustainable development strategy; our sustainability ambitions which have four pillars- climate and energy, circular economy, environment and community- each with specific actions and targets to ensure we achieve them.’’ she said.

According to the Sustainable Development and Corporate Brand Manager, Titilope Oguntuga: “Lafarge Africa’s annual National Literacy Competition is an intervention in Nigeria’s education sector in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal four, which focuses on ensuring inclusive quality education and learning opportunities for all. It is also part of the company’s overall sustainability ambition hinged on four pillars, including climate and energy, circular economy, environment, and community. Our annual National Literacy Competition sits under the community pillar.”

Oguntuga said over the past six years, the company has continued to introduce new ideas as a way of improving the competition and making it bigger. “This year, we introduced the computer based testing (CBT) for the first time as a mode of assessment. The tests include a reading assessment exam using a questionnaire of forty objective questions, summary writing, essay writing and an off competition spelling bee.”

Responding, the overall winners, who also got scholarships to complete their secondary education, thanked the company and expressed delight at the opportunity to participate and the joy of emerging winners.