When Peter Ayeni, a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, learned that Nigeria might not meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for education until 2070, he knew something needed to be done to strengthen the education sector in his country. Ayeni placed a high importance on education in his own life, excelling in school and achieving success in academic competitions.
His academic success, however, did not come without challenges. As a young man, Ayeni overcame childhood tragedy and economic hardship before recommitting himself to his education and his goals.
As he shares in this YALI Voices podcast, Ayeni used his talents and passion for education to give back to his community, volunteering for various NGOs before co-creating Applause Nigeria and working on several democracy and human development projects, such as Watching the Vote and Not Too Young to Run. Eventually Ayeni founded his own organization, the social enterprise Mbele, which uses technology to make quality education accessible, fun and rewarding. His hope is that people across Africa, no matter their education or socioeconomic status, will be able to find materials to aid in their journey of lifelong learning.
“Young people out there are doing a great job. So, I think this is time for the youths. This is our time, and we ought to seize the opportunity. I think of getting the youths involved, we really have hope to get to where we are going because we are the ones that dream. We are doing that. We can’t wait. We are the ones that want to get things done,” Ayeni says.
In this YALI Voices podcast, Ayeni reminds YALI members that while the path toward accomplishing their goals will not be easy, they must never stop trying to succeed.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: PETER AYENI
PETER AYENI: Yeah, my name is Peter Ayeni. I’m from Nigeria. Presently the founder and chief technology officer of Mbele. Mbele is a social enterprise in Nigeria that’s using technology and innovation to make access to quality education affordable for everyone.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up-to-date on all things YALI.
Peter Ayeni is the founder and chief technology officer of Mbele, a social enterprise that uses innovate technology to make quality education accessible, fun and rewarding, creating lifetime learners. Peter has also worked on democracy and human development projects in Nigeria, such as Watching The Vote and Not Too Young To Run. He’s also a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow who is driven by his desire to use technology for social good.
Peter starts our conversation by sharing the tragic event that devastated his family but led him to the path he now finds himself on.
AYENI: My mom actually is not — she’s not learned. So, she’s one of the most powerful women I’ve ever met, and she had a lot of influence on me. And was the reason why I take my education so seriously. And she wanted to do everything for us to get us quality education, so she work as a petty business owner.
She was pretty doing well for not being educated, but something happened to her business. And it was a Friday morning, and we woke up, and we eat our breakfast and head to school. And in the afternoon while I was at the school, someone came for me, and they told me that two of my siblings had been run down by a runaway driver, and both of them died that day. And that devastated my mom, and she — for almost three months, she was not herself. And her business went down and everything, and that began an era of hardship and abject poverty for the family. So I had to — we drop from private school to a public school during that period, and it was so tough on me. My education went down the line. I wasn’t myself, and I wasn’t really doing great academically. So after that, when I go to junior secondary school, I was doing so badly, so woefully. So, that was the day I got my report card, and it was all “F” — red everywhere. I felt so bad about myself, like I really got so down academically. But something happened that day. When I was going home, I saw some group of seniors checking out a report card, and I moved closer to them, and I saw this senior that have straight As. And I thought to myself that day, “If he can do it, I can.” And I got home during that holiday, dusted my books, and picked myself up and started reading again.
VOICE OVER: After recommitting himself and excelling in school, Peter realized that he wanted to, as he put it, use his skills for the betterment of humanity, to help and give back. He volunteered for NGOs and with a friend started Applause Nigeria. It ultimately led him to create Mbele, a social enterprise that provides educational content.
AYENI: So, I team up with a friend of mine, and we started a project called Applause Nigeria. It’s where we prepare young Nigeria, vibrant Nigeria in formal and informal sector that are doing great things to inspire others. So, after that, I was recommended to YIAGA as a consultant for them. So, when I joined YIAGA, that was my first step into social entrepreneurship and development sector. So, I revamped their digital platform and started working on different projects. That was where I worked on Not Too Young to Run. I worked on Watching the Vote, and I worked on other legislative engagement projects also. So, it was here that I learned about the SDG goals and everything. I’m like, okay. And I found a report by UNICEF that said — that said that Nigeria may not meet the SDG goal in education until 2070, so I was like, wow, we have to do something about it. So, and I look around me. I’m like, okay, technology can actually help solve the problem in education. So that is where the idea for Mbele come.
Okay, so the model Mbele works on is we believe that some of the people that need this access to education may not be able to afford it, so we work with corporate organizations to fund the production of the content so that we can make it available online for free for the student. So, and after that, we have premium content that we are creating right now. Presently, I’ve been able to partner with a lot of YALI Fellows that are educationalists. So after this, I’m going to be traveling to Kenya, to Botswana to record content across the continent that we are going to be putting on the platform. So, there are some sections of the content that is going to be paid for, but they’re going to be very, very subsidized. So, there’s one that have been paid for by corporate organizations, especially doing academics by creating content for users between — in SS1 to SS3 and in junior secondary school also. But all this content is going to be available for free because it has been paid for.
VOICE OVER: Before starting Mbele, Peter was actively involved in the efforts to promote free, fair and safe elections in Nigeria, as well as find positive ways for youth to participate in the political process. He talks about the work he did at Watching the Vote, the Youth Initiative for Advocacy and Advancement, or YIAGA, the National Democratic Institute, and Not Too Young to Run.
AYENI: Watching the Vote is actually a citizen-led election observation that is driven by data. So, when I was with YIAGA, YIAGA works on the election space, and they have been observing the election in the more traditional way. So, in the last election in Edo, Benin, we come up with a more strategic way to observe election using data. So, we deployed observers to different polling units, and we give them a cell phone, and we have all the observations encoded so they can send it to us in real time, and we can be able to analyze those reports and give the public real-time information, via Twitter, social media, reporting and everything. So, it was really fantastic. So after the election in Edo, so YIAGA partnered with NDI to take the process to the next level, and NDI have a very good, sophisticated software, so which is more powerful than one we used in Benin, and that was what we deployed in Ondo. So, it was really wonderful working with NDI, and we were able to get real-time data, scientifically proven, and we can able to deliver real-time what is happening on Election Day to the public.
Number 1, we do what we call pre-election observation, so they observe the political party engagement, they reanalyze the security environment, so I make preparedness. All these things have been done. So Watching the Vote actually thrive on information dissemination, which is something that is so powerful that we do very well. So, we go to all radio station in the states, so we do a program we called Watching the Vote specifically to that. Like in those states, in the Yoruba-speaking states in the western part of Nigeria, we do all of our programming on radio in Yoruba, some in English, and we even go to length of doing broken English so that we can include everyone to get the concept of what we are doing.
So prior to the election, social media is very powerful. We use the hashtag #WatchingtheVote, so when you check the hashtag, you can see all the trends, and also we use the #OndoDecides hashtag also. So after that, we have the pre-election press release, so we’re all, all journalists from all over the states coming and journalists from national also coming. And we give them everything that has been observed prior to the election and what to expect. And after that, the document, the press release is also made available on the WatchingtheVote.org website, where students can download them.
AYENI: Not Too Young to Run, it’s a project that is so dear to me. I was really excited about the success because all of us at YIAGA were so proud of what we were able to achieve, not only YIAGA, but as youths in Nigeria because this gave us a lot of confidence that if we come together, collaboration actually wins. So, as I tell you, it was all the young, youth-led organizations in Nigeria coming together to support this movement, and it’s become a revolution today.
So, in Not Too Young to Run, actually specifically I worked in the digital aspect of the campaign. So I developed the campaign website, so digital media designs, and we have a web app that we aggregate all the content that flows from the #NotTooYoungToRun hashtag. And we were able to analyze everything, disseminate information, and everything, which is so powerful and fantastic. So, I think, and all the team members was fantastic.
Ibrahim, I would like to mention him, is the head of the youth department in YIAGA, and he did a very fantastic job, and also Cynthia Mbamalu, the project manager of YIAGA — fantastic people. So — and I think that YIAGA is one organization that most of us that worked there; we were all youths under the age of 35 — so that shows leadership, that Nigeria is Not Too Young to Run, even. We are young people leading this cause, and we see the truth to the fact that it was assented, too, by the president. That means Nigeria’s youths are really ready to do stuff. So, YIAGA today have cut across not just Nigeria, but across Africa, so that shows that youth-led organization can do fantastic things, just like CODE. You know, young people are out there doing a great job. So, I think this is time for the youths. This is our time, and we ought to seize the opportunity. I think getting the youth involved, we really have hope to get to where we are going to because we are the ones that dream. We are doing that. We can’t wait. We are the ones that want to get things done. And if you look at the way, or just put it in the startup environment, you know, the concept of a startup is that you have little resources and you want to make effective use of the resources in the best way possible, and that’s the entrepreneurial spirit that Nigerian youth has.
Let me give you an example. When I started Mbele, I told you that I have family to support. I have little money to work with, so today, Mbele’s a phenomenon in Nigeria actually, like, everybody’s talking about it, a lot of people want to join what we are doing and everything. And I would tell you that the only money that we have used so far is less than 2 million naira. And look at what we have been able to do as a youth organization, leveraging on collaboration and partnership. So, that is the same spirit that Nigerian youths are going to bring into government. In Nigeria, we have a lot of resources. So, imagine if we come from the kind of startup mentality and entrepreneurship, when we handle the Nigerian economy, we are going to be proactive because we want to try things, fail first and innovate, so innovation is the key.
So, and you can’t get innovation — I’m sorry — from the older people. They have spent their time. Innovation can only come from the younger generation. These are people that are willing to try. They are willing to fail and say, “I’m sorry, I failed.” When will you try again? In Nigeria, the older generation don’t apologize, and they feel bad making mistakes. For instance, if I failed in Mbele today, I’d say, “I’m sorry, but I’m going to try.” I’m not afraid to fail, so, and that is the spirit we need in our governors. Presently, I’m already working with young people across the YALI Network in Nigeria because we have a lot of young people declaring for positions, and we know that resources is very limited for them. So, we are looking at, okay, what can we leverage on? For instance, I’ve been part of social media and publicity and everything for Not Too Young to Run. That became a global campaign.
So, I believe that we can bring all these skills together and help our young people that don’t have a lot of money to spend, and we can give them good branding, communicate their message to the people. And I think when the people can, because effective communication is important in election, and we can leverage on that.
My hope for the upcoming Nigeria, my hope for the election in 2019 is to see something better than what happened in 2015. So, I want to the international community, I want, even individual cities, to say that, “Yes, this is the most credible election ever.” So, I bet that our current president is a man of integrity and is going to see that work through and show to the world that he is actually a man of integrity through this election, because this election is a litmus test for him also as a person. So, I’m very, very hopeful that this election is going to be the best election ever.
Coming from a Watching the Vote perspective, so, and like two to three years’ experience in observing election, I would say a credible election is not just about I declare the winner and I accept it, or there was no violence or something. It’s not just about that. Credible elections start from the planning to the end, so the process — so that is why you will see in the work of Watching the Vote, we try to educate the citizen. That is not just about the results. It’s about the process that leads to the announcement of the results or the arrival of the officials. Are people buying votes? These are the things that we need to look for. So, you can’t say that you declare a winner if a lot of people are buying votes, so our mod — about election education also, this is the process. So, credible election for me is an election where all the process are right.
My vision of a successful election is an election without bloodshed, because I lived in the north for, for quite some time now, and during the last election that we had, I was in Kano during that period, and it was horrible what happened — the election violence. So, election violence is not something that you want to have. It’s really cruel, and it’s bad. We have what we call NYSC Corps member. So, in Nigeria when you finish your undergraduate studies, you are posted to a different part of the country to go and serve. Some of these people were used during elections as election officials, and most of them who have been like targets of attack when there is election violence.
So, these are brilliant Nigerians that are willing to serve the country. So, my success of an election is it doesn’t want the blood, so I want an election that is credible, that the process is genuine. There is no bloodshed.
VOICE OVER: Peter has big plans for Mbele, and he is excited about developing innovative platforms to share educational content across the continent.
AYENI: Yeah, for Mbele presently, I have really high hope for it. And after this program, I was fortunate to be posted to Kellogg Business School. Kellogg is one of the top 10 business in the world, so I’m so proud right now.
So, while I’m looking for Mbeles, actually for us to scale across West Africa and also East Africa, because when I was in Kellogg, I was able to make a partnership with a Fellow from Kenya, so we’re going to be working together to create content for the eastern region of Africa. So, we are looking at — because the platform is ready at mbeleacademy.org, so now what we are working on is creating more content for people.
Because another thing that we are leveraging on these, there’s a lot of content in the world today, so we are already in touch with organizations that have in-house content that they think will be useful to people in Africa. So we are recommending them to aggregate this content on our platform so that the next thing we are doing is to educate people that — okay, this platform is available with a whole lot of content. You can take advantage of them. And we have made the platform as supportive and interactive as possible. So, when you are learning on Mbele, you are not alone. There’s a community of teachers and learners that are going to be teaching you to learn.
So, I think our platform is actually — what we are acting on right now is the — we are working on the Mbele smart speakers, so because we, because we are talking of innovation and getting ahead in education, so smart technology and IOTs is something that is wonderful. And Google, Amazon, they are leaning this way more.
I think in Africa also we can do something that is — can be more affordable for, for people, so we are working on Mbele Learning Assistant. There’s going to be a smart speaker that can interact. Young people, old people can speak with, and they can learn, so it’s going to be educational smart speakers, so I’m looking towards to that.
I think the vision for success for Mbele is actually the mission of the vision of Mbele itself. So, our own vision is to create an Africa of economic prosperity for everyone through knowledge sharing. So, because we believe knowledge is power — I remember some years ago, I read this book, The Richest Man in Babylon. And Arkad shared his story how his dad gave him a tablet of wisdom and 10 bag of gold. So, and he went to a foreign country, and he spent all the gold, and he was left with nothing in just a short period of time, making bad decisions because he never read. So, after there was nothing left, okay, what else do I have? He went back to the tablet of gold and read it. After reading it, he started doing menial jobs, raise some little money, and before he knew it, he made times multiple of what his father gave him because of words, knowledge. So that is exactly what we want to do at Mbele — to enrich Africans through knowledge.
AYENI: Yeah, I think my advice to young Nigerians, even African YALI Network members, is that it’s not going to be easy. I’ve got a lot of emails. People tell me about their great vision. “I want to be this. Peter, I love what you’re doing. You’re an inspiration to us.” I love to share my story, love to encourage people, so what I normally say is this: If I can do it, you, too, can do it.
Some years, 15 years back, I saw someone that did it, and I said to myself, “If he can do it, I can only do it better.” So, whatever I can achieve, it means that you also can achieve. So, and I love inspiration, so it’s not about dreaming alone, it’s about starting, so that is why really a lot of people get it wrong. No matter how small it is, put your idea out there. Just go for it. So, when I started Mbele, it was difficult. I like, I tell to people I didn’t even know where I was going. Just imagine resigning your job and you don’t even know what to do, but I’m like, I just want to start. I just want to help.
So, just start from somewhere. It doesn’t matter. We have a place we are going to. When I’m a volunteer, somebody said there is no job, nothing I could do. There are a lot of organizations looking for people to help. If you are looking for a job, you are not going to get it, but if you are looking to serve and to help, there’s hope for you. So start helping, start giving back, start collaborating, and before you know it, your vision will be clear. You’ll get more support. More doors will be opened for you. And from there, the sky is a starting point. Thank you.
VOICE OVER: Thank you, Peter, for the work you’ve done to ensure peaceful democratic elections in Nigeria. And here’s wishing you success with Mbele.
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