• Tuesday, April 16, 2024
businessday logo


Population, policies others in Nigeria are factors hindering sustainable urban environments – Odunbaku


Omoayena Rosemary Odunbaku is a dynamic leader with a proven track record in fostering sustainable development and education. Her visionary leadership and extensive experience make her a driving force behind the advancement of development in Africa. Prior to her current role, Odunbaku held pivotal positions at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). As the Acting Head of the Governance Unit and Programme Manager for the Africa Urban Agenda programme (AUA), she advocated for decentralized development policies that provided financial and investment solutions, particularly benefiting underprivileged citizens. In this interview with IFEOMA OKEKE-KORIEOCHA, she speaks on lessons Nigeria can draw from developed countries on how to achieve sustainable urban environments as well as how she used her previous and current position to advance education and development in Africa and Nigeria in particular, amongst other issues.

You have held pivotal positions at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). Could you take us through your experience and journey at the (UN-Habitat)?

My work at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) has been both fulfilling and instrumental. Having served as a Human Settlements Officer since June 2014, initially within the Partners and Inter-Agency Coordination Branch and currently in the Regional Office for Africa, UN-Habitat, I’ve actively contributed to the organization’s mandate and achievement of global development goals. I have continuously played a role in enhancing connections and information exchange between UN-Habitat and local partners in Anglophone West Africa. My duties involve facilitating government and stakeholder platforms, spearheading the development of national campaigns, and leading the formulation and execution of Habitat Country Program Documents (HCPD) in collaboration with National Committees and UN entities present in the countries.

During my period in the Partners and Inter-Agency Coordination Branch, I backstopped the implementation of the Africa Urban Agenda program, offering operational support to projects in the Africa region. Notable achievements include mobilizing funds and high-level political buy-in to bolster the Africa Urban Agenda Programme; thus facilitating financial aid to twenty Sub-Saharan African countries, and overseeing the review process of 24 National Habitat III reports.

I’ve been actively involved in shaping conceptual models for urbanization in Africa, drafting key messages on urbanization for African Presidents, and coordinating high-level meetings during conferences in Addis Ababa and New York. My commitment to gender mainstreaming is evident in ensuring the implementation of guidelines at all levels. My career objective has consistently revolved around the pursuit of excellence and contributing to organizational goals. This commitment is reflected in my accomplishments, ranging from the publication of reports to the organization of conferences and the establishment of the Regional National Urban Policy Exchange Platform.

In summary, my experience at UN-Habitat underscores my dedication to advancing sustainable urban development, fostering partnerships and making substantial contributions to the Africa Urban Agenda.

How did you use your previous and current position to advance education and development in Africa and Nigeria in particular?

I have overseen and backstopped initiatives and projects undertaken which have varied over time. UN-Habitat often engages in urban planning and design projects that aim to create sustainable and inclusive urban environments. This can include planning educational institutions, ensuring access to schools, and creating spaces that facilitate learning.

Capacity-building programs also strengthen the skills and knowledge of local communities, government officials, and professionals involved in urban development. This can contribute to improved planning, management, and development practices, including in the education sector. My involvement in projects that focus on community development, including initiatives that empower local communities to take charge of their development. This empowerment often involves education and skill-building programs to enhance the capabilities of community members.

I have supported and overseen the establishment of new and nurturing of old collaborations and partnerships with governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other stakeholders. These collaborations may include education-focused initiatives aimed at improving access to quality education in urban areas.

My research work and publications which entailed extensive collection of data on various aspects of human settlements recommended relevant solutions that inform policies and programs, including those related to education and development. I have continuously advocated for the implementation of such policies which include increased investment in education infrastructure, improved access to education, and the integration of education into broader development strategies.

How do you advocate for policies that provide financial and investment solutions, particularly benefiting underprivileged citizens?

I have a strong academic background, so my first step is always to gain a deep understanding of the issues. Data is life- so I adopt research statistics, case studies, and expert opinions to strengthen the knowledge base. This will also include a good database of relevant actors and stakeholders.

Establishing platforms to exchange ideas like expert group meetings, colloquium etc helps build and foster existing networks that aid good communication. It also provides me with valuable insights, support, and identification of critical and prospective actors.

After this stage which I often refer to as the preliminary stage of interventions, I work with my team to develop a persuasive narrative that communicates the urgency and importance of the policies we are advocating for; using compelling real-life stories and examples to make the case relatable and impactful.

We then conduct awareness campaigns to sensitize all key stakeholders, including government officials, policymakers, financial institutions, and community leaders. Particularly to amplify the message, influence decision-makers and achieve citizen buy-in. Depending on the data from the preliminary stage, various channels, such as social media, workshops, and community events are often adopted to disseminate information.

Remember that effective advocacy is a continuous process, and building support for policy changes takes time. By combining well-researched arguments, strategic networking, and compelling storytelling, I have continuously contributed to several positive policy outcomes that benefit underprivileged citizens.

What are some of the success stories you have recorded as regards using your position to advance development in Nigeria? Kindly mention some of them.

We supported the Nigerian government to review the National Urban Development Plan and currently working with the Abia and Ekiti State governments to plan selected cities in their state. Backstopped resource mobilization for selected development interventions in Nasarawa, Abia, Ekiti, Lagos, Osun State as we continuously advocate for spatial planning as a driver of planned development. Raising the profile of urban development among high-level government officials. We have seen a tremendous positive buy-in over the last decade.

You hold a Doctor of Philosophy in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Lagos, Nigeria. This is not a common course people study. What propelled you to study this?

Fate played a role in my academic journey. Originally, I was aspiring to study civil engineering, but the complexities of the admission process in Nigeria led me to enrol in Urban Planning at the esteemed University of Lagos. Since then, it has been a fascinating trajectory. I would later meet mentors like Professors Iyiola Oni and Taibat Lawanson who further helped motivate me to pursue higher degrees in the field of study.

I earned a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning and I’m presently pursuing studies to become an economist at the prestigious London School of Economics. This decision stemmed from recognizing a significant gap between the two disciplines. Although I grew up in Lagos, frequent visits to areas like Makoko, were motivated by my interest in harnessing urban dividends—capturing the energy of the people, utilizing resources, and leveraging agglomeration. I hold an optimistic belief that African governments can establish functional human settlements tailored to the unique characteristics of their citizens.

You are committed to creating cleaner and more sustainable urban environments, particularly in disadvantaged communities. What do you think are the major challenges in Nigeria that have kept it from achieving cleaner and more sustainable urban environments?

Addressing the challenges of creating cleaner and sustainable urban environments in Nigeria is a complex task. Several factors contribute to this, including:

Population Growth: Rapid urbanization and population growth place immense pressure on existing infrastructure and services, making it challenging to implement sustainable practices. This is particularly evident in disadvantaged communities where basic amenities may be lacking.

Policy Implementation: Challenges in implementing and enforcing environmental policies contribute to the persistence of unsustainable practices. Strengthening governance structures and ensuring effective policy implementation is crucial.

Socioeconomic Disparities: Disparities in income and access to resources result in varied environmental impacts across communities. Disadvantaged areas often face greater challenges in achieving sustainable development due to limited resources and opportunities.

Awareness and Education: Limited awareness and education on sustainable practices hinder community participation. Robust awareness campaigns and educational initiatives are essential to fostering a culture of sustainability.

What lessons can Nigeria learn from cities like Paris, Dubai and the UK which evidently has achieved more sustainable urban environments?

Cities like Paris, Dubai, and the UK have indeed made strides in sustainable urban development but remember we have different socio-cultural and socio-economic constructs. Nigeria can draw valuable lessons from their experiences by prioritizing integrated urban planning that considers environmental, social, and economic factors. We need to adopt comprehensive planning strategies that promote sustainability like yesterday.

Professionals in the built sector and relevant disciplines need to embrace innovative technologies for sustainable energy, waste reduction, and smart city solutions that can propel Nigeria towards cleaner urban environments. Best practices from cities leading in technological innovation can inform Nigerian urban development initiatives. I also think examining the policy frameworks of successful cities provides insights into effective governance structures that promote sustainability. Nigeria can learn from policy innovations that balance economic growth with environmental conservation.

What is HERability Hub about and how do you empower young women to shape their destinies and contribute to positive social change through the hub?

Herability Hub was carefully conceptualized in consultation with various stakeholders to reflect the realities and incorporate sustainable models promoting girls’ awareness of and participation in social, economic and political life. We champion the course of the girl child and young women, locally and internationally, in identifying and overcoming those old and contemporary obstacles to their success and advancement. That the reality should be that a glass ceiling shouldn’t exist and must be shattered but to do so, an army of empowered women is needed, and it begins with them.

HH provides a platform that empowers girl children and young women to make good life choices through interactive forums, knowledge exchange, mentorship, critical thinking, advocacy and communication. HerAbility Hub is also a community platform that is dedicated to empowering women by liberating their minds with the ability and drive to shatter the glass ceiling. HH provides career talks focused on mentoring young female secondary school students, interactive forums to enhance critical thinking skills, mentor-pairing for inspiration, and real-life support systems. Additionally, our emphasis extends to offering complementary civic engagement lessons to foster positive societal change.

I have a genuine interest in the development of teenagers, particularly girls, and their impactful role in society. Individuals from underprivileged backgrounds often face a disadvantaged starting point, emphasizing the need for continuous advocacy, capacity building, and the creation of positive platforms. These initiatives aim to help them overcome obstacles and maximize their potential.

Tell us some of your commitments and dedication towards advancing the course of girl child education.

Firstly, OMOH! is a captivating memoir of the first four decades of my life. The book inspired by my trajectory was written to foster mentorship to young women, The book profiles me as a young African female professional, delving into the choices I’ve made and the extent to which they have influenced my identity. In the past three years that the book has been in print, thousands of copies have been published and donated to schools, institutions, libraries etc. Owing to the wide reception of the book and feedback, I conceptualized the OMOH essay competition, an initiative open to female students attending public schools and residents in Nigeria. All the proceeds from the sale of Omoh were channelled to the Gabriel Akomoh Yadua Foundation, a Nigerian-based non-profit educational organization, to create an enabling environment for mathematically distinguished students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending Nigerian public schools. This was achieved by establishing a math laboratory that teaches the students with inherent potentials of Math prowess, using Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) as access points for guiding their inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking.

Also, HerAbility in partnership with organizations and industry experts had in the past years mentored thousands of schoolgirls across Lagos through strategic career talks and her interactive forums. Presently, we’re working on a book project titled 20 Stories. This project aims to publish 20 inspiring stories of women from different walks of life. These stories will showcase the achievements, challenges, and unique experiences of these women, serving as a source of inspiration and motivation for readers.

Do you think the girl child’s education and advancement has improved compared to about five years ago? If yes, what are some of the factors leading to the girl child’s advancement in education?

Certainly. Over the past five years, there has been a growing global recognition of the importance of empowering girls through education. Several factors have contributed to the advancement of girl child education:

Firstly, the visibility of successful women in various fields has inspired girls to pursue education and careers. Mentorship programs connect girls with successful women, providing guidance and encouragement. The phenomenal exploits of women in various fields serve as powerful motivators for girls pursuing education. When girls witness successful women breaking the glass ceilings and achieving remarkable feats, it inspires them to aspire for more. Examples include women excelling in science, technology, business, sports, and leadership roles.

Also, increased awareness of gender disparities in education has led to advocacy efforts at various levels. Organizations, governments, and communities have worked to highlight the importance of educating girls and addressing the barriers they face. Many countries have implemented or revised policies to promote gender-inclusive education. This includes initiatives to ensure equal access to schools, providing resources specifically for girls, and addressing cultural or societal factors that may hinder their education.

Global organizations and initiatives, such as the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, have prioritized gender equality in education. This has resulted in collaborative efforts and financial support for programs aimed at improving girls’ access to quality education. Despite these positive trends, challenges like gender stereotypes, economic disparities, and cultural norms still impede progress. Sustained efforts, continued advocacy, and targeted interventions are essential to ensure that advancements in girl child education continue and expand.