How to Spread it – Toyin Ojora Saraki: Health is wealth in Africa

2014-10-05 15:00

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Toyin Ojora Saraki’s tragic experience of childbirth left an indelible mark on her life. For the founder and director of Wellbeing Foundation Africa (WBFA), the Pan-African maternal health and welfare charity, it also led to the first step in her journey to becoming a tireless advocate for maternal and child healthcare on the continent.

The qualified barrister built a successful private sector career before dedicating the past 21 years to philanthropy. She is a global advocate of the UN’s Every Woman Every Child effort and holds decision-making roles at a number of influential nonprofit organisations.

Ojora Saraki has been recognised for her outstanding contribution to gender equality and continues to make strides in improving the quality of maternal health in Nigeria and Africa.

What was your motivation for starting the WBFA?

I was led to the cause of maternal and child health through a harrowing experience of childbirth in Nigeria. I tragically lost one of my twin babies, then had to fight for the survival of the other.

Even though I was an informed and educated woman, I was unable to prevent the needless loss of my child while under the care of the Nigerian health system. I quickly realised this experience is an unavoidable reality for many women in Nigeria and across the rest of Africa.

Globally, approximately 800 women die from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes every day. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths occur in developing countries. Many of these could be prevented.

Do you believe you have achieved the WBFA’s founding goals?

When I first started, I was giving charitable donations with no real strategy and/or plan other than to make a difference. But I quickly realised I was just papering over the cracks.

I needed to ensure long-term, sustainable change. At the WBFA, we have worked tirelessly to improve the quality of maternal health in Nigeria and achieved a great number of successes. Our initiatives have been adopted into the very front lines of the Nigerian healthcare system.

What does philanthropy mean to you?

Educating communities and enabling individuals to rise beyond their socioeconomic status is a core pillar of my philanthropic mission. So to me, philanthropy is about empowerment and education.

As a successful barrister by profession, what are the injustices you have experienced as a woman in Africa?

In traditional Yoruba culture, women are not often encouraged to speak freely, but I was blessed to be raised in a loving, lively environment where I was able to speak my mind.

I was also very close to my father and my relationship with him shaped my views of men as equal, facilitating partners. But I am aware that being raised to be seen as an equal to a man is rare in Africa.

Many women in Africa are treated as second-class citizens. We live on a continent where female genital mutilation is prevalent and more than 3?million girls are at risk of this practice annually. In Nigeria, more than 200 girls in Chibok were kidnapped by Boko Haram and we still haven’t secured their return.

How do we solve this problem?

We must change attitudes towards women’s rights in Africa. We must teach our boys to treat women as their equals and we must educate our girls for the sake of our future. For Nigeria to become a modern society – socially and economically – we must invest in education.

Who are your role models?

I would have to say the essence of all African women who put their children first is my greatest inspiration. In Africa, we have an ancient tradition of carrying our children on our backs until they are strong enough to walk. This essence of unconditional love, sacrifice and nurturing is my driving force and moral foundation.

Your husband is a senator in Nigeria. Has this allowed you to make philanthropy a civil society topic?

My husband’s role as senator has heightened my interest in the legislative foundations of social inclusion.

It is through the WBFA and its independent platform that I have been able to raise the awareness of philanthropic causes, and advocate on a national and international stage for issues I hold very dear to my heart. Making a difference for the people of Nigeria and building a strong community is our goal.

What is your most memorable philanthropic experience?

A few years ago, I received a phone call very late at night about a set of sextuplets who were born in a hospital in Ogun State. Their mother was a trader and their father was a mechanic, but they did not have access to a clean, safe and equipped hospital that was able to look after a multiple birth.

We immediately sent an ambulance for the smallest two of the babies – they weighed under 1kg each – because they would need the most help to survive. These two babies were swiftly transferred to a hospital that had the specialist equipment and staff.

Tragically, the four babies who stayed with the mother died at the hospital and the only two to survive were the infants that we managed to transfer to a different hospital. The two smallest babies are now thriving, which warms my heart, and I regularly check in with them and their family.

The tragedy made it very clear to me that it was not just money that could have saved them. Rather, decisive and knowledgeable action at the hospital could have kept them alive.

What advice do you have for individuals interested in making a difference in their communities?

Draw from the experience of the people within your community to truly understand their needs and how to overcome these challenges. Collaboration is the first step towards innovation. There is a popular African proverb that goes: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’

This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust and the African Grantmakers Network. To support a cause, visit

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