A passion for innovation and inclusion: story of Green Skills Award winner from Nigeria
Some university students have the world at their feet when they graduate but that is not the case for everyone. Young graduates in Nigeria - and especially women – often have to navigate sexism, discrimination and other unacceptable treatment when looking to get their foot on the career ladder. This was precisely the case for Goodness Tamuno Kelechi-Ahunanya when she left the Houdegbe North American University with a degree in International Relations.
As the eldest of eight siblings, Goodness had her heart set on a white-collar job to support herself and her siblings when she graduated, but after applying for over 400 positions, she felt dejected and depressed. However, as a natural entrepreneur, she started volunteering in schools to teach maths and one day, as she walked along roads strewn with rubbish, she had a flash of inspiration to recycle waste! This helped her 'finally snap out of the depression,' she says. 'That was when my passion for sustainability and innovation really started.'
The European Training Foundation (ETF) is the EU agency working with countries outside of Europe to support education and labour market reforms to give young people the skills they need to succeed. The ETF Green Skills Award is a competition which recognises the most innovative environmental and sustainable teaching initiatives from around the world and last year, Goodness’ recycling and upcycling initiative was voted to be one of the top-three winners!
Reusing trash; transforming lives
Goodness’ journey to economic self-sufficiency and job satisfaction, however, has been far from easy.
'You see me dressed nicely now but when I am at the dump I have to dress differently, because I collect the tyres myself,' she says. 'I couldn’t pay anyone to do it, because I had no money myself, so I went to the dump and without any safety kit, I would just do the best I could.'
Online she learned that if she could wash the old tyres they could be used to make tables and chairs, which could be sold. So, she went to a carpentry shop and paid them to hire tools, and her ideas grew.
Goodness’ regular trips to the dump, though, had not gone unnoticed. 'When I started people called my family to say "are you sure your daughter hasn’t gone mad?’”, she explains. 'I saw myself described in social media as "the graduate playing around in the dump". My family didn’t get it either at first, but after they saw me earning money, they changed their mind.'
Goodness founded G-Shapers Vocational Enterprise – the ‘G’ stands for both Green and Goodness – and as awareness of G-Shapers grew, Goodness had people contact her both in the street and online to ask if they could learn the skills. Some of these people had master’s degrees and had been searching for jobs for years. At that moment, it occurred to the entrepreneur that she could train people to train others.
'And that is how I started going out to rural communities,' she says. 'If I could just sell five tables and chairs, I could transport myself to a community and train people to be self-reliant.'
Green Skills Award Impact
In fact, Goodness was actually in one of those communities doing some training with over 50 students when the winner of the ETF’s Green Skills Award 2022 was named, and the place erupted in happiness when they heard she was runner-up. Goodness was lifted onto her students’ shoulders and the African custom of throwing talcum powder into the air began. 'Our mentor is a winner!' they shouted. 'It was a wonderful moment!' she says.
Following the award, Goodness immediately expanded her range of reused products. She collected plastic bags and bottles, and washed, shredded, and melted them into moulds, to create plastic eco-bricks. Because it is a handmade process production is currently small, but she plans to scale-up.
A side-project connects students with people who make eco-bricks so that they can collect the plastics themselves and make money from it. 'But I need investors to expand this and help create more jobs,' she explains.
Another new initiative involves making ‘briquettes’, which are a charcoal alternative, for heat.
'Because gas is expensive, people who can’t afford it cut down trees, which harms the environment by causing floods, and so on,' she explains. 'So, I show people how to mix cow dung with environmentally-friendly products to make small sustainable briquettes, which they can use for clean cooking.'
This involves a less complex production process than the eco-bricks, so in this case, Goodness can train women, who can then make money by selling the briquettes. She explains that in Nigeria unemployment causes conflict and crime, such as terrorism and kidnappings, and that many of those involved are graduates. 'So, if we can just establish skill-acquisition centres in rural communities,' she says, 'it could help reduce unemployment and crime rates. That’s my mission.'
Goodness estimates that up until she won the award, she had trained around 500 people; but in the last year this figure has rocketed to well over 1,000. She has achieved this growth by doing online training and paying people who have computers and Internet access to go into rural communities in a "train the trainers" system. 'The rural roads are difficult and also full of risk,' she explains. 'So, this is a way for me to reach those communities, incorporate digital work into my green skills training, and supervise it safely at a distance.'
Goodness has also reached out to the disabled community. She found that because the courses are free many attended, but she could only provide the 80 US$ start-up kit - containing a drill, drill bits, screws, nuts and bolts, a hand saw, and some cash to buy plywood – to the 5% who seemed most motivated.
However, things did not go as planned. When she followed-up, her students explained that they had no electricity to use the drill, no workshop space, and faced stigmatization, so had sold their kits. 'I learned from that that they really need everything in place to achieve their goals,' she says.
Where do you hope to see yourself in three years’ time? 'I would like to be in partnership with other organisations not just in Nigeria, but across borders. I also hope to learn more skills so that I can better serve the communities I work with.'
Goodness is now more confident since winning the ETF Green Skills Award.
'It is more than an award, it is like I have won millions,' she says. 'The international community has recognised this initiative and that drives me to do more.