Sunday, January 26, 2003

Project to help community in Nigeria

Emmanuel Itapson, a graduate student at Hebrew Union College, is creating a non-profit organization to help Jos, a city in his home country, Nigeria.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
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By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A chance meeting more than two years ago between a pastor and a graduate student could help change a community halfway around the world.

What began as brainstorming about how to make a dent in world hunger has become the brainchild of these two men - a startup non-profit corporation based in Cincinnati that will bring a food processing plant, a boarding school and a healthcare program to Nigeria, one of the most impoverished and war-torn countries in the world.

Pairing American ingenuity with existing resources in communities abroad is the foundation for building sustainable development. Governmental agencies direct millions of dollars every year to that end.

But Self-Sustaining Enterprises (SSE) is an ambitious local project undertaken by a diverse group of prominent individual Cincinnatians to bring aid to developing nations.

The pilot will be in Jos, Nigeria, but organizers hope to replicate the model in other developing communities.

"This reminds me of some kind of World Bank program," said Deborah Kittner, director of programs and education at the World Affairs Council of Greater Cincinnati. "It sounds like a program that would happen on that scale. But it's driven by individual passion and interest, and that's what brings success."

Jeff Greer, pastor of Grace Chapel in Mason, works with Itapson to create the program.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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The idea developed after a meeting in 2000 between Emmanuel Itapson, a graduate student at Hebrew Union College, and Jeff Greer, pastor of Grace Chapel in Mason.

Mr. Itapson was studying Bible and Near Eastern studies at HUC and looking for a church. He had a master's of divinity degree from Eastern Seminary in Pennsylvania, but wanted a Ph.D. so he could teach Bible and history in his native Nigeria.

Months after visiting the congregation, Mr. Itapson found himself enjoying dinner with the pastor at another church member's house. The two began brainstorming ways to feed people in starving nations, especially in Africa, and at the same time ease some of the intense fighting in Mr. Itapson's native Nigeria.

"We started dreaming and scheming, and it came together at that point," Mr. Greer said.

"Coming together" meant bringing together some of Cincinnati's brightest minds - in business, technology, management and education - to build SSE.

The business plan, which should be completed this month, goes like this:

The parent non-profit company would be based in Cincinnati and oversee self-sustaining "campuses," first in Nigeria and eventually in other developing nations. A food processing and agriculture program will use crops in those communities to produce a variety of non-perishable foods - dry fruits, vegetables and box drinks.

  Self-Sustaining Enterprises is a Cincinnati-based start-up company, which a group of local business, education and management experts is creating to bring aid to developing countries.
  Organizers intend to raise $10 million for phase one, which will be used to build a food processing plant and boarding school for a pilot project that will be located in Jos, Nigeria.
Profits from the food processing plant would then be used to:

• Sustain a boarding school that focuses on underprivileged children.

• Offer on-the-job training at working farms and the processing plant.

• Provide vocational training in auto repair, plumbing and masonry and other areas.

Basic healthcare, including check-ups, immunizations and minor surgery, would be added later.

Cost of the first phase is estimated at $10 million.

"This project no doubt is the first of its kind in Nigeria and I dare say in Africa," said Barrister Sule Kwasau, the group's Nigerian attorney. "The project is not a handout to the less privileged. It can thus be captured in the saying, `Give someone a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.' "

It's a big idea for a country with even bigger problems, but project participants say the combination of the church's experience educating and housing orphans and Mr. Itapson's political connections may be what it takes to pull it off.

Mr. Greer and other church members have seven years' experience partnering with orphanages in Monterrey, Mexico, through Back2Back Ministries, Inc., a non-profit organization based in Mason that the minister founded in 1996. The group offers financial support to several orphanages and fully operates one, Joshua House, for teen boys.

With an annual operating budget of nearly $600,000 - and status as an IRS-recognized non-profit - Back2Back will be used as the fiscal agent until SSE is approved as a non-profit and registered with the state of Ohio. Organizers expect to receive that status by spring.

Mr. Itapson, 36, brings connections with the Nigerian government that he developed from 1987 to 1996 during his days as a pastor in the Evangelical Church of West Africa. After a year of planning with members of Grace Chapel, he contacted the governor in the Plateau State, one of 36 states that make up Nigeria.

Nigerian officials were so impressed with the idea that Chief Joshua Dariye, executive governor, agreed formally in November to give some of his personal land to implement the project. Plateau State officials agreed to buy other parcels from tribes for a total of 120 acres. The governor will be in Cincinnati this week to meet with organizers about the project.

"Government resources fall far below the needs that prevail," said Patrick Dakum, commissioner for information and culture for the state. "Nigeria ranks amongst the 13 poorest countries in the world. The governor is interested in wooing investors and philanthropists to site projects in the state that will better the lot of the people.

"It was for (Gov. Dariye) answered prayers to have SSE International get interested in (developing) projects in the state. Giving the land attracts a development that far outweighs the cost."

The pilot will be in the city of Jos, in central Nigeria, a country known for political instability and bloodshed over religious and ethnic conflicts.

Nigeria, with more than 120 million people, is the most populous country in Africa. The country has more than 250 ethnic groups that vie for political power and suffers from ongoing fighting between Muslims and Christians.

Africa to America

Mr. Itapson was born to prominent Christian parents in the Muslim-dominated city of Kano, about 150 miles north of Jos. He remembers the yearlong famine after the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960s.

"People were picking up any and every green thing to eat," he said. "I was a child, but I remember those things clearly."

Many of his friends couldn't go to school because their parents couldn't pay for transportation.

"Things have gotten worse in the country while the population has exploded," he said.

The U.S. State Department has warned Americans about the dangers of traveling in Nigeria. The developing West African country has neither completely functional nor well-maintained infrastructure.

In addition, the country's education system is on the verge of collapse, Mr. Itapson said.

"For any child to get a chance at a good education, he or she must be sent to a private school," he said. "The cost of an average private school in Nigeria is $1,000 per year. The average income per person per year is less than $300.

"This means that most people cannot afford private school, which, in turn, means no future for their children. If you go anywhere in Nigeria today, you'll see many children in the streets either begging or carrying little goods to sell. This program targets the most vulnerable of the lot."

Mr. Itapson and his wife, Lydia, can't help but think of their own three children when trying to help the millions in their native country who don't have parents to take care of them.

"Children that are trapped in hopelessness - either because their parents are poor or because their parents are killed in some ethnic or religious conflict - are a ready army for anyone, for any cause," Mr. Itapson said. "There is nothing more dangerous in the world than someone who thinks they have nothing to lose by dying."

Bringing these children together can provide hope.

"If there was ever a time to help Nigeria," he said, "it is now."

So, too, believed a group of five men from Grace Chapel. To that end, they visited the Plateau State in September.

Local project directors asked prominent Cincinnatians and nationally known scientists and educators to serve on an advisory committee. In a country that is known for scams, it's important to build credibility before asking for money, Mr. Greer said. Fund-raising for the project is expected to begin within six months.

"We have only one shot at this," Mr. Greer said. "People need to know how this is going to go. We trust people, but we want the lawyer to say the same thing."

Prominent individuals have stepped forward to serve on the advisory committee, including:

Rodger Reed, a group vice president for Cintas Corp. and former president and CEO of Andrew Jergens Co., who brings more than 30 years of business leadership.

Mark Burrell, project management adviser for Procter & Gamble, who will lend his engineering and project management expertise.

Scott Smith, president of TF Logic, Inc., a Cincinnati-based computer software company, who brings computer and technical knowledge.

Ray Terrell Jr., an imaging system administrator and project manager for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, who will serve as liaison among key sectors in the project.

Steve Stolz, former CFO of Sara Lee Food Group, who will be in charge of the budget side of the business plan.

Also lending support is Jon Anfinsen, a scientist who founded Advanced Nutrition Systems in Gainesville, Fla. The development company studies the way foods are used by the body and creates formulas and processes to enhance nutrition in those products.

Dave Brown, former CEO of Lenscrafters, will also review the plan as a consultant.

Project organizers are aligning themselves with others who have professional experience in grant writing and petitioning governmental departments, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, for funding.

The governing body that registers companies in Nigeria has approved the company name. The application to become incorporated in the state of Ohio will be submitted next week; incorporation in Nigeria will soon follow.

Mr. Greer admits that Africa is a world away from his experiences in Mexico, but he and other team members believe that with hard work and creativity they can make a change.

"It will bring people of different communities together," Mr. Itapson said. "And they will see a way out. That's the goal, that's the prayer. It's what keeps everyone so excited. It's not just about doing one thing. It's about doing many things to change the society."


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