If you’ve seen those viral pictures of happy kids playing chess in one of the slums in Lagos, you’ve likely seen the work of Tunde Onakoya, founder of Chess In Slums Africa. Recently, he spoke to us about how it all started, how the game is changing the lives of the children and how he intends to scale his non-profit.
Tell me about your childhood.
I was an introverted child from a household without money. I started with a not-very-good school in Ketu. After primary six, I couldn’t go to school for two years and had to stay home. I couldn’t speak English properly, which did a number on my self-esteem.
We later moved to Ikorodu, and I joined a school occupied mainly by “butter” kids. This was around 2005 and our tuition was about ₦50,000. I was already a quiet kid but in JSS1, I wouldn’t say a word. When I was asked questions, I would just smile and try to avoid it because I was scared I would make a grammatical blunder and everyone would laugh at me.
Kids can be cruel.
But at the end of the term, I came first. And the teachers were surprised that the quiet kid was top of the class.
How were you able to afford a school like that?
My mum was a cleaner in the same school. She would always say in Yoruba, “I want him to be able to speak confidently among his peers.” She knew my English was bad and was determined that I go to a good school, but we couldn’t have my brother and I in school at the same time.
That’s why I stayed back home. And the public schools in Ikorodu had frequent cult clashes. When I attended one briefly, we didn’t have desks and we were like 200 in one class.
Yeah. My mum applied to the school as a cleaner and after working for a few weeks she brought me to help. The proprietor saw me and said I could start coming to the school; that kids of non-teaching and teaching staff got a slash in fees. Mine was a 50% reduction.
Yes. I was known as Omo Iya Pupa because my mum is a very beautiful woman and she was much younger at the time. She didn’t receive any salary until I wrote my final exams. After that, she resigned.
What about books?
I never bought any because seniors would leave theirs for me.
At what stage did chess come into your life?
It was the time between schools. A barbing salon in the area had a chess set and I guess it was love at first sight. Chess has that power to ignite curiosity in the mind of a child because of the way the pieces are shaped.
Seeing that barber read books and talk to himself was fascinating. I learned from watching him and others play. And when I got into the school in Ikorodu, chess was in the curriculum because the owner had a chess background. That’s how I got really good.
When did it become something you could give back?
That was around 2018. Before then, I was in Yabatech, where I was on a partial scholarship because I was on the school team. When I finished in 2015, there were hardly any jobs. I told my friends that we should start a chess class for schools.
My calculation was that if a school had 200 kids and each paid ₦5,000, that was already a million. Imagine if we got 10 schools. We could make money doing what we love and we didn’t need major capital.
That was an entrepreneurial thought.
But it wasn’t that straightforward.
Many schools said they didn’t understand it. “Isn’t it like ludo or something?” they asked.
That was the first challenge. The second was that I was still young and didn’t understand the business side. Instead of ₦5,000 each term, the schools said they would give us N1000. But they would charge parents more. That happened several times. They paid us too little.
We didn’t mind because we were passionate about it. I worked with a lot of schools, including schools on the island and as far as Abule Egba. I used to wear a suit and enter the hot sun and come back home tired.
But that was when I discovered my passion for teaching chess. The kids were getting better even in their academics and their self-esteem was improving because they were competing.
How did that phase end?
I got frustrated because I wasn’t earning a lot and it got tiring. I figured I should focus on my life. I wanted to take another professional IT course.
What happened next?
I played piano for my church and one day after service, the other instrumentalists were going to a place called Lungu. Apparently, they went there to smoke. I didn’t smoke so they didn’t want me to know.
I insisted that I come along and while I was looking around as they smoked, children came around. I realised that this is the only reality those children in the area know: Smokers, Yahoo boys. They wouldn’t know what was outside their environment.
I knew that because it was the same where I came from. I was lucky that chess gave me some exposure. The first time I used a computer was because of chess. The first time I saw kids from other schools, like Kings’ College, was because of chess. It was like an epiphany.
Okay, what can I do? My main income was from the church. Not long after, I volunteered for an outreach and they asked that I come teach chess. We never did go on the outreach but the idea was there. So, when one of those days after church, those guys were going to Lungu, I asked that we try to teach the kids chess.
From church to chess.
LOL. When we set the boards, I realised there was going to be a problem. How do you get these kids who could only speak Yoruba to understand things like coordinates? But I was astounded. They got it.
How were you and your people able to explain?
I had to use Yoruba to explain and I gesticulated. Chess is quite complex but they did get it. That experience made me believe that the problem is only a lack of opportunity. They do have a mind that is capable of critical thought.
After that day, we went back again and again and then met the Baale. We told him we wanted to do something with the children for three months. He gave us space in his palace. I had to resign from church.
That sounds scary. How about that income for you?
Well, that was how I gave up that income. It was difficult because now we had to give the children food. And I didn’t have money. But when I started posting pictures, my friends began to ask if they could come around, too. They brought some money. With time, the children started bringing other issues to us.
School fees. I was living from hand to mouth myself. I tried to ignore their personal lives by focusing my attention on teaching them chess but I couldn’t. I knew that what I was seeing was poverty in its purest form.
So what did you do?
I kept posting. Stuff like “This child shows aptitude for chess but his parents are poor and he can’t go to school.” One of the stories I posted was about Basirat. It went viral and changed everything. I just posted a story about her on Facebook, about how she is always punctual and has a charming smile.
She is five years old and has never been to school before but she has a dream of becoming a nurse. I went to bed and woke up to thousands of notifications. People reached out, saying they want to sponsor Basirat’s education. Chess became a gateway to education for her.
That’s quite a story.
Yeah. Telling those stories was a way to build a bridge between the haves and the have-nots. There are people with the capacity to help but there is an obvious disconnect. When they say Nigerians are suffering multidimensional poverty, it is not just some statistic.
So how did the structure that now exists develop from that?
After that post went viral, we decided to give what we were doing a name. Chess in Slums Africa was registered as a non-profit, and that’s how we began. We have a board of trustees and different departments. There is an educational team, a communications team and so on. The idea is to use chess to make a social impact in impoverished communities. We are a team of six.
I take it that those people have to be paid. How does that work?
Most people do it on a volunteer basis. The plan is to have them as staff.
Is it totally funded by donations?
Yes, for now. We have raised what we have through social media. No grants. We haven’t applied for any.
No fundraising events?
We did that with a bank recently. But it was a partnership in a different capacity. We got access to their tech hub and did an event combining coffee and chess. But no direct funds. Not yet. Now, we are looking for that.
We now intend to function like a proper organisation so we can scale.
You mentioned you hadn’t figured out the business when you worked with schools. I imagine you have done that now?
Yes. Time teaches you. LOL.
So how will Chess In Slums Africa be sustainable?
We have raised over ₦50,000,000 just on Twitter. We started a Gofundme page. But going forward, we can’t just rely on the generosity of people. Tomorrow, everyone will find something else to talk about. The first thing we had to do was recognise the kind of opportunities in our ecosystem. It is not a start-up — although if someone asks me, I would like to say Chess in Slums is like Flutterwave for non-profits. [Laughs] Just kidding, obviously.
But yes, we are looking at CSR opportunities and some tech companies have been interested. There are bodies that are interested in things like this, so we will apply for grants. We also have partnerships with global chess bodies like chess.com. Then finally, we are exploring partnering with educational institutions to do what we do better. We can now go back to those private schools that I worked with before. We have the expertise now. There is a chance for employment for people because chess is an educational resource.
Sounds like a plan.
Indeed. Nobody has ever done this before.
What moment did you think that Chess In Slums was having quite the impact?
The first was when we had CNN, France 24, BBC, Aljazeera and others come to cover our project. We even had a feature at the Olympics and chess is not a sport at the Olympics! It became clear to me that we were doing something phenomenal here. The world is seeing it even if we weren’t. That was when I quit my regular job.
This wasn’t the church instrumentalist job, right?
No. I’m a professional tutor and had students from all over the world. I was working with schools as a consultant through chess. I also taught private classes.
Was this remote?
Covid-19 helped make it remote. I had students in Canada, China and other places. It was taking all my time. I stopped when I realised we were changing the world.
Were there other defining moments?
Yes. A second one came when a child with cerebral palsy won the event we organised in Makoko. I got a call from the governor’s office. He invited us and played against the boy. It ended in a draw. The vice president posted an edited bit of our video on his Instagram. A child got a scholarship to Canada and will play chess for the school because his story got featured in Aljazeera. I began to understand that this wasn’t just chess anymore. It was a humanitarian effort changing people’s perception of what charity should be.
We weren’t an organisation that would just go and give spaghetti or Indomie and say they have impacted lives. We are making children see that there is always a reward for hard work and learning.
Lastly, the Oshodi event that went viral weeks ago. Children under the bridge in Oshodi as street criminals and thugs were in the classroom and many people saw that globally. From the start, I had known that Chess in Slums Africa could become impactful but those moments reinstated it for me. And this is just in three years. Imagine what the next few years will look like.