In Nigeria, the Five Cowries Initiative is putting artful expression back in the classroom. By offering an inclusive route to education, to make learning fun. The initiative was founded in 2018 by muralist, artist, educator and children’s book author, Polly Alakija with co-founders Yemisi Mokuolu [Director, Hatch Ideas] and Damilola Emmanuel [Managing Director, Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA)] in partnership with Teach For Nigeria, LASWA, Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority (LAMATA), Jackson, Etti & Edu (Legal & IP Advisors) and Africa Practice (Communications Advisors).

In partnership with many other organizations in the public, private and civil sectors – including Teach for Nigeria, its delivery partners, the Five Cowries initiative is intentional about fusing the three Rs (3Rs) of basic education – reading, writing and arithmetic – with the four Cs (4Cs) – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

For example, with its first programme, ‘My Story of Water’ – a collaborative arts program pairing children from Lagos with other river cities like London and Cape Town – the initiative is creating awareness and helping children understand the importance of water, water pollution and the environmental crisis, which will, in turn, inspire creative ways to address the problem. Children are encouraged to express, through art (painting jerry cans, canoes, etc.), what water means to them while thinking of creative solutions to water pollution and water sanitation.

The theme ‘My Story of Water’ follows from the initiative’s pilot project in 2017, ‘Flying Flotilla’, in which students produced artwork on canoes; the installation was seen by 1.5 million visitors during its month-long display on the South Bank [London, UK]. This was followed by an installation of painted umbrellas telling stories that addressed various issues around rivers and our waterways, in 2018. To support the delivery of the arts education program, the initiative’s peer-mentoring program pairs teachers with colleagues across the world and tutors from Montessori International, who share teaching experiences and best-practice in education delivery.

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Thirty (30) classes of pupils have been selected from schools in Lagos and Ogun states, to participate in the 2019 program. During the program, children will create a variety of art pieces. These artworks – the children’s visual stories of water – will then be showcased locally and internationally – at SIWI World Water Week in Stockholm, in August; the Totally Thames Festival, in London, in September and an exhibition at the Five Cowries Ferry Terminals, between September and November, across Lagos State.


Lagos, one of Nigeria’s many coastal cities and its commercial hub, still suffers from approximately 25% and 60% drop-out at primary and secondary levels, respectively. Ensuring that all children have access to holistic education has the potential to transform lives and is a vital component in building the human capacity that is central to the country’s future economic development.

Creativity and problem-solving are the keys for a prosperous nation and, as a result, an important investment and responsibility. Children must be encouraged to play and expand their imagination, as they learn the basics for human communication. However, intentionality in the delivery of arts education programs will produce greater results – well-rounded individuals and a holistic educational system.

To learn more about the Five Cowries Initiative, visit www.fivecowriesinitiative.com.