Crystal Chika Okwurionu leans against a pillar in the entrance hall of the Saïd Business School

Philanthropy Report 2021/22

Developing the next generation of African leaders


Standard Bank Africa Chairman’s Scholarships are helping talented graduate students develop the skills they need to contribute meaningfully to Africa’s future.

Oil is big business in Nigeria, one of the largest producers of the commodity in Africa. According to intergovernmental organisation OPEC, the country had more than 37 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves in 2021, with the petroleum industry accounting for roughly 88% of Nigeria’s total export value. But despite the enormous sums of money being generated by the industry, for many, oil has been more of a curse than a blessing. In the Niger Delta, where nearly all extraction takes place, widespread oil contamination has caused extensive environmental damage as well as significant harm to local communities.

‘Nigeria is a country that really depends on crude oil extraction,’ says energy and finance lawyer Crystal Chika Okwurionu. ‘I grew up in southern Nigeria, which is where these activities happen, and I started to see the impact they were having on the environment around me. I knew that there was a commercial element, in the sense that the government relies a lot on oil export proceeds, but growing up in those surroundings, I began to think: is there a better way to do this? Why do we have to let this happen?’

Crystal’s early experiences led her to study law at university, where she wrote her undergraduate thesis on environmental law – ‘basically, how it is a violation of human rights when companies do these sorts of activities and don’t fear the consequences,’ she says. Crystal graduated second in her departmental cohort and went on to join a leading Nigerian law firm, advising multilateral agencies and syndicates of lenders on landmark energy projects. This included acting as a legal consultant on several World Bank-funded renewable energy projects in Nigeria and Ghana.

Crystal Chika Okwurionu sits outside at the Saïd Business School on a stone bench surrounded by plants
Standard Bank Africa Chairman’s Scholar Crystal Chika Okwurionu at the Saïd Business School. Photo by John Cairns

‘The overarching theme for me was that whatever I did, it needed to have impact beyond the boardroom or my computer, where I was working and putting together advice,’ Crystal explains. In order to maximise this impact, she decided to return to university and undertake further study, hoping particularly to boost her knowledge of finance – a subject in which she had no formal training. Crystal identified Oxford’s MSc in Law and Finance as the course to pursue, and was thrilled to be accepted into the 2021/22 student cohort.

Taught jointly by the Faculty of Law and the Saïd Business School, the MSc is designed to give students with a prior background in law the chance to develop an advanced interdisciplinary understanding of relevant economic and financial contexts. ‘I wanted a degree that would give me a grounding in core financial components,’ explains Crystal. ‘When you’re working with a company or a state government, it’s the commercial team who are eventually going to translate your work into financial policy, so the idea that you’re able to really understand what it is they’re saying is a good value-add.’

To enhance her financial knowledge even further, Crystal also joined the Oxford Saïd Finance Lab, which offers students the opportunity to understand key theoretical concepts, processes, instruments and models that are required to be successful in financial services. The programme invites leading banks and firms to present case studies to students – an approach that Crystal found invaluable: ‘It really puts the things you’re learning into practice. It lets you leave the concepts behind and understand how it works in reality.’

‘The scholarship didn’t just pay my fees; it came with a community that I could rely on when I needed to. And I did need them sometimes!’

Crystal Chika Okwurionu

Completing a joint degree was both challenging and rewarding for Crystal. She describes it as ‘like being part of two homes’; it was demanding, but she felt surrounded at all times by an extremely supportive community. ‘Because the class is really small you develop a family-like bond with your classmates, and there’s a certain level of camaraderie that tends to form,’ she explains. ‘We also appreciate our differences because we’re really very diverse – we’re from six continents – and in fact that brings us together, because we’re all alone here.’

Crystal has been supported throughout her studies by a Standard Bank Africa Chairman’s Scholarship. Established at Oxford in 2015, the scholarship programme enables African scholars to study at postgraduate level, covering students’ full course fees as well as living, accommodation, travel and visa costs. It is part of the Africa Oxford Initiative and funded by Standard Bank, which, through its generous gift, aims to create a network of African leaders who will influence and champion the continent’s development and sustainability.

‘I think the Standard Bank Chairman’s Scholarship has really helped me to focus on my studies and not have to worry about how the funding for the programme would be sorted,’ explains Crystal. ‘And beyond that, what I’ve really enjoyed about the scholarship is that it is housed in the Africa Oxford Initiative and they have been a really welcoming family for me. When I arrived here, it felt good to have people who looked like me and people who really understood the fact that I was in a new country, trying to find my bearings. I could lean on them when I was going through imposter syndrome; they were just there to lend a helping hand and I really appreciated that.’

‘The fact that the scholarship is focused on Africa and people doing Africa work was really important for me. It felt good to have that recognition’

Crystal Chika Okwurionu

As she approaches the end of her course, Crystal is exploring opportunities for her next career step. She is hoping to find a job at a London-based law firm with a significant focus on Africa, where she can continue her work in clean energy project finance. Her longer-term career plan, however, is to join a multilateral agency that provides financial aid to developing nations – ‘somewhere I can work beyond borders and in countries where I can have an even greater impact,’ she says.

Reflecting on her time at the University, Crystal is acutely aware of how it has changed her, describing the experience as ‘intense, but invaluable.’ She continues: ‘If I look back, I’m not the same person now as I was nine months ago. It was a really challenging time for me but ultimately, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It has been an enriching experience and I’m just really grateful to Standard Bank for helping to make it happen.’

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