NGFP 2020 Fellow Tolullah Oni Is Growing A Project For Healthier Futures in Africa

What difference can an unorthodox funder make to a project for healthier futures in Africa? Tolullah Oni (Tolu), a Nigerian physician, researcher and founder of the social enterprise UrbanBetter, would say it’s “a complete game-changer.”

UrbanBetter is a platform for learning, research and advocacy for more sustainable, and healthier cities fit for all generations. It’s Africa-led and Africa-focused. It recently received a US$300,000 award from Unorthodox Philanthropy, an arrangement that was “very much engineered by NGFP,” explained Tolu.

The Next Generation Foresight Practitioners (NGFP)  team had suggested UrbanBetter to Unorthodox Philanthropy – a partner of the program – as a potential project to fund. For months, NGFP and Unorthodox Philanthropy’s teams worked behind the scenes to understand how the funding could help projects like UrbanBetter, not the other way around.

NGFP’s vision is for all emerging foresight practitioners who went through its fellowship to receive funding. Strategic relationships with partners like Unorthodox Philanthropy are key because it helps close the gap in emergent insights that are needed in the futures and foresight sector. 

Young foresight practitioners are on the cutting edge when it comes to solutions for more sustainable and equitable futures. Their practice of thinking about futures in systematic ways brings out interesting and impactful  ideas that can influence policies and drivers of change today. 

For Tolu, that impactful idea was UrbanBetter, which she founded in 2020. After years of researching public health, she worried that the way African cities are built amidst a rapid rate of urbanisation is creating a bleak future for the youngest continent in the world.

“I feel a sense of urgency because I’m seeing urban infrastructure being laid down that we’re only going to have for 40 years, and it’s being laid down in ways that are baking in disease and baking in climate vulnerability…We are actually causing the problem now, at scale, in a young population.”

With 70 percent of the population under 30 years old, Africa is quickly developing and cities like Lagos, Nigeria and Yaounde, Cameroon are seeing population booms. Unfortunately, Tolu says that health is still framed around curing, not prevention. “We’re actually creating environments that are making this young population sicker earlier and in the context where there are insufficient resources to treat them.”

“We’re going to see more of these societal disruptions. If not from infectious diseases, it will be from climate disruptions. How can we actually not just react, but think about how we create more robust cities, which is where the majority of people globally live?” 

Shortly after setting up UrbanBetter’s website, she applied for the NGFP awards, which came with a one-year fellowship. She won $5,000 in funding, which she used to hire an intern in Nairobi, Kenya. 

“NGFP catalyses it first, basically. I think I wouldn’t have been able to have the footprint of getting this going without the intern that I hired.”

The NGFP funding came at a critical time, as it allowed Tolu to show that there was an unmet demand for a platform that engages young people around health and sustainability. 

“People talk about ‘we need to empower young people’ but you know what, my sense is they are doing this already and we actually just need to talk about them rather than trying to convince them to be part of it.”

The NGFP fellowship allowed her to bounce her idea with others in the network who are focused on the healthcare space globally. It led her to come up with her aspire, inspire, conspire model of change, “bringing together evidence and advocacy in a way that I haven’t seen articulated so clearly.”

Tolu was also part of a team of seven NGFP fellows and network members that received $5,000 from NGFP’s Impact Fund. Their project, the African Futures and Foresight Action Forum, sought to engage stakeholders across the continent to delve into societal and heritage issues in focus areas such as  health, environment, rural, African leadership & digital technology.

After her fellowship, Tolu applied for further funding and after one initially promising avenue, she wasn’t chosen for a prestigious research grant. The feedback insinuated that African youth would not take up her project because there was insufficient evidence that youth in Africa care about the climate. It turned out this inaccurate narrative had been institutionalised, despite significant proof of the contrary. This lit a fire within Tolu. 

In the lead up to the United Nation’s annual climate change conference COP27 in Egypt in 2022, Tolu decided to use her frustration to fuel UrbanBetter’s work. 

She received funding from the philanthropic organisation Clean Air Fund to mobilise young people around running events in Lagos, Cape Town and Accra. At the height of it, the #CleanAirCOP27 campaign went viral, and reached nearly 2 million people on social media. You can read about it on The Guardian!

That initiative proved that young people want to engage and can be part of decision making to shape their cities.

Within four months, Tolu achieved three out of the five objectives she’d aimed to reach in four years, with a tenth of the funding she needed. All of that, while still holding a senior full-time research position at Cambridge University, U.K. While this was a phenomenal achievement, it was not sustainable. But 2024 will be a different story. 

After undergoing a weekend-long  Cambridge Social Venture training, Tolu was selected for the university’s Social Venture Incubator, which began in the fall of 2023. Tolu will be able to prioritise UrbanBetter this year, thanks to the Unorthodox Philanthropy funding. That  funding  will allow her to build a team, set up systems to strengthen the organisation’s foundation, and strategize for the future. Unorthodox Philanthropy also provides advice and further connections as Tolu builds out the next steps for UrbanBetter. 

“It’s very much about partnership and what support you need,” she said. “It’s about scaling an organization because how do you go from just an idea that you just repeat to something that actually is a sustainable thing…How do you think about the mission of redefining what a health system is, beyond just a healthcare system? How does that get institutionalised?”

In March, Tolu will take part in the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre Residency Program to focus on UrbanBetter’s organisational development. 

Tolu’s experience shows what could happen when emergent foresight practitioners receive the right support.

“The commonalities of the things that I’ve got from NGFP to now Unorthodox Philanthropy is that I’ve got grants that believed in the bigger vision and took an informed bet on something that sounds crazy and you can’t put in the right box.” 

All images are provided by UrbanBetter.