Just Call Me Mendi

July 10, 2015

There’s a new ‘sheriff’ in town, with Mendi Njonjo having taken over the helm as the new director of the Hivos East Africa (HEA) hub.

Mendi has been working at Hivos since 2010 as a Programme Manager responsible for the Freedom of Expression and Transparency and Accountability programmes. She previously served as a Director of Africa Programs for the US-based Advocacy Project, and as Director of Africa Programs at the Center for the Prevention of Genocide in Arlington, Virginia, USA. Mendi was formally introduced to Hivos East Africa donors, partners and allies at a reception held in Nairobi on 2 July 2015 by her predecessor, Will Janssen. Ms Janssen has moved to head Hivos’ Open Society domain in the Hague.

Our East Africa editor, Kevin Mwachiro sat down with Mendi to get an insight into Hivos’ new East Africa director, who describes herself as a Nairobi transplant.

KM: What are the things that have drawn you to Hivos?

Mendi: It’s in the motto ”People Unlimited’. It is not an empty slogan, just look at the programmes that we do, they don’t start from places of trauma. We are looking at programmes that are trying to get farmers, for instance, from living on a daily sustenance to think bigger than themselves. It’s not an easy task to get people to this point, but this challenge has kept me here.

KM: What are the challenges that you foresee for the organisation in this region?

Mendi:  Governance in general. The democratic space – and not just in this region – in Africa is seeing the winds shift. The recent Afrobarometer Study revealed this. Additionally, if you look at sexual rights and diversity, certainly in Uganda and increasingly more in Kenya, this is going to be a contested area. Renewable energy is also another area. We are paying a heavy price for polluting our planet. But we cannot tackle this alone as East Africans; we need to see ourselves as global players in trying to find a solution to making our planet greener. I don’t see any easy victories, but there is a lot of potential here as we try and find solutions.

As we wean ourselves as Africans and members of the Global South off foreign aid, that relationship between the North and South is changing. I look at this as a positive, and this sector needs a meeting of minds discussing issues at the table.

You must agree that there are rights that accrue to an individual as a citizen, and we as civil society need to ensure the people of East Africa demand these rights from their governments. We have to continue doing this, working with our regional partners to push for the rights of their citizens. We have to work at getting exciting and innovative solutions for the problems in this region.

KM:  As Hivos takes on a new way of working, what advice do you have for partners who are interested in working with Hivos, and has Hivos lost its ‘fun’ element?

Mendi:  We started having conversations with various groups of people three years ago, so our new way of working isn’t new to them. Our new model of funding should therefore not come as a surprise. In response to your fun question, I don’t think we’ve lost our fun element in the way we work. Yes, the arts do capture the people’s imagination, but there are really exciting things that Hivos does across the spectrum. We are looking at a Green project, where we are using the water hyacinth as a form of biofuel. This weed has been a menace to all Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. We are trying to turn this water plague into a strength and a solution. That is exciting, that makes me smile! We may not know whether it will work, but I am pretty sure that we are going to give it our best shot!

KM: Outside Hivos, who is Mendi Njonjo?

Mendi: I was born and bred in Kenya. Proud of my country roots, as I was brought up outside Nairobi in a town called Thika, only moving to the city for my university education. What excites me most at both a professional and private level, is the possibility of making things happen. This became very apparent recently when I starting cycling. At first, I started off with 5 kilometre distances, then I moved to 20 kilometres, then to 30 kilometres, and I began to realise that there are so many possibilities for us an individuals in this world. That’s the stuff that wakes me up in the morning. I recognise that it’s such a big world out there, and I have the ability to make a difference. The very least I can do is attempt to do a fraction of those things, both in my private and professional life. That stokes me!