Potential investors in Nigeria are often made cautious by individual tales of corruption. Only recently we heard reports that Nigeria could lose an estimated $6bn due to a controversial oil deal with Eni and Shell, which could lead to corruption charges. However, here are nine million reasons why we should think again.
The nine million is the number of school children who are currently benefiting from a Nigerian government initiative to address poverty and hunger. Each child receives a free school meal as part of President Buhari’s National Social Investment Programme.
President Muhammadu Buhari launched his Home Grown School Feeding Programme two years ago. Since then more than $180 million has been invested, providing nine million children with hot meals across 26 of Nigeria’s 36 states.
It operates in 50,000 schools and there are hopes to expand the scheme from nine million to 15 million children, which would make it the largest feeding programme in Africa. It’s not a new idea – similar schemes have been running in several African countries since 2003 - but the scale of Nigeria’s ambition is impressive. Buhari’s focus on social investment has meant that his administration has released the largest sum of money for such projects in the history of Nigeria.
In a country where some 42% of children are classified as malnourished and where around half a million children die of severe malnutrition a year, according to UNICEF, the Home Grown School Feeding programme is a key part of building a new generation of healthy young people. As Nigeria prepares for a demographic revolution, which will see its population exceed that of the United States in the coming decades, it is vital that such projects succeed.
At present some 30% of Nigerian children drop out of school. It is hoped that this feeding programme will keep children in school and boost enrolment. In Ogun State, Commissioner Adeleke Adewolu has already seen the benefits with improving attendance rates. “The meals serve as a social safety net for the poor, which enhances children’s learning ability. This will have a knock-on effect of encouraging their cognitive development and encourage children to learn better,” he said.
It is also having an impact on unemployment. The programme now employs 95,000 cooks who spend just twenty-five cents on each child’s food. Likewise, some 150,000 farmers have profited from growing and selling local food to prepare those meals. Farmers are receiving training in the better use of fertilisers and seed selection as part of the programme to develop Nigeria’s traditionally sluggish agricultural sector.
There are still many obstacles to overcome if the National Home Grown School Feeding Programme really is to become the biggest school feeding scheme in Africa. Funding remains a major challenge. Critics say the government has failed to set aside enough money to provide meals for all of Nigeria’s twenty-four million primary school pupils and, as a result, ten states still don’t have access to the programme.
As we approach the Nigerian elections in February 2019, Buhari has pledged to extend the programme to 15 million children and create a further 300,000 jobs for vendors and farmers. If that investment can be found it can lay the foundations for an education system which delivers better outcomes across all the disciplines, from science and technology to robotics and coding that President Buhari highlighted when he launched his re-election campaign last month.
In that address President Buhari also referred to corruption as an “existential threat to Nigeria.” He accepted that although gains have been made in tackling corruption there still remained “much ground to cover to stop systemic corruption.”
Perhaps those who feed us a constant diet of negative images of corruption, instilling cautiousness about investing in Nigeria, need to take a more positive view and acknowledge that the country is working to address its challenges and is in the process of doing so. The road is long, but the foundations have been laid.
As the Home Grown School Feeding Programme demonstrates, Nigeria has great ambitions for its future and has a will to transform itself. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo set up a similar feeding programme in just thirteen States in 2005 and it faded away and died. This time, failure is not an option. If Nigeria is to address the challenge of extreme poverty, and create a new generation of educated young people now is the time to act and to invest in its future.
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