Toyosi Akerele-Ogunsiji, CEO of RISE NETWORKS, is a young woman of vision on a mission. She’s the chairperson of Gen. TY Danjuma-led Coronavirus Intervention Funds (Victims Support Funds) that earmarks over N1.8 billion to cater for vulnerable Nigerians. In this interview with Funke Olaode,
Akerele-Ogunsiji speaks about her team’s successful outing and why she is committed to Nigeria.

Why are you passionate about Nigerians?

One of my greatest aspirations is to see Nigerians and Africans prosper. And to make this happen will take a level of dynamism, curiosity, energy, commitment, and dedication. Since I came to the limelight over a decade ago I have always done things that are tied to human capital developments such as education, youth development, child rights, girl-child education, technology, and most recently the emerging technology. I have not been able to understand why Nigeria is playing a second fiddle because the greatest asset as a nation is our people and I don’t think we recognize that enough to invest in the sustainable development of our people so that we can raise professionals and experts across sectors especially to be able to midwife Nigeria into her season of glory.

You are very energetic as a mother, wife, public servant, social entrepreneur, etc. How have you been able to do all that?
My daughter is four years and my son is three. The greatest decision ever made in my career is the person I married. While I think I do a lot on my own to achieve many of the things I have accomplished, I find that my husband, Obakorede Ogunsiji, an IT engineer is playing an extremely pivotal role. My husband complements me in many ways. He is quiet, gentle, and reserved. I am enjoying my marriage because my husband is a critical component of the work that I do. A very critical backbone to anything that I do. I have a soft base and I value my family a lot. My parents, my husband, my siblings have been very supportive of me and my story is incomplete without them. I believe if women can give the dedication they give to careers to their homes a lot of marriages won’t break. My family is a priority for me. I make sure they are in school. I monitor their milestones. My husband is a great man. He won the ‘Father of the Year’ in my children’s school the other time. He is an amazing man who loves me, understands me, and genuinely wants me to succeed.

Recently, the N1.8 billion Coronavirus Intervention Fund (Victims Support Fund) committee was inaugurated by the Chairman, Board of Directors, Gen. TY Danjuma. As the chairperson of the team, what has the fund achieved so far and the anticipated outcome?
The Victims Support Funds was set up on 30 June 2014 by former President Goodluck Jonathan as a rapid response private-led humanitarian initiative to provide support and economic empowerment, rehabilitation, and resettlement for the victims of terrorism in the North-East. Towards the elections, the committee members under the leadership of our amiable chairman, Gen. Theophilus Danjuma, thought we didn’t want the fund to be politicized because it is a fund meant for the poor people. The money is mainly donated by the private sector. Since then we have done incredibly well across the North-East. We built a police station, primary health care centre, hospitals, and partnered teaching hospitals across the North-East to provide prenatal and post-natal services. We got involved with farmers. We donated tractors, irrigation equipment. We did a psycho-social programme such as trauma counselling for people who were devastated during the crisis. We built schools; we bought furniture.

The work of VSP is enduring and not just to donate rice and beans but leaving lasting legacies that in the next five or 10 years we can boldly see how far we have come. I can say that in the last six years, apart from the United Nations and a few international agencies, the Victims Support Funds is the only visible Nigerian agency that you will see the remarkable imprint in terms of service delivery in the whole of North-East. The governors and beneficiaries in those areas can testify.

How did you get involved in the COVID-19 movement?
The COVID-19 pandemic broke out early this year globally. On 30 March, and our chairman, Gen. Danjuma called an emergency meeting and said he was very scared for the IDPs, the poor, and the vulnerable households across Nigeria. Gen. Danjuma set up a six-people task force, inaugurated it, gave it N1 billion, and appointed me as the chairperson of that task force with a singular mandate to go to the North-East immediately and the states that are distressed. We also agreed as an organization that whatever we are doing must align strategically with the federal government’s rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We swung into action and on 14 April we moved to Abuja, then to Yobe, Adamawa, then Taraba. Borno got 20 percent of the fund. Adamawa got 10 percent, Yobe, 10 percent. Lagos, 20 percent. The funds were used in terms of the level of crisis in those areas. We also went to Ogun State. Because those were the states the government declared lockdown at that time. We also realized that the government was able to enforce the lockdown but people needed food and they would be at risk if they went out. We bought rice, beans, garri, vegetable oil, salt, maize, medicine. We donated sanitary materials. We donated over 300,000 pieces of Dettol soaps, Dettol liquid in sachets and bottles; Harpic, surgical masks, and face masks. We wanted to ensure that the IDP camps were well-taken care of. We invested on awareness on education; information materials on how these poor people can take care of themselves. We did a lot of sensitization on the radio as well. We moved to the South-East the South-south. In the South-south we did Edo and Delta and South-East, Enugu, and Ebonyi; and in the South-West, we visited Lagos, Ogun, and Ekiti states. We also worked with governors that had put structures in place.

How did you choose the beneficiaries?
The VSF over the last six years had assisted the IDP camp victims and vulnerable households in the North-East. But in some areas we haven’t done much such as Lagos, Ekiti, Ogun, and so on, we partnered the governments and non-governmental organizations verified by our monitoring and evaluation units. So far, we have reached more than a million people. The initial N1 billion targeted 200,000 households with an average of six persons per family. The additional N800 million was used for the South-South and the South-West in the second phase. We supported the federal government through the Federal Ministry of Health. We supplied them with technical support. We donated laptops and administrative equipment to the Ministry of Health (the COVID-19 secretariat). We made the very first significant donation. We bought and donated teleconferencing and surveillance equipment for the National Centre for Disease Control which was received by its Director General, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu.

What did you do differently to ensure that the aims and objectives of the initiatives were achieved?
Firstly, we were extremely transparent having realized that there is a trust deficit in Nigeria. I am not an elected government official. But I am conscious of the fact that Gen. Danjuma gave us this assignment. He himself endowed TY Danjuma Foundation with $10 million. He is the single highest donor in the Victims Support Funds. He donated $10 million in one day. He made the pledge and redeemed it in less than one week.

I am conscious that the man who gave us the assignment understands that we have a sense of responsibility. In the task force, I am the youngest and the only female and I am the chairperson. What we did differently is that we used a very solid data-driven model that allows us to identify the beneficiaries. We did a lot of research before we started the intervention. If you go to VSF social media pages you are going to find videos of our activities and how the funds were spent; who got what. All the things bought were open and we were carrying people along by declaring the figures.

To achieve the task force’s mandate, you worked with various government agencies, including local governments. How did you deal with the challenges of getting them to be cooperative?
Certainly, we had challenges in one or two states. But when you built mechanisms and structures around a process things will typically fall in place. I personally believe in transparency and accountability. I also believe in the power of data and insight. I believe in the power of reporting constantly to the public. As said earlier, all our activities are in the open. The information is already out there that we are donating these particular relief materials. What it means is that the local NGOs and the people can hold the government accountable in those states. It also means that the NGOs that receive the relief items cannot collect it and go and donate it to their family members.

Why? Because we are going to collect the videos of how the items collected are distributed. We printed data cards: phone numbers, next-of-kins, and local governments because we selected local governments that we knew were poor within those states. I think this has made the VSF COVID-19 intervention completely different and unique from humanitarian interventions. This is a private-led initiative and the expertise is very evident in the implementation of the process.

It has been five months of service to humanity. How successful are you and your team?
Well, I am not the one to say that but what I can say is that we have received some feedback that pleasantly made me shed tears. For example, we made sure that Victims Support Funds (COVID-19 Task Force) touched everybody. You would see physically-challenged people with COVID-19 50kg VSF relief bags. I remember I met a widow in Badagry who said she lost her husband 20 years ago and since then nobody has come to Badagry to listen to her plight. I also did some oversight functions with credible NGOs that worked with us such as Lagos Food Bank, Mama Money that targets low-income women. We took into consideration religion and ethnicity to ensure that nobody was left behind. I went to communities even in the hinterland to look for people. People thought it was the government because of the massive work that we did. We made sure that we had strategic partners and local governments.

And for us as a team with a conscience, it was important to know that we did the right thing. And on my part, I think I owe my generation some level of accountability and credibility on this. I want to be able to demonstrate that as a woman and young person I am capable. I am grateful to Gen. Danjuma for this opportunity because he is a principal with values.

What challenges have you come across combating the COVID-19 pandemic?
For me, I am young; I am female and assertive. I guess this is one assignment that has taught me the power of patience, competence, and capacity because when you are competent in all levels it helps in discharging your responsibilities responsibly. Again, people would misread you many times. We have gone to a place where I was shoved aside and somebody had to intervene that I am the chairperson. You know Nigerians are not used to young leaders and this is why I am eternally grateful to Gen. TY Danjuma for the opportunity of a lifetime who has demonstrated his trust, and ability in me that I am capable; that I will not fail. There were places where people weren’t cooperative and we managed the situation on the ground.

There were travel challenges as well, no flights and movement during the lockdown but the Nigerian Air force was very credible in supporting the COVID-19 Support Funds. We used their plane to travel everywhere. There were also logistic problems of moving the items bought from one point to another as the trucks were being harassed by some law enforcement agents, miscreants, area boys, etc. There were places we had to call the traditional rulers to intervene. There were also the challenge of price because there was scarcity. We were buying food items at exorbitant rates but we still had to negotiate to ensure that we got value for money.

If you are to advise the government on the effective delivery of palliative measures to the vulnerable, what would you advise?
It cannot be left in the hands of government officials. I mean the entire process should be ceded to the private sector. The Nigerian government stands to gain a lot from partnerships, alliances, and collaborations. Not only that it stands to benefit also from credible NGOs from international agencies like the UNDP, private companies that have demonstrated passion and commitment to causes like this. But if there is anything COVID-19 has done for us in Nigeria is that it has uncovered the ugly underbelly of our lack of preparedness for emergency situations in Nigeria. Lack of proper structure almost technically crippled our system because we have a very poor health system that was not prepared for this. The centers for disease and the Federal Ministry of Health have done well because of its expertise. COVID-19 is an opportunity for us as a nation to innovate and overcome our problems, think outside the box.

With COVID-19 do you think humanity will still remain the same?
Our lives can never remain the same. Companies are folding up and laying off staff. A lot of people have lost their jobs in the last few months. Many people have not been able to travel which means many of the travels are not necessary as we can do those meetings online. What we need is to put mechanisms and structures in place to aid human capacity building for the best service delivery.

What’s your takeaway?
The importance of Nigeria’s unity during the COVID-19 was awesome. The love my fellow committee members who are northerners received from the west and what I received from the north was delightful as everybody saw everybody as one.