Aswini worked as Organizational Development Advisor for Royal Heritage Health Foundation in Nigeria, where she helped improve the NGO’s organizational capacity and performance as well as initiated new programs that the community has now adopted.
As a banker from New York, I was used to working in a fast-paced corporate world where profitability and shareholder value were top priorities. So after 7 years in the private sector in US, I was looking for a new challenge and preferably one in a totally new continent…..
Nigerians are a warm and colorful community, often welcoming you into their house for various festivities. I learned some of the local customs including getting my hair braided, pounding yam and attending long church services.Working in Nigeria for 16 months transformed some of the cultural biases I had perceived in a third-world country. The absence of basic infrastructure like running water, continuous electricity, nutritious food and good roads made the living conditions challenging. However at the end of the day, the personal fulfillment came in the form of the changes in the lives of the communities we worked with. To see another little girl now enrolled in school or to have a working toilet in the school facility or to know that one another farmer is employed on the cassava farm and that he can now support his family is quite encouraging.
Working in the non-profit sector enabled me to understand the inner workings of the NGO including international partner organizations like the Gates Foundation, USAID and Department for International Development from UK. The work ethics and expectations are definitely different from the US, given that staff capacity and resources were restrained and often underutilized. I had to learn to work with and train individuals to build their capabilities including developing and implementing new HR policies and performance evaluation tools. The NGO now has its maiden edition of newsletter and organizational profile that helps them broadcast their programs and progress to date.
A lot of my growth, however, took place outside of the office as I met with the grass-root communities, interacted with local residents and assessed basic needs. From preliminary field visits, it was clear that there was a need for clean drinking water and toilets within school premises — this conclusion led me to partner with the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency and develop an MOU for 10 pilot schools in Jebba to construct toilets. With the help of youth volunteers, 3 schools now have working toilets and the school based communities have now been motivated to complete some of the infrastructural projects through their own efforts.
Another project that developed from local intervention is the launching of operations in the Federal fish smoking complex which stemmed out of the need to boost the livelihoods of the local fishing community. Negotiating the price of local fish, convincing fish mongers that we wanted to partner with their co-operative society, sourcing for talented staff from the neighboring communities and lastly selling over 30 kilos of smoked fish that we produced were skills I had to learn on the job. It definitely was not the same work I did sitting behind the computer in an air-conditioned office in New York valuing a deal or developing customer retention growth strategies.
Learning and being open to new experiences was definitely what excited me while in Africa. Although the NGO I supported was primarily focused on education and health services like TB, Malaria and HIV prevention, I found the need to extend into a new line of operation i.e. secure livelihoods that provides a sustainable source of living for the rural community people like farmers. This notion led me to help the NGO expand into cassava farming where we introduced them to new stem varieties, planting and fertilizer application. New services like teacher training were also piloted in a different community to help boost the school learning environment. The program was a success and is sought to be replicated in other local areas.
Working in Nigeria has transformed my ideals, perspectives and lifestyles. Any one choosing to work in the social sector has to put the community needs first. There is no place for monetary interests or individual agendas as a lot of the true reward comes from seeing the impact of your work on the lives of the people you have touched……regardless of where you come from.
So in earnest appreciation, I say “Ekushe Nigeria” for my making my tenure a special experience!