Susty Stories

Interview with Betty Abah: How to Start and Scale an NGO in Nigeria.

Mrs. Betty Abah, President, (Founder/Executive Director), Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation and Protection, (CEE-HOPE)


We all know that it is not easy to scale any business in Nigeria let alone a social enterprise which comes with its own complexities and challenges. This chat did not dwell so much on what an NGO means but it did illuminate the qualities and skills one must possess if he or she wants to raise and scale a social enterprise in a unique country like Nigeria (though the discussion its content is not exclusive for Nigerians alone). This article is going to focus on how to get your hands dirty by listing the most important facts that anybody who wants to set up an NGO needs to be aware of.

Okay enough chit chat, let’s get started.

Starting an NGO is no joke. In fact, it requires the same time and commitment that a for-profit needs. In as much as the chances of your NGO making you the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg in terms of raking in billions of dollars is very slim, it can be a fulfilling business to venture in. As it not only brings fulfilment, it also positions you as a selfless and passionate individual who can be trusted among their peers.

So if you are very passionate about helping people or building a system or structure that caters for people who are limited by lack of opportunities, look no further, my interview with Betty Abah has got everything you need to know. Betty Abah is the Founder/Executive Director of the Centre for Children’s Health Education, Orientation, and Protection, (CEE-HOPE). She gave some insightful information as to how she has been able to run and maintain her NGO and also, how she was able to fulfil her dream of helping and engaging children who come from a very poor background

  1. Can you tell us who Betty Abah is, your educational background and your transition from corporate life to a human development fiend?

I trained as a journalist and obtained a first degree and a Master’s degree in Literature in English from the University of Calabar and the University of Lagos respectively. I practiced journalism with a number of publications in Nigeria and the USA for half a decade, majorly Newswatch Magazine; TELL Magazine and the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado, USA (as a media fellowship reporter). I have five books, including two collections of poems (Sounds of Broken Chains, Go Tell Our King) and a biography (Mother of Multitudes). I also worked for another half a decade with the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Nigeria’s frontline environmental justice campaign organization.  Much of the time at ERA, I led the women’s program desks which saw me working with women in polluted and impoverished Niger Delta communities hosting crude oil pipelines. I also worked at a point in the same campaign at the sub-regional level in a number of African countries.

Generally, I decided at a point in my journalism career not to just report issues but to take the road less travelled, and that is to take sides. In this case, to side with the oppressed, using my writing skills to highlight the vast and unwarranted suffering in our part of the world, to see how they can be addressed.

  1. How many years did it take to work on this idea and why did it take till 2013 to finally launch? Ever had thoughts of dropping the idea?

I had always worked with children. I actually started a Bible club in my house back in Otukpo Benue and was president of a Sunday School club in the Methodist Church at age 15, 16. Then founded an all-girl evangelism and motivational club at age 17 in secondary school (Wesley High School, Otukpo) called Sisters Aflame. I then led the female journalists association in my university, and started a press club in the secondary school where I served during my NYSC year in Sagamu, Ogun State (whose activities among others culminated in my winning the NYSC State Honours’ Award in 2001). While in ERA I was very much involved in anti-tobacco campaigns involving students and young people generally. So, you see, my life has always revolved around children and young people. Also, while in ERA, after I was appointed the head of the women’s department, I found out that when I go to communities in the Niger Delta or other countries across Africa to mobilize community women, I was drawn more to the children. I found, clearly, that children were more endangered than the women we were campaigning about, and indeed, there are many groups campaigning for women but very few for children who are easily breakable and are the future of this country. So, I decided to start CEE-HOPE in 2013, while still with ERA, working with children and young people in slum communities across Lagos.

Also, while in ERA, after I was appointed the head of the women’s department, I found out that when I go to communities in the Niger Delta or other countries across Africa to mobilize community women, I was drawn more to the children. I found, clearly, that children were more endangered than the women we were campaigning about, and indeed, there are many groups campaigning for women but very few for children who are easily breakable and are the future of this country. So, I decided to start CEE-HOPE in 2013, while still with ERA, working with children and young people in slum communities across Lagos.

I left ERA in 2014 to fully concentrate on the vision and we are now working in five states – Lagos, Ogun, Benue, Plateau, and Bayelsa. It’s been challenging but much more, it’s been exciting and we are ready to break more grounds. To bring help, development and direction to millions of disillusioned and at-risk children and young persons, especially girls, and to continue to speak urgent truth to power on the state of Nigeria, with a view to having a much more child-friendly country.

  1. Now let’s talk about funding. How has your organization been able to source and manage funds?

Most of our activities are funded by Nigerians, especially those in the Diaspora who believe in our work and have an urge to extend helping hands to fellow citizens who are less privileged. Incidentally, just recently (Saturday, July 15), a US-based Nigerian lawyer, Pascal Nkwocha, came with his family to visit our office and two of the several communities in which we work across Lagos. We believe that Nigerian both at home and abroad have the capacity to bring about multifaceted development, utilizing their resources. And this is quite important to us especially at this early stage where we still have limited institutional support. So, like Oliver, we are asking for more!

  1. Research shows that donors are becoming more informed about how NGOs spend donated funds. From your perspective, what’s the percentage that an upcoming NGO should spend to cover overhead?

We run CEE-HOPE like a ministry and in the first few years, I ran with virtually with my salaries and other earnings, so the matter of overhead sometimes does not even arise. To answer your question directly, I believe overheads should hover around 20% of the entire funding so that ‘the money can work for the people’. I can’t imagine an organization working for the very poor in very remote areas and there are absolutely no forms of empowerment for these people; then you use several million buying brand new Hilux vans and other heavy duty vehicles and collect hefty salaries and allowances and you watch the people’s conditions degenerate.

  1. Is there a linear or progressive style of starting an NGO or foundation? Can you walk us through the process of developing or starting an NGO?

I am not sure there are any strait-jacketed rules in starting an NGO. The first is having the passion for a particular cause and when that passion is there, with time things will fall into place. Passion., Insight, Strategy, Integrity, Commitment and cracking hard work which includes having a nose for opportunities and being tech-savvy. Very importantly, having the right team be it staff, volunteers or board members—people who buy your ideas and are ready to correct, persevere and stick with you. Of course, the list is not exhaustible, but passion first, is all I can say. When you have passion, people are drawn to your vision from the farthest parts of the planet.

  1. It is evident that you have experienced a successful and tremendous growth since the inception of CEE-HOPE what is the key ingredient that led to this?

Like I just said passion! Yes, we have achieved milestones and have attracted both local and international publicity, documentaries and assistance from unexpected places, but we are obviously not there yet. I always say that we humans are not just flesh and blood but spirits as well. People perceive you and sense you faster and deeper than you think. If you are genuine or not, it all shines forth, it’s just a matter of time.

  1. Putting your life into perspective, when you sense fear or discouragement, how do you generate confidence?

Yes, I have felt challenged countless times and have been on the verge of giving up several times. To keep fear and discouragement at bay, I pray to God and try to get a nap at the nearest available time to ‘rest my head’ (laughs). I also talk to mentors or other colleagues. Then I think of the little successes we have made—like the street girl, an orphan in Makoko (Nigeria’s largest slum located in Lagos, and site of our biggest projects) we put in school who is doing amazingly well and even acted in our first major documentary film last year (RUN, a documentary drama on the menace of child marriage).

The sweet coincidence of the head of Wikipedia in Nigeria, Mr Olushola Olaniyan happening on my radio interview in his car, tracking me down to the office and uploading our work on Wikipedia. Giving our work tremendous global visibility, and from there, facilitating a documentary on our work by Wikipedia and the Goethe Institute which was aired on German and Austrian TV earlier this year. Or, talk about the old man in a remote American city who heard about my work with girls and has been supporting us annually. To the thought of me entering Makoko and seeing scores of girls, of children whose lives have been positively impacted by our work, running out to embrace me or screaming ‘Auntie Betty’ from a distance. It’s heartwarming, it’s priceless, and all these certainly kill off depression!

  1. What is the hardest part of running an NGO, like what are the daily obstacles that you need to combat to keep your NGO afloat?

Two things readily come to mind:  Firstly, finance, of course, to do as much as possible. Secondly, to get the absolute trust of the people you work with, the beneficiary communities. To trust that you have their good intention in mind and that you are not just there to ‘use them to do research and collect millions of Dollars from foreign donors (Laughs). This may sound simple, but they are some of the challenges that NGOs grapple with in an atmosphere of lack of trust and some form of dishonesty, where communities are not able to sieve the shaft from the wheat.

  1. To the people reading this and probably thinking that they can’t accomplish what you have accomplished. What would you say to them?

With God shall nothing be impossible. Be passionate. Be selfless. Pray. Believe in God to make ways through the wilderness. Have integrity. Be tech-savvy. Cry once in a while, when you need to, or when you fall by the way side, but get some rest, some sleep, get over it, look on the bright side of life and get back on track, keep moving again. Network; socialize especially with people with the same interest or who can be of help. Don’t quarrel with everybody no matter what! Pick your battles. You will excel!

  1. Do you think financial reporting, sustainability reporting and other forms of reporting are essential to running an NGO?

Of course!  If you must be taken as a serious NGO and if you must grow, then take financial management and integrity very seriously. Make your reports up-to-date, have a very visible social media presence. You must be serious and responsible and must be perceived so. Running an NGO is serious business, No kidding!

Call to Action…

It is obvious from this interview as we’ve learned, that even though the road to starting and maintaining a Nonprofit or NGO might be rusty, narrow and needle-like, there lies a lot of countless benefits associated with building one. So how about you put those spare cash into creating a social enterprise that you will be proud of. If not for anything, at least to leave the world or your immediate environment in a better shape than you met it – after all, that’s what sustainability is all about; making the world a better place for ourselves and our unborn children.

Eric Anidiobi
Anidiobi Ejiofor Eric holds a degree in Project Management. He is passionate about leveraging sustainability in ensuring that a project reflects the triple bottom line. He generally writes at the crossroad of Sustainability in Project Management, Startups, Business Strategy, and Education.