Toyin Ojora-Saraki, founder and president of theWellbeing Foundation Africa, a maternal, newborn and child health and empowerment organization, has dedicated more than 20 years to transforming the lives of women and children through advocacy and action.
She was born into privilege in Nigeria and was called to the Nigerian bar after studying at the School of Oriental and African Studies and Kings College, London. Among many philanthropic and advocacy activities, she is particularly dedicated to saving the lives of women during pregnancy and childbirth and of their babies – a passion that began with the loss of a child of her own. But she says that only when her husband became governor of Kwara state did she appreciate the “alarmingly high” rate of maternal and child mortality in Nigeria. She has become an influential global leader on improving health systems, especially for poor women – as well as, she said in a TEDx speech, “the most unlikely activist”. AllAfrica’s Mantsadi Sepheka spoke to her at the WIE Symposium in Cape Town, preceding the World Economic Forum for Africa.
What has discovering the Women: Inspiration and Enterprise (WIE) Africa Symposium done for the Wellbeing Foundation?
It’s been fantastic. I always felt as if I was working in a capsule.
When I took up the struggle in 2004 to help women in newborn and child health, to stop deaths, I thought I was the only person who could see the problem. It was as if I was the only person who was raising the alarm and I was working in an area that wasn’t popular. I was saying, ‘Let’s stop the deaths, lets get this traction’.
Everybody else was saying HIV, HIV, HIV. I agreed with that – I was also working in HIV – and it was hard to get the traction. Then I went to the very first WIE I was invited to and I suddenly realised there was a Toyin Saraki in almost every country in the world. I wasn’t the only person who could see the problem and most importantly I was not the only person who was crafting and proffering solutions. So going to the first WIE allowed me to meet many other people who were working in the same sphere, to learn from them, refine my own programs and then link my programs to a global movement.
It was hugely enlightening and very, very empowering. Then I started thinking, ‘Why don’t we have this in Africa?’ And it wasn’t a question of just bringing in the global [organization]. I was convinced that every single country had their own people who are super leaders, innovators, and it was just a matter of unearthing them, uncovering them and highlighting them so that we can begin to have this common purpose for Africa. This is the beginning, this is the inaugural WIE Africa and I’m hoping that this is a movement that will move throughout Africa.
Maternal health and wellbeing are key to averting maternal mortality.
What steps has the Wellbeing Foundation taken in order to help prevent maternal deaths?
We have done a lot for legislation to raise the expectations of what your government owes you. We also work very closely on the front-line with women – we have a fund that will pay money if you need a caesarean and you can’t pay for it, to save lives. But at the same time we believe that a health-seeking woman is necessarily an empowered woman so we try to get the woman before the emergency occurs – to train them about what should be the best-case scenario.
We’ve crafted a tool called the personal health record. This starts as soon as you’ve discovered you are pregnant but it follows you through your pregnancy to your delivery. And it follows your child right through the very first baseline check at birth right up to when that child is five. But how does the woman in the village know that she is entitled to something called focused antenatal care? She is entitled to four visits in her pregnancy. If you don’t tell her about it, how is she going to know about it?
This is why we are now moving over to demand creation because also I have felt very strongly that international assistance is diminishing. As Africans we are not there yet in what we need for our people.
So what do Africans need to do to get to that level of problem-solving without the help of outside assistance that is diminishing?
We have to raise home-ground assistance, and this is what we are trying to do at the Wellbeing Foundation. But we don’t want to be the only ones.
If you look at when we had the problem in Nigeria, when people were not wanting to immunise their children for polio, the West couldn’t understand why this was the case. The truth is the rumour had gone around that this was all about population control, and polio was going to make our people sterile. And at the same time I have seen what polio can do and polio is a terrible disease. So I took it on myself to go out to the villages. First of all I immunised my own children and I allowed people to see that. Then I visited the traditional leaders. And with my TV cameras I said, ‘Please can I immunise your babies?’ And when people saw their own leaders, their kings, their faith leaders, their babies being immunised, nine times out of 10 when we come out of the place there would be a crowd of people with their own babies outside for this immunization.
I’m not talking about ideology or some hidden agenda. I am talking about saving lives and making sure that the lives that we are saving have a capacity to be nurtured to full potential, not lives that are managing and scrapping by with some injury or another.
Now I think it’s the turn of the African woman. Once you teach a woman something she never forgets, and whatever you teach a woman or whatever a woman has even learnt for herself she has learnt it for her entire family. Once she has learnt for her entire family, that means she has learnt for her village, her community, her town, her country – that’s what we want to do.
It’s not sustainable for Africa to continually depend on foreign aid, and as you said earlier, aid is diminishing. How are Africans going to move forward?
This is about stimulating the private sector – there’s a very buoyant private sector in Africa. Africa is experiencing unprecedented growth, so if donor assistance is diminishing you need to raise home-ground assistance in a sustainable manner.
The private sector is not about charity. CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is not about charity. We need to begin to move away from charity for charity’s sake. I look upon it now as an investment. If you make this thing an investment model where people see the returns, whether in human terms or in measurable impact terms, they will want to give more.
If I’m saying help us put, for instance, community health insurance programs together so women can access, and even men, package of health that keeps them well, if you are a big industrialist you have to look at it in another way. If people are investing in health and are accessing health I’m keeping your workforce healthy. There is going to be a lot less days lost due to sick people. So when you begin to bring that human element in that is measurable you begin to raise this home-ground assistance.
If I take ‘Saving One Million Lives’, its a fantastic program, but what are we doing with ‘Saving One Million Lives’? We are tackling diarrhoea.
You want to tell me that in 2013, we are still tackling diarrhoea?
Diarrhoea is almost a prehistoric disease. I’m part of the ‘Saving One Million Lives’ program but I hope that by 2016 we will begin to craft these types of programs to tackle leukaemia and the cancers that are killing women and the more exotic and more intricate things, and we in Africa should by then be tackling diarrhoea all by ourselves.
Let’s take this donor assistance for complicated things that we don’t know how to tackle by ourselves, not the basics. This is what I’m about.
So I’m hoping that as Africans we begin to adopt all these programs that are dealing with the basics. Let’s handle that ourselves so that when we go back and ask for more help from the global community it’s for things that we don’t know how to do by ourselves yet.