Uloma Ogba is a Project Manager for the United Nations Capital Development Fund based in Zambia, and Hauwa Balami currently works as a Medical Doctor in Abuja, Nigeria. But for these ladies, a social initiative that empowers girls and breaks down the barriers between them and access to quality education may be the most trailblazing path yet.
Co-founders of the NGO Give Girls A Chance – a non-profit organization that strives to increase access to quality education for girls across Nigeria by addressing issues related to lack of access, low levels of awareness of the importance of education, and poor infrastructure of educational institutions, the duo are united on a goal to enable an additional 200 Nigerian girls graduate from primary and secondary schools by the year 2020. They believe that the education of young girls is the single most powerful investment to further women’s development and to shape a better future for Nigeria.
In this exclusive interview with Glam Africa, Uloma and Hauwa tell us everything we need to know about Give Girls a Chance and their vision for the future.
Tell us a little about yourselves.
Uloma: I was born in Canada but raised in Nigeria. I left Nigeria to university abroad when I was 16 and I’ve since earned two bachelors and two masters’ degrees since . What can I say, I really love school. I currently work as a Project Manager for the United Nations Capital Development Fund, based in Zambia. If I had to describe myself in three words, I would say I am passionate, a good listener and a risk taker. In my spare time, I love to read, travel, watch TV shows and sleep. I also love surfing the net. You are always sure to come across something from outright ridiculous to very informative.
Hauwa: I am born and bred Nigerian from Borno State but grew up in southern Nigeria. I left Nigeria for tertiary education but currently work as a Medical Doctor in Abuja. I’ll describe myself as “big picture, big heart, do all, go-getter kind of girl”. I love to travel, eat and drink coffee while indulging in some sweet treats. I believe life is too short so I live by “enjoy each day with simplicity, sincerity, and service.”
How did you two meet?
Hauwa: We have a mutual friend and were both picked to be bridesmaids at her wedding in 2016. So, we met virtually through the WhatsApp group set up for the bridesmaids. We finally met in person the weekend of the wedding, but by then it was like meeting an old friend for the first time.
Why and how did the idea to start something together come up?
Uloma: Sometimes, Hauwa would share things in the group that made me think that this was someone I would get along with when we met in person. I did what anyone in the 21st century would do, I Facebook stalked her. I was impressed by her background and her interests. At the time, I was living in Amsterdam but interested in establishing something at home so I could contribute to improving the society, no matter how small. I knew I wanted to do something with girls but wasn’t sure if the initiative should focus on health or education or mentorship. As I was thinking of who I could start something with, Hauwa’s name popped into my head. She was back in Nigeria at the time doing her NYSC at a camp for displaced persons in Maiduguri. I Whatsapped her my idea, we had a Skype chat shortly after and the rest is history.
Can you tell us the story of ‘ Give Girls A Chance’? How did the idea come about and what did it take to make it a reality?
Hauwa: During our first call, we were both in alignment that we wanted to do something with girls and that we wanted to go where the need was greatest. We did our research to find out the statistics regarding healthcare, education, and mentorship for girls in Nigeria. We looked to see if there were any NGOs doing something similar. We found a lot of local and international NGOs were already focused on health so we ruled that out. But when we looked at the statistics for education we were alarmed. Nigeria has the highest proportion of out-of-school children in the world. 1 in 3…which comes out to about 10 million children. We looked at enrollment and graduation rates and found that in all states girls consistently ranked lower than boys. The statistics were equally appalling when we looked at employment rates for women and men. We knew we had found our niche.
After some brainstorming, we settled on the name ‘Give Girls A Chance’ because it encapsulates what we are trying to do: give young Nigerian girls the chance to access a quality education, which research has shown will have a big impact on their lives. Educated girls are less likely to be child brides, more likely to invest in their children’s education and access better-paying jobs. Subsequently, this leads to eradication of poverty.
Uloma: Initially, we wanted to work with street kids and orphans but it was difficult to find any legitimate organizations working with these kids to go through. We then moved on to public school children. Anyone who has surveyed the quality of public schools in Nigeria knows there is a lot of work to be done. We wanted our program to be different. Rather than just give money to girls to cover their tuition, we thought it made more sense to include all the stakeholders involved. We approached their families first to advocate for girl child education, in tandem with the scholarships we paired each girl up with a mentor, and we also worked with the schools to help them upgrade their facilities so they could offer better services to their students. We did simple things like give more books to the libraries, establish computer and STEM programs.
Both of you are still young. Have you always been activists at heart?
Uloma: I don’t know if I would say I have always been an activist at heart, but I would say that I learned from my parents at a very young age, watching them take care of their extended families and practice an open-door policy. I saw the joy that came from giving, so I grew up with that same mentality. At the bottom of my heart, I truly do believe that Nigeria is the best country on earth or has the potential to be. I have never met any other group of people that have the same level of passion, tenacity, and zest for life. I want to do whatever I can to make life better for my fellow citizens, in hope that if we all work together we can lift this country up to the glorious state it deserves to be in.
On a personal level, why do empowering girls matter to you?
Hauwa: It’s easy. We were both young Nigerian girls at one point in time. Reflecting on our different childhoods, it is clear that we were empowered to be the strong, independent women we are today because someone invested in us. Our parents, families, teachers etc all contributed to building us up, helping us identify and nurture our talents and pointing us towards opportunities. We want to do the same for other girls so that they may aspire to levels even greater than those that we have reached.
What role did you each play in starting it up?
Uloma: It was very much a joint effort on everything from the beginning. We were both in uncharted territory, so we learned by doing and by asking questions. We reached out to others who had successfully launched NGOs to see how they went about the process, everything from registration to funding. As Hauwa was on the ground in Nigeria, she did a lot of the legwork, checking on the requirements for us to get a Certificate of Incorporation, opening a bank account, meetings etc. I drafted a lot of the high-level documents that described our mission, vision, and our approach. When it comes to grants, we divide them in sections, set deadlines, and work on various parts until it becomes what we approve for submission. It’s been a work in progress but we’ve found a routine that works.
How do you run it with Hauwa in Abuja and Uloma currently in Zambia?
Uloma: Hauwa is probably the most organized and dedicated person I have ever met in my life and she is the one that keeps things going daily. We currently work with 40 girls in 2 schools and have 10 mentors affiliated with the program. We use Whatsapp and email to communicate with the mentors and ensure they keep up with their monthly visits and reporting. We have 2 friends who volunteered to help us with updating the website, social media and other communications and so I manage that aspect. Hauwa and I meet weekly to discuss progress and address any issues that come up. I try to make it back to Abuja at least twice a year and while I am there we take the time to work on developing and implementing any of our bigger initiatives. This year we are implementing a STEM program and also looking to expand the mentorship program. Things work because we are dedicated and we believe in the work that we are doing and we have been blessed to receive support from friends, family and even strangers who have heard about our work and chosen to support our cause.
How is your NGO funded? How does it sustain itself?
Hauwa: Before we launched in December 2016, we organized a GoFundMe campaign and aggressively promoted it through all the channels available to us. We raised a substantial amount of money so that by the time we started, we knew we could comfortably support the first cohort of 10 girls for a year. Since the launch, we periodically launch fundraising campaigns that have also brought in some funds. We are also very vocal about the organization in our circles so we still receive donations from friends and friends of friends who have heard about us and want to work with us or support us. We do plan on trying to secure more funding by reaching out to international donors and exploring the option of finding prominent people in Nigeria willing to serve as ambassadors for the program so that we can leverage their networks.
So far what has been the impact of ‘Give Girls A Chance’?
Uloma: In terms of impact, like I mentioned we currently sponsor 40 girls, so that is 40 girls whose futures have been secured and know that, provided they maintain the standards we have set, they are guaranteed to have their tuition, books, and fees for the rest of their primary or secondary school years covered. For us, that is a big accomplishment. The mentorship program has also had a significant impact on both the mentors and the girls. It gives the mentors a chance to do good and make a mark on a young girl’s life. And the feedback we consistently hear from the girls is that they look forward to meeting and interacting with their mentors. In a sense, the mentors have become big sisters and confidants for some of these girls who really have no one else to turn to address some of the issues and challenges they are facing as they navigate their teenage and young adult years.
From the work you have been doing with Give Girls A Chance, what would you say are the main challenges that development organizations working at the intersection of girls and education face?
Uloma: The biggest challenges have been attracting substantial funding that would enable us to expand operations, building a dedicated and committed group of mentors and getting schools and government institutions to work according to the timelines that we want. But all of these challenges are surmountable and we are actively working towards finding ways to overcome them.
Your organization just passed its one-year mark, what would you say your biggest successes to date have been so far? What goals did you set that you have not been able to attain yet?
Hauwa: Our biggest success has simply been to keep the program running! When we started out, we had 11 girls and 4 mentors. Now we have 40 girls and 10 mentors. We have also been able to introduce the STEM program, which for Hauwa and I both having science backgrounds, it was a vital component to have in the program. Knowing that we have enriched the lives of the girls in the program, given them a chance to remain in school and get a quality education, that has been the biggest success.
In terms of goals that we have not attained yet, we would like to be able to secure a substantial grant from a sponsor or funder. We tried a few times but were unsuccessful for various reasons: we were too new, we could not show results yet, we didn’t have the minimum capital required to be considered, our program was still too small. But we consider this whole exercise a learning process and we are determined to crack the code and find what works when it comes to fundraising and sponsorship.
Can you talk about one woman who has impacted each of you in your life?
Uloma: For me, my biggest female influence will always be my mother. She is one of the smartest, fiercest and most enterprising women I know and I hope that someday I can be half the woman she is. At my age my mother already had three children, was raising them while going to school and working part-time in Canada. My mother has been the one constant thing in my life and all my childhood memories have her in it. Growing up, she always made time to listen and laugh with us. She taught us how to be responsible human beings, to make our beds every morning, clean up after ourselves, she taught us history, she gave us an allowance and taught us how to save. She taught us what it meant, to be honest, disciplined and hardworking. My mother has always been my biggest promoter when I hear her talk about me and my accomplishments it makes me feel like I must be superwoman. My mother never stays idle. She runs different small businesses, she’s active in church, she reads more books in a year than I do, and she sits in front of the TV watching CNN. She can debate politics all day. In short, she has taught me to always reach for my dreams no matter how big and always believe that I have what it takes to be the best.
Hauwa: For me, it is hard to pick one woman. My whole life I’ve been surrounded by many women: my mother, cater mom’s, aunt and sisters. I have to say each has influenced me in the following; own the woman you are in your skin, follow your dreams and you’ll achieve them with hard work, always remember where you’re from and give back no matter the cost, it’s a changing world don’t get stuck in the old, appreciate family and friends and the list goes on and on.
What’s your ambition for Give Girls A Chance in the next 5 years?
Hauwa: In the next 5 years, we hope to expand the program to more schools and more states in the country and reach at least 500 girls and their families. We would like to see the STEM program firmly established and open not just to the girls in our program but to all the students in the schools where we are active. This means training more science teachers and equipping them with the tools they need to deliver the curriculum we are curating.
What advice do you have for young prospective social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders in Africa?
Uloma: Do your research! Make sure you pick a cause or venture that you are deeply passionate about. It will make all the sleepless nights and closed doors bearable because you wouldn’t be doing it for recognition or accolades. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Someone somewhere has the answer to the question you are asking. Ask questions, ask for help, network, seek partnerships, find people who believe in you and will support your vision.
Any other message you would want to provide or talk about?
Hauwa: We would just like to encourage other young Nigerians and Africans to go after their dreams whether it is starting a business or a charity, it will be hard but it’s doable and it is entirely worth it. There is no greater satisfaction than that which comes from knowing that you are capable of building something from scratch using your talents and through hard work and perseverance. And to watch what you have built take form, grow bigger and remain sustainable, it’s a feeling that nothing else comes close to matching
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