Meet Abdulazeez, a young development practitioner who empowers women and youth in Nigeria. He studied mass communication at Bayero University Kano, but a life-changing experience in a remote community near his campus made him switch to social development. Currently, he works as a Program Manager at Bridge Connect Africa, Kano state, where he designs and manages impactful programs for women and young people. In this interview, he shares his story and talks about how women and youth can be empowered.
Q: You studied mass communication but you are now working in the social development sector. What motivated you and how did you get into the social development space?
A: It all started when I was a university student. A friend and I visited Dididi, a remote community near our campus, to learn about their daily lives. There we met Fatima, a young nursing mother who was suffering from malnutrition and could not breastfeed her baby properly. We felt compassion for her and wanted to help her. We also realized that malnutrition was a widespread problem in the community due to poverty, lack of opportunities, and poor health care. So we decided to take action and teach them some vocational skills that could help them earn a living. This was the beginning of WeCan Africa Initiative, a vision that we created in 2019 to empower women, girls, and youth economically to live with dignity. The smiles, the joy, and the happiness that we saw on their faces after our intervention inspired me to dedicate my life to this cause.
Q: Why did you choose to focus on women and youth empowerment?
A: When we thought of what we could do for the people, we were thinking of a solution within our means, one we could rapidly do with the urgency of the situation while also ensuring sustainability. That was how how we decided to empower them with skills and they agreed. That experience opened my eyes to the potential of young people as agents of positive change in society. It also reinforced my belief that the best way to improve people’s lives, especially women and young people, is to provide them with the right skills, education, and access to opportunities. With these resources, they can discover their passion, build their capacity, change their situations, and live dignifiedly. So I became more passionate about youth and women empowerment.
Q: What do you think is the best way to empower youth and women?
A: I don’t think there is one best way to empower people. It depends on the context and the needs of the people involved. The first step is to assess the problem that requires empowerment and gain insights from the people who are affected by it. Then we can design suitable solutions that can benefit them. For me personally, I believe in skills building and education as ways of empowering youth and women. These are essential for them to gain knowledge, confidence, competence and sustenance. They can also help them overcome the challenges and barriers that they may face due to gender or age discrimination, poverty, or lack of resources. With skills, education, and opportunities, they can explore their potential, pursue their interests, and contribute to their communities and society. I also think that inclusion and participation are important for women and youth empowerment. They should have a voice and a choice in the decisions that affect their lives so they can influence the policies and programs that impact them.
Q: How did your childhood experience or upbringing influence your work?
A: My childhood experience was very influential in shaping my work. I grew up as the last born in a family of six with parents who did not have the privilege of education. They struggled hard to ensure that we were not hungry and that we completed our education to the university level. When we were in the university, sometimes we would cry because we could not afford our tuition fees. But my parents would always find ways to pay for our education somehow. They made education a reality for me despite all the hurdles. But I know that many others face similar or worse situations but have no way out. So when I think about this sometimes, I tell myself I have to provide whatever support I can to other young people through my work.
Q: If you are to describe your journey in three words, what would you say?
A: Challenging, fulfilling, and transformational.
Q: What are some of your achievements so far?
A: I consider every moment of this journey as an achievement because it is part of me and what I love to do. Creating positive change where it is needed, being the reason why someone can build a skill or get an education to live a good life, working with others to support dreams to become reality – these are all achievements for me. I also think that staying consistently committed to this cause, both in good and bad times, is a big achievement.
However, I have led and co-led several social impact projects, but some of them stand out for me. One was in 2020 when I and my team launched a COVID-19 recovery project, Skill Up to Stay Safe and Live Good, in Kano state to reduce the vulnerability of women and youth to the impact of the pandemic. The project was supported by the Center for Information Technology and Development, MacArthur Foundation, and the International Institute of Education. We sensitized over 400 women on COVID-19 safety protocols and safeguarding against gender-based violence. We also empowered 30 of them with essential skills and prepared them for the Bank of Industry mini start-up grant of 30,000 Naira each. After the project, two of the women contacted me separately to tell me how the training and the grant had helped them revive their businesses and take care of their families. This made me happy and fulfilled because that is what achievement means to me – when people can attest to your impact in their lives.
Another one was in 2022 when I led one of my most challenging projects with Bridge Connect Africa where I work as a program manager. The project was in partnership with Jobberman Nigeria under the Young Africa Works Project by Mastercard Foundation. I worked with over 200 mobilizers, volunteers, contractors, and traditional leaders across communities in Kano State and supported direct mobilization, training, and upskilling of over 39,000 young learners with employability skills within 3 months. The project was very challenging because there were different groups of stakeholders to engage, a number of staff and volunteers to coordinate, and a large number of learners to reach across different communities, especially in rural areas. But I and my team were able to successfully coordinate the project and reach that number of people within that short period. I am always proud that we were able to do that.
Q: Do you face any challenge or setback during your work?
A: There are many challenges and setbacks that I face in my work. Dealing with different communities and women, and young people with diverse backgrounds and cultural perspectives is a challenge on its own. Sometimes it is about resistance and opposition from some people who do not share my vision or values. However, at all times, I try to create an environment of understanding, putting the needs, perspectives, and the cultural views of the people involved, and finding effective ways that benefit all to build support for the work. I have also missed great opportunities that would have been significant to my career. For example, I was selected alongside 60 young leaders to participate in a leadership training at the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership (HICSL) in the US through the United People Global Sustainability Leadership program (UPGSL) but I missed it due to VISA denial. These are some of the difficulties that I have to overcome in my work. However, I believe that is just an experience and it is part of the journey because all those experiences have also helped me to improve.
Q: How do you get inspired during your low moments?
A: As a young person who is full of passion and has a dream, I am well aware that dreams don’t turn into reality in one day. It requires consistency through trials, failure and learning. That’s my belief and it is enough for me, an inspiration. Aside that, my mentor is someone who is well experienced and has wisdom. When it gets tough sometimes, I just talk to him and I get inspired by his honest feedback, constructive advice, and encouragement because he helps me see the bigger picture and the opportunities for growth and improvement. I sometimes listen to Simon Sinek, Vusi Thembekwayo, Bill Eckstrom and I love reading Muhammad Ali’s quotes.
Q: Do you have any advice for other young people?
A: My advice for other young people is to be humble, to continuously learn, and to always be grateful. These are the three principles that I live by and they have helped me a lot in my journey. Humility helps you to respect others, learn from others, and acknowledge your mistakes. Learning helps you to grow, improve, and innovate. Gratitude helps you to appreciate what you have, what you have achieved, and what you have received from others.