A part time computer job as a young novice at the then Baton Rouge & Trust Company Louisiana in 1977 was the spark that inspired Nigerian-born Jim Ovia to pay keen attention to the potential of technology to revolutionize the way of doing things in his home country. Upon returning, Ovia would convince a group of friends to set up the financial institution that has now metamorphosed into Zenith Bank, the largest financial service provider in Nigeria, eventually catapulting him into the league of the wealthiest Africans. Technology shaped a great deal of this investment. Seeing the bank introduce the first ATMs in the country and a new wave of online banking, would inspire Ovia to invest heavily in information communication technology (ICT) as part of his philanthropy.
Ovia, christened the godfather of Nigerian banking, has focused his philanthropy on establishing boot camps, schools and grants geared toward ICT.
Half of the 182 million people in this West African country are under 30. Nigeria has traditionally struggled with a lack of education facilities for its people and according to UNESCO, 65 million are unable to read or write. Unemployment, especially among youth, has been at an unprecedented high, occasioned by the dwindling fortunes from oil, which the country has relied upon over the years. But ICT penetration and uptake has blossomed in the recent past. Aware of the commercial value of technology, especially to the younger generation, Ovia, christened the godfather of Nigerian banking, has aggressively focused his philanthropy on establishing boot camps, schools and grants geared toward ICT as a tool for youth employment and empowerment.
Through the Jim Ovia ICT Entrepreneurs Program, budding entrepreneurs are trained for one year to identify markets and potential in the African technology landscape. The program then runs a hackathon where up to 10 innovative ideas and 50 entrepreneurs are selected for funding to actualize their dreams. Ovia believes this approach to giving is the only way to create create lasting solutions to unemployment across the country.
The Empower Youth initiative, a microcosm of the ICT Entrepreneurship program, trains its eyes on kids between ages 6 and 10, exposing them to the digital space through a twelve-week boot camp where they can interact with the latest technologies. The idea is to spark an ICT interest in them at an early age.
And with up to 112 million Nigerians living below the poverty line according to the World Bank, education is not a priority to most families who can barely meet their basic needs.
The Jim Ovia scholarship program has an elaborate plan to provide secondary-school and higher-learning graduates with funding that caters to their tuition and maintenance. Students are identified on the basis of leadership qualities, intellectual ability and desire to become valuable members of society. Each year 100 scholarships are given to outstanding students from needy backgrounds. It is a practice that has gone on uninterrupted since the fund was started in 1998. He has also set up the prestigious James Hope College that exposes children in need to world-class education and experience for a subsidized fee. The majority of those who have passed through the school have gone on to join other global schools of acclaim like Yale University.
In the wake of the devastating Nigerian floods that claimed over 360 lives and displaced millions in 2012, Ovia donated $6.3 million toward alleviating the suffering. His gesture has won him admiration in Nigeria and beyond even as he maintains it is not wealth that counts but how that wealth is used. ■