PEARL UZOKWE: To Save the Economy, FG Must Tackle Drug Abuse among Youths


Though Sahara Group is a leading international energy and infrastructure conglomerate, it says doing business goes beyond making profit. Therefore, it has adopted measures to make its business sustainable in over 38 countries across Africa where it is operating. In Nigeria, it has commenced with the annual dedication of February to critical issues deserving global attention. This February, Sahara is focusing on substance abuse and using the #CleanLoveFebcampaign to complement efforts aimed at addressing the monster, gaining so much youth appeal and taking its toll on the nation’s productivity. In this interview with Bamidele Famoofo, Director, Governance and Sustainability at Sahara Group, Mrs. Pearl Uzokwe, said the leading energy conglomerate believes all stakeholders need to declare a state of emergency against substance abuse to address the issue effectively across the globe. Uzokwe also talked about the efforts of the group to promote circular economy in the country, among other issues. Excerpts:

What is driving Sahara Group’s #CleanLoveFeb campaign against substance abuse?

In June 2019, Sahara Group launched its Green Life initiative – an overarching programme committed to ensuring the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals by fostering sustainable environments and promoting holistic wellness within and outside Sahara Group. The Green Life Initiative has two distinct focus areas: People (The Green and Clean Programme) and the Environment.

The green and clean programme is focused on identifying the root cause of key social issues in beneficiary communities. Projects to be carried out will be targeted at resolving the causation as it is identified. Substance Abuse Awareness and Rehabilitation is one of the key focus areas under this initiative and we felt that there was no better way to show love in this month of February by tackling this menace of drug abuse here in Nigeria.

According to the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report released in 2019, the global prevalence of drug use is 5.6 per cent. The 2019 World Health Organisation (WHO) report on illicit drug abuse indicated that the harmful use of alcohol results in 3.3 million deaths each year. It is estimated that 5.2 per cent of the global population between the ages of 15 and 64 years (over 360 million people) used an illicit drug in 2019. In addition, 1.5 per cent of global disease burden result from alcohol and illicit drug addiction, in some countries it is over 5 per cent.

As we work hand in hand with our partners to raise awareness on this menace, Sahara Group, through its corporate citizenship vehicle, Sahara Foundation, is always looking to invest in sustainable initiatives that empower the residents in the various communities where we operate to achieve their aspirations and attain a sense of purpose. Substance abuse is a monster that stifles aspirations and we all need to lend our voices to the campaign.

What are the activities you have earmarked for Sahara’s campaign against substance abuse?

The primary focus of the #CleanLoveFeb campaign is to sensitise the public, particularly young people, to the dangers of substance abuse. We have already started rolling out activities across Sahara Group’s locations in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. These include school activations such as open conversations, essay andchess competitions, awareness walks, press and radio interviews as well as visits to rehabilitation centers. We are hopeful that the #CleanLoveFeb campaign will also call more attention to mental health issues that often emerge from substance abuse. We are working with Dr. Tunde Fadipe, a psychiatrist at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) as our lead expert on this campaign. 

How can the society support people, especially youths who are going through drug and alcohol related challenges?

Any society that wishes to ensure that its youths are productive members of society must ensure that they find a way to communicate with the youths who are drug or alcohol dependent and have them feel that their concerns are being listened to. An issue like drug/alcohol dependence often requires expert hands to peel through the layers of issues that have led the said individual down that path because without getting to the root cause one would merely be treating the surface wound. Sadly, a lot of youths today are dealing with a myriad of issues in a society that is largely failing them on several fronts and as such, there is a sense of despondency. That said, being an eternal optimist, Nigeria remains a country with the most resilient souls. Once a little light is shown, that can often be the turning point. By this, I mean the creation of an enabling environment- from the provision of education, to access to power, to access to finance for SME’s and beyond. The youth are ready to work. The society should focus on empowering the various skills that today’s youths are courageously displaying.

Mental health issues often contribute to substance abuse. How can this be addressed especially in the workplace?

Globalisation today means that any organisation that wants to remain relevant in the years to come must look at growing trends in workplaces the world over and seek to learn from their success stories. Mental health is an issue that in years gone by would be swept under the carpet particularly in the workplace. Employers who are successful in retaining their employees and creating work environments to be emulated have very quickly realised the importance of providing for the holistic wellbeing of their employees. Employees spend a significant amount of time on their workplaces. To ensure that you the best out of your employees, the necessary investment must also be done to assist in providing support to employees especially those who are dealing with mental health challenges in various forms. Gone are the days where the mention of mental illness sent employers running for the hills as these days, thankfully, there is far better understanding of mental illness and its management. Like any other illness early diagnosis, treatment and support is necessary for recovery. Corporate citizens would do well to provide for mental care in the same way they do for physical care. Sahara is invested in this and has commenced the provision of standby professional counselling services and support to those in need, nursing corners to support new mothers and prevent post-natal depression, massage services and gyms at various office locations all in a bid to provide for the holistic well being of our employees. This is an area constantly under review as it needs to be dynamic to ensure it is in tune with the needs of the employees.

Stigma and profiling have been highlighted as some of the drivers of substance abuse. Who should lead the charge against this?

I think everyone has a role to play and this role starts with becoming aware and lending one’s voice against substance abuse.That said, an issue as significant as substance abuse would do well to be tackled holistically starting right from the very top with the government. It is imperative that we allocate resources to ensure that we not only have well-trained medical professional to address this menace, but that the medical infrastructure also exists to rehabilitate and support those who are alcohol and drug dependent. Similarly, our educational institutions will need to be equipped and teachers will need to be trained to ensure that they know what signs to look out for and when to ensure students receive the requisite medical attention required. Workplaces also have a role to play in ensuring that resources are allocated to tackle not just physical ailments, but mental ailments and that more importantly, the workplaces are safe environments to return to, following time taken off for illness to ensure that the stigma is lifted. Awareness and constant reminders will be necessary this change takes place.

How can role models in the society push the zero-substance abuse message in a way that resonates with young and impressionable individuals?

Living by example always resonates loudest. The more role models in society we have showcase their path to success without reliance on alcohol or substance abuse the louder the message will be. Success has great pull and it should be intentionally leveraged to encourage the youth by highlighting the path to success which is often missed in the glare of success highlighted in the various media forms particularly social media. What is often missing is the sheer hard work, grit and resilience required to make it to the top.

What projects have been carried out so far under the Sahara Green Life initiative?

In our effort to promote a circular economy, we have commenced an extensive recycling programme at three of our office locations commencing with paper, plastic and aluminum recycling. Our aim is to promote a circular economy aimed at minimising waste and making the most of our resources. For environmental sustainability the recycled waste collected will be converted into fibre, tissue paper and PET pellets for continued use. Recycling operations have commenced in our Ijora, Ikoyi and Abuja offices. Working with our partners Pearl Recycling, we donate our used tyres for upcycling and creative remodeling into sustainable eco-friendly products such as ergonomically designed chairs for schools, which can be used in our host communities.  Our interventions also include sustained training for indigenes of the Ijora community to upcycle waste products such as tyres and convert them into furniture, equip them with tools and set them on a path to sustainably train others in the community including students in a manner that helps tackle climate change whilst providing economic empowerment. We also recently launched a recycle hub within the Ijora Oloye community to combat the menace of pollution as the flagship project.

What role can the private sector play in promoting the SDGs?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a set of 17 goals set by the United Nations and adopted by Member States as a universal call to action targeted at ending poverty, protecting our environment and ensuring that people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.

The private sector in a country like Nigeria has a pivotal role to play. Presently, approximately 90 per cent of Nigeria’s GDP is contributed to by the private sector. Looking at the failings of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s), which preceded the SDGs, the absence of collaboration with the private sector was one of the reasons for its failure. Seeing the success attained by the private sector in actively empowering and providing a steady source of revenue to the nation and in turn economic prosperity, it is only logical that the strength of the private sector is leveraged alongside that of the several stakeholder participants and harnessed towards the attainment of targeted SDG for greater impact and success.