TAMPA — As a refugee in the African country of Benin in the early 1990s, Dodé Ackey paid for high school by selling shirts when he wasn't in class.
Ackey was 18 when he and his family moved to Benin from the politically violent neighboring country of Togo. But public schools in Benin were overcrowded and first priority was given to locals, so private school was his only option to finish high school.
Ackey would go to a local market to buy fabric during his mid-day break from classes, and take it to a tailor to make shirts to sell.
"It prepared me for where I am today," said Ackey, now 38. "You learn. You kind of grow up from that because you are in charge of yourself."
Ackey moved to Tampa in 1996 as part of a federal refugee resettlement program. He began working in a warehouse late that year, and also started classes at Hillsborough Community College.
Now, after earning a bachelor's degree in finance in 1999 and an MBA in 2004 from the University of South Florida, and a master's in accounting from the University of Tampa this year, Ackey spends much of his time and money to educate others.
In June 2011, he opened the International Academy of Niamey in Niger, for middle and high school students.
It was an idea he came up with as an MBA student.
"I thought, if I'm able to get an education over here, what I want to do is take the same concept, the same opportunities to people there," he said.
The original business plan was a class project. Bill Locander, dean of the College of Business at Loyola University in New Orleans and former professor at USF, taught the class, and encouraged him to keep the project going.
"He had such a passion for the school and that was the type of project that fit the course very, very well, and so I said just continue it, let's make it happen," Locander said.
Ackey connected with Cornerstone, a group in Niger that helps build and manage schools. He set up the African International University Foundation, Inc., in 2005 and began fundraising. The school opened to a small group of students last summer.
It took about $12,000 to get the school started. About $6,000 came from fundraising. The rest came from Ackey's savings. It takes about $2,500 a month to keep the school running — $550 a month to rent the building, and the rest to pay teachers and staff.
Ackey hasn't seen the school in person yet, because a plane ticket costs about as much as its monthly operating cost. But he's planning his first trip to see it in December.
Ackey works with a board of directors that includes Locander and others he has worked with over the years, including Bob Lamb, owner of OmniControls, Inc., a test and measurement equipment business in Tampa, where Ackey worked as an accountant.
"We're just doing our bit to help him out because we've known him for a while and we believe in what he's doing," Lamb said.
Lamb offered Ackey the space for meetings and helped him make a website. "He's one of the few people who come over here to the U.S. to improve themselves and then give back," Lamb said.
Drought and flooding have contributed to poverty in Niger, where Ackey's wife Florence's family is from. Girls are often married as young as age 12. The national literacy rate is 61.3 percent, according to a 2012 CIA report. Of the school's 16 students this year, 10 are girls. Ackey wants to see that number increase.
"If not for this education, you don't know what the future would have held for them," he said.
Ackey works as an assistant vice president in share services at Citigroup, and as an adjunct accounting instructor at HCC, while working on the school with his wife's help. The school needs its own new building, with more computers and a science lab.
Ackey has a five-year plan that includes starting a university, so students at the school he started can continue their education.
"This is the legacy I want to have, someone who cares about education," Ackey said.
He plans to keep holding annual fundraisers, applying for grants and seeking donations through a website set up on Global Giving, a nonprofit that connects donors and grass roots projects.
The work is tough, but it's gratifying, he said. "It gets you going. It puts a smile on your face, that someone is getting this opportunity."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3321.