‘Airtel Shows Good Heart with Quality Education for the Poor in Nigeria

By Emmanuel Otokhine

The roads to the school were grubby, narrow, convoluted and laden with potholes; perhaps, a clear emblem of its underprivileged status. The vehicles in the convoy danced to the uncoordinated rhythm of the patchy motorway as they navigated their way to downtown, Ajegunle in Ajeromi Ifelodun Local Government Area of Lagos State. Even the Jeeps (a common Nigerian word for a 4x4 vehicle) struggled to keep to their lane. But there was enough motivation to go through the twisty path. Airtel, one of the most prominent mobile operators, had sent out invitation for the Foundation Laying ceremony of the new Oremeji Primary School 2, a learning hub for kids from mostly poor homes.

The school compound itself sits pretty on a little hillock where it stares directly at one of the country's major revenue centres, the Tin Can Ports, Apapa. A ring of irony becomes plainly unmistakable as you enter the location and gaze around, at the big houses, and heavy duty and other expensive vehicles at the other end, a perfect reflection of the volume of business and millions of naira that exchange hand day by day. Perchance, it is nature's way of motivating the school kids who are compared by curiosity and aspiration daily to lift their gape beyond the dark, foul smelling lagoon that separates the two worlds, as they sit in their classroom, to work harder and aspire to reach lofty academic and financial height.

At the back end and sides of Oremeji Primary school 2, a number of secondary schools are neatly arranged, giving the area the complexion of a true learning centre. On the west end is a heap of sand, the only abiding symbol of what was once a derelict block of classes that houses the pupils, teachers and the administrative head of the school. The building has now been taken down to make way for Airtel to replace the entire block. Elsewhere, on southward part, civil engineers, builders and architects are hard at work, setting up the location for the Foundation Laying Ceremony of the edifice promised by the telecommunication company.

One could not but notice the rather meticulous attention to details and very high standard being demanded by the mobile operator demand from the builders and engineers. The Chief Executive Officer/ Managing Director of Airtel, Rajan Swaroop shed light on why the company is putting in massive efforts to ensure everything comes out right. The experiment, he told the crowd at the ceremony that included the representative of the Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Princess Sarah Sosan, the Chairperson of the State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB), other members of the education confraternity in the state and in Ajeromi Ifelodun Local Government, Local Politicians, teachers and pupils, media men as well as Airtel employees, would serve the purpose of providing vital lessons and information necessary for a smooth replication of the Airtel Adopt-A-School Initiative across the country in the coming months and years.

In his own words, the ceremony “marked the formal commencement of the adopt-a-school programme in Nigeria. We are not only laying the foundation of the ultra modern six classroom block, which Airtel Nigeria is donating to the people of Lagos State, but we are also here to lay a solid foundation for the future of our children, the future of our country, Nigeria.

“There is no gainsaying the fact that quality education offers children the best opportunity in life to realise their dreams and to become leaders of tomorrow. It is also important to note that a good environment is crucial to the development of a sound mind. It is therefore, in the recognition of the importance of education and as part of our Corporate Social Responsibility vision that we have committed to the adoption of public primary schools across Nigeria.

“Under the programme, we are adopting government-owned primary schools located in underserved rural and semi-urban and providing them with requisite infrastructure including classrooms, textbooks, furniture, school uniforms and school bags and indeed skills improvement for the teachers in the school”.

Various speakers at the occasion took turn to emphasise why public schools need the kind of intervention initiated by Airtel. Most of the speakers acknowledged that the choice of a school in Ajegunle as the first beneficiary of the programme is particularly instructive because the area is a fitting reflection of the multi-ethnic configuration of Nigeria.

Taking her turn to speak, the Deputy Governor of Lagos State through Mrs Gbolahan Kadijat Daodu, the Chairman, Lagos State Universal Basic Education Board explained that the social investment programme of telecommunication giant sits properly with SUBEB's mission of collaborating with various stakeholders to create a conducive environment for quality teaching and learning through the provision of infrastructure, capacity building and support for the Local Government Education Authorities.

She stressed that the partnership with stakeholders like Airtel is intended to bring about the desired logical shift in the poor perception of the educational system, particularly the public schools, adding that the project would boost the government's effort to leverage the consciousness of the public who have lost confidence in public schools in the state and enhance the enrolment of pupils in such schools and in the nursery schools that are made tuition free for pupils who require quality education but cannot afford it.

Daodu equally explained that the project would help to propel the state government to achieve its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) vision of assisting every child to read and write by 2015 while also highlighting the fact that the government indeed need a helping hand from corporate organisations in the form of Public Private Partnership (PPP) in the face of global economic meltdown and tumbling allocation to government and the education sector.

Amidst the commendations poured on Airtel by the various speakers at the occasion came loads of requests for more schools to be adopted in the state and for sustenance of the initiative. The question on every lip was how far can Airtel go? The Chief Executive of the company was equally quick to accentuate the organisation's determination to spread round the country and make its imprint visible in more schools.

Drawing from Airtel's experiment in Asia where the Bharti-Airtel Foundation has adopted over 250 schools in the past five years, he disclosed that the company is making a long term commitment in Nigeria to become an active player in the schools that have been and will be adopted in the future, providing and maintaining necessary support and care for such institutions. As if to further drum home the point, he assured the gathering that “in Ajegunle, Lagos State, today, we commence the journey to give back to the people of Nigeria through sustained support for the education sector at the most important level. We are not here to build a structure, make some noise and go away, rather we are here to stay in full support of this school and others we are going to adopt in other parts of the country.

As the construction of Oremeji primary school 2 gets underway, across the state, parents, pupils, teachers, education authority and government officials have joined hearts in prayers that the wave of fortune will once again blow their way when Airtel will have completed the pilot project and begin to reproduce the programme throughout the country.

Emmanuel Otokhine