The streets of London are alive with Extinction Rebellion

Since inception, Wasafiri has understood profit as a goal secondary to achieving wider social value. Through the rigorous B-Corp certification process, this has now been formally recognised, joining the ranks of highly respected companies such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s.

Through 2017 and 2018, Wasafiri will be extending our work from Africa and into the UK and the USA – here’s why:

When we set up Wasafiri, over 5 years ago now, it was because we saw a problem that we wanted to change. Between us we had been working on a variety of development issues across Africa; from climate change to conflict to agriculture – and the problem we recognised across all these different issues was less to do with the issues and more to do with the approach; and it was this approach that we wished to change.

Universal to all these very different problems was that these were not merely ‘technical’ problems – where solutions could be engineered- but rather systemic problems, that were deeply human in their nature. The sort of problems that no one institution, however brilliant or rich, could change on their own. So Wasafiri was set up to offer a different way to approach these sorts of problems. An approach rooted in collaborative action, in multi-stakeholder engagement, in bringing together those committed to making change and together figuring out, imperfect but practical action.

Over the last 5 years we have worked with partners from DFID to USAID, from private investors to global foundations, and we have been part of some significant change; and have learnt a great deal. We have been part of Grow Africa’s ability to engage governments and the private sector in catalysing over $2 billion of investment into agriculture on the continent. We have supported countries who have wanted to access Green Climate Fund investment with developing their plans. We have worked to help those effected by violent extremism in the Horn of Africa and those funding efforts to counter violent extremism to figure out how to support community resilience. And through this work, some of which has been more effective than others, we have learnt a great deal about what it means to work in complex systems and navigate complex problems.

However, complex systems and problems are not just found in Africa, or even just in developing countries. Rather these are universal problems many of which, like climate change, transcend national boundaries. From police –community relationships in the USA, to anti-microbial  resistance, to the muddle of the NHS in the UK, or the challenges of rising inequality across all wealthy countries – we live in a world of complex problems. Indeed the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, and their explicit application to all countries underlined the universal and ongoing nature of development.

And so over the next year we at Wasafiri want to explore how we can bring the approach we have developed, and the lessons we have learnt about working in complex systems to issues outside of Africa. Initially we will be exploring opportunities in the UK and the USA – opportunities where there are not simple solutions, where many different actors need to collaborate – and where that is not easy to do. It is in these messy spaces where we have to come together and create the path by walking it.

We welcome Marcel van Driel to Wasafiri as a new Consultant in Organisational Development for the Public Sector. Of Dutch origin and based in Lusaka, Zambia, Marcel is a specialist in the practice areas of agriculture, effective institutions and governance, with core skills in project design and management, strategic planning, monitoring, evaluation and workshop facilitation.

Marcel has worked as an advisor for Gesellschaft für international Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), seconded to the Local Government Association of Zambia (LGAZ); and the Government Service for Land and Water Management of the Netherlands Ministry of Agriculture, Nature Development and Food Quality (DLG).

He explains: “After obtaining a degree in Landscape Engineering, I worked for 7 years as project manager for land use and development. I worked on a feasibility and compliance study in Mali and was a planning advisor in Malawi. My work in Africa has made me knowledgeable about decentralisation and local governance – as well as allowing me to fulfill my passions for African nature and nature photography.”

Ian Randall, Wasafiri Executive Director and Principle Consultant, comments: “Marcel will be marvellous at helping African Governments with effective planning and the capacity to deliver real and sustainable results for their citizens.”

Read more about Marcel van Driel and download his CV on his page in Our People.

If you are interested in working with or for Wasafiri Consulting please contact our Head of Development, Dr Kate Simpson, on

Photo copyright Marcel van Driel.


I am writing this article with the assumption that many African Presidents (and their governments), with the exception of one or two cases, fail to achieve what they promise their people at the beginning of their term of office. This failure of leadership shows itself in the poverty that the African continent continues to suffer. The failure also shows itself in the untapped potentials (human and otherwise) of many countries on the continent. Rampant corruption is another indicator.

What then explains the failure?

If, for now, we work on the basis that my assumption that there is a failure of leadership in Africa is correct, what are some of the possible explanations for this failure? How can such failure be corrected or avoided?

As Dr Otto C Scharmer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) puts it, the failure of leadership (in reference to leaders anywhere in the world and in any sector) comes from two critical factors. Firstly, leaders are often unable to “access their own ignorance”. Secondly, leaders are unaware of the need – and often lack the skills – to engage in meaningful dialogue with those around them. Let me explain.

By “failure to access one’s ignorance” I mean the inability of leaders to know what they ought to know to be successful in their work. To be continuously successful, leaders must hear, see and experience what is truly going in the systems they run or manage. We all have our own leadership blind spots. Our challenge (and task) is to increasingly become aware of these blind spots so that we can access new data/information that should ignite new responses. One way in which leaders can access new data is by engaging in honest dialogue or conversation.

Believe it or not, although we hear and see that leaders are often in meetings, they rarely have dialogue with their equals. I am using the term dialogue in its etymological meaning – flow of meaning (dia – logos). In this context, true dialogue happens when leaders seek to co-discover or co-create meaning with their fellow leaders. Meaning is not always self-evident. It must be discovered. I have been privileged to observe those who serve Presidents or Heads of State in different parts of Africa through my work as an adviser to the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative and my own experience of having served President Levy Mwanawasa (Zambia’s third President). Through my work, I have learnt that those who work around Heads of State rarely engage the President or Prime Minister (or any person of power) as an equal. This situation tends to play at every level of leadership. Why might this be the case? The office of President or Prime Minister comes with such aura and some of form of mystery that, if not well managed, it tends to ‘drown’ or ‘swallow’ and even ‘smother’ the voices and thoughts of people around it. This, more often than not, happens under the guise of ‘respect for the highest office in the land’.

Respect for the President or Head of State emanates from what the office represents. It represents and embodies the ‘spirit of the nation’. It is the highest expression of the unity or oneness and collective will of a country. To this extent, then, the office of Head of State is sacred (deserving utmost respect). The office of President is even more mysterious in cultures and traditions were leaders are deemed “Father of the Nation” or “Father of our Liberation”; inviting reverence as the normal attitude and response before the leader. If this situation is not mitigate (by mainly actions of the leader himself or herself), those around the leader may not find it easy to pitch themselves as equals to the person who holds the high office. The job of those around the President is, subsequently, reduced to merely following presidential instructions. Presidential advisers cease being advisers and begin to compete on who carries presidential instructions, expressed or imaginary, the fastest.

Another way through which a leader can access his or her blind spot is through seeing and experiencing the system one is superintending. This means the President should find and establish processes and techniques through which he or she accesses the real world in which his or her citizens live. The visit of a President invites extraordinary efforts to make the place look ‘fit for a Head of State’. With the good intentions of being respectful to the President who embodies the spirit of the nation, people tend to go out of their way to welcome the visitor. As a result, the President tends to experience the life that his citizens do not live. He eats the food that people can afford only for important guests. He experiences surroundings that are far much cleaner than his people usually live in. People go out of their way to show respect for the head of state.

One of the jokes I have picked in the UK is that the Queen of England thinks all rooms outside her palace have the smell of paint. This is because rooms that the Queen visits are often re-painted just before she makes her visit to ensure that they are ‘royalty clean’. More often than not, Presidents have no idea what the real situation of most citizens is. Even those leaders who come to power on the strength of their ability to understand the people’s will and needs can fast slide into ignorance of what is truly going on. After operating and living in an ‘abnormally’ powerful and resource-rich environment for two to three years, leaders may tend to create a figment in their own minds. They take their circumstances as every person’s world. A few months of visiting only well adorned places, buildings that are properly refurbished, the natural environment that is nicely kempt (and often seen through tinted windows of a bullet proof Mercedes Benz car), and travelling without being hindered by traffic lights and on aircrafts that must wait for you; the President begins to think his personal efforts and those of government have paid dividend. Personal well-being becomes national well-being.

In conversations with fellow leaders (ministers and advisers), Presidents end up receiving half-truths and sometimes outright lies. My teacher, Lance Secretan – one of the world’s leading thinkers on the subject of leadership and bestselling author of numerous books, says, “The higher you go, the less truth reaches you”. People around the President tend to second guess what would please the ‘Boss’. From time to time, President Mwanawasa would invite me to Nkwazi (official residence) for lunch or dinner. Over a meal, he would ask me what my thoughts were about some of the issues that were going on in the country. He would often end with the question, “What do you know about what is going in the country that I should know?”  or “What is affecting our people that I should worry about tonight?” In those moments, I knew that the President was looking for ‘brutal facts’ rather than polite conversations that showered him with praises. He would often remark to me, “It is very difficult to have honest adult conversations when you are President. Many people I have a lot of regard for seem to lose their voice in my presence, what could explain this?”

President Mwanawasa yearned for peer challenge and rarely got it. I cannot count more than five names of people who I saw engage the President as equals. The rest grovelled and almost knelt before him. Their role was simply to oblige to the expressed or imaginary wish of the boss. Obliging is part of what it takes to work for a President, but it is only half the story. The other half is engaging the President in tough conversations so that he is well positioned and well informed to make the tougher and more critical decisions that the nation deserves and expects.

Dr Kaunda, the first President of Zambia, expressed similar yearning. He once shared with me that among the critical things he missed while he was Head of State was engaging in quality and honest conversations with colleagues. A few years ago, while I worked for Oxfam GB, I had the privilege of inviting Dr Kaunda to officiate at an Oxfam function in Lilongwe, Malawi. I flew from London to Lusaka in order to travel with the former President to Malawi. Recognising the status of Dr Kaunda, Oxfam flew the former President in business class while I travelled economy. He was the only one in business class that day. Thirty minutes after the plane took off from Lusaka; Dr Kaunda said to one of the air hostesses, “I have a friend sitting at the back of the plane. Kindly permit him to come and sit with me.” His request was granted expeditiously. I was delighted to sit directly opposite the former President.

I couldn’t resist asking Dr Kaunda, “With the benefit of hindsight, Your Excellency, what are the key lessons you picked from your time as our head of state?” He looked at me for a few seconds without uttering any word. He gave out his characteristic smile and then said, “My young man, that is a critical question”. He paused again. He then went on to share with me how difficult it was for him to have colleagues to genuinely think with. “There were a few exceptional cases, I must say.” He shared a moment when he met someone who was not willing to sacrifice the truth even if the President did not like it. “Soon after independence, a young Zambian judge ruled against the state,” Dr Kaunda began. “This was a case in which I, as head of state, was deeply interested. I felt that if the case was ruled in favour of the state, it would enhance our political independence from colonialism. The young Judge ruled against the state.” He paused, again, for almost minute. “When I had the opportunity to meet the young judge,” he continued, “I asked him why he had ruled against the state. The young judge said to me, ‘Your Excellence, while I understand and appreciate our nation’s political agenda, the law currently does not support what the state would like to do.’ I asked Dr Kaunda, “What did that make you feel?” He replied, “Young man, although I did not like the judge’s answer, I could not ignore his courage and was deeply humbled. Humbled, indeed. The young judge’s response made me realise the importance of working with people who are courageous and willing to tell the truth as they know and see it.” He remained silent for a while as if to let me internalise what he was saying. Dr Kaunda concluded, “A few months later, I invited the young judge to be our first indigenous Zambian Chief Justice. I knew that our judiciary would be in capable hands.” He was referring to Justice Annel Silungwe.

How can a leader constantly receive honest feedback?

In one of his articles to the Post newspaper soon after the inauguration of President Michael Sata (Zambia’s fifth President), Professor Hansungule stated that the one key quality of leadership in our time is the ability to listen to the people’s will. I totally agree with Prof Hansungule. However, the challenge lies in whether there are conditions in which the leader can engage in honest conversations so that he can access the will of the people. Anyone who has worked around powerful men and women can attest to how difficult it is to tell “the emperor that he is naked.” Prof Edgar Schein of MIT, under whose feet I have had the rare privilege of learning, says that there is one key lesson he has learnt in his more than 50 years of working with leaders in different parts of the world. The lesson is that unless the leader suspends, from time to time, social rules around his or her office, he or she would increasingly lose the ability to engage in honest conversation and feedback.

In most societies, if not all, there are ‘social rules’ or ‘socially acceptable ways’ or the ‘etiquette’ of how to communicate and relate with leaders. These rules are, in their original and purest form, meant to signify the importance of the role played by a given office. They are also meant to enable the office occupant perform certain roles with ease for the benefit of the constituency. What does suspension of social rules then mean? This is when a leader deliberately creates, from time to time, an environment or conditions were those around him or her can share what they think and feel without any inhibition. Some aspects of the Japanese culture developed its own practice of how to suspend social rules for the greater good of the military. It is called After Action Review (AAR). Upon accomplishing an operation, the commander or head of the platoon would call all those who were involved in the operation to conduct an AAR. During the AAR, social rules of the military (deep respect for ranks and seniority) would be suspended. The private soldier and the commander would temporarily have equal status as they review their actions. They both would have equal amount of time to speak and ask whatever (tough) questions they have. They would challenge each other’s views. At the end of the AAR, the truth was often found, enabling the military to learn from its actions for the future.

AAR is practised in some Japanese companies and other systems world-wide that have learnt the ‘ritual’. On a Friday, for instance, the managing director or head of department of a company would invite a cross section of staff – juniors and seniors – for a drink. As soon as staff step into a pub or bar, they are presumed to be drunk. This means that every member of staff, even before he or she sips his or her drink, can say to the managing director or any other staff, “I think that decision you made last Monday was really silly…” and gives reasons for his or her assertion. The whole drinking session, often without anybody getting really drunk, is a conversation about how serious issues affecting the company can be tackled and lessons learnt. As soon as the drinking session ends and the staff have stepped outside the bar, normal social rules or etiquette are expected to be in operation, irrespective of whether one is truly drank or not.

In December 2011, I was in Lusaka visiting my ailing father. One morning when I observed that he was not in so much pain, I asked him if there was any equivalent of AAR in our traditions and culture. He explained to me that among the Ba Bemba, for instance, were praise singers who had unlimited access to the palace. Although these singers were thought to compose and sing songs of praise for the king, they equally composed and sung songs of rebuking the King when he was perceived not to be running the kingdom properly. The King was not permitted to punish them even when they said something he did not like. Their ‘office’ was protected by tradition. My father explained that the skill of the praise singers lay in their ability to tell it as it was while still “saving the face of the King”. This means that the praise singers critiqued the King in the language that only those properly educated in this form of communication could decode. For the rest of the people, these were just ordinary songs. For those with ‘ears’, the King included, songs were sometimes tough feedback for the ruler.

Reflection points for our new national leaders in Zambia

There is a new air of hope in Zambia since the Patriotic Front swept to office. Generally, people have high hopes that the new leaders will make a difference. President Sata has made key and important pronouncements that if implemented should make Zambia one of the beacons of hope on a continent that seems to be stuck in mismanagement and, as the country’s current Minister of Finance would put it, ‘kleptocracy’ (theft). I offer the following as reflection points for our leaders in government, and perhaps, business and civil society:

  • Create opportunities where those around you can tell you what their honest thoughts are. The power of your office combined with our traditional respect for leaders will tend to prevent you from relating as an equal to those around you. From time to time, create conditions were others can communicate with you sincerely as a peer.
  • Surround yourself with men and women who have the courage to share what they think, feel and what they are learning from society, no matter how unpalatable that might be to you. Do not be shy away from employing those who are not enthusiastic about praising you.
  • Whenever you can, access the reality of the citizens’ living conditions when they are not camouflaged by the need to impress you. Find the time to see – by yourself – situations as they truly are. If you can, spend 40% of your time doing paper work in your office and 60% meeting and talking to people (customers, debtors and creditors in the case of business leaders) in their true or real environment.
  • Employ managers who are more skilled than yourself to take care of the managerial and administrative duties of your office. For the President, this means identifying a highly qualified and competent Chief of Staff and Senior Advisers. For Ministers, this means looking out (through the President) for true professionals for Permanent Secretaries and Directors of key public institutions.
  • Leaders need to create what one of my mentors and a celebrated author, Nancy Kline, calls “Think Environment”. Most leaders’ work situations are “Instruction Environments”. A Thinking Environment assumes equality between people, creativity in the search for solutions, and taking turns to make contributions. Failure to create a Thinking Environment leads to infantilisation of adults and poverty of ideas and the ensuing actions. A Thinking Environment leads to productive dialogue. When expertly facilitated, dialogue generates wisdom and new knowledge.
  • In today’s world, the currency is shared leadership. The era of single hero leaders or ‘lone rangers’ is gone. No single leader can find answers to the many complex challenges that confront our society. Collaborative leadership is the answer.

Blog written by Martin Kalungu-Banda. (The author of this article is an Organisation Development Consultant and author of the bestseller “Leading Like Madiba: Leadership Lessons from Nelson Mandela” and “It’s How We End That Matters: Leadership Lessons from an African President”).


What is the most powerful currency for a facilitator? What really makes a facilitator a true helper?

Since I began to consciously think of myself as an organisation development consultant, I have always wondered what qualities I need to possess to be considered a competent and effective helper. I tend to use the term “helper” in place of “consultant”. I feel that people who support organisations in their quest to perform or become better are in the first instance helpers. This view of who a consultant, particularly an organisation development one, is became even clearer when I read Edgar Schein’s book entitled “Helping” . In the same week I read the book, I had the fortune and privilege of meeting and spending an entire day in the presence of Schein in Central London. I could have been in his space forever.

In “Helping”, Schein truly distils invaluable gems and pearls of wisdom arising from his more than 40 years of working as an organisation development practitioner-helper and an academic at the Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) and other prestigious institutions. With maximum ease and grace, Schein shares how his work as a helper has permeated both his professional and private life. He also shares his real life experiences that demonstrate how easy it is to be a helper, when we consciously make the decision to be one.

I have often wondered whether mastering cutting edge techniques for assessing the needs of the clients is what it takes to be an effective helper. There are times when I have considered excellence in action research and the ability to ask what Nancy Kline calls incisive questions as the main currency of an effective helper.

In my early days as a consultant, I depended on producing sleek power point slides and well-bound colourful reports for my Clients. Appearance was everything. Today, this is important, but not at the same level as the need to truly listen to my client.

Experimenting with Listening

In the middle of 2011 Liberal Seburikoko (my Wasafiri co-consultant) and I got the opportunity to do work for an organisation that needed to make some fundamental decisions about its reason for existence, structure and ways of working. During our preparation for the assignment and especially when carrying out the diagnostic phase, Liberal and I consciously decided to put into practice the notion of “undivided attention when you are listening to the client”. We listened with deep respect and without any sense of judgement. We asked questions only to access our ignorance.

For nine days we simply listened and asked questions. In between interviews with respondents Liberal and I spent time reflecting on what we had heard and learnt from the previous interview. We resisted getting into interpretation. Our focus was on ‘taking in data’.

On the tenth day, I damped all the notes we had been taking, locked myself in my hotel room to begin the process of report writing. I began to draft the report. It was extraordinary how the report came together. It was like while we were listen to respondents information was treating itself and coalescing into right places in my mind and heart. My job that day was simply to punch my laptop’s keyboard, drawing on what my inner eye had been privileged to see during our data collection process. After six hours of tapping the laptop buttons, we had a 26-page draft report.

Lessons learnt

Responding to the draft report, the chief executive of the client organisation wrote to saying, “This is truly a professional job you have done. You are experts at helping organisations”. Rather than swim in the glory that Liberal and I are expert, I have a clue of how the result came about:

1. That we listened in a non-judgemental way. We engaged our respondents in a manner that showed that we were fully present to learn from them. We simply ‘buried’ ourselves in the data we were hearing. We were genuinely interested in learning about them, their organisation and how they worked. We listened. One of my teachers, Lance Secretan, says, “The words listen and silent are the same, too, save for the order of the letters. We cannot listen clearly until we are silent. Do you silence your mental chatter, your internal critics, and your distractions so that you may listen more deeply to others and yourself? We cannot hear until we are silent, until we suspend our opinions, arguments, and judgements and deeply drink from that to which we are listening.”

2. We asked questions. These were not questions to prove how clever or knowledgeable we were as consultants. They were questions to enable us access our ignorance about the organisation and its people. We went into the assignment knowing nothing about the organisation. It was clear that all our knowledge and information was going to come from literature review and talking to people who knew different parts of the organisation much more than ourselves. With humility, we asked questions to learn. Because we were privileged to learn from diverse data sources, our knowledge grew exponentially within a very short period of time.

3. Deep respect for the client and its people. Liberal and I consciously thought about the need for respect for our client organisation and the people connected to it. They had called us in to help not because they were stupid. They asked us to help because they were aware that some of their challenges could be best resolved through the involvement of an ‘outsider’. To that extent, we – the helpers – were privileged to be asked to be in their midst so that they could get to where they wanted to be. Another way to respect the client is to practice non-judgement. “Judgement is the constant evaluation of things as right or wrong, good or bad. When you are constantly evaluating, classifying, labelling, analysing, you create a lot of turbulence in your internal dialogue. This turbulence constricts the flow of energy between you and pure potentiality. You literary squeeze the ‘gap’ between thoughts.”

4. We drew on expert knowledge. Being students of organisation development, innovation and change and management science, we tapped into this rich tapestry of information, tools and techniques. We identified the best model for doing diagnostic work. We used some of the cutting-edge techniques for collecting data from groups. Mee-Yan often says to be an effective helper in organisation development; you have to be an intellectual scavenger. It means you are immersed in searching for knowledge from diverse sources – social and human sciences – so that you have multiple lenses through which you can see human and group dynamics.

Giving feedback

During the feedback process, our aim was to play the mirror to the board. This entailed presenting the organisation back to them in the language and images they recognised. It also meant sharing about the side of the organisation they were less conscious of. Liberal and I deliberately chose the language we used to communicate the feedback. We stated what was working well in the current system. We pointed out what we had come across as less helpful behaviours and processes. In fairness, different parts of the organisation knew what was not working well but had not been noticed by the system as a whole.

We presented to the board the various possible futures we had heard from the different sections of the organisation and its network. We shared a bit of our own perspectives. After we had facilitated the feedback conversation, the board knew exactly where they wanted to take the organisation. The joy of seeing a client find answers to their own challenges was even more rewarding than the promise of a pay cheque.


Our work was a success because Liberal and I had listened and utterly respected our client. My mentor and one of the world’s leading experts in Organisation Development, Mee-Yan Cheung Judge, rightly calls this work as “sacred work”. It is sacred because leaders and their organisations – in trust – invite you and I as consultants to help them. If we pitch ourselves well enough, those who invite us will open themselves to us like a flower. They will share their views and feelings; their aspirations and fears. They will share their hopes. They expect us to help. Pitching ourselves well enough is the ability and commitment to build trusting relationships with those whom we work. “Trusting relationships require us to stay authentic, congruent, open and transparent. Our possession of these qualities is not so much from the use of techniques and tool kits, but the result of our deep inner work.” As Mee-Yan would say, this is life-long learning.

We help, firstly, through who we are. The value we hold and how we manifest them. Second, we help because we have learnt, through practice, how to support a client in finding solutions to their own challenges. To hold the space for the client in this manner while facing the pressure to come across as having the answers the client needs is difficult. The ability to stay comfortable with holding the space rather than pretending you have the answers the client needs is the real expertise in organisation development work.

In this example I am sharing about the answers the client was looking for came with phenomenal ease. All because we had listened. What then makes listening so important? “There is something good which comes out of the lack of listening. It means that when you do listen, really listen, to someone, the experience will be so novel and so special for them, you will have a friend for life.” Some of the respondents would say, after the interview, “I feel so relieved!” or “I feel a lot better!” or “You have given me the reason to continue standing up for what I believe.”

Listening, in my opinion, is the most valuable currency we brought to the assignment. The question is, shouldn’t this be normal and obvious to everyone? Should this not be something everyone does? People should not be paid for the obvious. I could be mistaken. May be humanity has lost the obvious – the ability to listen. This could explain why people are paying for it.