Dr Bunmi Oyisan never planned to go into education. In her own words, the Nigerian creative writer, TV and film producer and grandmother, mostly “just happened into” her career as an educator and crusader of affordable schools for low-income families in Nigeria. But today, you be hard-challenged to find a stronger advocate of a child’s right to a quality education in a safe, clean and decent environment regardless of their economic position.
“Honestly, I cannot see myself doing anything else. I can’t just stand by when there is a need to stand up and take action. When Maroko happened, I had no interest in running a school. But I saw too many kids who had dropped out of the system and who I knew would have a brighter future if only they had the opportunity to get a proper education. I am also the kind of person who likes a challenge and if there ever was one, this was it.”
In one of the largest forced evictions in Nigerian history, in 1990, more than 300,000 residents of the low-income Maroko area lost their homes when the community was demolished to make way for new properties. With nowhere to go, many former residents spilled into the newly developed and affluent Lekki district to work for wealthier families. But the capacity of government-run schools was not enough to incorporate the displaced and so many children were left with no options. A novelist and writer for TV, radio, film and theatre at the time, Dr Oyinsan lived nearby with her husband and film/TV director Soji Oyinsan.
“People who worked for us had their entire lives turned upside down. It was devastating to see so many families displaced and children out of school. We had property where we could host classes so we established a tutorial college and I recruited family and friends to help teach reading, writing and basic numeracy in the evenings for older students. Local women pleaded with us to extend whatever we were doing to the mornings as it killed them to see their children with nothing to do. We had the support of the American and Canadian Women’s Clubs and other donors. So it started like that, very informally, until Leikki Peninsula College became a proper secondary school. We had to charge fees in order to hire teachers as we grew, but we are still the cheapest by far in the area.”
After overseeing the secondary school for several years, Dr Oyinsan moved to Canada with her family where she received a Masters in literature and women’s studies and a PhD in film and gender studies both from Canadian universities. Supported by an active and committed Board, Lekki Peninsula College continued to run in her absence although she made regular visits to ensure everything was on track. Despite its size, the secondary school has seen more than 2000 students graduate with 90% continuing in tertiary education.
In 2013, Dr Bunmi returned to Lagos and took up her position as proprietress of the secondary school. Within a short period of time, it became obvious to her if she was going to have a broader impact on young people’s education, more would need to be done.
“The children who were entering the secondary school were not strong enough academically. We had to do a lot of remedial work with them and really felt we needed to intervene earlier and open an elementary school. At the same time, I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes we had made with the Peninsula College in terms of our high operating costs. So I started researching lost-cost models for schools in Asia.”
“I am infinitely proud of the students who have passed through our doors. One came in the other day, he’s studying accountancy. He’s in the running for a first class degree…These are the moments I live for, the moments that push me forward each day.”
During her investigations, Dr Bumni came upon the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund – a financing arm of the Pearson education company that makes significant minority equity investments in for-profit business to meet the growing demand for affordable education across the developing world. She sent them her business plan to start Lekki Peninsula as a chain of affordable elementary schools with an all-inclusive fee structure and flexible payment system.
The timing was perfect.
“Pearson was partnering with Village Capital to support entrepreneurs seeking to address education issues in Africa. We were selected to be part of the ‘Eduprener’ 3-month accelerator program and were one of two businesses selected by a group of education-focused peers to receive $75,000 USD to realise our vision and scale the model. Our plan is to run the schools like a franchise, taking advantage of economies of scale. We keep costs down by avoiding unnecessary expenditures such as air conditioning and rely on workbooks so parents don’t need to purchase all textbooks. We also buy supplies in bulk.”
That seed funding enabled Dr Bumni to launch the first elementary school in Leikki in September 2015. The demand for the half-a dollar-a-day tuition was not unexpected considering the extra-curricular activities, uniforms and workbooks that are included in the fees.
“We had to stop admitting students when we hit 240 as we ran out of space. Since then, we have created more room and now host 500 learners. Our forthcoming schools will have the capacity to hold about 1000 students and be self-sustaining.”
A second elementary school is scheduled for opening in 2017 in Sapati, Lagos. The land has been acquired but further funding is still needed.
“Financing has always been an issue,” Dr Bunmi explains. The banks are very risk averse: we couldn’t even use the land we own – and on which we intend to build – to raise more capital. After 2017, our goal is to open one school per year if we can bring in the funds.”
One school per year is an aggressive goal, but this social entrepreneur is determined to succeed and buoyed by the faces she sees in the hallways of her schools.
“I am infinitely proud of the students who have passed through our doors.” Dr Bunmi says almost singing. “One came in the other day, he’s studying accountancy. He’s in the running for a first class degree. His sister is studying medicine. One of our secondary school teachers is a former pupil. These are the moments I live for, the moments that push me forward each day.”