Toyin, a 2015 participant in the Transform Nutrition Short Course, tells us what she learned during that week, how she has been able to put it into practice and what she has gained from being part of the Transform Nutrition Leaders Network since then.
My path to nutrition I am Oluwatoyin Oyekenu, known to my friends as Toyin. I grew up on a farm in Ilesha Osun State, Nigeria. I was always able to access fresh, nutritious food when I was young. My problem, was that all I wanted to eat was junk food, especially doughnuts, so my understanding of nutrition was just about dieting. I didn’t really understand the problem of nutrition in Nigeria until much later on in my life.
I spent a year living in Enugu State, Eastern Nigeria with the National Youth Service after I completed my Bachelor’s degree in English Language from the Lagos State University. The people I saw out there had very little to eat and it made me appreciate all the food I had access to back home.
At the age of 21, still living at home, and with ambitions of working in broadcasting, my parents encouraged me to look into other career paths. So, I applied for a job at the British Council, where I started working as content manager for their website.
There, I was mentored into a knowledge management role and I was supported in my postgraduate studies in Knowledge Management Systems at Cranfield University, UK. In 2007 I was posted to the Botswana office of the British Council as a Regional Evaluation and Collaboration Manager for Sub Sahara Africa, but after two years as a Regional Manager and eight years in total at the British Council, I wanted to go back to Nigeria. I was successful in securing a position with a DFID governance project, ‘State Accountability and Voice Initiative’ (SAVI) in Nigeria, as a Monitoring, Learning & Accountability Adviser, focusing on accountability, which was my dream job.
I wasn’t looking for another job, but after 4 years working for SAVI, a colleague suggested that I applied for a Knowledge Manager position at Save the Children. I didn’t know it was for a health and nutrition programme until my interview. If I had known, I probably wouldn’t have applied because, as all my friends and colleagues knew, I was not interested in working on health programmes, and I didn’t know anything about nutrition. I didn’t really want to work on nutrition, but I was offered the job and I felt like a new challenge, so I accepted.
So, in November 2013 I started working on the programme, ‘Working to Improve Nutrition in Northern Nigeria’ (WINNN), which is funded by DFID. Save the Children work with UNICEF and Action Against Hunger to reduce child malnutrition in five northern states: Ebbi, Katsina, Jigawa, Yobe and Zamfara. After about a year and half of working for WINNN, I was promoted to Deputy Chief of Party, responsible for the technical coordination of programme’s activities and outputs.
A journey of understanding
An early trip to a site in Katsina state changed my life. I couldn’t imagine that in the country where I live, where I choose what I eat, there were children who were so sick because they didn’t have access to food.
I still have the image of this baby who was maybe six months old, they looked so ill. I also remember seeing a ‘so called’ health facility. I couldn’t believe this dirty building in front of me was the health facility and I remember being told it was one of the better ones.
I began to realise that nutrition was not a medical problem at all, it was a development problem. So many of the same issues that we faced in my governance work were also relevant here. How do we make sure resources are getting to the people that need it? How do we make sure the knowledge is getting to the people that need it? How do we navigate the cultural and traditional values that affect people’s choices around nutrition? How do we get political commitment?
I decided I was going to learn everything I could about nutrition. I did online courses, I read papers, I asked my colleagues endless questions. I dedicated myself to fixing the problem of undernutrition in Nigeria and this is what I have been doing ever since.
Putting my passion into practice
As part of my mission to expand my knowledge on nutrition, I found the Transform Nutrition Short course. Luckily, my line manager had attended the course the year previously so they were keen for me to take this opportunity.
We decided to take a high level civil servant from two of the participating states within the programme, and representatives from the Ministry of Budget and National Planning; the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency; UNICEF, Save the Children and from the operational research component of the programme. We had a strong team of seven people, each with a mandate on nutrition.
Our biggest problem in Nigeria was that while we had a National Nutrition Policy, which was developed 5 years ago, it hadn’t yet been approved. The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Budget and National Planning and the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency all believed they had equal rights on nutrition and there wasn’t enough coordination between the agencies to provide a coherent plan. Even the representatives within our cohort had different ideas about what had been approved from the policy and what had not.
We worked together throughout the course to develop a Nutrition Advocacy Plan for Nigeria. We wanted to move forward with the National Nutrition Policy and create better coordination between the three implementing agencies. We also wanted to create a more coordinated approach for nutrition advocacy amongst all the actors working on nutrition in Nigeria
We were perhaps overambitious about how quickly and easily our Advocacy Plan would be rolled out when we returned to Nigeria. Some people were worried that we were encroaching on their mandate. As they had not been involved in devising the plan they didn’t realise why we had made the decisions we had. However, we were still adamant that the plan was necessary, but we needed to take a different approach.
We first committed ourselves to passing on some of the learning we had gained from the Transform Nutrition short course to media and civil society groups in Nigeria. We adapted learning materials into a three day course, with an additional two day field visit. I thought back to my experience in the field and I was sure a field visit would help them to understand the problem of under nutrition in Nigeria.
Then we set our sights on getting the National Nutrition Policy approved by the Ministry of Budget and National Planning. One of our cohort worked for this ministry so they were able to push this forward and we were able to support strategic advocacy at all levels of the decision making process. We were delighted when it was finally approved and the short course was instrumental in this change, it represented a significant step forward for nutrition in Nigeria.
Working with the Transform Nutrition Leaders Network
My advice to future cohorts and participants of the short course would be to make the most of the experts in the room; you are being taught by some of the world’s leading specialists in nutrition. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I think, if it’s a stupid question and you don’t ask it you’ll remain stupid! It is important to be real as well and don’t sugar coat the nutritional situation you are dealing with in your country. The point of the course is to try to pinpoint the issues and problems so you can solve them, so don’t tiptoe around the truth.
I am now a co-convener for the Transform Nutrition Leaders Network in West Africa, which aims to bring together Transform Nutrition Alumni to form a community of practice. I really want to use this platform to share our lessons and teach other what is possible without a lot of financial support.