The Big Picture: An Interview with Business Day

Ore Disu is the founding director at the Nsibidi Institute. Her work, for the last two years, has been focused on equipping young Nigerians with a deep understanding of their history and roles in society. In this interview, she shares her vision for the organisation with Rita Ohai of Business Day Newspaper, Nigeria.

Rita Ohai: Recapping the first year of operations at the Nsibidi Institute, what are some of the key achievements your organisation has recorded?

Ore Disu: In many ways, our first year as a start-up non-profit organisation has been immensely rewarding and encouraging – especially given our focus on discourse and learning which differs from the more traditional NGO in Nigeria. 2014 was mainly about creating a recognizable brand and investing in relationships crucial to our vision. This involved crafting our visual identity and streamlining our message as we engaged with people from different sectors and publics through our blog and in-house projects.

TG_Business Day_1506_1We represented our views as an Institute and as Nigerians on international platforms, including NESTA’s FutureFest in London, the Cities of Migration conference in Berlin, the Post-African Futures exhibition in Johannesburg and several other events here at home, such as the 2014 Nigerian Institute of Town Planners annual conference and more recently the Lagos Black Heritage Festival.

Our on-going projects are collaborations with some of the biggest and most active players in the cultural relations and advocacy scene, such as Ford Foundation, Goethe-Institut, and the Heinrich Boll Foundation. Just last month, we ran a multi-stakeholder workshop for an interdisciplinary centre we are proposing in the heart of the Lagos which featured distinguished figures such as Olasupo Shasore, the former Attorney General for Lagos State, and Sola Adeola of Freedom Foundation.

Perhaps even more exciting for us is that we’ve already begun the crucial work of capturing personal histories. This is an endeavour I am very passionate about and which I believe sets us apart from any other organisation in Nigeria.

RO: Based on your experience, what unique challenges have you faced with promoting local research and effecting critical engagement on social issues?

OD: Strangely enough what I would consider to be our biggest challenge is not the typical issue start-ups face. I’ve been fortunate to have a board of Trustees, and advisors comprised of people who are well experienced in developing sustainable operational and financial plans, and ways to ensure we are on the right path to reaching our target objectives.

TG_Business Day_1506_2I would say the most unique challenge I have faced as the Executive Director is getting people to understand what we do and why it is important. Buy-in is always easier when people recognise the value of your intentions and see how it is personally relevant to them or their convictions. That there are few well-known or currently existing examples that could serve as a reference point or prototype doesn’t make the task any easier.

We are working hard to establish a rapport with Nigerians as an Institute of critical thinking and learning. But to be worthwhile, critical engagement depends on access to credible materials to forge informed perspectives. Ensuring access to knowledge resources is in itself a complex, consuming and often expensive process. Typically archives fall under public purview with the benefit of a bursary or stable budget allocation. We are interested in not just providing access to published materials as with traditional libraries, but also to lead in the collation and documentation of a more diverse array of artefacts – material, visual and oral formats.

The Institute is looking to innovative solutions that take advantage of the new media technologies and digitisation for crowd-sourcing, but there is a limit to how much we can leap frog. Nigeria, like many African countries, has not made the proper investment of resources needed over generations. Our “Personal Histories, Collective Memory” programme features three tests as part of a format we are developing. This is not a standalone project, but an on-going project that must be scalable and wide-reaching.

Our work in promoting local research and learning has thus far been centred on supporting platforms and initiatives for public engagement. The Open City Lagos project with Heinrich Boll, for example, has done this through a public call for contributions and cross-learning workshop. We’re now working closely with our partners and global network on a publication and planning a small conference and exhibition here in Lagos.


RO: What strategic tool is Nsibidi utilising to gain competitive edge and position itself as a leading research institute among its indigenous contemporaries?

OD: Ironically there are few if any competitors with a recognisable presence here in Nigeria. In any case we tend towards a collaborative approach and broad-based inclusion in developing and executing projects. As part of our strategy to position ourselves at the crossroad of vertical and horizontal learning, we partner with other organisations and researchers to leverage on their expertise, networks and capacities.

TG_Business Day_1506_3One area that is intrinsically more competitive – and even territorial – is of course funding, particularly in Nigeria where corporate sponsorship and applications to foreign grant-giving organisations are the go-to solutions. Through the Printing Press Project, we hope to develop alternative, innovative mechanisms that will not only help us and others raise revenue but more importantly transform the culture of gift-giving for non-profits and social entrepreneurs alike. Tying this to investment is key, as is ensuring sustainability by creating collective revolving funds, which is presently missing from the zero-sum local climate of social finance.

RO: Global leaders often possess some set of critical competencies to perform outstandingly on the job. Which, in your opinion, is the most important ability to have?

OD: I would say the ability to pair decisive confidence with humility. It is easy to lose sight of, and disregard the perspectives of those you should be listening to as you become more and more successful. Nigerians, in fact, most human beings in general, are susceptible to this problem. We are socialised to be status-oriented, class-conscious and ageist. The starkness of socio-economic inequality in our society doesn’t help create a more conducive dynamic to cultivate such leadership competencies. Our leaders don’t invite the constructive criticism that would place them in better stead to ‘fail forward’.

But whom should we be listening to? I believe that we need to include the lived wisdom and perspectives of young people who comprise the majority of our population and are already prepared to become new industry leaders. Demographically, Africa as a whole has the youngest population, with nearly 70% below the age of 35. Leadership has to be responsive to be productively sustained over a longer term so it’s almost an inevitable position to take.

RO: What is your long-term vision for the organisation?

OD: Simply put, my vision is to challenge and transform the narrative. We have a highly politicised way of talking about cultural issues. We tend to botch it together with the imperatives of economic power and access to political influences and its dividends. It is almost 50 years since Biafra, and we still haven’t learnt how to talk about ourselves and Nigerian society in a manner that eschews myopic thinking and intolerance. There should be debate without alienating those we consider to be “the other”. Our vision at Nsibidi is to set a new tone without shying away from the hard questions and controversy.

I believe we are coming in at a particularly interesting time. The growth of our creative industries is an opportunity to democratise this space and to use the process to bring about marketable creative and cultural products that will redefine our cultural position on an international stage.

Our goal is to equip a new generation of Nigerians with the knowledge of our collective history and society. We have a flagship initiative that has the potential to transform the intellectual landscape and inspire new ways of thinking, and this is a critical foundational period.

This interview was first published in Business Day Sunday print newspaper on June 7th 2015.


About the Interviewer:

Rita Ohai is the Assistant Editor of the Sunday publication of the prestigious Business Day newspaper in Nigeria, where she has worked since June 2014. Prior to this Ohai was engaged as a staff journalist for the Nation newspaper, also in Nigeria, where she reported on breaking news and topical stories covering business, health and gender issues from a grounded but human angle.

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