When Olusola Owonikoko moved back into his parent’s house in Surulere after his NYSC in 2011, he noticed a gathering of people with disabilities hanging around under a tree when he walked by the National Stadium. Sometimes they were with bus conductors, and other times; they were with agberos.
He decided that he would get to know them better, to understand why they always gathered around at the spot. Little did he know that it was a decision that would alter his life drastically.
They told Olusola Owonikoko they were Paralympians who weren’t getting any pension from the Federal Government and that they would love to learn some skills to help them earn an honest living.
How he started
In 2013, Olusola Owonikoko applied for the Carrington Youth Fellowship Initiative (CYFI) and got a 10,000-dollar grant from the US Consulate in Nigeria. By 2014, he had set up the non-profit Project Enable Africa.
He got extra funding from Access Bank. Then with a partnership with the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWD), he was finally able to equip the Paralympians with the skills they needed to earn a living.
In 2016, he set up the first disability digital hub in the country to “create a disability friendly environment for people with disability to learn technological skills”, he said.
Since then, with his team at Project Enable Africa, he has been able to equip thousands of people with disability with both primary and specific tech skills that they need for the world of work, working with agencies and government parastatal, including paramilitary institutions to cater for the needs of people with disabilities, advocating for a more inclusive society for people with disabilities.
“At the time when we started there was no institution or organisation as it was that was focused on helping persons with disabilities learn digital skills,” he said. And so the team had to teach them first the basic skills of using a computer.
Now the program helps people with disabilities learn how to set up a social media profile for jobs, data analysis, graphic design, social media marketing, audio editing, video editing etc.
Creating opportunities for people with disabilities
With these new skills, Project Enable Africa has gotten its alumni job placement at top companies in the country.
“Our placement has been in companies like Sheraton, Unilever, British Council Abuja, Budgit. Currently, we’re recruiting for two banks in Nigeria. We have recruited for tech companies.”
His growth in advocacy has been supported by prestigious fellowships he has received over the years, including the Nelson Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in 2015. the Tony Elumelu Foundation, the IE Africa Center Social Innovators Retreat and currently, the Obama Foundation Fellowship at Columbia University.
Olusola Owonikoko adds that he is particularly excited about the Obama Foundation Fellowship because it will teach him the skills to engage global leaders on the importance of their work at the agency in their organisation.
“It will help us build more tools and products and to help us learn how to interact at a higher level,” he said. “When I go through a program, I usually will like a period to implement what I have learned. I don’t like to jump from one program to the other, which there is no problem doing that,” he added.
In 2018, he got more funding from the Google Impact Challenge Fund that helped him scale the agency and set up a bigger hub with over 40 computers with software for people with disabilities.
But even then, some of the alumni from the programs are unable to continue their training, he said, because they can’t afford the tech tools needed.
“One of the challenges we face is that after training persons with disabilities, you have to find tech tools like a computer for them that they need to practise otherwise it goes to waste. That is why it’s important for me that they don’t just learn this, but that we connect the dot by getting their next job and for some people who want to run their business, helping to see how they can set it up.”
And so, in 2020, he shifted focus from just training them to helping them get jobs.
Creating demand and supply in the world of work
He had successfully created of supply of people with disabilities for the world of work. Now, the next thing is creating demand for people with disability in the workforce. To solve this, he has created the Work Place Disability Inclusion Program, a consulting program to help top executives create inclusive work culture.
“There needs to be work available for the people coming out of the program. We must go into organisations and help them position to help people with disabilities. That is why we created that product to help organisations audit their processes, products and platform, so they can be better positioned to employ people with disabilities,” Olusola Owonikoko explained.
In Nigeria, some laws compel organisations to be inclusive. These laws include the Prohibition Against Persons with Disability Act and the Lagos State Special People Law, but implementation remains an obstacle for people with disability.
“It’s improving. But of course, we are not where we need to be,” he said.
It has been difficult for more agencies to enter the space Olusola Owonikoko shared, partly because grifters have gone to community members professing to help them, raised money and absconded. This has made advocacy in the space extra difficult.
“it took us two years to be accepted by the community of people with disabilities. I am glad that they have accepted us,” Olusola Owonikoko said. “I love challenges.”
Fire question with Olusola Owonikoko
What do you do for fun?
I play FIFA, paint (I want to hold an exhibition and use paint to raise funds), and table tennis
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