She’s an embodiment of brain, bravura and belief turning little things into big things and making difficult tasks look simple. Born by a banker and an accountant in the United Kingdom with university education in the United States, Kemi Sokenu-Morris, returned to Nigeria to raise 300 children and cater for other vulnerable people through the Oladiran Olusegun Adebutu Foundation. With self-belief and optimism, Kemi is working her socks off and pushing the envelope, writes Bayo Akinloye
In her Dolphin office (in Ikoyi, Lagos), Kemi Sokenu-Morris’ ebony face lights up. The glint in her eyes, the glee in her voice and graceful composure illustrate how the Oladiran Olusegun Adebutu Foundation is intervening in hard-to-reach communities, particularly in the South-West and the North-East. She admits that the World Poverty Clock is ticking furiously. By the time you are reading this article at least 95 million Nigerians (47.7% of Nigeria’s population) will be living in extreme poverty.
“Growing up especially in Nigeria, no matter how affluent you are or no matter how surrounded by love or you are sheltered, you are always surrounded by poverty,” says Kemi.
“One of the bad things that we have in Africa is absolute poverty. Poverty runs everywhere so the story is the same. So I started to think and (had) a better understanding of what it means to be in the hard-to-reach areas.”
The OOA foundation is committed to eradicate poverty, build prosperous community by to reducing poverty among vulnerable children and women in communities. It has as its core mission, supporting orphans, vulnerable children and women with increased access to quality education, primary health care, nutrition, social welfare and economic strengthening through sustainable development activities.
Kemi – the chief executive officer of OOAF – is not unfamiliar with catering for orphans and vulnerable children. She has at least 300 of such to look after.
“I couldn’t just leave these kids, you know. So I decided to bring them along to wherever else I was going and this time, I was going nowhere,” disclosing that she’s come to stay at the foundation. Until her recent appointment as the head of the foundation some years ago, Kemi had had worked with the Ogun State government under former Governor Ibikunle Amosun as a senior special assistant involved in a USAID project involving the 300 kids she’s sworn an oath not to abandon.
She talks about them with passion and optimism. A pioneer member of the Hospitals for Humanity advisory board in Stone Mountain, Georgia (in the US), she has 17 years’ experience in international and local development organizations, foundations, donor agencies in the public and private sectors. A one-time senior special assistant to the Ogun State government during the administration of former Governor Ibikunle Amosun, Kemi had worked with Uplift Foundation in partnership with USAID. She was also a consultant to the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC) on a Women in Export Stakeholders Roundtable and Exhibition.
“I started my career before I even knew that I was in the line of going through my career. What I’m trying to say is from a young age I’ve always been in development through my mom (the late Mrs. Maria Sokenu, the pioneer managing director of People’s Bank of Nigeria),” Kemi recalls.
Born in the United Kingdom, the OOA foundation chief had her primary education at Corona School in Apapa and for secondary education she attended Queen’s College, Yaba (in Lagos). When she was 15, she headed for the United States of America. There she studied Human Ecology.
Kemi admits: “Little did I know decades later, that degree would help me in the work that I do. So human ecology basically knows how the human race develops.”
After her university education, she worked with various foreign companies in development, health safety, and risk management. Eventually, Kemi returned to Nigeria and was confronted by a harsh reality of widespread transmission of HIV/AIDS – from mother to child – during childbirth.
“So we thought, okay, so how do we go about doing this?” explains the OOA foundation boss. “And what pushed me into doing what I’m doing today is because I realized that hope is not lost.”
The young ones, Kemi and the foundation she superintends over believe, are the only hope for Africa, not just Nigeria. “Maybe, we would have some impact that will be in the donor’s book for a long time,” Kemi thinks.
With international exposure and global perspectives, Kemi decided to play local. Her reasons for returning to her fatherland aren’t farfetched.
“I had learnt all I could learn and I felt it was time to implement. So after leaving Safe Blood for Africa Foundation, which was USAID implementing partner, I worked with FCMB. My first job ever in Nigeria was working with the First City Monument Bank,” she recounts.
While there, she set up the first CSR unit.
Kemi recalls an encounter with the founder of the OOAF, Oladiran Olusegun Adebutu (chairman of Petrolex Group of companies), while she was between jobs.
“So he said this vision that you wanted to support these 300 kids that I had been carrying around for so long and he wanted to be in their lives for the next 10 years. I don’t know anywhere else that they do that and I’ve worked in development work,” she notes.
Kemi adds, “I’d actually be able to save children that I met when they were like three days old and they were just in a garbage bin or just in a dustbin somewhere and I’d be able to see them when they’re age 10 and that’s how we started three years ago.”
Her mission and that of the foundation is simple. “It’s really just to give a voice and hope and hardship relief to orphans and vulnerable children,” Kemi says with delight.
The foundation is caring for other kids too following repeated pleas by the public to look into adding to the number of its 300 children.
“Now, we thought that was cute. We didn’t realize that every time we go into a child’s house – because we do some home inspection, etc. – we met 10 other children sleeping in a bed using one toothbrush. And what do you do under one mosquito net? So we had to develop household economic strengthening,” Kemi discloses.
Continuing, she says, “So I’m happy that those kids are older today. We’re still in their lives and we don’t plan to leave their lives just yet. In a span of three years, our kids are all enrolled in school. They all have everything they need for school.”
Kemi states that the foundation’s activities are geared towards achieving the SDGs.
She says, “Initially, we identified a few goals. We have a lot of the goals that our activities speak to. But now our activities speak to all the goals. We’re working with children who are recycling. We’re working with children who are passionate about clean water.”
In December, OOA foundation launched the Caroline Oladunni Adebutu Serenity Centre which focuses on the Goal 11 of the SDGs – make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
Speaking further on that, Kemi says: “Am I a construction worker? No. Am I a policy maker? No. Am I in urban and planning development? No. But the point is we all have to be a part of that if we really want to see the country change. Nigeria is awesome; we’re great. It takes us to continue to make it better.
“Right now, our goal is to be able to tick all the boxes of the SDGs.”
Kemi’s passion for children isn’t in doubt. It’s what she’s lived for and she keeps dreaming big in that direction. Besides, there’s something about the future of OOAF that excites her.
“The future of the foundation is overwhelming in a good way. I want to say that because – again – the kids! Now we have women we support, we have young boys and girls we support. The foundation has about three arms in terms of its deliverables. Other than orphans and vulnerable children that we look after, and that takes all the goals in terms of education, empowerment, physic and social support, stigma reduction and etc.,” the OOAF boss explains.
Kemi is no stranger to a bouquet of vulnerable needs and reveals that the activities of the OOA foundation aren’t particularly region-specific.
“These kids are kids that I’ve been working with even before I started working with OOA foundation. I was working with them and I was working with Uplift Foundation (Ogun State’s former first lady’s organization). We started in the South-West. Of course, we are in all the states. But the OVCs are particularly in Ogun state and the northeast. These are the OVC’s. Our youth are mainly in Lagos State mainly and uh, the women are really everywhere we get them,” she clarifies.
Kemi’s pragmatic approach is often well accentuated by her ability to dream big and little wonder she believes OOA foundation’s selfless activities aren’t without their economic gains. “Yes, the economic benefits are priceless. I can’t even say it’s this amount of naira,” Kemi reveals. “Like I said, six of our OVCs were best in their studies and they’ve got scholarships to a private boarding school. They never thought it would happen. If three of them could and I know that all six would, but even if I just have one that becomes great, we’ve won.”
OOA’s interventions in attaining the SDG goal of poverty reduction have, however, created interesting challenges.
“In our host communities, people were seeing the impact with the children and the mothers, the fathers and the youths or siblings of these children and they felt left out. And they’d ask us: What about us?
“I thought we needed to show our host communities that we’re grateful to you for embracing us.”
To do that, OOA foundation this year, organized a medical mission which Kemi says takes place every term – every three months because of the kids. Initially, it was once a year.
“We also have our donors – some of our donors when they want to celebrate their birthday do so with the children,” Kemi reveals further. “Their friends come and their friends are often amazed.”
On December 7, the foundation organized a medical mission with local and foreign doctors as volunteers. About 600 people were provided with care during the event. Ogun state also donated eyeglasses.
“We also unveiled this new serenity centre. Now, the serenity centre is not an orphanage because we realized it’s more important for us to build the communities where these children live. So came up the building of the Caroline Oladunni Adebutu Serenity Centre which contains warehouses, a training institute, safe house, petty zoo, farmland, etc. It’s not just for orphans or vulnerable, it’s for everyone who may be involved in one emergency or the other. So that was the third initiative that we carried out this year,” says Kemi.
That’s not all. The OOA foundation has partnered Petrolex Oil and Gas – fittingly so because Kemi serves as the head of the firm’s corporate responsibility and impact investment – to bring together communities that surround the company’s facility by providing various opportunities for the locals.