Smiles lit the faces of the young students. It was as if Christmas had managed to come in October. The youths had just received something their counterparts in other countries might take for granted but that was all too dear in Nigeria. These young people dream of a sound education; but, for many of them, the dream is elusive because there are not enough books to go around. For these fortunate students, this hurdle has been surmounted. By the truckload, they received new books, computers and other material that will enrich their education and their lives.
What makes this donation special is that the books and computers were not limited to select students at a few choice schools. More than a token gift, what took place was literally a benign flood of books that will significantly improve the quality of education in the recipient institutions. Over 400, 000 books were disturbed to primary and secondary schools as well as universities throughout Nigeria. Tens of thousands of students in Nigeria for years to come will benefit from this contribution. Yet, there is more. What makes this gift extra special is that it will be duplicated in several other West and East African countries. A consignment of five 40-foot shipping containers full of books has already been off-loaded and distributed in the Gambia.
Notwithstanding the bad news that normally captures headlines, good things do indeed happen in Nigeria and Africa.
THE ACCOMPLISHED BUSINESSMAN
This good news would have been impossible without the commitment of one man: Sir Emeka Offor. In partnership with the American non-governmental organization, Books For Africa (BFA), Sir Emeka has embarked on an educational project bringing over 1 million books, computers, and school supplies to Nigeria and other West African nations. Through his nonprofit, the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation (SEOF), Offor has become BFA’s most important partner in Africa. By the conclusion of this ambitious $14 million dollar book project, his foundation will be the largest private donor of books on the Continent.
Those who know Sir Emeka are not surprised by this significant, but low-key generosity. Born the first of ten children to a policeman in Kaduna State, Emeka Offor came from humble origins. His modest beginning gives insight into his commitment to young people and the vulnerable in society. He began his business career as an apprentice to his uncle. Sir Emeka proved to be a quick study. In 1994, he formed the Chrome Group, entering into Nigeria’s rough-and- tumble oil and gas industry. Guided by a relentless work ethic and a keen nose for a good deal, he waded through the debris and minefields inherent in the oil sector to quickly become one of its mainstays.
The Chrome Group is internationally recognized for its quality work ranging from refinery maintenance, to natural gas pipeline construction, and to the provision of digital inspection services. Its client base includes major international oil companies, the Nigerian Federal government and various state governments in the country. The Chrome conglomerate has expanded its reach outside the oil industry to include domestic and international holdings in the insurance industry, the power sector, telecommunications, and logistics. Subsidiaries of the Chrome Group constitute the principal shareholders of the publicly-traded American company, ERHC Energy, Inc., an independent firm with important interests in exploration and development of assets in the Gulf of Guinea, including the Sao Tome and Principe Joint Development and Exclusive Economic Zones, Chad, Kenya and other promising areas in sub-Saharan Africa.
THE AMBITIOUS BENEFACTOR
Although a massive project by itself, the BFA book initiative is just one aspect of Sir Emeka’s public generosity. Just as he applied his talents and personal industry to building an impressive business network, he also has dedicated himself to caring for others whom society often neglects.
In pursuit of this humanitarian goal, he established the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation. The Foundation embodies the humanitarian spirit of its founder by seeking to reduce poverty and create life-improving economic opportunities for those residing in Nigeria’s most marginalized communities. Sir Emeka believes, “People are not poor because they choose to be. There are many able and creative people who could be making important contributions to society if they were not mired in poverty. In other words, God plants precious seedlings in the most unlikely places. He asks that we water these seedlings so that they can grow into the fruit-bearing trees he intended. Those of us who have received fortune’s blessings have a moral duty and civic responsibility to help the poor and vulnerable. For this reason, I established the Foundation.”
Lack of health care haunts the poor and Sir Emeka seeks to bring basic care where there is none. Nigeria is one of the few nations were polio still exists, mostly afflicting poor and distressed populations in parts of northern Nigeria. When polio is finally rendered extinct and the crippling disease’s final chapter in Nigeria is written, SEOF will be cited as a hero in this needed fight. On October 24, SEOF gave $250,000 dollars to Rotary International to help Rotary in its role as a lead partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. In providing the funds, Offor stated, “It is unacceptable that polio continues to infect our children and cause such suffering in Nigeria.” The flight against glaucoma is another important health care initiative of the Foundation. Acutely aware of the hidden danger glaucoma poses to a growing portion of the world’s population, Sir Emeka Offor established a $100,000 glaucoma research grant at the Department of Ophthalmology, University of Mainz, Germany, and has established a Nigerian fellowship for Cataract Surgery and Glaucoma Management at the same university.
Sir Emeka has also joined with Rotary International to promote conflict resolution and peace. His foundation recently provided the Rotary Peace Center at the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand another $250,000. The sum will provide an endowment for practitioners and activists from sub-Sahara Africa in disciplines such as public health, education, rule of law and social justice. The dual purposes of the fellowship is to enhance future recipients’ substantive knowledge in their respective disciplines and to encourage them to adapt this enhanced knowledge to promote social harmony and conflict resolution in their communities and nations. This contribution can be an important catalyst toward promoting peace in Nigeria with its ethno-religious and regional diversity.
Sir Emeka believes poverty is the harshest obstacle facing most Nigerians. He has quietly and methodically positioned the Foundation to tackle this steep challenge in many ways. One is through community-based projects for human capacity building and skills acquisition. Widows are a group particularly vulnerable to poverty. In many traditional societies, widows have scant rights to the marital property once shared with their husbands. Apart from the emotional trauma of losing a loved one, widows can be cast into poverty because of this lack of legal protection. This is especially true for widows who did not work outside the home prior to their spouses’ passing. The Foundation seeks practical solutions to mitigate this inequality by forming women’s cooperatives, a pilot initiative already started in Sir Emeka’s home village in Anambra State. These women’s coops train participants to be economically self-sufficient by teaching various money-making skills and trades such as learning to process palm kernel oil for sale, acquiring tailoring and hairdressing skills and learning how to manage a small business.
The SEOF has also established an innovative transportation business program for low income youths. Under this initiative, the Foundation provided micro-financing grants and loans to industrious youth who want to purchase a motorcycle to start their own small transportation business. The Foundation helps participants plan and manage their businesses under this successful program. Several participants have been able to expand their transportation enterprises to include commercial buses and additional employees, thus helping to bring other youth out of poverty.
The SEOF is engaged in community infrastructural projects, digging wells to provide potable water, enhancing the health of local communities and sharply reducing water-borne morbidity among infants. The Foundation also has paved an access road in Offor’s home village of Orifite to decrease the isolation of this rural community. In connecting this once isolated community to major arteries, the project promotes commerce by cutting the transportation costs and time to the target communities.
Despite the numerous projects the Foundation has launched, education remains the most central to the Foundation’s missions. “Without education the people cannot create their own solutions. If they cannot create their own solutions, they cannot escape the poverty imposed on them,” Sir Emeka believes. Consequently, he has launched an aggressive program building model schools and classrooms, furnishing them with internet and other up-to-date equipment. He is enthusiastic about a scholarship program that provides full university scholarships to academically gifted but economically disadvantaged students. So far, more than 120 such scholarships have been granted. Should a recipient graduate first in his or her class, the student will receive a car and will be offered full-time employment within the Chrome Group of companies.
While the lucrative but competitive Nigerian oil and gas industry is not for the feint-hearted, Sir Emeka Offor proves that one does not have to be cold-hearted to succeed. Just as he has been more profitable than most, he also has been more generous than most. However, he does not want to be seen as an exception; he wants to be an example for others to follow. In addition to the help he provides the poor and distressed, his efforts convey an important message to fellow businessmen. He personifies a successful business model, one that strikes a positive balance between private gain and public purpose.
“I want to make my mark. Actually, I want to make two marks. One is that I have been an excellent businessman who built a group of companies that will stand the test of time. Two, that I have been as good at giving as I was in turning a profit. In my own way, I hope to set an example for the next generation of successful Nigerian businessmen. I want them to know that they can make money while also making a difference.” His own words tell of Sir Emeka’s social commitment. His actions tell of it even better. Sir Emeka is a man who will continue to make a difference for people in need. As such, his willingness to give may one day prove to be his best and most lasting legacy.