• Saturday, April 13, 2024
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Thelma Ekiyor-Solanke, championing the cause of philanthropy and impact investment in Nigeria

Thelma Ekiyor-Solanke, championing the cause of philanthropy and impact investment in Nigeria

Thelma Ekiyor-Solanke brings over 23 years of dedicated experience in the development Philanthropy and Impact Investing sectors. She is the current pioneer Chairperson of the first-ever Nigeria Office for Philanthropy & Impact Investing (NPO)- a private sector-led coordinating Office, domiciled in the Office of the Vice President.

In 2021 – 2022, the Women’s Philanthropy Institute, USA named Ekiyor-Solanke as one of the top 10 Black Women working Philanthropy and Impact Investing globally and she received the ‘Black Women Give Back’ global Honourees Award. Ekiyor-Solanke is the Co-Founder/Chair of SME.NG. She also served as its Managing Partner. She is the Co-Founder/Chairperson of Afrigrants, a social enterprise.

She belongs to several boards and committees. Some of these include: Chair, Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, member, National Advisory Board on Impact Investing in Nigeria (NABII), member, Gender Advisory Board – African Venture Philanthropy Alliance (AVPA), Co-Chair, Black Philanthropy Month-Africa and Chair, Cranfield University African-Caribbean Business Forum.

Thelma Ekiyor-Solanke is currently completing a Doctorate in Entrepreneurship at Cranfield University, UK. She holds an MBA (Entrepreneurship & Innovation) from Imperial College London, UK, a Law Degree (LLB Honours) from the University of Buckingham, UK, and she is a Stanford University (USA) Fellow.

Can you share some key milestones or achievements from your 23 years of experience in philanthropy and impact investing?

I have had the privilege of being the first CEO or Managing Director of several organisations. A major highlight for me was having the opportunity to address the UN General Assembly. It was a surreal moment. It is always a milestone moment when I speak one-on-one with Heads of States. It is not something I will ever get used to or take for granted.

My greatest achievements will always be the lives I impact, especially the women who say I made their business dreams come true or I made a difference in their entrepreneurial journeys. Those are answered prayers for me.

How has the landscape of philanthropy and impact investing evolved over the years in Nigeria?

It has significantly transformed, and it is exciting to see. Philanthropy is different from impact investing on the continuum of access to capital but they share a unique quality of both being able to channel catalytic capital to beneficiaries. I have the unusual honour of building my career in both sectors.

About twelve years ago, as CEO of TY Danjuma Foundation, we hosted the 1st Nigerian Philanthropy Forum. I will always be grateful to my chairman at the time for seeing the vision behind hosting that forum. I believe it was a seed that was planted and has now germinated in the drive for structured institutional philanthropy in Nigeria. No one has a monopoly on the Nigerian philanthropy and impact investing sectors. There is too much to do. There is room for everyone. A country like Nigeria should have a vibrant and flourishing ecosystem for philanthropic giving and impact investing, so we, “the oldies” in the space should create opportunities for more players. I am always excited when people write to me on LinkedIn asking for advice on how to start a successful career path in either philanthropy or impact investing. It is such a rewarding career choice and I hope more people explore what both sectors offer.

How does it feel being the first-ever chairperson of the Nigeria Office for Philanthropy & Impact Investing (NPO)? What are your responsibilities as chairperson?

In many ways, it is a “Done by God”. There are so many leadership roles I have made in philanthropy and impact investing in Nigeria and across Africa, that I think God thought it was time to do something that would draw from all the experiences I have had.

My role as chairperson is to provide leadership in implementing the mandate of the office, which is to support MSMEs in the fashion, furniture, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy sectors and spur much-needed job creation.

The challenges in our country are obvious and we need innovative, out-of-the-box solutions to address these problems. This private sector-led office, domiciled in the Office of the Vice President, with the Office of the SSA for Job Creation & MSMEs, is one of such out-of-the-box solutions.

What initiatives or programmes does the NPO plan to implement over the next 1 year?

That is a great question. First and foremost, Nigerians need to know the office exists and what it is about. Therefore, we have been hosting networking events to connect with stakeholders and forge partnerships. Over the next few weeks, we will launch a major innovation to ensure that philanthropy is at the fingertips of everyone. This office can only succeed if people do not perceive it as an elitist solution to problems. We will also engage entrepreneurs in the 4 target sectors. I am really looking forward to that. I like engaging entrepreneurs, particularly when they are in the ideation to commercialisation stage. Watch this space.

What role does the private sector play in driving philanthropic efforts and impact investing in Nigeria?

Corporate philanthropy is huge globally. Some companies in Nigeria take it seriously and make it part of their corporate strategy not as branding exercises. They deserve credit for this. However, they can do more. The problem in Nigeria is that we do not have appropriate legislation that provides tangible incentives for businesses to engage in structured philanthropy, as they have in the West. This means people view philanthropy as charity and not something that has a strong business case. Venture philanthropy is an extremely profitable type of philanthropy that companies can embark on within the right policy environment.

I hope the NPO can facilitate some of these discussions with the right actors.

In your opinion, what are some of the biggest challenges or obstacles faced when it comes to philanthropy and impact investing in Nigeria?

The two major challenges facing both the impact investing and philanthropy sectors in Nigeria are the absence of adequate policy frameworks and the fact that activities are still very much skewed to certain parts of Nigeria.

How do you intend to ensure accountability and transparency in the allocation and utilisation of philanthropic funds?

Absolutely important question, we are going to use research in our work. Right now, we are working on context analysis to understand the baseline for philanthropy and impact investing in the country. Some interesting research has been done, we will put all that together so we can objectively track and measure the work NPO does. Everyone in these sectors will tell you that claiming impact is a challenge, but we are committed to showing tangible ways that the NPO makes an impact. We also want people to tell us what we can do better. I appreciate all the private messages on LinkedIn giving suggestions. They have all been very helpful. No one has all the wisdom, so please let us know if there is something we should look at. Of course, we can never address all the issues in the target sectors.

What advice would you give to individuals or organisations looking to engage in philanthropy or impact investing in Nigeria? What is the solution?

I have personally helped four wealthy Nigerians set up foundations that are doing very well, but I am the first to stress that structured philanthropy is not only for the wealthy. People can create vehicles that support development in their communities, either for profit or non-profit. My advice is: do your homework very well, be sure you are passionate about the area you want to intervene in because you will get very frustrated and it will be the passion, the fire in your belly, that will help you overcome frustrations. Speak to an expert in philanthropy. I see companies and individuals making a common mistake, they set something up, call it a foundation and put someone close to them who does not have the requisite skills or experience to run it and it ends up dying. A foundation functions with the same principles as any company. You need competence, skills, and experience. I will advise them not to settle for less. It will lead to a waste of resources.

You are completing a doctorate at Cranfield University UK. Why? What advice do you have for women who desire to add more to their educational background?

I am completing a doctorate in entrepreneurship, with a focus on women entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship ecosystems in Africa. It is one of my best investments in myself. After almost twenty-five years of working, I was reading literature on women’s entrepreneurship in Africa, and most of the literature was on foreign countries or not written by Africans. This was scary to me. I said, you mean all this work, will just go like that? No oh!

The doctorate gives me a chance to reflect, write, and document my experiences. Africans in general and women in particular, neglect to document their work. This means there is nothing for the next young woman looking to come into the spaces I have worked to read. We have lost a lot of knowledge due to this.

A doctorate may not be for everyone (it’s not easy), but surely, we can all find time to document our work. Okay, hire someone to document for you, but do not allow your footprints on the earth to be erased.

It is International Women’s Month, what do you have to say to women?

March always feels like a month-long party for women. All the events, all the colours, at least in Nigeria. This year, my motto is “Do something for yourself”. Women need to learn how to spoil themselves. My close girlfriend and I go on sushi dates. We do not invite the men in our lives, we just catch up, laugh a lot and download. Believe me, it is an important de-stresser. So, my wish to women this month is, let’s do something, at least one thing for just ourselves. Everyone else in our lives has all the other months.

Concluding words

Just to thank you Kemi. What you do, telling women’s stories is a priceless contribution to popular culture in Nigeria. Even men read your articles. So, well done and a special Happy International Women’s Month to you.