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Odunayo Sanya: Championing Holistic Transformation through MTN Foundation 

Odunayo Sanya: Championing Holistic Transformation through MTN Foundation 

In 2021, MTN Nigeria appointed Odunayo Sanya as Executive Secretary of MTN Nigeria Foundation. For many, it was a well thought out choice given her over 17 years of experience within the MTN Group as she had already served in different capacities across the organisation. With over two decades of experience in the education, banking, development and telecommunication sectors in Nigeria, Sanya is also well versed in customer experience strategy and management and in 2021 she was named among the Top100 Career Women in Nigeria by the 9to5 chick and The PowerWoman Network. An alumna of the Lagos Business School and the International Institute for Management Development, Switzerland, she also had an executive training at the Harvard Business School and Cornell University, just as she holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Abuja. In this interview with Chiemelie Ezeobi, the executive secretary delved into issues like the foundation’s advocacy against drug abuse while championing youth empowerment, education, technology, health and community development, all targeted at transforming the lives of underserved communities, among others strata of society 

Can you explain what ASAP is all about? 

So, ASAP is actually is an acronym for anti substance abuse program. As the name suggests, it’s a campaign against substance and drug abuse amongst young people. At the foundation, this was conceived in 2019 and the reason is quite clear.

Nigeria, in terms of population, demography, we have a lot of our population as young people, I think, at the last count, about 60 to 65 per cent of our population are youth. So it became increasingly urgent that something was done. You know, the scourge of drug abuse, especially among the young people is much. So we had the first outing for ASAP in 2019 where we partnered as a multi-sectoral multi- stakeholder approach with key stakeholders like the NDLEA, the UNODC,
and a few other organisations to push the message of anti substance abuse.

The main the idea behind ASAP is focusing on young people between the ages of 10 to 25 to prevent first time usage of drugs amongst that age group.

So since 2019, we’ve had an event to mark the World Drug Day every year and 
that’s  the 26th of June every year. That’s the International Day Against Drugs and Illicit Trafficking. So we’ve always had events to mark this.

Beyond this advocacy campaign, do you contribute to rehabilitation?  

So like we said, our focus is advocacy. We don’t do rehabilitation. The focus really is about prevention. So for us, it’s not curative but prevention. We want to prevent the usage of illicit drugs amongst the youth. For us, it’s about the message largely targeted at people who have not started and who don’t yet have this habit because if they have the message they have, a lot of information that can help them, then it’s easy for them to withstand peer pressure. So we don’t do rehabilitation, it is strictly an advocacy platform. 

So what’s the process. Do you go to schools and universities to spread the message also? 

What we do is that every year, we align with the International Day Against drugs and Illicit Trafficking. And this is also called the World Drug Day. We have a buildup of activities that lead to that. So we do advocacy walks- eight to 11 kilometre advocacy walks. Of course, we couldn’t do the advocacy walks during COVID. But what we did was we had a build up of events day after day, where we had online events during COVID in 2020 and 2021, where we got different people from the entertainment industry, to clinical psychologists to come and talk and how first time usage can be prevented. And of course, we ran a few competitions. 

This year was the first year we’re coming back after COVID. We had a physical event. And for us, the advocacy is not just about telling, it’s two pronged. There’s the advocacy message to the young Nigerian, but there’s also the advocacy for the government in terms of policy, because both of these things work hand in hand. 

So this year, we did have a stakeholder conference in Abuja, but before then, you know, we trained a number of teachers. I think, this year, we trained about 90 teachers across the six geopolitical zones in partnership with UNODC. It’s a train the trainer program and they’re expected to, by the end of the year have trained a few more hundreds of teachers. Each teacher is supposed to impact about 5000 students. So if you do the math of 5000 times 90, that’s the number of students we should have impacted after one year.

What would you say the impact has been since 2019?

It’s also important to say that this year, we opened up a quiz competition for various schools across. The top 12 did get some prizes. I think the prizes were presented to them by the Vice President. But for us, beyond giving them prizes is the fact that they are now ambassadors, they now understand firsthand, you know, why they shouldn’t do drugs and they go back into their schools as ambassadors and they’re able to influence their peers.

The first thing has been driving a multi- stakeholder approach to tackle the problem. And what do I mean by that, so we’ve been able to, on the same platform, bring in government, various parastatals and private sector. This has resulted, for instance, in a curriculum that can be used across schools done by the UNODC. I think that’s a very commendable.

Now for us, it is the message that we get across I think, since 2019. Till now, close to about a little above 20 million people have been reached with the same message. And we continue to push the message, even to the grassroots. So I think those are milestones.

Apart from ASAP what other project is MTN Foundation involved in? 

We have two main umbrella priorities- I call them umbrella themes. The first one is youth development and the second one is national priority. Now under national priorities, we have health and community development. For the youth development, most of our population are young people and we need to enable them create a future that helps them thrive. So we have a few activities and interventions.

The first thing is our education intervention. We have the MTN science and Technology Scholarships. It’s in its 13th year this year, and what it is that young people from public who are who are studying STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math courses), in public universities apply for it that. You must have a CGPA of 3.5 to be able to apply for it and you can have it for three years up until you’re out of school as long as you continue to maintain that CGPA.

We also have another scholarship for the blind young Nigerians who go through school. They also have to maintain a CGPA of 3.52. We’ve done that until date.

I think we’ve issued close to about 12,000 scholarships almost to about 5000 people. It’s like that because one person gets the scholarship twice or three times as long as they continue to perform. We’ve spent close to about N2.3 billion on scholarships since inception. 

Now a few more things we do for young people- we also run an ICT and business skills training every year. We partner Google,  Microsoft, Meta, Oracle and IBM to get this done. We take them through what they need to know and a lot of them have gone on to start their own businesses and even employing more people. Likewise, within our scholarships, we partner Oracle Google and we open them up to certifications so that they have an edge when they get into the labour market.

We also have the music scholarship with the Musical Society of Nigeria (MUSON). The foundation funds a two year diploma program and they get a diploma degree- a globally accredited diploma degree. This is our 16th year of doing that and we have a lot of the graduates, close to about 450 of them have gone on to do great things. 

In terms of national priorities, we’re big on health. So we tackle that on three levels- the individual, community and institutional level. At the individual level, we have a program called the MTNF Y’ello Doctor Mobile Medical Intervention, where we go into underserved communities. We  use mobile trucks but it’s customised like a clinic. So, you have a doctor, nurses, a data analyst on board and they have medications, consumables, and they go to underserved areas and provide medical services for them. 

This phase, we started last year October, in Lagos, Anambra,  Gombe and Kano, and I think we’re in Rivers State too. Since we started, we’ve talked about 33,000 people to consultation prescriptions. We also give hygiene kits out to young ladies and girls- that’s at the individual level. 

Now at the community level, we partner  general hospitals, and we’ve remodeled maternity world wards. We’ve set up dialysis centers and mammography centres in various general hospitals across Nigeria. The last one we did this year was partnering Gombe Teaching Hospital. We donated state-of-the-art medical equipment to them. 

Now at the institutional level, just as COVID hit, it was important for us to further research in terms of the life sciences. So we partnered Nigeria Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). We funded the procurement of a machine called the Oligo-Synthesizer and we set it up. The lab has been active since last year. What this does is that it produces primers that help towards vaccine development and diagnostics. You can diagnose and it can help with  treatment of I think Liver Cancer and it’s useful for paternity testing and detecting various viruses and bacteria. 

We also do a lot of community development especially in the area of water and sanitation. Since inception to date, we’ve installed close to about 200  solar powered boreholes in far flung communities across Nigeria.

What are the challenges hampering some of the projects you want to carry out in the foundation? 

The first thing is a lot of our projects are in very far flung areas across Nigeria. So there’s usually the challenge around how do you get there even with our implementation partners. I think the second challenge we face can be communal. I can say the mindset but we’re beginning to work around introducing some level of training into our community interventions. Where a community sees you have given them a borehole today, they don’t really take care of it because they believe another company will come and give them another one. 

It’s been also challenging working with the public sector because some of the projects have not performed as well as we would love them to, but where the partnership with the public sector has been rekindled is by what we had with NEMA, because NEMA is coming up, they want things to work. So those are some of the challenges that we face.

What are the future expectations for the foundation? 

So the SDG, the Sustainable Development Goals number five, that’s the one that focuses on gender and women. Recently, we opened up a call for application for a program we call the Yellopreneur. It’s targeted at women and female entrepreneurs. What we want to do is that we want to build capacity for about 500 of them by partnering the Enterprise Development Center of the Pan African University. They’re going to deliver the modules to build their capacity on how to deal and handle their businesses. However, we’re also partnering Bank of Industry where MTN Foundation funds about 100 successful of the 500 of them.

We want to give equipment loans of up to N2 million and that’s what we’re on. The call for applications have closed and are in the process of shortlisting, and then very soon, the program itself kicks off.

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