SEATTLE, Washington — The West African country of Ghana has a lot to boast about. It gained middle-income country status in 2010 and has experienced a steady increase in growth of 7 percent per year since 2005, according to a 2016 report by UNICEF. As the World Bank has reported, the country’s poverty rate was reduced by half over the last two decades.
Still, poverty remains a nationwide issue. As the economy has grown, inequality has increased. In 2019, 12.5 percent of the country’s population lived in extreme poverty (an average of $1.90 a day). Children of Ghana are at least 40 percent more likely to experience poverty than adults. Rural poverty is more than double that of urban poverty. Disparities in education are often cited as a key factor behind such inequalities. However, the Nneka Youth Foundation is one organization working to address the issue.
The Right Mindset and the Wish to Share It
Cecilia Fiaka was born in 1962 in the small village of Ve Agbome in the Volta region. Her single mother raised her and five siblings. Like her mother, most girls in small Ghanaian villages often get pregnant as early as 13 or 14 years old. Subsequently, they drop out of school. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Fiaka said, “I looked at such situations and I told myself, ‘No, I would not go through that.’”
Knowing her daughter had the potential to do better, Fiaka’s mother sent Fiaka to Ghana’s capital city of Accra to work as a maidservant. This helped fund Fiaka’s education. Fiaka managed to stay in school, went on to a poly-technical school and began a banking career. While working, Fiaka obtained a degree in human resource management and an MBA in project management from the University of Ghana.
She was working as a banker in Accra when she became frustrated by what she saw on visits home. The same problems of teen pregnancy and drugs that were prevalent when she was a child remained a driver of poverty in her village. “I asked myself, if I got the mindset to pull through, why wouldn’t I give the same mindset to girls who were dropping out of school and boys taking to drugs?” Fiaka said. “These children have potential but they lack opportunity, so why don’t I give them the opportunity now? Why don’t I let them know that ‘yes, you can do it, you can make it [out]?”
The Nneka Youth Foundation
In 2012, Fiaka called on everyone she knew that had ties to the region, resources to help and experience overcoming vices. She asked them to help conduct a summer camp. She recruited people in health, education, environmental and legal matters and other sectors. “We came to the community to see how we can work on students’ mindsets so they don’t settle for whatever is destroying them,” she said. “[We wanted them] to believe in themselves… to know they can become better people in society.” Fiaka and her cohorts spoke to 500 children over two weeks. Thus, the Nneka Youth Foundation was born.
The Nneka Youth Foundation is a grassroots Ghanaian NGO that provides children in rural areas with education and professional development support. It particularly targets reducing drug abuse and teen pregnancy. The organization operates in about 200 communities in 18 districts across the Greater Accra and Volta Regions. According to Fiaka, it has expanded to the Oti and Western Region of Ghana as well.
Nneka Youth Foundation and Children
Word of the successful first camp spread, prompting more communities to ask Fiaka to help the children in their communities. In eight years, the organization’s reach has grown from 10 communities to about 200. It has worked with 15,000 children to date. Fiaka says her organization has helped create a 200 percent transformation in students staying in school. Fifty-nine students currently have education scholarships through Nneka Youth Foundation.
The organization operates nine different programs. Some programs focus on seminars and training or workshops to teach businesses and other stakeholders how to contribute to community development. Others work on teacher training or speed mentoring to help students, teachers and community leaders
collaborate to improve education. There are also student tuition and school needs sponsorship programs, book drives and financial literacy courses.
Programs for Women
For women, there is a vocational entrepreneurial pathway (VEP) to help teen mothers get good jobs like making beads, detergent and cassava flour. It also created the Nneka Palm Oil Woman Empowerment Reorientation Scheme. This scheme improves the efficiency of palm oil extraction work, which is a key element of rural economies. This way, women can work fewer hours and have more time for other responsibilities.
The VEP is the most recent program added, created for women who can’t be in school because they already have families to raise. “We realized the only thing we can do is give them empowerment,” Fiaka said. “At least, when they are empowered, [they will be]self-sufficient.”
Recently, Nneka Youth Foundation completed an outreach event in which students in six communities were educated on local corruption and how to fight it. Nneka also spoke to more than 900 students about the importance of education and the children’s role as students at a Volta school event.
The Foundation consists of just five full-time staff members and about 91 volunteers primarily from Ghana. However, some also come from other countries, including the U.S. and Germany. The work is funded largely from foreign donors—corporate or individuals—though some financing comes from Ghanaian corporations and from the pockets of Fiaka herself and her friends and family.
Fundraising remains a key challenge for the organization. “Especially in our part of the world, people don’t understand charity, corporate organizations… do it one, two years, they become fatigued,” Fiaka said. “So, we always have to be looking for funding.” But, Fiaka says that it helps with donor appeal that she is so personally invested in the work. Since she experienced firsthand the problems she’s addressing, she’s capable of getting the message across to would-be partners that addressing poverty issues in rural communities will have a positive impact on Ghana and beyond.
“When kids drop out of school, they become burdens on society—their family, the community they live in, Ghana and the world at large,” Fiaka said. “The more they keep in school, the more they develop, it is
better for everybody… the burden on society will be reduced.” Fiaka is confident that her experience, the fact that she and her collaborators are so passionate and dedicated to the work and existing success testimonials will help attain funding and keep the Nneka Youth Foundation surviving, thriving and growing.
“We are trying and we do not want to let go. All we’ve gone through for the past eight years, and we still remain so strong,” Fiaka said. “Communities are engaged… We see our students wanting to come to give back. So, we see our organization going very far.”
– Amanda Ostuni