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Onyegbule: I founded Tiny Beating Hearts Initiative to save premature babies

By Esther Ijewere
13 November 2021   |   2:58 am
Petra Akinti Onyegbule wears many hats graciously. The hardworking sociologist and political communications strategist with experience spanning 15 years

Onyegbule

Petra Akinti Onyegbule wears many hats graciously. The hardworking sociologist and political communications strategist with experience spanning 15 years in the areas of advocacy and public relations campaigns, is also a successful entrepreneur and advocate.

She was the Chief Press Secretary to the Kogi State Governor (between 2016 and 2019) and Senior Special Assistant on Electronic Media prior to that. Her foray into advocacy started in 2006 on the Advocacy efforts of the Catholic Church on Oil and Gas Resource Utilisation in Nigeria. She is currently the founder of Tiny Beating Hearts Initiative where she rallies support to save premature babies, using her resources and mobilising skills to create awareness on prematurity in Nigeria.

Petra is also the Director of Libraprime Communications, a public relations agency that has pitched and executed strategic briefs, leveraging strong media contacts and reach in the industry ecosystem, for delivering high-value client projects. The multi-tasking entrepreneur is the brain behind the fast-rising clothing line, Anike Robert Clothing (ARC), a brand that provides integrated marketing for experiential and point of sales channels. She shares her inspiring story, her passion to save preterm babies, and how her clothing line is gaining momentum in this exclusive interview with Esther Ijewere.

Childhood Influence
I NEVER really thought about my childhood in relation to the work I have done since my adulthood. But I would say that I grew up in a liberal environment where, even though it was not the norm to question myths, to question how things were done, to question culture, I was too inquisitive to obey the rules. I have such an inquisitive mind that it was just natural for me to question.

So, I kept questioning and I kept doing what I now see to be some sort of informal and loose advocacy, because I wondered why things were done in a certain way and why they couldn’t be done in a certain way. So, it was informal, but you know, yes, I did that. I was encouraged by what I saw my mum and siblings do to always speak and stand up for those who couldn’t do so for themselves. So, I would say that yes, in some way, my growing up helped.

But more importantly, I grew up having some sort of self-independence. I could do a lot of things for myself at a very early age. So, it helped shape my perspective on life and the fact that If I want or need something done, I have to work for it. Yes, it did.

Inspiration Behind Tiny Beating Hearts Initiative
The inspiration for Tiny Beating Hearts Initiative came from experiencing prematurity from my own daughter who was born at 25 weeks. She was in the neonatal intensive care unit of the national hospital, Abuja for 80 days. She was so helpless it broke my heart. She couldn’t even breathe on her own for so long and she had to be on assisted respiration. By the time she was discharged and we went home, the experience was a different level from what I had in the hospital.

Going home meant I was the nurse, I was the primary carer and that I was basically responsible for her. A lot of responsibilities that the doctors, the nurses and the other health workers took on in charge of her in the hospital were transferred basically to me. And in the hospital, I saw how tough it was for some families. Oh, they had it tough and rough. It showed me that there is a socio-economic nexus to survival of premature babies and small babies.

So, I set up Tiny Beating Hearts Initiative to advocate for the rights of every child to live, regardless of the socio-economic background into which they are born and to also help provide material and psychological support for parents with premature babies, the kind I didn’t have 12 years ago when I had my own baby.

The Journey So Far
The journey has been tough, chiefly because it takes its psychological toll on me and on some of the team members I have worked with over time. I have never had to make it an organisation where I paid people to work with me to ensure that the vision is kept alive; I have always relied on volunteers. It’s been tough, because it’s the same people over and over again, who have been supporting us. Of course, there are situations where in certain places; it is so difficult for us to get access to facilities with incubators. Facilities that are actually well equipped to take on these babies and we have to teach Kangaroo Mothercare, excellent hygiene and nutrition so that bigger premature babies can have their shot at life and be saved.

So, it’s been tough, but what keeps us going is the fact that you know, you see babies whose parents appear helpless, are actually helpless at the time when they need our intervention and you get testimonies from their parents five years later, six years later, 10 years later and they are saying thank you and they are giving you progress reports. It makes all the stress, makes all the efforts, and makes all the heartache worth it.

Of course, we had situations where, no matter what we did, the baby didn’t survive; that’s really heartbreaking. But overall, it’s been a fulfilling experience, because the whole essence is to ensure that no child is left to die regardless; so long as the heart is beating, however tiny, it deserves to live.

Libra Prime Communications
Libra Prime Communications is a perception management firm, which deals largely with regulatory compliance audits. What we do is we undertake perception management on behalf of firms and sometimes, individuals. It is a PR firm, but PR in such a way that when firms have issues with their regulators, we step in for an independent audit on whether the firms have complied with recommendations by regulators.

Switch From Politics To Advocacy
I didn’t switch from politics to advocacy; advocacy is what I have always done. My first job post-NYSC was as an advocacy officer on a Catholic Church’s project; I have also done advocacy as an independent consultant for a long time. I worked at CBAN – Credit Bureau Association of Nigeria as the first Executive Secretary and Advocacy officer. So, advocacy is what I have always done, that’s my major forte. I basically just do both hand-in-hand.

We need to get involved as much as possible in the political process. I was given a political appointment in my state; I did a job. But day-to-day politics doesn’t feed me. And I think that every politician needs a job to go back to everyday, that you know puts food on the table, that adds to the economy, which is what I do with LibraPrime Communications and Àníké Robert Clothing.

Work-life Balance
I am not going to lie that it’s been easy being a mum whilst a businesswoman and an advocate; it’s not easy. But one thing that has helped me is having a supporting husband, one who sometimes steps up when I slack on my duties as a wife and mum. My balance is in getting people to help, getting people to step in when I am unable to be there.

Having a husband who supports family members, having a good structure in the office, at work, having a good business partner, and a good social support system… they all help. And this is how I balance my roles as a wife, an entrepreneur, a consultant and an advocate on multiple issues.

Motivation Behind Àníké Robert Clothing
I love casual wear. There is a saying about wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeves; I love to wear my feelings on my body. So sometimes, I brand the way I feel and I wear that feeling as a t-shirt, tracksuit, hoodie, and sweatshirt. I realised along the line that I couldn’t be the only one whose dressing affected their moods. I am a mental health advocate and I strongly believe that the environment, the way we dress, our outlook, and people’s perception of us affect our mental health. That is what the Àníké Robert Clothing is about.

There is an economic side to it; I needed a side hustle, and so far, it’s surpassed my expectations. I owe part of the initial success of Àníké Robert Clothing partly to the pandemic. The way people work and live generally has changed; with companies telling people to work from home, people not necessarily having to meet at a particular location for a meeting and so more and more, people had to and having to a little less formally. In the next five years, I see this brand having its own factory and scaling up in the manufacturing of shirts, hoodies and tracksuits. I see us going into other areas of merchandising and clothing and hopefully, that will happen in the coming five years, that’s the dream.

Challenges
Number 1 challenge I faced at the beginning and for months was staffing. Getting my staff to understand the concept and embody the spirit of excellence, now that was a challenge. But we have surmounted the hardest part of this and continue to strive to be better. If a customer has paid for something, then we’ve got to deliver that. We have all adjusted to this philosophy and made excellence a culture. The other challenge would be electricity, the erratic supply and rates; tariffs have changed twice in one year. Yet, I don’t get the optimal value.

Then inflation. My goodness! Production cost keeps fluctuating and highly unpredictable; that’s quite unnerving, because it makes planning more difficult. Every day, there is a price increase in this and that. And this makes the market unpredictable.

Three Women Who Inspire Me And Why
The first person who inspires me to be a better human is my mum; she is incredibly kind, compassionate and humane. That inspires me a great deal. I learnt about dignity in labour and contentment from her. And regardless of everything life has thrown her way, her spirit has remained strong. Even her name inspires me because it becomes some prayer for me every day – Oluwamajente – God, please do not let me be disgraced. Let me not fall from this pedestal. So, her life, her person, her name inspires me.

The second person is Prof Dora Akunyili for is a woman of strong conviction and sticking no matter what. Since you’re limited to three, the third will be Indira Nooyi, the former president of PepsiCo.

Women’s Participation In Politics
My view on women participation in politics is that it is not enough; we need to do more. We really need to do more; we need to have an agenda. We need to go all the way, we need to be with partners who understand what it takes for a woman to be involved in politics and would support us to make the sacrifices that a woman needs to make in politics.

Now, I think that women also need to develop thicker skin, because there is a lot of slut-shaming of women in politics. However, it is not going to stop, it is not stopping anytime soon. So, whilst we continue to make that advocacy so to say, let us deal with women on the merits of their credentials, on the merits of their capacities, and on the merits of the value that they can bring into the political space and processes. We also need to continue to forge ahead and ensure that if there’s a meeting lasting into the dead of the night, we are participating all the way and not giving excuses.

We should not expect anything to be handed over to us on a platter; we should be tenacious. Of course, there are challenges of money politics, godfatherism etc, but if we are focused and purposeful and ambitious, something will keep giving until we have a whole new structure and system and landscape.

Do I see myself contesting for any position in the future? I say, ‘never say never,’ but I do not see myself contesting.

Advice To Young Women Trying To Navigate Through Life
You Are Enough! Live your life, make your mistakes, but always learn from them. When you fall, you rise. Never stay down. Never ever, allow anybody define you by what you’re not. Never allow anyone to define you by your limitations. We all have strengths and weaknesses; we can continue to work on our strengths and we develop our weaknesses to ensure that our weaknesses do not define us.

In the age of social media, a lot of people are under pressure to fake it till they make it. How about working the courses till you become a force? Behind every story, there is a history. Therefore, look for the history and learn the lesson therein.