by Victor Akhidenor
Finding the Olu-Aka academy is, in itself, a test of patience and endurance, a function of the fact that the roads leading into it, as well as other buildings around it are still work in progress in this serene environment of Obinze, Owerri west in Imo state.
Two identical one-storey buildings sit on both sides of the 5800square meter location. A bungalow separates the “twin towers”. I pass a security house by the gate and a generator house at the left side of the compound on my way in, where, several yet to be mounted gadgets litter the rooms in the technological hub that aims to make the South East, and indeed, the entire country, a net exporter of refined skill to the world.
The idea was conceived in 2012 by Innocent Chukwuma, founder of CLEEN Foundation, a non-governmental organisation established in 1998 with the mission of promoting public safety, security and accessible justice through the strategies of empirical research, legislative advocacy, demonstration programmes and publications, in partnership with government, civil society and the private sector.
“In Igbo, Olu-Aka means hand work so we want the south easterners to take ownership of the place and know their hand work can take them far in life,” Ifeanyi Anyanwu, a programme officer in CLEEN Foundatio,n and acting head of its Owerri branch said.
“During construction you see people getting skilled workers from Cotonou or Togo. Even this office where CLEEN Foundation is, we got workers from Lagos because we went around but we were not comfortable with what they are doing here. So we decided to bring people from Lagos to do something here in Owerri. And you can see the size of this place? Imagine bringing somebody from the South West to come and build something in the South East. It does not auger well in any way for our youths.
“We are not contributing to that employment we are talking about. Rather than subjecting people to: you must bring somebody from the South East or your brother to do the work for you. We want to contribute in improving the skill of our brothers – people from the South East. So that they will be employable and gets jobs on merit not that you are engaging the person because he is your brother. But you are doing it because the person knows the work and he will give you the best.”
A youth in crisis
The unemployment rate was recorded at 13.3 percent in the second quarter of 2016, up from 12.1 per cent in the first, the highest recorded figures since 2009. Youth unemployment in particular saw an increase to 24 per cent from 21.5 per cent.
Any number of factors could be pointed to as responsible for the prevalence of youth unemployment. But in a sea of corruption, poor education and poor planning, the Olu-Aka academy is focused on attacking the problem of the lack of skills among youth of employable age.
“That’s why we are investing in the academy,” Anyanwu said. “Initially we were thinking of how to make it just about skill but at some point we now looked at where the world is at the moment – the jet age. Everything is going to ICT, so we now moved it to a technology hub where ideas will be accelerated.
“You have an idea but maybe you don’t have that capability and capacity to develop the idea to a certain point we help you to accelerate it.
“Our work here is to promote public safety and access to justice. Unemployment is one of the factors that affect security, so instead of looking at the problem from the security point of view we looked at the skill we have in Nigeria.”
“We are looking at a technology hub but a bricklayer or welder can come there to develop how to manage himself. Sometimes you have the skill but you don’t know how to market yourself,” he said.
“If you are laying blocks you can come to the hub to look at how best to lay blocks. If you go to Ghana you will see how they lay their bricks and it’s very accurate. So you now look at the possibility of using ICT to develop that aspect of your work. We don’t want to start teaching people how to lay blocks. It’s a technology hub.”
The bigger picture
“Everything you do has multiplier effects,” Anyanwu says. “Fine, the academy is coming from the South East but if you are talking about skill there’s no how you won’t mention this region.”
“Go to Aba and see the kind of shoes they are doing there. Some of them are of low quality, though, but it’s because of poor facility and low infrastructure to support them. So if we can help them to get those products up to a standard, people will be looking for it and it will help grow the economy of Nigeria.”
He’s also quick to point out that the academy has aims to be foster diversity and inclusivity.
“If you are from the north you can come and acquire the skill,” he says, explaining that he sees it as a potential source of increased manpower in the locale. “The same way people from the north and west come here to do jobs and even stay behind, that’s the same way they can come to the academy and improve on their skill.”
Another thing he’s adamant about is establishing the academy as a genuine path of education for people, and not a fallback option with less validity than the typical tracks young people seeking education and employment would follow.
“The certificate we are looking at is not one that will qualify you only in this region but a national certificate like NECO (National Examinations Council) or WAEC (West African Examination Council)” he says, insisting that the education has to be strong enough to hold its own weight even outside Nigeria.
“It’s wrong for would-be students to be pushed to technical school if they score below pass mark in UTME. What they don’t know is that technical schools are for smart people not dull people.”
“If we change that narrative and tell them if you pass through this school you can still become a professor or whatever you want to be then you will see that people will become interested and start investing their careers in skill acquisition centres.”
More than anything, he sees the existence of the centre as a testament to what is possible when Nigerians think outside the box with regard to employment and youth development.
“A normal Igboman would have used the money for other businesses,” he says. “But he’s taking the pain because he wants to change the lives of the people here and Nigeria at large.”
“Very soon, everyone will see how he is doing just that.”
Beyond Biafra is YNaija’s citizenship series for the month of April. Find more entries in the series here.