The N-Power programme is quietly taking many out of poverty, writes Tochi Eze
I spent my childhood in the company of poverty. My father, a civil servant at the time, had enough money to keep his family in a spacious flat at Ilasa and ensure that a driver took my sister and I to school in the mornings. Still, poverty sat in our living room, in the damp heat of the Lagos afternoon. Poverty ate our Garri and Ogbono; it gave its opinion on government and politics; it scolded us, and asked us to do our homework. It is hard to forget the many names and faces of the poverty of my childhood aunts; who called and always seemed to demand one thing or another. There seemed to be always one extra mouth to feed, one extra fee to pay, one dying person or business to save. Eventually, my father began to soak in the weight of these needs. He swelled from them, scraping off his resources and savings to measure up with his extended family messiah status, until poverty, once a far and distant thing that dwelt only with those around us finally became our own.
However, my family’s complicated relationship with poverty is not one to be assessed singularly. It mirrors wider socio-political realities. According to a 2010 report by the National Bureau of Statistics, Nigeria has an alarming 60.9 % poverty ratio. These figures are not abstract numbers conjured out of thin air, they are embodied by millions of unemployed graduates, most of them on the fringes of an expanding global economy, lack marketable skills. This demography reflects what one of the greatest tragedies of the Nigerian state, and repeated failures of governance.
Recently, I stumbled on the story of a young woman called Hadiza from Bauchi State. Hadiza was an unemployed graduate of over six years who had taken to selling recharge cards to keep poverty outside the doors of her family. Entrepreneurial as she was, her efforts were abysmal, and the pressure to pay her bills and care for her aged parents began to spiral out of control. This was until she got into the N-Power programme, an initiative of the government’s National Social Investment Office and Job Creation Unit.
The programme, which is domiciled in the office of the Vice-President, is many things at the same time; a skills acquisitions programme with 250 vocational training centres across the country, an internship and job creation effort that has so far engaged over 500,000 graduates from various disciplines and deployed them across the 36 states of the federation, and an attempt to increase the provision of services across four key sectors - health, education, agriculture and tax - to most parts of the country. All of these are glued together and driven by technology. N-Power graduate volunteers receive an internet-enabled Android device that trains them in a wide range of knowledge areas and helps them interact with community needs effectively.
Initiatives like N-Power invite a more nuanced view of what we consider the encompassing failure of the governance structures in Nigeria. Many things are not working. Some things are. How can we get them to work better? What can we learn from their successes? And from my perspective, what dents are they making to the country’s worrying poverty statistics?
Hadiza, now a trained teacher in Bauchi under N-Power, has received a monthly stipend of N30,000 for the last 11 months. If you understand the nature of poverty in Nigeria, you will understand that Hadiza’s gratitude to N-Power, and how far this sum has gone in loosening poverty’s grip and setting her on the journey to self-sustenance. There is a win-win element here worth underscoring; Hadiza receives a stipend, develops skill, her community gains a qualified teacher, and the society is a little relieved.
Before Emmanuel joined N-Power in 2016 as an N-Agro volunteer, he was an Anthropology and Sociology graduate from Benue State University, struggling to make ends meet. In 2017 he was deployed, under the programme, to Benue State, to work with local farmers as an agriculture extension agent, a designation that puts him in touch with modern agricultural techniques, as well cutting-edge skills and knowledge in the sector. Today, Emmanuel’s ideas have become indispensable to the local farmers he interacts with, and also to himself who, utilizing the new knowledge gained in the agricultural sector, has launched a mid-sized poultry farm with the savings from his monthly stipends, and launched himself and his dependents out of poverty as a result.
It is hard to go through the testimonies of these beneficiaries and not remember the faces of poverty from my growing years, the lives filled with aching need, the sometimes constant and entitled demands, and the burden of the provision that breadwinners and family patriarchs constantly have to bear. Emmanuel, before N-Power, too chased after favours from family members, requesting stipends for survival, small souvenirs of grace to meet his daily needs.
There is no overstating the importance of technology in tackling the complex socio-economic realities of the Nigerian experience. Yes, the cost for an ambitious project that aims to lift over 100 million people out of poverty is huge. But programmes like N-Power show how much leverage technology gives us to provide solutions at scale, and how central public-private partnerships are to achieving this; much like the National Social Investment Office and Job Creation Unit’s partnership with Softcom - an indigenous company with a global outlook, working in the private and public sectors to deliver transformational value using technology.
It might seem overly ambitious for the N-Power programme to claim an outright answer or solution to the question of poverty in Nigeria. However, if all it does is take 500,000 people like Hadiza and Emmanuel out of the cycle of dependent youths, if it can propel them into self-actualization and empower them with resources and skills they need, if it can monitor and assess like the scheme has positioned itself to do, then maybe there is hope for the rest of Nigeria, nestled in homegrown initiatives leveraging on ubiquitous technology.
A version of this article appeared in ThisDay on April 11, 2018