By Henry Okonkwo
Right after he rounded off his illustrious career in 2012, football legend, Kanu Nwankwo, hung his boots and opened the next chapter of his life. Unlike many other ex-international stars that quit football, and switched to lucrative projects like club management, coaching, investments and even active politics, Nwankwo, popularly called ‘Papillo’ chose to delve into full-time charity work.
Running a charity organisation, and going through the strain of fund-raising and philanthropy is not a gentleman’s game. However, the Owerri, Imo State-born legend, has remained focused in using his fame and influence to raise money for the needy. His charity organisation, Kanu Hearts Foundation (KHF), for over two decades has been sponsoring less-privileged children with undiagnosed heart diseases, for open heart surgery abroad.
In this interview, Nwankwo speaks on his passion and experience in the non-profit world of philanthropy, why he shies away from testing his popularity in active politics, and his future plans for less-privileged Nigerian youths.
It has been nine years since you retired from active footballing and have been engaged in charity work. How have you handled the challenges of running the Kanu Nwakwo Foundation?
Since KHF started, we have sponsored 580 open heart surgeries for less privileged children all over the country. And we have over 200 children in need of surgeries on the waiting list. But funds have been a huge challenge for us. Last year, 2020 was very harsh for everybody. The COVID-19 plus the lockdown adversely affected our foundation. We found it very difficult raising money. We couldn’t go out to raise funds because people, even our sponsors, were also facing so much difficulty. but this year, 2021, I thank God because things are opening up, and we are gradually going back to our normal activities.
There is a huge need to go out and raise money to help families that have children with heart condition. I don’t know them or which state they come from; what I know is that if they have a child with a heart condition, then KHF would go all out to source money and help them in any way they can. Helping the less-privileged is my major motivation right now.
Since you retired from playing professional football, your name has been linked to politics and politicians. Some months ago, social media was abuzz after you were seen having friendly conversations and pictures with Yahaya Bello, the Kogi State governor. Many people speculated that you were preparing to finally go into active politics. How true is this notion?
(Laughing) I can tell you that my life after retiring from football has been doing charity and making provisions for children with heart diseases to access treatment. That is my first work and nothing else. So I have to move around to solicit for money.
I’ve intentionally stayed away from other projects like going into coaching because such work might affect my work in the foundation. It will be difficult for me to raise enough money for the children, if I move into active coaching or any other venture. And right now I’m focused on getting the 200 children on the waiting list flown out of the country to have open heart surgeries. Then I also aim to build hospitals where these surgeries can be done here in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
So when you see me moving closer to politicians, I don’t go there to wine and dine, or because I’m interested in any political office. I only go to politicians and office holders to raise money and save the lives of the less privileged children. Because when I don’t go to these influential and wealthy people, their doors would not open for me. But when I go to them, their doors would open for me to come in, talk to them and then appeal for money for the foundation.
I am like Oliver Twist, I have to keep asking and begging for money on behalf of these children in need. So whenever you see me around politicians, just pray for me so that they will open the doors of their hearts to us and donate generously to help the foundation save the lives of innocent children.
Aside from helping children with heart diseases, are there other means by which you support the poor in society?
I have always loved associating with objectives that aim to help the less privileged. There are a lot of gifted youngsters on the streets who aspire to play football and become the next Papillo but they don’t really understand what it takes to attain the level I got to. Not only that, they also don’t have the opportunities to make it to where they want to be. So, currently, I am part of the Naija Soccer Star (NSS) Talent Project, which will kick off soon. I’m happy because this project is all about providing assistance for talented youths to flourish. NSS is a reality show where young talents would be kept and mentored on live television. They’ll have the opportunity to be in the spotlight for top international scouts, and FIFA agents to see their raw talent and try to place them in football clubs across the world. Nigerians would also be involved in choosing which team or players will emerge as winners.
Nigeria is a big nation with so much talent. And I know Nigeria would never run out of talented soccer players, but the problem is when you have all these talents all over, what’s the structure for them? And how do you spot them? That’s what this project is all about. We want to give youths the big opportunity to showcase themselves.
What would be your advice to young Nigerians that aim to be like you?
Your talent is not enough, when you don’t work hard. With hard work, you’ll achieve what you want to achieve. So when you are blessed with the talents and you work hard, then you can succeed like Papillo.