Already a non-profit organizer, first-year doctoral student Philip Àlàbí, started Efiwe, an organization that collects books to send to schools and libraries in his home country of Nigeria (and eventually throughout Africa). At Brown, he’s continued the program, starting small by collecting textbooks from his home department in a corner cabinet and expanding from there. He collects books and financial donations to send the books to nine different Universities in Nigeria, Kaduna, and Ghana, Africa.
Àlàbí started the first campus chapter while completing his master’s degree in chemistry at Southern Illinois University. At Brown, he’s partnered with nearby Bridgewater State and Fitchburg State Universities to collect books as well. He has received help from fellow graduate students Belinda Mahama (Neuroscience) and Joyce Sunday (Biotechnology), and undergraduates Moyinoluwa Adeniji and Michael Snower, along with support for the project from Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Brenda Rubenstein.
“He’s helping us carve out our niche here: it is not just about studying science, but about our larger impact to the world,” says Rubenstein.
He is constantly looking to have the organization grow and expand. In the fall, he applied and received a Swearer Center Explore Grant to research ways to enhance the current Efiwe website to allow librarians in Nigeria to peruse the catalog of donated books and order the ones they would like. His next step is to determine the best web platform for the enhanced site and funding to build the site.
Space – it’s the recurring theme. The more books Àlàbí and volunteers collect, the more space they need. Both his home department of Chemistry and the Brown Student Association have lent space to store some of the donated books, but additional space is still needed.
The ultimate goal? To have an Efiwe program in more than 100 schools and to gather a million books and the funding to have them shipped to Africa. Àlàbí is well on his way with over five thousand books donated so far between the Brown, Southern Illinois, Bridgewater State, and Fitchburg State University. However, he wants to make sure the program remains sustainable.
“I had never considered starting a non-profit. I’m not sure when that became a conscious thought, at 50 or 150 books. But I saw the excess here, so I thought, why not.”
Even before stepping foot on campus, Àlàbí was reaching out to other students on the graduate student listserv to gather information on how to bring Efiwe to Brown. Mahama was similarly interested in campus involvement.
“The mission of the nonprofit really hit home. Both of my parents are Ghanaian immigrants and one of the things I remember most about the hardships they faced growing up was how difficult it could be to learn course material without access to textbooks. Working with Efiwe means I can help alleviate some of that struggle for other students back home, in Ghana, and other countries, like Nigeria,” says Mahama.
After Àlàbí finished his bachelor’s degree in Nigeria he was interested in further study, and looked to the come to the U.S. to study marketing. He was teaching high school at Whitesands School in Nigeria and didn’t feel like he would be able to advance his career at home, having grown up in an economically disadvantaged area. He wanted to study in the U.S. where he felt there were more opportunities to learn about the latest technology and equipment. He didn’t want to be tasked with teaching about equipment he’d never used because it wasn’t readily available in his home country.
“A place like Brown was a dream, a mirage,” he says. He was accepted at Southern Illinois in chemistry, rather than his initial hope of marketing. But he always knew he wanted to teach.
Rubenstein says he is an exceptional and unique student, which she noted from the initial recruiting process. She’s excited to see this engagement from a graduate student.
While just a first-year student, his hope is to study small molecules and what they do in living systems. He says the direction is still to be determined.
For Àlàbí, his work with Efiwe is fun and helps him balance the pressures of graduate school – it’s his time away.
After Brown, he hopes to continue teaching and researching in the U.S. Eventually he’d like to return to Nigeria to teach or work on policy and contribute to his home country.
“I feel I can add more value in such areas rather beyond the classroom, such as working on funding for research in the Tertiary institutions. No country can truly develop without building the technology and technology can only be built through research,” Àlàbí says.