‘To shatter glass ceiling, you need an army of empowered women’
Dr. Omoayena Rosemary Odunbaku is an Urban and Regional Planning Professional, researcher, author and gender advocate. She is the Programme Management Officer for Human Settlements, Anglophone West Africa for the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). Prior to that, she held the dual position of Acting Head, Governance Unit, and Programme Manager, Africa Urban Agenda programme (AUA) at the UN-Habitat.
Dr. Odunbaku was a lecturer in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Lagos, and the Department of Town Planning, Moshood Abiola Polytechnic, Ojere in Ogun State. She holds a Doctor of Philosophy in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Lagos, Nigeria.
As a researcher, she is advocating cleaner environments in poor neighbourhoods of Lagos metropolis. A strong advocate for the empowerment of the girl-child, women and youths, she is deliberate about devoting a significant proposition of her time to mentoring youths.
In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, she shares her passion for her profession, empowering women and young people.
You have a long and illustrious career, take us through your journey?
I STARTED my unprofessional career in 1998 at the age of 17, when I was a merchandiser for Gemini Pharmaceuticals. During my undergraduate days as a student of Urban and Regional Planning, I interned at Darchi Architects in 2002 and at Interstate Architects in 2003. For my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), in 2006, I was posted to Moshood Abiola Polytechnic as an Assistant Lecturer and on completion of my service, I worked with the British Council as a venue staff.
Thereafter, I worked with Geo Trans Transportation Planner, MasterPlan Consult (Urban Planners) as Senior Human Settlement Officer and with Henrich Boll Stitfung Foundation as a Senior Human Settlement Consultant. In 2012, I joined my Alma Mater, the Department of Urban and the Regional Planning University of Lagos as an Assistant Lecturer and in 2013, on completion of my professional exams and registration as a Town Planner; I was promoted to Lecturer II.
In 2014, I was appointed by the United Nations Human Settlement programme (UN-Habitat) as Programme Management Officer, Human Settlements for the Africa Urban Agenda programme. Within UN-Habitat, I have changed roles and portfolios and I am currently the Human Settlements Officer in charge of Anglophone West Africa.
What do you consider your areas of competencies and skills?
Firstly, I am unapologetically a people person with an immersed appetite for knowledge and high energy levels. However, as a young and determined African Professional woman, I have over the years acquired leadership, communication, analytic and critical thinking competencies. Skills developed from my experience in various aspects of human settlements, research, customer service, capacity building, training and communication have over the years been complemented by my ability to establish and maintain excellent relationships with colleagues and partners at all levels and diversity.
Being a fast learner has given me the advantage/opportunity to think ahead, plan strategically, discharge assigned duties promptly and disseminate information accurately.
In your years of professional practice, how would you say you have evolved?
I am pleased with my achievement/evolvement. I would proudly say that I have been involved and represented the interest of a better future across all sectors (public, private and academia), all levels, in all the stages. I have advocated for low-income communities, been involved in state and national projects, and backstopped regional and global programmes.
A young student turned lecturer, researcher and professional with a unique combination of seeing the issues like a prism. A blend of emphatic, analytical and objective perspectives is an exclusive career trajectory that I am most grateful to have.
How did you transition from academia to the UN?
My Masters’ Degree thesis, due to the level of work that went into it, provided the needed pivot for my desired professional advancement. I started by extracting journal articles from it; these articles got published internationally in reputable journals and won the Best Climate Adaptation Solution for Urban Poor Areas during the Henrich Boll Stitfung Workshop. It was very encouraging, so I enrolled for my PhD; after all, I always wanted to become a professor or/and work with the United Nations. To become a professor, you had to be employed in a University. To be employed in a university, the NUC had made enrolment of completion of a PhD compulsory.
The journey to the UN wasn’t an easy one; it required extensive reading and necessary motivation because it was a yearlong process, which included written tests and interviews. I’m most grateful to my mentors, especially Profs Taibat Lawanson and Iyiola Oni for not only the words of encouragement, but also for providing the right direction and going as far as giving strong recommendations and references.
My family, very young, had to cope with my long reading hours and other community engagements that were a salient prerequisite for my dream job. I was halfway into my PhD programme when the UN appointment came, I can’t discount any of my experiences right from being a merchandiser with Gemini Pharmaceuticals. With sheer determination, I can boast of a PhD in Urban and Regional Planning today.
Your formative years propelled your passion for girl child advocacy; share with us how you are championing this cause?
Growing up, I was privileged to experience affluence and indigence; little did I know that my father, Gabby Yadua, an upper middle class professional and socialite, was preparing me for the real world. Expectedly as a child, I enjoyed attending a highbrow school and returning home to a quiet neighbourhood, but bordered by the low-income settlements. This left a yearning inside me to help others especially the girl child.
I attended Chrisland Primary School and during the day, my gist with my friends bordered around Nintendo, commodore 64, Atari and vacations. Back home, it was different; it was sneaking food for my friends and how they had been sent back to school for home due to non-payment of fees, torn uniforms and the list goes on. Its very sad to recall… most of my friends, although equally as brilliant as I am, they only did not make it to the four walls of a tertiary institution. Some got involved in juvenile delinquency and today; they are grandmothers with not encouraging life trajectories.
After I concluded my book, I and a faculty of established professionals facilitated a book tour and career talk to selected secondary schools in Lagos Metropolis. During the Shomolu book tour, the team decided to conduct formal and informal interviews with my beloved friends, and I deduced that it was a lack of a role model- a propelling voice to echo that they could actualise their dreams that accounted for most of their success barriers, bad decisions and inability to rebound from mistakes. The whole exercise reaffirmed my conviction to create a formal mentorship platform for the girl child and young women. It also awakened my consciousness to the conclusion that an innovative, dynamic, empathic and cost-effective platform for the girl child and young women must be established to lend voices to the voiceless, build and create capacity, and inspire and exchange ideas.
HerAbility Hub was born, and it was carefully conceptualised in consultation with various stakeholders to reflect the realities and incorporate sustainable models promoting girl’s awareness of and participation in social, economic and political life. It is expected to champion the course of the girl child and young women, locally and internationally, in identifying and overcoming those old and contemporary obstacles to their success and advancements. The reality should be that a glass ceiling shouldn’t exist and must be shattered, but to do so, an army of empowered women is needed, and it begins with them.
As a researcher and an advocate for cleaner environments in the poor neighbourhoods in Lagos metropolis, how are you achieving this?
As an urban planner, I advocate for spatial planning of our human settlements as this will allow for proper ordering of land uses, and inevitably champions cleaner cities. Hence my normative and empirical work is a fulcrum to achieving cleaner environments. In my capacity as Human Settlements Officer for Anglophone West Africa, with Nigeria under my purview, I work closely with relevant MDAs and technically backstop their work.
I also get involved directly in community campaigns; deliver public lectures and mentor prospective environmental advocates. I am currently working closely with the Lagos State Government to finalise her Urban Policy, which has entrenched SDG 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable) with other key elements and also adopted a good community engagement strategy. I am optimistic that if the State Urban Policy and existing environmental policies are properly implemented, it will lead to a cleaner and more environmentally friendly Lagos.
The urban and regional planning field is not one where a lot of women dwell, how have you been able to thrive as a woman and how can more women embrace this professional field?
If you have read my book titled, Omoh, I initially wanted to become a civil engineer, but as fate would have it, I ended up studying URP. From day one, I made a conscious decision to focus on the positives of the course and I am glad I did. Although quite stressful due to the course workload, especially studio (the drawing component), the rigour prepares you for the hurdles post-university.
URP provides a broad interdisciplinary understanding of how urban dynamics shape interdependence and spaces, and women have an advantage of understanding these dynamics better, because of their default abilities of multitasking and societal caretakers. The blend of a conscious decision to focus on the positives and the female advantage over understanding the dynamics of interdependence and spaces has contributed immensely to my career success.
Cities are increasingly critical to the organisation of economic, social, and cultural activities that shape and transform human experience – who is the defacto organiser? The woman! I encourage more women who have studied to practice and who are looking into promising careers to consider studying URP; it gives a unique opportunity to not only earn a good living but also contribute to the development of society.
I am pleased and impressed by the efforts of women in planning in Nigeria. Recently, we came together and galvanised efforts to provide a platform to empower females in the profession and ensure inclusiveness and capacity development. The Association of Women Town Planners in Nigeria (AWTPN) is recognised by the National body of the profession, Nigeria Institute of Town Planners (NITP) and supports women Town Planners and female Urban and Regional Planning (URP) students under training in tertiary institutions, through advanced education, research, training and skills acquisition.
With the core values of Professionalism, Integrity, Inclusiveness, Accountability, Partnership and Teamwork, the association, within six months of its inauguration, has offered scholarships to the best female students studying Urban and Regional Planning. Also, various state chapters have embarked on sensitisation visits, creating awareness about the profession by giving career talks in secondary schools in a bid to ‘catch them young’.
During the visit to the secondary schools’, copies of Omoh were presented to the best female students. There is room for more, but in a nutshell, that’s what I and we collectively have been doing to attract more women into the profession.
What informed your book, Omoh?
As a young lecturer and a course advisor, I was privileged to mentor students. I would usually encourage them with my stories and in the course of that, I got acquainted with a lot of them one of them is Abdul-Rahman Mohammed, who is now my younger brother and has a unique role in my story. To cut the long story short, on July 16, 2020, I woke up to Bell’s Palsy during the COVID-19 lockdown in Ottawa, Canada. Half of my face was paralysed, and I was backstopping a very important online event the next day July 17.
Here I was in the emergency room of the hospital and thinking what if it was worse – life is so fickle, vanity upon vanity. I was discharged and after the online event, which went on successfully despite the health mishap, I relayed what had happened to Abdul, seeking his advice on what I could do for my 40th birthday. Equipped with information from prior conversations we have had; he knew I didn’t want an elaborate social gathering but was more focused on giving back to the society. He didn’t ask for time to think of it, he just said ‘Aunty Omoh- you owe us a book.”
I was very sceptical of the idea. The time, the resources, unknown fear, controversy, and so much just came to mind, so I shoved them aside. But he was persistent and went further to more or less recruit a team on my behalf. Let’s just say I was dragged into the process and have no iota of regrets as this has, like I said before, reinforced my convictions. Most times, we need processes like that, which take us back to the salient accounts of our lives. Indeed, very humbling.
As an urban and regional planning professional, a gender advocate, author, wife and mum, how are you able to juggle between roles and be at your best?
No one has a template and can say or boast that it is a walk over. However, determination and hard work see us all close to our desired. I practically have to devise and review tactics as often as possible. An example is, that I need to be fit and healthy, and realised I wasn’t spending my desired family time with my hubby and the kids. I reviewed my screen time and my daily schedule. As funny as it may sound, Yinka (Yinka is my husband’s name) and I decided to choose to go for morning walks from 7 am to 8 am over the thread mills in the Gym. It affords us quality time to plan and talk about a lot of things.
Now, don’t laugh, this is a funny one. I recently stopped wishing people ‘Happy birthday’ on social media timelines and that reduced my screen time by two hours a day; those two hours, I now channel to my kids. Those hours have afforded the kids and I time for homemade dishes, movie time and family debates. Having a strong support system has also been helpful; I am just trying to put things in perspective, then I handle the ones I can and leave the rest; I don’t try to prove to be a super woman.
My mum played a very crucial role in my early career days as a young mum and I have been blessed with a good support system as well. I must say some things come quite naturally to me and some I still strive for, but putting my family first is the priceless advantage and somewhat secret of me being at my best.
What advice do you have for women who look forward to sitting at the same table as you?
You need to identify your strengths and weakness and be very deliberate about your aspirations. Disappointments shouldn’t deter you; you should see them as catalysts to attaining your goals. Always remember that you represent a constituency who even when they don’t reach out, are consistently following up on you- you are some one else’s aspiration like some else is yours don’t mess both opportunities up.
How do you get inspiration and stay motivated?
As a young girl, I used to read a lot of female memoirs and biographies. And I was deliberate about my first professional mentor and lucky she took me in as much as I wanted and today, Prof Taibat Lawanson and I are practically sisters.
Drawing inspiration, for me, is not a formal or periodic process, but a hybrid and continuous one. I like to pen my thoughts a lot and go back to them after a while; I like to have discussions with the women who I aspire to become and the future (young women) and believe me, there’s so much to learn. Recently, I have added listening to podcasts from a list of selected women who I consider proxy mentors.
I must also commend my family, especially my husband who stands by me. And there are days I remember my late dad’s encouraging words, or I imagine his smile and hearing his voice nudging. My kids – are amazing! In them, I see strength and a reminder of a million reasons why I have to go on and the constituency of people in need of a better world.
What is your life’s mantra?
I have quite a number. My first was ‘Life goes on’ and I believe it does; this was motivated by experiences from Secondary School. More recently, it is ‘If you can dream it, you can do’ and ‘if you can dream it, you can live it’, inspired by the book tour. My evergreen mantra is, ‘there are no limits!’