Aishat Olorode is the founder of Access to Books Foundation. She tells TOLUWALOPE KAREEM about the foundation and its activities
What are your educational qualifications?
I am currently a doctoral student at Rutgers University, New Jersey, United States of America. I also hold a degree from the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey and I have multiple professional certifications in healthcare.
Tell me about your foundation.
Access to Books is a subsidiary of the Invest in the Quest to Reform Africa foundation which is focused on improving learning conditions for children in marginalised communities across West Africa. The organisation was originally founded and incorporated in 2010. Our programmes focus on the Sustainable Development Goal 4, which is quality education. We have achieved this through the iRead initiative, Scholar programme and community and peer to peer mentoring programmes. Also, our SDG 6 programmes that have to do with health education, provision of clean water and decent toilet facilities are integral to keeping children in school now more than ever. These programmes have been implemented in Ibadan (Oyo State), Enugu, Ebonyi, and Lagos where we are currently operating.
Did any incident motivate you to set up this organisation?
It was during my last year in the university when I visited my grandmother in Ibadan and I was confronted with endless stories of girls that I had gone to secondary school with who did not have the privilege to continue with their studies. Also, there are many other children seen on the streets, some in tattered uniforms and worn-out shoes. I wasn’t exactly sure how I wanted to reach out to those children but me and my sister knew we had to do something. At that point, we had enjoyed quality education― a privilege that is out of the reach of others― and we felt it was our turn to give back.
What do you think are some of the factors preventing children in underprivileged communities from getting quality education?
That would be poverty and biased public spending. These communities have to make do with what they have. It is unrealistic to think that with poor input, we would have outstanding outcomes. A common standard needs to exist for all school-age children with emphasis on early education. Inadequate interventions that do not provide opportunities that improve the standard of living in those communities only contribute to a cycle of multigenerational poverty, which studies have shown directly impacts the cognitive abilities of children. To intentionally neglect those communities is to deprive ourselves, as a nation, of the talents that lie within.
What are some of the projects your foundation has carried out and in what ways have they made impact?
We have worked with 10 secondary schools in four states reaching over 6000 students through initiatives that improved access to books and fostered active reading. We created reading spaces and renovated existing reading rooms, while providing opportunities for cultural exchange programmes that allow for inclusive participation on a global scale. In the past four years, we have awarded N1m worth of scholarships and one-on-one mentoring of students, with past participants having five or more credits in their certificate exams. We have also provided two multi-unit toilet facilities to serve students and teachers in two schools. We are also working with 22 girls at the Surulere Girls Secondary School (Lagos State) through our mentoring programme. Some of these girls are part of our current scholar programme which has given them additional access to educational materials through the procurement of important textbooks, extra-academic tutoring in essential subjects, participation in an online book club, and more recently, access to a digital learning platform.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced over the years?
Access to capital is one of the main challenges we face. While this is common with other non-profit organisations, we are hoping to tackle this and become reasonably self-sustainable as an organisation.
What type of support does your organisation receive?
We are currently supported by volunteers who are pivotal to the execution of our programmes. We also use Internet-based crowdfunding to raise funds for our projects. Additionally, some of our programmes are funded by donations from friends and families.
Many non-governmental organisations get grants and don’t spend it on what the funds were earmarked for. How is your organisation different in that regard?
The IQRA foundation prides itself on judiciously utilising all the resources that are donated to us. We achieve this by keeping our operational costs at a minimum and optimising value for our beneficiaries. We are mindful of wastages and we only launch our programmes when we have a reasonable level of confidence in them while maintaining a tight scope. Our core values and mode of operation set us apart.
In what ways was your organisation been able to improve the quality of education in underprivileged communities?
That would be majorly through our mentoring and scholar programmes. Under these programmes, students have access to in-depth guidance and mentoring from our seasoned mentors as well as funds to achieve some of their educational needs. We also provide special tutoring for these students to excel in their studies. The mentoring programmes ensure they excel in other aspects of life which are just as important as education. We strongly believe that learning and psychosocial development should go hand in hand. So, while we support our students to journey through standard academic paths, we also provide avenues for participants in our partner schools to develop their social skills. Now, we are seeing the ripple effect of this approach in Ebonyi State and we eagerly wait for the same in other communities where we are working.
What significant changes do you foresee in the near future in the educational sector?
With the world now going digital with education, I see the educational sector in Nigeria taking a new turn. However, we have to prepare ourselves to optimally maximise the new shift. Some statistics show that there are about 13 million out-of-school children in Nigeria presently. This drastic situation can be improved upon with a digital-first approach. Parents, teachers, students, government and all stakeholders in the sector must come together to embrace this new chance of hybrid learning through training, provision of equipment, self-study, and conscious adjustments to make online learning work. This will break the barriers of learning across communities and will solve a significant part of our problem. If we can get this right, I foresee the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria dropping significantly in the next few years.
What are some of the profound moments you’ve had in the course of your activities with students?
Our work has exposed us to different children, families, communities and teachers. However, our direct beneficiaries― students and their parents― are the ones who often stand out. Many parents have told us how our interventions have been of great relief to them.
In Enugu, we renovated a toilet that had been serving a school of over 1000 students and 60 teachers since the 1950s, and the feedback from members of the school was heartfelt. They found it hard to believe that we followed through with our commitment because others had assessed the toilet in the past and eventually did nothing. The stories of our beneficiaries serve as a driving force for us and we are grateful for every opportunity to be a part of their stories.
What are some of the personal qualities that have helped you get to where you are today?
They include tenacity, zeal and the ability to solve problems.
What advice do you have for young professionals?
When things go wrong, continue to keep your head above water. It is important to get out of your comfort zone. Be comfortable with unusual things and use that to ignite a powerful force that would drive you to unimaginable success. Position yourself to take the lead and create learning experiences for yourself. Keep in touch with your motivation, be resilient, and remember that education is a journey, not a destination