Mrs Chika Offor, the Chief Oversight Officer, Vaccine Network for Disease Control, in an interview with our Correspondent in Abuja, she reinstated the importance of getting access to health care facilities.
In a nutshell, who is Chika Offor?
Chika Offor is a wife, a mother and the Executive Director, Vaccine Network for Disease Control. At Vaccine Network for Disease Control, we believe in health and development for all.
We believe that anything that disrupts development is a disease and anything that supports development is a vaccine, hence the name Vaccine Network for Disease Control. She is also a serial entrepreneur; I do things that bring money legitimately.
Please can you tell us more about Vaccine Network for Disease Control?
Vaccine Network for Disease Control started about ten years ago when the indices showed that many Nigerian children were dying from diseases around pneumonia.
Pneumonia is a silent killer, and as a child, I had pneumonia and for many months I was being treated for malaria and I almost passed on. But thank God they discovered it was pneumonia and I was treated.
But many children do not have that opportunity, at that time, nearly one million children in Nigeria died every year and pneumonia was one of the killers. Because of that, I decided that I will support by creating awareness about this disease and other preventable diseases through vaccination and many people were not vaccinating their children, especially those in communities.
I decided that I must support in any way I can to help Nigerians, that is why I started Vaccine Network for Disease Control. I also work with other people who have the same mind when it comes to the Nigerian child, I have been in that space for more than ten years now.
What was your initial capital to start this non-profit organization and how did you source for it?
I didn’t have any capital when starting, my location was our dining table, and my husband used to call it “the dining table NGO”. I had just left the private sector and was looking for what to do, I had wanted to start a business. When I heard the story about how children were dying from diseases that could have been prevented through vaccination, I got in touch with the media because people needed to be aware of the indices, and the media needed to talk about these diseases.
I got someone from the Guardian and we wrote a proposal to different media houses about coming together to raise awareness about pneumonia. We sent it to John Hopkins, Vaccine Access Centre, and it was approved.
We got a grant of 5,000 dollars which was used to for our first project in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, Nation Primary Healthcare Development Agency and the media houses and also a representation from John Hopkins were there.
A talk was given about awareness on facts about pneumonia, that was the day World Pneumonia day was set up, November 12 2011. People now knew us, and Pediatric Association of Nigeria wanted to talk about pneumonia, because pneumonia kills mostly children before the age of five, they were having their conference and wanted us to support them, I got another grant to support the conference.
Before we knew it, National Primary Healthcare Development Agency wanted to launch a new collaboration of vaccines and they said we should come and do the prelaunch.
Coming from the private sector, we know how to use innovative strategies to call up people, so we called up schools, both community and private schools to come and use innovative strategies to sell the message of pneumonia prevention and support. From then on, we have not looked back.
What major challenges did you face starting this NGO?
The first challenge was the registration, we started before the registration came out. The other challenge was location, we applied for grants that we could not get because we did not have an address, the location was my house.
We needed money to rent a place and it was not easy, what we did was to collaborate with other NGOs who had offices, when they got a big grant, they would sublet a small portion for us which was something compared to doing nothing.
We did that for a while until we were able to get a small place which was a portion of my shop where I was selling clothes, I carved it out as the NGO office.
I collaborated with National Primary Healthcare Development Agency, they had the national vaccine summit to create awareness about vaccination. I did any work they asked me to do, I volunteered in many organizations to gain experience and to deliver my passion, I found that the best strategy was to adopt a community that needed help so that we can see for ourselves what was happening.
We adopted the Damangaza in the FCT as our first community, one hundred children were dying in a year in the community because they were not vaccinated, we started doing house to house talking to them about vaccination.
It took a long time before they could trust us because different kinds of people had been coming to them in the name of NGO deceiving them and taking children from the community for one thing or another and never coming back with the children.
Over time, they started trusting me. I started using my car to take the children every month to go and take vaccines, when they give birth, I will be there to take the children to the hospital for vaccination.
Little by little, the number of deaths dropped, and they started calling me “mama vaccine”. They said I brought good luck to the community, but it wasn’t good luck, it was a change of lifestyle.
The women started doing family planning, and we started discussing about the education of the children. We started taking children to school, and we got individuals to contribute money here and there to support the children’s education.
The agreement we had with them was that if a girl child goes to school, she will not marry, but if a girl is idle, she should marry.
Our focus was to make sure that the community was developed through women empowerment, girl child education, policy advocacy, vaccination, policy changes, etc. we just focused on that community and gradually we saw the change.
We also did an implementation research to see what was working and what was not working, we made a lot of mistakes too.
We also put boreholes in the community because children started dying from water borne diseases, we decided to use the community but they cheated us, so we had to decide what aspects of community projects to give to the community, we learnt from that experience.
So many challenges came along the way, certain individuals in the community wanted money to themselves and we said no, so they would aggravate people to come and fight us but we didn’t give up.
The foundation of our NGO cannot be told without that community, and till today, we are still there, they are very special to me.
They call me if any other NGO comes to them. They even named one of their children after me even though they were Hausa community.
Over the years, you have been an advocate of the girl child education, what really motivated you towards that direction?
There was a girl in this particular community who we were paying her school fees, the father promised she would not get married till she completed her secondary school education, but one day I came to the community and she wasn’t there.
The father had gone behind my back to Kano to get her married at the age of fourteen, she already has two children, by now, she should be about eighteen years old now with two children.
The last time I spoke to her, she cried and said she wants to go to school, that I should help her.
I thought I had done everything needed for her to be educated, but it seemed what I did was not enough, from that day, I decided to take the bull by the horn and focus a lot more on the girl child education, and not trust what people say but be there by myself and be able to engage all necessary organizations to support me to make sure that the girl child is educated.
If a girl child gets to SS3, it means she will not marry until she finishes secondary school, she will be at least eighteen years old and at that age she can say no and choose to learn a trade. The girl child is one of the vulnerable groups, and its important they are educated.
You have been the strong force behind the rehabilitation of some health centers in the FCT and nearby states, what really motivated you? Do you think that getting our health centers equipped can improve the health sector in any way?
Yes, there is a program which the federal government started called the whole family approach, which focuses on the whole family.
Because of Covid-19, many people do not go hospitals because of fear, and many children are not vaccinated as a result, even in the cities.
So, the whole family approach is such that the whole family can go to the hospital at once to get their health needs attended to in one single visit.
If the health center is not well equipped, this will not be possible. This is why it became important to focus more on the health centers. This is how the “adopt a facility” came about. It is a case of Nigerians taking charge of Nigeria.
There are people who have died as a result of not having access to health care facilities, so we must make sure that our centers are functioning well. We have developed a framework to understand where the government stops and where we can start our own work.
What should the government do to make sure that our primary healthcare centers are improved?
The government has a lot of work to do, and there are funds allocated, but we know that the money is not enough to cater for the needs of our healthcare centers, there are a lot of problems to deal with.
The government has to let us know what their own role is, a lot of Nigerians appear like they don’t care because they do not even know what the role of the government is.
The government has to let us know what their own role is, and how we can come in. Transparency and accountability is key, when the government is open, people will know what role they can play to help so as to help the Nigerian child.
You have been running the NGO for over a decade, how many people have you reached?
Right now we are in FCT, Delta State, Imo State, Kano State, Kaduna State, Edo State working with the women and the vulnerable groups to make sure they are empowered so that they can hold the government accountable.
We are in the six geopolitical zones and I cannot begin to count the number of people we have reached, but for every action that we take, there is a reaction.
What has running this organization impacted in your own life?
Before now, I used to complain a lot, but running this NGO has exposed me to seeing people who cannot afford a meal, it has helped me to be more grateful.
It has also helped me to appreciate people more when they are doing their work well, knowing that their work is important.
I have also learnt to be humble, because I have seen people in the communities we go to who are very intelligent but are not able to make it in life.
Many people in these communities are skilled in playing football, but are not able to use their gifts. It has helped me to be humble and be kind to others.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
In the next five years, I see myself not only supporting Nigeria, but also supporting Africa.
To start a movement for the empowerment for the girl child and those who do not have a voice.
To be able help the girl child to go to school and complete their education, not just in Nigeria but in Africa.
To be able to help other women to be educated and be empowered. I see myself being a support system in Africa, in health, education, empowerment and psychosocial support.
What is your advice generally to those who want to start an NGO?
My advice is think big and start small, identify the problem that you are trying to solve and also learn to volunteer. Work with whatever you have.
My strategy is only to employ people who have volunteered, we don’t just employ people, most of our staff are those who started as volunteers.
And I advise the youths to also volunteer, because their contribution matters. As long as you are educated and can read and write, no matter the level of education you attain, you have a lot to contribute, do not let anyone tell you otherwise.