At only age 19, Chizoba Imoka came up with the idea of founding Unveiling Africa Foundation (UVA) in faraway Canada as an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. According to her, she established UVA as a platform to rally Diasporans to be African change agents. Six years later, Chizoba, now 25, has brought the UVA dream to Nigeria. For the past two years, she has worked with thousands of Nigerian teenagers, teaching them leadership skills and mentoring them to become change agents. She shares her story with us at CP-Africa. Read, get inspired and share with as many Nigerians as possible!
Interview with Chizoba Imoka, Founder Unveiling Africa Foundation
How did you come up with the idea of founding UVA?
I remember when I first moved to Canada, I was rudely shocked to learn about the horrible state of affairs in my continent. The first thing that came to mind when I started gaining social consciousness was why I did not realize that Africa and Nigeria had this many problems…
I wondered why it had to take a trip to Canada, several political science classes where they discussed about how the West must help Africa and endless explanations about my African attires to get me to soul search about the state of affairs in Africa. I wondered why basic human necessities were so readily available in Canada to me even as an international student but not obtainable to me as middle class citizen in Nigeria. I wondered why human life was so valuable in Canada but not so in Nigeria. I was passionately tired of complaining or hearing complaints without seeing action. I wanted to do something and I knew I had a responsibility to do so even though I wasn’t living in Nigeria. UVA was created as platform for me as well as other Africans in diaspora to start contributing to Africa’s development.
When did you start UVA? How challenging was it getting the idea off the ground?
UVA started in 2006 while I was a student at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. Just like any new idea, it was tough getting it off the ground. What was however special about UVA’s startup was that I was hell bent on fixing Africa in one weekend. As a result, the dreams I had for our inaugural event was very extravagant even though I was a poor university student! The theme of our event was ‘You think you know Africa, think again’, so my dear, we attempted to produce a wow factor for our participants from several platforms. We showcased the best of Africa’s intellectuals through our speaker series that featured Dr. Philip Emeagwali, top University professors at University of Alberta and the Nigerian ambassador to Canada at the time. We also had a lavish cultural exhibition ranging from a food festival, fashion show, storytelling, arts exhibition, and dance. As one can imagine, this was not a small event hence everything and everyone around me suffered; from my school work, grades to finances…
What kind of response did you get from Nigerians in the Diaspora when you first started out?
The response from the Nigerians as well as other Africans and non-africans was incredible. I truly felt like I could make Africa change in one weekend because of the number of high intensity support and commitment I had earned. The other founding members are Morenike Egbewande and Bongbemi Nfor. These people and I invested time and money to Unveiling Africa… I also had the support of the international arm of my alma meter (University of Alberta), University of Alberta International House and my professors who wrote letters of support for me. The African Students Association in my university was also very supportive. A handful of members of the Nigerian community rallied around me to help in whatever way possible from attending our events, providing their cars to run errands, cooking, volunteering, and providing connections.
Even my family, friends and my mother’s crew of supporters in Nigeria were actively involved in kicking UVA off. The type of vision I had was definitely too much to handle as a poor inexperienced student but one way or the other UVA was able to attract great people who helped get it off the ground.
How has it been building UVA in Nigeria?
Building in Nigeria has been nothing short of the UVA formula: Big dreams, non-existent resources! In a few words, it has been vibrantly challenging. Nigeria is a real special place to do anything in. With the incessant power challenges, high cost of low quality internet, small pool of qualified skilled workers, high cost of getting around, high cost of maintaining relationships with our stakeholders and the limited/non-existent resources, it has really been nothing short of a vibrant challenge. Many times, it feels like we are in a glass house that is in the middle of a playground where kids are playing with stones. We have learnt to operate with strategic caution while keeping our eyes focused on our mission and program intent.
On a personal note, the experience from building UVA in Nigeria has probably produced the most formative years of my adult-life. To have sustained UVA in the past 18 months required the production of a new ‘Chizoba Imoka’ that I never knew existed. I have had to maintain a high demanding full time job amongst so many other commitments. What this means is that I pretty much work around the clock most times hence work life balance is a daily struggle. As such, a lot of memorable relationships and personal commitments/goals were challenged and some even died.
I mean the challenges are stinging and real but it is part of our story to the top so I will not complain too much. Also, our success in Nigeria in less than 2 years in spite of these challenges has been nothing short of amazing, heartwarming and reassuring. I am very grateful and have no regrets.
What have been some of your key accomplishments?
Within the past two years, Unveiling Africa Foundation has impacted the life of over 3000 people and delivered its programs to over 2000 teenagers. Amongst its other numerous achievements, UVA has given out over N1.3 million (approximately $12,000) in educational scholarships across Nigeria, raised over N1million (approximately $8,000) for several community initiatives, mentored/trained over 80 teenagers and produced teenagers who have become community change leaders and have successfully gained entry into world class teenage institutions such as African Leadership Academy & United World College. Amongst other things, we have implemented two (2) Teenagers Nation Building conferences attracting over 1300 teenagers, rolled out two essay contests, published 3 editions of our teen magazine -Pacesetters, trained 67 teenagers to plan the 2011 APEN Children’s Day Event and we currently have four teenage interns working with us.
We have successfully provided an exciting platform for our teenagers to start acquiring fundamental skills such as problem solving skills, critical thinking and passion for social change through our Community Action Series Initiative. This initiative has led to Yaba College of Technology students to raise over N100,000 by forfeiting their lunch for a week to buy food items for the members of the Lagos Cheshire Home Mushin. These kids have further gone unilaterally to attempt to raise N1,000,000 to buy a bus for the home. So far, they have raised N600,000! Corona Secondary School Students also championed the engagement and feeding of students in a poor school in Ogun State where they will work under the UVA School Club umbrella to fundraise for the school’s borehole and toilet, act as a peer pressure group and engage the students according to identified needs. Students of Redeemers Secondary School innovatively raised N200,000 to part-fund the UVA Community Soup Kitchen in Ajegunle and participate in the Bake For Change (BFC) Scholarship Drive. The scholarship drive is aimed at providing quality education to children at Oregun Remand Home. Through our Community Action Series Program, students from Corona Secondary School & Redeemers Secondary School will be sending two students to school in the next academic year. What is even cooler about all this is that more and more of our programs are also being run by the teenagers. For example, our magazine –Pacesetters, Innovation Contest, Conference, and the day to day running of UVA has teenagers involved in them.
What are some of your most memorable experiences as UVA’s founder?
Seeing my dreams become other people’s dreams, seeing our teens take up leadership positions in UVA and exhibit the skills we preach about has been the most beautiful thing ever to watch. A case in point was the Yaba College of Technology Secondary school students making the choice to forfeit their lunch so that they can participate in our call out to action. Not like that wasn’t enough, they decided to raise N1,000,000 to buy a bus for the home without our compulsion or suggestion. Another is UVA’s 2011 Christmas Party where the teens spearheaded the whole event. We young adults started feeling like old folks as the teens were totally in charge and literally asked us to take a chill pill. Corona’s student outreach program is another teary example. These kids fed and engaged over 300 people without our supervision. What was special about this one was how passionate, compassionate, detail-oriented, mature and politically sensitive they all were. It was like the UVA spirit had possessed all of them prior to the event. All these memories give me goose pimples, push me to tears and keep me going especially when logic suggests otherwise. I can see how the Nigeria we want can be created if we consistently get more students in schools to do what these students are doing and follow them through.
Tell us more about your magazine for teenagers, Pace Setters
Pacesetters magazine is a lifestyle magazine for African teenagers which is part of UVA’s 4-tiered nation building project. We use the magazine to further engage African teenagers on UVA’s nation building roles (Academic Excellence, Community Activism, Personal Leadership & Excellence in Social Interaction). We also feature inspiring stories of teenagers, celebrate pacesetting teenagers and young adults while showcasing latest trends in their most favorite sections – fashion, arts, music, events, food, etc. Our goal with this magazine is to create a space for teens by teens to express themselves, challenge themselves and promote UVA ideologies as it relates to development. We aspire to be the one stop shop for everything African teenagers and this magazine provides us that platform to reach a wider pool of teens with diverse interests across the globe. So far, we have published 3 editions of the magazine which has reached over 2000 readers. The 4th edition will be our first online edition and will be launched alongside our Teen Blog – www.thepacesetters.org
Where do you see Pace Setters in the next 5 years?
I see Pacesetters becoming a globally recognized and reputable authority as it relates to anything African teenagers. In the next 5 years, pacesetters would have become a completely teen driven magazine connecting teens across the globe in the promotion of a different ideology as it relates to social change and the role teens play in it. Pacesetter’s vision is to produce teens that will lead the pace in every sphere of their lives as such this magazine will be the swagger magazine that produces balanced teens. Reach wise, I see us reaching over 20 million readers across the globe. In terms of impact, we will not only be a platform for teens but a platform where nation building stakeholders such as parents, government and schools also come to engage in meaningful discussion with teenagers. More importantly, I see UVA teenagers affecting policies and driving social change through the magazine.
You recently held a “soup kitchen” for some children in Ajegunle in collaboration with UVA Teenagers. How did it go? How engaged were UVA teenagers?
It went extremely well, it was unbelievable! Our collaboration with the teenagers involved students from Maryland Comprehensive, Chrisland College, Lagoon Secondary School, D-IVY College, Funbi Secondary School, Corona Secondary School and Redeemers Secondary School. These kids were charged with the responsibility of innovatively raising enough resources (550 Oranges, 40 bags of pure water, 15 cartons of noodles, 550 eggs and commensurate utensils to serve) to
run the soup kitchen and deploy its implementation. Boy, were we surprised by these kids performance? As soon as we had our debriefing session at the venue, the kids rolled up their sleeves and passionately started working. In addition to raising the resources, from cooking to packaging to washing to crowd control to cleaning to publicity to photography to post event coordination, our teens had it on lock down. Even when it was raining, they were still hard at work. It didn’t matter who was doing what, our teen boys were washing plate and sweeping in the rain! With 30 teenagers, 12 adults, and N30,000 UVA administrative expense, over 500 community members were fed! We went home with about seven (7) cartons of noodles, three (3) cartons of juice, and too many oranges to count.
It was such an exciting experience for all that participated especially our teens. They were able to bond with the community members, volunteers from our partner organization ‘This is How we Do’ and UVA’s young adult volunteers. They were amazed at how effortless it felt to create an impact in other people’s life.
Do you plan on expanding UVA to other African countries?
Certainly! As soon we have a self-sustaining model around our Nigerian programs we will move to other African countries. We need to devise a successful Nigerian model that we can use as a base in setting up in other African countries. In the interim, we are hoping to get more funding for programs like our Innovation contest which can be run on a continent wide scale virtually.
Where do you see UVA in the next 5 years?
Counting on God’s continued favors, I see UVA becoming a global brand for everything teenagers, innovation, and development. If nothing else, UVA is trying to make a clear statement about the role teens play in nation building. We contend that sustainable development can only be obtained by engaging Nigerians with development related activities and exposition to the skills required to drive development in their formative years.
If our theory is correct, then our teens require a recognized identity just like there is a ‘youth’ identity to play their fundamental role in nation building. Within the next 5 years, we hope to have provided a platform for our teens to earn a recognized identity in relation to their contribution to nation building. I also see UVA’s entire core programs becoming self sustaining, teen driven and delivered outside Nigeria. More importantly, I see UVA becoming a fully established social enterprise.
What advice do you have for Nigerian teenagers looking to make a difference on the continent?
My advice is to find your exact passion, dream wild & big, crave opportunities to solve problems, ask lots of questions (there is nothing like a stupid question), start getting used to being ‘weird’ or different from everyone and not having too many friends, be bold, be fearless, be teachable, feel like a warrior & conqueror (because you will soon find out that you are) and hang out with older cool people. Most importantly, find a deeper relationship with God and connect all your passion, desires, ambitions, challenges and aspirations to him. We have all been sent on this earth to accomplish a mission and all that we do on earth must be directed towards that mission. For the teen that is looking to make a change on the continent, your passion, ambitions and hopes is what makes your journey and you must be able to offer it back to God while on earth. The more you offer, the more you get. It is imperative that you feel connected to something bigger than your self. For me, I call that something that is bigger than me ‘God’ – He is the one that sent will send you on this path as he will be the one that will comfort your endless sincere work hours with grace and favor.
Thanks so much for sharing your story with us Chizoba! To learn more about the Unveiling Africa Foundation, visit www.unveilingafrica.org.