From Grass to Grace: Tunde Onakoya.

In a world full of challenges, resilient individuals strive to achieve great feats. One such person is Tunde Onakoya, whose TEDx talk “Doing Great Things from a Small Place” is a testament to the power of determination and opportunity. Let’s delve into an amazing grass to grace story.


Born on October 6, 1994, in Ikorodu, Nigeria, Tunde Onakoya is a renowned chess player and coach, best known for founding Chess in Slums Africa. This initiative uses chess to empower underprivileged children in Lagos by teaching them to read, write, and develop critical thinking skills. Onakoya’s dedication to the game and its transformative power also led him to break the Guinness World Record for the longest marathon chess game, playing for over 60 consecutive hours in New York City to raise funds for education in Africa.

Onakoya’s TEDx talk is a captivating and inspirational presentation centered on the theme of using one’s skills and opportunities to make a significant impact, regardless of origin or starting point.

He began by sharing his personal journey, highlighting the challenges he faced growing up in a modest environment in Nigeria. Due to financial constraints, he had to drop out of school to allow his brother to continue his education. His early education, conducted in Yoruba, left him unable to speak English. After leaving primary school, he spent two years at home, working as an apprentice in refrigerator repair.

A turning point came when he walked into a barber/gaming shop and saw a chess set. Due to Tunde’s fascination, he pleaded with the man to teach him how to play.  He was told it wasn’t time as he was too young to play. However, Tunde still stayed and watched people play. This experience sparked his passion for chess.

After two years, his mother made sacrifices to re-enroll him in school, which, fortuitously, taught chess as a subject. This new environment allowed him to thrive. The school’s owner, a former competitive chess player and United Nations ambassador to Kenya, provided an excellent setting for Onakoya’s growth.

Tunde kept playing, learning and growing in his intellectual chess knowledge. His coach, who had an eye for talent, discovered that Tunde was a gifted child. As a kid that grew up in the slums of Ikorodu in Lagos, he moved from being called an “ Olodo” to identifying as a child of high intellect. He won multiple tournaments, including the Trevor Chess Tournament and the National Friends of Chess. Despite his hopes to relocate abroad through chess being dashed due to lack of funding, he began teaching chess in schools. This experience revealed to him the transformative power of chess on children’s confidence and self-esteem.

He eventually returned to his roots, where he was dismayed to find children the same age as he was when he learned chess, smoking and not attending school. This realization motivated him to use his skills to give back to the community. He said “On that day I had an epiphany, and I made a decision to use the skill that I had to give back to them as a gift. That someday people will look beyond their background or what they look like, or their poverty, and respect them because of what they had the ability to do”.

Onakoya emphasized that greatness is not confined by geographical or socioeconomic boundaries but is driven by resilience and the willingness to pursue one’s dreams against all odds. Mentors and educational opportunities were crucial in his development, helping him realize his potential and inspiring him to give back to his community.

Key Takeaways

  1. Resilience and Determination: Success is achievable despite humble beginnings, driven by perseverance and creativity.
  2. Education and Mentorship: These are essential in unlocking potential and creating opportunities for underprivileged individuals.
  3. Community Impact: Initiatives like “Chess in Slums” can transform lives, proving that targeted efforts can yield significant social benefits.
  4. Empowerment: Everyone has the potential to make a difference, regardless of their starting point.

Tunde Onakoya’s talk is a powerful reminder of the impact one individual can make, inspiring others to look within their communities and see how they can contribute to positive change. By sharing his journey and the successes of “Chess in Slums,” he exemplifies how passion, combined with action, can lead to remarkable outcomes.