By Ajong Mbapndah L
“In a country with an unemployment rate of 30%–and growing—youth like Bate Takang Peter face incredible hardships to become gainfully employed. Bate’s wish and that of his father, however, was for him to build a family home in their village in rural Cameroon. Luckily, Bate’s aunt told him about Cameroon OIC’s vocational training school, and with her support, Bate went back to school and graduated with a diploma in Building Construction and Small Business Management. That was over 18 years ago. Today, Bate is a successful builder who has built many houses for his community, along with his father’s dream house. In his own words: “I did build the house my father talked about…the OIC philosophy, the skills and training from OIC have made me a happy man.”
The above quote is found on the page of Cameroon OIC one of the programmes of the Opportunities Industrializations Center International in Africa. For over forty years the OIC has been one of Africa’s most reliable development partners with a unique model that takes cognizance of local realities and trends to equip its graduates with marketable skills. Present in some 19 countries and counting, what also makes the OIC stand out is the autonomy enjoyed by the various country programmes which rely greatly on local management. Founded in 1967 by Leon Sullivan, the OIC was initially invited to Africa by Nigerian leaders. According to the President and CEO of OIC International Crispian Kirk, Founder Leon Sullivan answered the call of Nigerian leaders to set up vocational training programmes akin to the ones in the USA. With a grant from the USAID, OIC started operations in Nigeria in 1970. In Cameroon, 15,500 youth are assessed to have received vocational training .13, 000 (5,800 women and 7,200 males) are now successfully employed in both the private and public sector. Approximately 2000 graduates have created their own businesses
Our mission is to build self reliance through vocational skills and entrepreneurial development says Crispian Kirk. A highly regarded social entrepreneur, the affable CEO who talks about the continent with great insight and passion says the development approach taken by the OIC is unique. People everywhere want to have education, health, skills and jobs to provide for their families he says. The OIC focuses on two major areas, agriculture and technical and vocational training. With about 75% of Africans involved in one kind of agricultural activity or another, it is important to help them with the kind of skills that can optimize output. Many people thought that telecommunications will be a big drive in the world, but in Africa Mr Kirk believes infrastructure has the potential of been the game changer. Africa benefits when food can be produced in Kano Nigeria and it gets to Accra Ghana on the same day via rail or other means he enthused. It is in this light that people need training in infrastructural development, road development, engineering, electricity, plumbing, computer management et al. Emphasis on the OIC is on marketable skills that go with the available job market and contribute to overall development in specific countries.
The OIC has a bottom up approach to services it renders Kirk goes on. The OIC may be about the only NGO were local leadership plays a critical role in decision making. Even if there is a grant from the USAID; it is the local leadership that signs the checks and handles expenses. It is one of the reasons why the OIC in countries like Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Liberia, Ethiopia, Tanzania etc continues to wax strong. On how OIC measures the success of its programmes, the dynamic CEO said prior to each project consultants draw a baseline monitoring and evaluation module to ensure it captures common indicators of progress. We do not measure success simply by the number of graduates but also by the number of people who graduate from OIC programmes and land a job he says. Africans tend to look outside for solutions where as there have them right there, Kirk pointed out. A frequent visitor to Africa, Kirk says the OIC gives premium to local talent and expertise instead of inundating programmes with foreign experts and consultants as most international NGOs do.
On what he has learned from his frequent visits to Africa that his fellow Americans may not know, Kirk says the image portrayed of Africa as a begging continent is severely flawed. “I see more people going to Africa to beg” than the reverse he chuckles. All the amount of international aid poured into the continent is only a fraction of the huge resources that come out of Africa. Africa is a place of immense wealth and a diverse people striving for a better life. Asked if he would recommend Africa as destination for American business investment, absolutely Kirk answers. The US government must do more to support American businesses working with Africa he challenges.
The Chinese government is doing a lot in providing support for Chinese companies doing business in Africa and the USA may miss the boat if it does not offer similar support to American businesses working towards partnership with Africa he opines.
Although the OIC is open to considering expansion into more countries if invited to set up shop, it is more interested in opening up more OIC facilities and training centers in countries where it already operates. Using the example of Cameroon for instance, Kirk said instead of having one Center in Buea, OIC will love to open up more centers around the country. OIC Ethiopia operates two centers, one in Addis Ababa for unemployed urban youth and the second one in the town of Jimma in the Gambella Region of Ethiopia for Sudanese Refugees in collaboration with the UNHCR and the Ethiopian Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs office.
On the ties that exist between governments and the OIC, Kirk affirms that there are very strong. The only way to guarantee sustainability is to work with governments and local communities he says. If aid from USAID dries up tomorrow something that has happened in the past, it is the local governments that will fund the programmes. OIC Ethiopia for instance is nationally recognized by the Ministry of Justice and operates under the umbrella of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs of Ethiopia. Its Board of Directors consists of community leaders, private sector representatives (including the Chamber of Commerce of Addis Ababa) and representatives from Ministries such as the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, Ministry of Education, and the Addis Ababa City Administration.
As the OIC continues with its salutary development partnership mission in Africa, its success is spurring a number of people around the world to emulate their example. For instance at a recent congressional hearing at the US Capitol before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights Actor Isaiah Washington cited the OIC as an inspiration in his own work in Sierra Leone. “My efforts are part of a growing trend of members of the African Diaspora reconnecting with their homelands or the homelands of their ancestors. I have looked to the example of the late Reverend Leon Sullivan, who spent a great deal of his life connecting African-Americans and others to countries in Africa. Organizations he founded, such as Opportunities Industrialization Centers International and the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, have helped members of the Diaspora and others to volunteer their skills to teach young people in Africa or take part in training programs for African entrepreneurs and farmers”
The development partnership between the OIC and Africa is built to last ,says Crispian Kirk who has an extensive career in international development. He provided pro bono
legal representation to survivors of apartheid before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Crispian was formerly the director of the National Medical Association’s (NMA) Global Health Initiative, where he was responsible for launching Global Health projects in a number of Sub-Saharan African countries. He also founded and served as president of Bantu Consulting, LLC, where he provided strategic international business development and finance expertise to small and medium-sized enterprises. He served as a member of the Obama-Biden Africa Policy Team during the 2008 Presidential Election and has participated in the filming of a documentary in Sierra Leone that examines human rights abuses in the diamond industry.
*More on the OIC International and its country programmes in Africa can be found at http://www.oici.org/where-we-work/