Written by Mission Talent Team

Leadership Transitions #11: ChiChi Aniagolu-Okoye

At the end of 2017, Mission Talent placed ChiChi Aniagolu-Okoye as the Country Director for WaterAid in Nigeria. Previously, she was the Country Director at Girl Effect, and also the Country Director for Oxfam in Nigeria. In this interview, she talks about the role of women in making change happen, new approaches to providing access to toilets, and how WaterAid is influencing the government in Nigeria and, in turn, the rest of Africa.

How has your experience been with WaterAid so far? What programmes or campaigns are you working on now that you are excited about?
It has been an extremely wonderful experience. I come from the development sector, but I didn’t come from the water and sanitation sector, so it was a bit of a learning curve in trying to understand the topic within the Nigerian context. It was a surprise that up to 34% of Nigerians do not have access to adequate water and almost 60% don’t have access to adequate sanitation. Nigeria has 180 million people, so this is a lot of individuals and I was tasked with seeing how we can scale up WaterAid’s work. Trying to provide services is not an option because Nigeria is huge and WaterAid is not a big organisation and, nonetheless, it is the government’s responsibility to provide services. Instead, what we have done is to try and build a partnership with the government to support them in building capacity, strategic planning, and delivery. The government needs to be in the driver’s seat and to prioritise water and sanitation. We’re not prescribing to the government what to do, we are advising them, and of course, we’re not the only ones trying to push this agenda, we also have The World BankUNICEF, and Action Against Hunger

The federal government has been on-board completely. Last year they declared a state of emergency in the water and sanitation sector, and they have really given the political will and drafted a national action plan. Part of that plan is a nationwide campaign on sanitation that we are working on with them. We’re still designing this campaign and don’t want to run faster than the government, because they need to be in the driver’s seat, so we have not launched it yet. A challenge we have is to try and get the state governments to do the same — to prioritise water and sanitation in the way the federal government has done. A lot of people recognise that water is necessary, but they don’t see sanitation as being as important, and so that has been a major challenge for us.  Another major challenge has been fundraising and trying to get the resources because everybody is chasing the same funders and the same donors. Even though water and sanitation are very critical, many donors are diverting from the water and sanitation sector. 

Nigeria is one of the largest and most influential countries in Africa, how does your work in Nigeria influence the rest of Africa?
Nigeria plays a very crucial role in Africa both in West Africa, the African Union and beyond. We are doing quite a lot in terms of advocacy and networking and to ensure that we are in all the influential meetings. We are also trying to get the Nigerian government to advocate for our positions because when they speak at these sub-regional bodies, it carries a lot of weight. 

Of course, we’re also able to influence our own organisation, because we have a regional office that will share best practices from the country offices. At WaterAid, we try to influence the ministries of different countries, and it always helps when you say, “Well, this is already being done in Nigeria”. Sharing best practices can be really helpful, so we’re making sure that the things that we do are properly documented and that we are sharing it within the wider organisation. Then, of course, we try to do a lot of media interviews across Africa. I have done quite a lot across the West Africa region, so trying to influence through the media and beyond the borders of Nigeria. 

Nigeria is densely populated, with large slums that still need access to toilets. What progress have you made and lessons can you share that would apply in other places?
Sanitation is a tough one because to be able to improve sanitation, people have to own toilets. It is not something that you can put in a central area like water that people go to fetch. You really need to have personal toilets, if not, most people will resort to open defecation. To have personalised toilets, they have to buy the toilets, because it is not sustainable to say that the government can provide toilets in people’s homes.

We have identified that there are three types of people who don’t own toilets. First, the people who can afford the toilets, but are accustomed to open defecation. These people don’t need a grant, they just need information on the toilets as something affordable and then they can pay for it. Second, there are people who know about toilets but can’t afford the entire $80 or $100 that is required to build a complete toilet. Third, we have people who cannot afford the toilet at all.  What we have found in the past is that a lot of people constructed toilets when they were told about the importance of sanitation and hygiene, but the quality of the toilets was so poor that during the rainy seasons they collapsed. So those people that spent the small amount of money they have in trying to build this toilet and then having the toilets collapse don’t want to hear about toilets anymore, they want to do open defecation. 

We have launched a sanitation marketing programme, through which we’re trying to get small businesses to become interested in sanitation. What is very important for us is to train masons and bricklayers on how to properly set toilets so that there are no issues with them. We are also training the first set of door-to-door salespeople, and then attaching them to these entrepreneurs. The door-to-door salespeople get the business, they come to the toilet builders, and then they get a commission for every toilet that they build. It is a completely private sector-led approach that targets individuals who can afford toilets.

We are working with microfinance institutions to be able to provide finance to people that can afford part of the costs of a toilet to work with a monthly repayment plan. For those that can’t afford it at all, we are working with the government to be able to provide toilets for this group of people. We’re pushing the SaTo Pans which are durable and cheap. They were developed by LIXIL and only cost about $3. We are also working with one of the state governments here to try and set up a plant for recycling human waste. In slum areas, once we make faeces a commodity, people will be able to take their waste to recycling centres where it can be transformed into a secondary product and they get paid for it. There is a lot to do, but as I said, many of these things need to be driven by the private sector and our role is to try and get the private sector awakened and aware of these different opportunities in the sanitation sector.  

You transitioned from a women’s rights organisation to WaterAid, how have the rights of women and girls continued to be a part of your work at WaterAid?
Well, for me it was a very easy transition, it was actually one that I wanted to do because it is mostly women who fetch water, and it is mostly women who are affected by poor sanitation, so WASH solutions are a very practical way of addressing women’s issues. What I have brought to the table is to recognise women’s role in decision-making and to ensure that we are training women as toilet builders. That was a bit of a controversy when I came in because a lot of the men who were in the organisation assumed that women would not be interested since it requires a lot of hard labour to dig the toilets. I told them there is no way you are going to know if women are interested if you don’t even let the women know that this opportunity exists. I insisted that we train the women, and in our first training three women participated. We can see that there are women who are interested and who are willing to venture into the water and sanitation sector, so we have pushed for that. Coming from a women’s rights background, I always say: there is no difference between men and women except their physiology — aspirations, interests, they are the same, so if you expose women to the opportunities that men have, then you find that there will be women who are interested. 

You have a PhD in Sociology, which is unique for a Country Director.  How have your studies informed your work?
I actually became a sociologist because I wanted to work in development. Sociology looks at how groups and group behaviour influences society, and we recognise that nobody lives in a vacuum, nobody lives on their own — people are products of their communities. So, when it comes to development, we have come a long way in terms of our perspective in that just because something worked in the West, does not mean it will work in Africa. Previously, we didn’t understand how those communities were organised or what made people behave in a certain way and how change happens. I think this is exactly where my sociology has been extremely helpful. In being able to make change happen, I am constantly critical of our methodology, trying to make sure that we understand that even in the same country what works in one part of our country may not necessarily work in the next part. We need to understand the community in its totality and how they are organised. Sociology makes me understand that if you’re bringing good, that good has to do no harm because you need to understand how the community functions in order to be able to bring about change that will be sustainable.