Oloye Sola Akinfemiwa, OON, former MD/CEO of Skye Bank PLC, is, creatively leading from the front in pioneering community development initiatives in Ile-Oluji, headquarters of Ile-Oluji/Oke-Igbo Local Government Area of Ondo State. As the Speaker of the Ile-Oluji Assembly (IA), a revolutionary WhatsApp Group that has set a new record in community development mobilization through self-help projects, Chief Akinfemiwa spoke on the vision of the Assembly, lessons learned and the impact it has made within five years of its establishment.
What is your perspective on community development in an environment like ours?
Community development for social engineering and growth is essentially the coming together of members of a community, working in concert to take collective actions to seek solutions to common challenges while engendering positive behaviours for common good. Given the known problems of relying on governments in our clime, it is my view that communities like mine must necessarily resort to self-help.
What is the vision behind the Ile-Oluji Assembly and how has this vision been pursued?
The vision is in believing that through collective actions, the people can build a stronger and more stable community. Through improved education at all levels, improved community health, increasing the number of economic opportunities, especially in the area of agriculture, empowering those in production especially women (skills acquisition and microcredit), and pushing social justice, the people can bring to the community development and sustainable growth. IA brought more people together to think of how to move the Ile-Oluji community forward. It got more people talking and chatting with each other. I believe that in five years, the Ile-Oluji Assembly has done more than any other development effort in the community. It has laid a foundation for how socio-economic development and growth engineering in a community like ours should be approached.
We promote the participation of members of the community through inclusive actions. We must push the principle of inclusion. We also push the concept of kindness and sponsorship where the fairly well-to-do step out to fund projects either individually or through calling friends and colleagues to support good works. We push the power of one, with each person doing something no matter how small. We push that money is not everything; skills, knowledge, experience, and exposure are invaluable in this process.
What has been your experience leading the Ile-Oluji Assembly?
The first was to build trust which IA did. Secondly, we had to secure the approval of those in the leadership of the community. So, we got the blessing of the Oba and his High Chiefs. Indeed, I will say this has been probably the prime mover of the whole process. Lastly, you secure the collaboration of those members of the community who run this on an everyday basis. e.g. the Development Committee of the community, which is an arm of the palace.
Fortunately, leading here has been more of shared leadership; almost everyone is in leadership. This was the design; those younger, a lot younger, those not so young anymore, those in my age group, and those who are superior to me in almost everything including being older. At the Assembly, we had the best and the brightest bringing to bear knowledge, skills, experience, exposure, funding, and indeed spiritual powers (men and women of God praying every day).
The position of the “Speaker “is nothing more than just one to take responsibility for representing the people who have come together to bring change. I must underscore the point here that this group started only as a WhatsApp chat group, with nothing formal, no agenda, and no documentation of any sort. However, over the last five years, the Ile-Oluji Assembly has become a model for the social and economic development process. It was not designed to be an institution of any sort, not even an NGO, but an idea of how the community can get going. For Ile-Oluji Assembly, its community development actions will dissolve into the more formal structure of the Palace, the Ile-Oluji Development Committee (IDC).
How can the Government partner with the community development effort?
It’s my view that this community has been very lucky. It has received a fair share of Government patronage especially roads, bridges, and even a skills acquisition centre. Of course, like Oliver Twist, you always ask for more. For instance, we will like Government to do more for education, the schools are so bad relative to when I went to school. I was embarrassed to see some of the schools, dilapidated and in a very bad state.
I will like Government to more seriously push the innovative idea of calling in old students and Alumni Associations of these schools to return to help renovate the schools. Government should empower community leadership more to play quality assurance roles, to ensure that these schools take teaching and learning seriously. In many situations, the schools are no longer schools. I will like to see Government supporting communities that initiate self-help development projects by giving counterpart funding; given a percentage of what the community puts on the table as an incentive for communities to do more, that the Government comes up with funds to match funds raised by communities on matters relating to Education.
Government should as expected work on providing infrastructure in these communities. Government should invest in boreholes, toilets, and electricity, solar power especially. Government should work on changing attitudes by helping with mobilisation and communication of agreed ideas. They say attitude is altitude.
Are there community self-development models in other parts of the world that have influenced the way IA operates?
Maybe there is nothing that we are doing right now that has not been done before in this community and other communities. Self-help has always been a practice in community development in this part of the world. However, like it was stated above, trust, acceptance, and outcomes have driven this Ile-Oluji Community development agenda. In addition, we have been able to use technology, through WhatsApp, to develop the structure and model of a community development programme.
What are the lessons you want to share with others on how a community can mobilize for development?
The principle was mainly that of inclusion, that you create an enabling environment for all to work together. The principle is that a little by each one can go a long way, the power of one. That the development idea must be driven by the locals, and the residents, and whatever is being pushed must be on the enthusiasm and passion of resident members of the community. Knowing your community, having a good idea of the needs of the community holistically, and dealing with these needs. Knowledge of the values, norms, attitudes, and behaviours of the members of the community. Having good information and facts about every area of the community. The agenda will include setting objectives, goals, plans, and structures are put in place. You work your plan.
Community development is about self-help, a people pulling together. This concept is sacrosanct. People must voluntarily come together and want to provide solutions to the community’s problems. There should be shared leadership, individual creativity, enthusiasm, passion, and energy. Mobilisation through general participation across the board is necessary; it is communication, communication, and communication. The process thrives on volunteering. It is important to keep all together for sustainability, constant revitalisation, and sharing of ideas. Shared enthusiasm is the air that community self-help breathes.
Attitudinal change is important, getting people to develop attitudes that engender community development. Learning from experiences, especially from the local and more traditional resident members of the community. Sharing new thoughts and ideas of the intervention team and training local generals and foot soldiers to push the ideals.
Let’s underscore the need to ensure that intervention is not seen as manna from heaven and that locals start to wait on intervention with a sense of entitlement. Those intervening too must be careful not to go in like a liberating force with a messianic attitude to the community. Community locals must be the ones running things. The intervening team must learn to listen, ask questions, and allow the locals to do the talking. (This is a very difficult part; people are not used to talking at least not in the public and people are not used to listening either).
The Assembly broke into groups and appointed group coordinators who ran their programmes. The groups were developed around the areas of need in the community like Agriculture, Education, Health, Youth engagement, ICT/Innovation, environment, etc.
Given your pioneering role as a bank CEO, what should banks be doing at this time to reduce poverty and empower people?
Commercial banks are not configured to be agents of community development. Development banks are better positioned for this role. Organisations that are focused on profits will find it quite difficult to push a community development agenda in an environment where there is no credit culture. The government with intention of pushing community development should create more development banks.
Apart from this, those who will lend to those engaged in economic activities in the communities under focus here should be adequately trained to know how to engage these communities. The people who are embedded in these communities are better positioned to work with these communities as bankers. Government is the prime mover of development everywhere; it must create necessary institutions to support community development to engender strong and stable communities.
Do you think that Nigeria’s current economic woes are a failure of policies or poor implementation?
I believe it is a combination of the two. Nigeria and indeed the whole of the African continent must find ways to address what is now a pervasive problem across the continent. In the case of Nigeria, I am of the view that we suffer from what is called the Dutch Disease when having resources becomes a problem for nations. Our leaders in the past with the petrodollar did not plan for economic growth even when there were signs of developments here and there but no growth. I think we have focused more on politics than governance.
Africa as a whole has just not done much to go above the subsistence level. The continent is almost like a forgotten place when compared to the rest of the world. Until Africa goes through its Agricultural revolution or its industrial revolution and its form of the digital revolution to fight poverty, create credible institutions, and all work in an inclusive manner to endanger development and growth, nothing will change. Africa will continue to lag behind the rest and embarrass itself and be treated like a heap of rubbish by the developed nations.
If you were the Minister of Finance, what would be your priorities in developing the economy?
The problem of Nigeria is bigger than one minister or a Ministry of Finance. The problem is more endemic than some fiscal or monetary policies can resolve. Yes, the decline can be slowed down by some more discipline in the way we run things in Government, what we spend money on, etc.
Nigeria and the rest of Africa should stop consuming things that they cannot produce. We must stop total reliance on Europe, America, and now China for everything. We should develop policies that will engender local production. For instance, we must invest in getting electricity for every level. Policies that will encourage agricultural production, processing, and storage. Good prices for agricultural produce etc. Policies that will support infrastructure development and all. Policies of Government that will encourage the acquisition of appropriate skills and education.
Arabaa Foundation has done well in the area of community development. As the Founder, what is the vision?
Arabaa Foundation is essentially about social engineering for economic development and growth. Encouraging each person to do something for his or her community no matter how little.
You are quite passionate about youths. What are your ideas on how we can get the best out of them?
Appropriate education and getting them engaged.