Susty Person of The Week

Susty Person of the Week: Dr Olufemi Olarewaju

Dr Olufemi Olarewaju is co-founder of the Sustainability School, Lagos. He is the founding Executive Director of the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network Nigeria (RISNN). He serves as an Associate Lecturer at the Centre for Petroleum, Energy Economics and Law (CPEEL), University of Ibadan where he teaches Energy Policy and Regulations.

His professional experience spans over two decades in private, public, and non-governmental organizations. Before relocating back to Nigeria he most recently served as a Research Fellow with the National Centre for Policy Analysis, a think-tank with offices in Dallas, Texas and Washington, District of Columbia.

He is a consummate professional with very diverse academic background in the sciences (BSc. Applied Geophysics, Ife), business (MS. Information Systems Auditing, California), public policy (Ph.D. Public Affairs, Texas), and sustainability leadership (Masters, Sustainability Leadership and Strategy, Arizona State).

We are humbled to have Dr Olarewaju as our Susty Person this week and also on the Susty People Hall of Fame. Read his highly insightful interview below:

Please tell us a bit about Sustainability School Lagos?
The Sustainability School Lagos will become a test bed of locally applied sustainability driven solutions, and the go-to knowledge and solutions repository for sustainable development in Nigeria and in West Africa.  Established in collaboration with Arizona State University (ASU), SSL seeks to provide integrated research, solutions, education, entrepreneurship, and innovation to enable sustainable economic development.

We assist organizations and governmental entities by providing practical and reasonable solutions to address specific sustainability challenges. We strive to combine hands-on personal approach with the research and knowledge base of an institution of higher education. We help clients and partners define, analyze and solve sustainability challenges with holistic consideration of the underlying social, economic and environmental system while keeping the local to global application of proposed solutions in context. When built out, SSL will offer graduate level degrees (MS and PHD) in Sustainability.

What’s the relationship between the Institution and Resource Innovation and Solutions Network Nigeria?
Resource Innovation and Solutions Network Nigeria (RISNN) is housed within the Sustainability School, Lagos (SSL). RISNN is the first global hub of the Resource Innovation and Solutions Network (RISN), a program of the Walton Sustainability Solutions Services at Arizona State University, in partnership with the city of Phoenix’s Reimagine Phoenix initiative. Part of RISN’s mission is to accelerate sustainable development and foster collaboration for innovative solutions globally. In order to do this, RISN is establishing affiliate hubs around the world to expand the impact of a global circular economy. Other RISN hubs after Lagos, are in Amsterdam and Guatemala in South America.

With the launch of this initiative, what problems are you directly solving?Capacity,capacity and capacity.
Let us just talk about three areas here: when we came in a little over 3 years ago, there was very little awareness in Lagos and certainly in Nigeria about the role of sustainability as a development paradigm. So right from the beginning we knew that communication and awareness-building at all levels was critical. By emphasizing the knowledge component of SSL, through direct and indirect engagements been able to help propagate the sustainability message, both in academia (in partnership with the Center for Petroleum, Energy Economics and Law, [CPEEL]) and industry.

Another great influencer occurred on September 25th 2015, when the world came together and identified a unified definition for sustainability. The sustainable development goals (SDGs).  As part of a new sustainable development agenda, countries adopted a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part.  of a new sustainable development agenda. The SDGs provided the much needed tool that can be utilized in reframing how organizations envision, articulate and implement their corporate sustainability initiatives. This is very significant as it allows organizations to key into the goals of the SDGs and collectively contribute to their achievement.  With one of our ongoing projects with a cement manufacturer in Nigeria, we are able to practically help define the convergence between the company’s sustainability ambitions and the SDGs. We look forward to the outcome of this effort, and the role it can play in influencing CSR initiatives. 

Thirdly, through our human capacity initiatives, we have been able to deliver an executive certificate course in Ethical Circular Economy, which from a developing economy perspective, is the first of its kind in the world.  The following direct extraction and quote summarizes our motivation for a developing-world defined concept in circular economy: “The biggest problems facing a rapidly urbanizing developing economy like Nigeria are inherently social in nature and include inequality, youth unemployment, poor public education and health systems, poor sanitation, poor habitation, inadequate water supply and energy inequity…Successful implementation of circular economy as a sustainable development paradigm for our part of the world must mean that it delivers solutions to these challenges.”

What do you find encouraging and troubling about the role education plays in solving these problems, and in attaining a transition to a Circular Economy?
There is global access to information, and focus on sustainability. Certainly global initiatives that produced the SDGs, the outcome of the conference of parties 21 (COP21) that firmed up the collective need to mitigate challenges brought about by climate change, have become tools that are accessible by all. That access to these global initiatives is well facilitated through information and communication technologies is encouraging indeed.  Frustrating though is the lack of awareness at most levels of the populace in Nigeria. This lack of awareness is also underscored at the leadership level. Transitioning to development paradigms like the circular economy requires the type of leadership-level knowledge that is painfully absent at this time. It is hoped that through efforts like the SSL’s and of course Sustyvibes, we can begin to propagate the message.

Clearly sustainable development for the 21st century calls for learning all levels.  The reason here is that education must mean that we are learning and providing everyone with tools that can urgently begin to solve the many problems that we face. Rapidly growing Nigeria is on track to be about 440 million people by the year 2050. This will yield obvious challenges, clearest of which is increased resource demand and consumption. We can begin to see the clear consequences of an unmitigated resource demand. Waste generation, sanitation, habitation, public health, security, food scarcity, and several others, are some of this challenges. The multifarious nature of these issues means that not only do we need to catch children young with sustainability education, adults will also need complete reorientation. Transitioning to growing sustainable development paradigms like the Circular Economy, which can help mitigate some of these challenges, will require knowledge and education at every level. Achieving this will certainly require sound and informed leadership.

How would you classify the people who show interest in the courses offered? Are there specific companies that have embraced the trainings?

Most multinationals operating in Nigeria have global mandates that captures corporate responsibility in the context of sustainability (people, planet, profit…the 3Ps). For these organizations communicating our initiatives was not as difficult. For the rest we are more challenged…and as I mentioned earlier it all begins with communication. We are pioneering almost every aspect of our activities, both in method and in delivery. We are in conversation with companies like Lafarge Africa Plc and Coca-Cola Nigeria.

Also it is important to know that earlier on in our strategy and conceptualization phase, we made a decision to target the youth…. young, bright and intellectually curious recent graduates. To that end we are proud to say for the recently concluded executive certificate in ethical circular economy program, we offered about twelve scholarships to high-performing recent graduates from fields that include engineering, urban and regional planning, marine biology, energy economics, and sociology.  We so far have trained 35 circular economy champions.

What are your favorite SDGs and how does the work you do help implement them?All the 17 SDGs are crucial to development. They are all connected and interlinked. However, goal 17 supports partnerships across institutions, sectors, geographical zones and even within the 17 goals, which I think is a major role player in the success of sustainability projects across the globe.

Would you agree your affiliation with Arizona State University gives you an edge, especially with the skeptics?
I will not call it an edge, or at least we did not see it that way. We needed the capacity from ASU across the entire value chain. As promoters and founders, we also recognized the personal need for this capacity from leadership perspective. This is why one of the co-founders, Mr. Adeyemi Adewole, and I committed over one year worth  of work to acquiring necessary knowledge by attending the pioneering Executive Master for Sustainability Leadership (EMSL) program at ASU, as part of the strategy to set up SSL.
SSL as an institution is modeled after the Arizona State University Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

What’s the hardest part of running the institution and what have you learnt?
We are a start-up; going on 3.5 years now. Our feasibility and strategy document proposed SSL to be a solutions-driven and projects-informed knowledge, research and academic entity. Solutions in this context means that we get involved in actual projects implementation and use the processes and outcomes as the basis for case studies and research.

The hardest part has been securing key projects from organizations, and of course funding. We have had to do most of the lifting (financially, human resource, etc.) and are still doing most of the lifting. Building the type of institution that we envision will take time and a lot of effort. We are very aware of that. When built out we will offer graduate level degrees (MS and PHD) in Sustainability. We are excited about what the future holds.

In the face of discouragement and naysayers while implementing the change you desire, what keeps you going?
On the personal level, I cannot think of anything else I should be, or can be doing at this time. Tremendous support and commitment of the founders, and of our partner Arizona State University, are significant here.

Our readers are comprised largely of young people, are there opportunities for recent graduates in your school; in terms of certifications and diplomas?
Yes. As mentioned earlier, we offered the world’s first executive course in the ethical circular economy online course and in-person workshop in Lagos, Nigeria March-April, 2016, in partnership with through Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.  Participants left the workshop with a certificate, a vision for a circular economy and ideas for sustainable solutions. This is a trend we will continue as education and advocacy are at the bedrock of the institution.

How far are we from where we need to be as a Country, and how soon do you see us incorporating education for sustainability on a systems level?
Systems-level sustainability education is gaining grounds but still have ways to go, even in the countries of the global north. As a country and in sub-Sahara Africa, we really have not commenced, that is, from an institutional and systems perspective. Again there are entities like SSL out there making great efforts. The metaphor of the journey of 100 years beginning with a single step has to come true for us.

How can people reach you to learn more about the school and your work?
Mail: [email protected]
Twitter: @RISN_NatSSL