Shola Coker, founder of Booksville, an educational services company established to provide solutions to aid head teachers, facilitators, parents and students/pupils. In this interview with KELECHI EWUZIE, she shares her approach to promoting reading culture in Nigeria, her thoughts on the education sector and the role her business plays in that sector. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the education sector in Nigeria today?
Our educational sector today is decades behind where we ought to be. It is actually a reflective disservice to the Nigerian youth. The most intriguing fact about this is that every year the federal and state budget on education is massive but the sink-hole in education is even bigger. So it’s a classic case of spending good money on a bad product.
Primary and secondary education suffers from a lack of funding, depleting infrastructures, weak curriculum and mismanagement of personnel. A lot of attention is currently being paid at the tertiary level but we forget that it is the primary and secondary that spews out the product for tertiary. And if that product is substandard then imagine the quality of our workforce. Ask any employer today and they will recount the numerous shortcomings of the workforce today. A large proportion of our educated graduates are clearly only partially educated.
What are the best ways to grow the Nigerian education sector considering its peculiarity to the development of Human Capital?
Education is a great instrument for social, political and economic development of any nation therefore the strength, security and wellbeing of Nigeria rests squarely on the quality of education provided for the citizens. The growth and expansion currently being undertaking at the Tertiary level is a good thing but we need to ensure similar growth, expansion and training is parallel in the primary and secondary levels. As I stated earlier, it is this same primary and secondary that feeds the tertiary. This is where a solid foundation is laid for later years and this foundation must be solid to secure the quality and calibre of our graduates at the tertiary level. The end product at the tertiary level is what builds our workforce whether in industries, medicine, engineering, development and technology, aerodynamics, military, fashion, catering or wherever else.
To grow education in Nigeria, we need to one; update the curriculum content so we don’t get left behind in the new global village, two; provide infrastructure where teaching and learning is conducive, three; aggressive teacher training at all levels of teaching, the teachers need to be prized and respected personalities, four; set up watchdog committees to ensure standards in teaching at all the levels, five; commission independent school inspection agencies to randomly carry out assessments of the schools, six; establish a league and zoning system to encourage healthy competition among the schools.
Of course quite a few of these suggestions are already in place but the question that begs to be answered is how effectively these are constituted and policed? Have they been overrun by bureaucracy? Sadly every year, the enormous budget for education (this year alone set at N369BN) does not begin to tackle the huge problems in the sector because of the resistance to change and the bureaucratic doggedness.
What do you see as possible solutions to the issue of lack of quality teachers the education sector is facing now?
President Buhari announced on Democracy day that he would launch the “N-Power Teach Scheme” where 500,000 teacher corps will be signed on online from unemployed graduates to fill the gap of insufficient teaching staff in our schools. Of course this is a brilliant scheme but how it will pan out remains to be seen. In theory it kills two birds with one stone in that it fixes some of our inherent unemployment issues whilst also filling the shortage of teaching staff in schools. The key factor here is the training, who’s doing the training, what qualification do these teachers come out with at the end and is this a long or short term fix for education? Its early days yet, the scheme were initiated on June 12, 2016, we need to wait and see!
As an alternative, perhaps we could make teaching a more attractive profession; pay teachers well and timely. They are the ones that help us along on our life’s journey, even the President was once a student taught by a teacher, these teachers contribute to what we eventually become in life and their significance should be recognised. They need regular and continuous training and commensurate numeration; all this will attract more graduates to willingly enter teaching as a profession.
What motivated you to establish Booksville?
My Kids! It was early 2003 and my first daughter at the time was preparing for common entrance into secondary school and because we were only applying to one school I wasn’t taking any chances, I was coaching her myself but I clearly needed materials to use. I searched high and low but remained unhappy about the types of resources I found so I ordered from the UK and we were getting along fine with our revision. Soon other parents, mostly friends with kids in the same school, learnt about what I was doing and would call to borrow some of our resources to the point where it slowed down our work because sometimes the books I wanted to use were yet to be returned! It was at that point that I realised there was a gap I needed to fill in providing qualitative and quantitative educational resources for the kids.
It’s hard to believe that in 2003, there were only a few bookstores that one; stocked quality books for children and two; were properly structured to carry on the business of a bookstore.
For a company that is over 10 years now, how would you assess the performance of Booksville within the market space that you operate?
We have done very well but we could have done even better and are striving to do much better. Everything in life is a learning curve and one should never believe that they have all the knowledge at any given point in time. Life is fluid, the world is fluid, ever changing. Education is expanding and shifts every academic session. There are some products we stocked in say 2005 that are now obsolete; assessment criteria for 2008 for example has shifted to exclude some and include other subject contents. We prepare for these changes and position ourselves well for the outcome.
But this I can say confidently of Booksville; we provide all the help a school; teacher; parent or student can require outside of school. We have done so since inception in 2003 and we do this well. We are excellent at providing home-learning resources and I can’t recount the numerous testimonies of our parents and even students who come back to tell us they could not have made it through key exams without Booksville. That is what I work so hard for and it is very rewarding.
What can you say accounts for your success over the years in the business?
My passion for what I do and always staying ahead of the game. Pre-empting what is around the corner and positioning for it. My staffs are also key in the success of Booksville; I can’t do it without them. They are trained to provide excellent service to all our customers and to create a welcome atmosphere in all our stores. We all know at Booksville that “Our customers are Royalty” and we treat them as such.
How would you describe the challenge of running a business like Booksville in Nigeria?
Running any business in Nigeria is tough! One of the challenging factors is the manpower. It’s very easy to find qualified staff but very difficult to find qualified staff with good work ethics. It takes a lot of training and incentives to get the workforce to the level you need to run your business.
The banks also create a challenge in that most banks do not take the time to understand the peculiarities of your business and then proffer solutions. In fact, getting the right kind of help is a major issue.
What policy suggestions do you have for education managers to drive growth in the sector?
Reorganise education right from the federal to state level, there is too much bureaucracy and resistance to change. In a world where everything is fast paced, education is the sloth! We need the sort of change going on in Power to transcend in education.
What is your dream for Booksville in the next 5 years?
I would want to see it in Abuja, Port-Harcourt, Ilorin, Enugu and Calabar. We already deliver to all these states but it would be nice to have a more fixed presence there. Expansion in Lagos would include into places like Magodo and Festac. We presently have three stores in Lagos axis in Maryland, Ikoyi and Lekki.