Katindi Sivi Njonjo, a futurist with joy and passion for foresight
I first met Katindi for lunch in 2010 on a visit from California. I had just left my job at Institute for the Future and was preparing to go to graduate school in New York. I was so excited to meet her, to get some first-hand knowledge of foresight in Kenya. At the time I was a bit nervous; what should I expect? To my delight, Katindi was forever laughing and humble about all that she has achieved. I quickly knew that come 2011, when I have my summer break, I must find a way to return to Kenya and work with Katindi. And so I did.
I have discovered the more I learn about all the amazing work she has done in Kenya, the more humble she becomes. It is easy to see the joy and passion she finds in her work, and become enamored with the process through her eyes. I am happy to have had to opportunity to interview Katindi for Foresight for Development.
Katindi's motto, if she hasn’t already made one, might be that effective scenarios need souls, and they find them through conviction in the process.
Inspired and inspiring
Having worked in research and policy for some time, Katindi finds her inspiration to continue working to change the way Kenyans see their world in the shortcomings of her country’s policies. "I find that the Kenyan government is mostly caught up in romanticizing about the past and over-analyzing the present making us completely unprepared for any eventualities even the most obvious. The programmes and processes we institute are therefore reactive, and we have been very poor in putting together winning strategies that result into proactive solutions." This is where scenario building and futures thinking comes in.
Describing her work as a futurist is always tricky, but Katindi uses "methods such as vision thinking, strategic planning and scenarios building to guide research, discuss strategic policy issues and possible futures we may have to face whether we like it or not."
When asked to elaborate a bit more on what these terms mean Katindi tells us that "visions thinking is about having a mental picture of where you want to go within a certain period of time. We, for example, used this method to challenge the Kenyan government about the inefficiencies of five-year term plans through a process we called 'Vision 2027', which we believe influenced the crafting of the current country strategy 'Vision 2030'.
"Strategic planning, a management tool, was adopted for community development. We help constituencies chat out their development plan, map out all their resources and identify benchmarks with which to evaluate their progress. This process is promoting citizen participation and accountability of public funds."
And further, "scenarios building is a systematic way of thinking about possible futures that could happen looking at how different variables interact. The idea is to spur strategic debate on complex issues or get direction in very uncertain times. We have used this methodology to discuss the possible future of Kenya after the retirement of a dictator, and are currently discussing the possible future for Kenya given the looming youth bulge."
Katindi continues: "In most cases, I actually combine all three methodologies when facilitating, depending on the context so as to benefit from the strengths of the three methodologies."
"A long way to go with futures thinking"
Africa, as a whole, still has a long way to go with futures thinking, in particular when it comes to adopting scenarios building.
"In my view, visioning is the most common among African governments, and strategic planning is very popular with the private sector. However, not many have embraced scenarios building as a strategic way of thinking about the complex issues that African governments have to contend with. I must say though that there is scenarios work going on in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda."
Katindi says that seeds of change are in place, but a critical mass is still lacking. Which is a shame because, "the use of foresight methodologies — particularly scenarios building — would help deepen research and inform proactive policies and legislation, thereby building better solutions to complex problems. African governments would also be more prepared to deal with eventualities, thus reducing the number of catastrophes. I know it would also lead to better use of resources."
More than a job
As is the case with many futurists, futures thinking chose Katindi; not the other way around.
"After University, I got an internship at the Institute of Economic Affairs to work under a scenarios project. They eventually took me on board as a full time staff member." Katindi expands: "I am glad I found myself there because I had no idea what I wanted to pursue for a career. Through the scenarios dissemination experience, I saw the credibility of futures thinking and how Kenya can confront some of its unprecedented challenges using these methodologies."
Of her qualifications, Katindi explains that she "later did some formal training at Oxford’s Said Business School. Today I head the futures programme in the organization, and I am leading a project on possible futures Kenya might face as a result of the looming youth bulge. Foresight is no longer a job - it is a calling!"
While in her early days at IEA, Katindi was guided by and inspired by three particular people: Betty Maina, former CEO of Institute of Economic Affairs who started the scenarios work in Kenya; Barbara Heinzen, who was an independent consultant for all the East African scenarios projects; and Arthur Muliro who convened the East African scenarios processes and currently works for Society of International Development. "They took risks with me and provided numerous learning opportunities," she says.
A turning point involving revolutionary methods
The experience of disseminating Kenya’s first scenarios countrywide pushed Katindi into making what has been, up to now, an eleven year career. "The conversation the process elicited convinced me that this was worth pursuing for a career. My turning point though was when three of the four stories played out accurately, seven years later. I was convinced that foresight methodologies were very revolutionary methods of discussing possible futures and inventive policy proposals." Looking ahead, Katindi explains that she "would really like to carry out extensive research and advocate for revolutionary social policies through futures methodologies in order to provide practical and creative solutions to the poor and marginalized."
For others who might want to get into the futures field within Africa, Katindi has this to say: "Western countries can afford to have foresight conversations for intellectual purposes, since most of their populations have reached the self-actualization stage of life. Africa is still dealing with very basic needs. African futurists will, therefore, have to contextualize foresight methodologies and use them to provide pragmatic solutions. Foresight work is fairly new in Africa, particularly in rural areas. There are many unexplored areas, and this provides enormous opportunities. However, foresight practitioners here will have to be patient in order to break through. This is because culture and religion may hinder effective futures thinking and practice. A classic example is a youth group I facilitated in Northern Kenya in April 2011, who said they don’t deliberately plan for their family sizes because children are a gift from God. The quality of their future is dependent on God’s will (inshallah) and God’s provision. A discussion on demographic control and its future implications, therefore, became a very difficult subject to address." Such challenges Katindi meets head on.
When asked about challenges facing African foresight, Katindi says this: "For those pursuing futures studies, it is good to have the formal knowledge of the discipline. However, foresight knowledge is acquired more from practice. Futures knowledge is imbued more by doing than from theory."
And Katindi should know. She travelled across the country, talking about Kenya’s scenarios in over 200 meetings, when she was fresh out of the university. She has a story of spending three days, in the back of a truck on a tiny bench to Moyale, in order to share the scenarios with that region. "I am just happy to have gone through the discovery process which is part of being a futurist. It is what makes you believe in the process and get the much needed conviction because if you conduct scenarios without conviction, you create empty stories, stories without a soul."
Beyond the religious aspect, then, what challenges does an African futurist face working within their continent?
According to Katindi, "Foresight methodologies, in my view, can be too abstract. In Kenya, the scenarios we first produced were largely dismissed until the post-election conflict in 2008, when people realized that three of the four scenarios had played out quite accurately. This precision made people begin to have confidence in the methodology. More private sector organizations are demanding for this type of analysis in their planning. The public sector is still slow, though it acknowledges that scenario conversations are a credible way of preparing for eventualities. I think the qualitative nature of scenarios does not resonate well with the quantitative orientation of government economists. Quantitative data collected though various modeling techniques would help back up the extrapolations made in scenarios."
Challenges for African foresight
"The other big challenge", says Katindi, "is that people expect foresight methodologies to be predictions, and they are not willing to engage with scenarios as possibilities."
For those who might want to get into the futures field within Africa, Katindi suggests a handful of foundational pieces for people just getting interested in the field and in need of some technical background. These publications are what "any futurist should be aware of", she explains:
The futurist at work
When asked what her office looks like, Katindi tells us we’ll see this: "Books and so many journal articles on youth and vigilantism. These are the effects of rigorous research."
And the place she does her best thinking? "If I could relocate, it would be Rockefeller’s Bellagio Center in Italy, or anywhere in Cape Town, South Africa. But in reality I think best in the shower. I sometimes get such deep brain waves at night but I never get up to write them down, so I will never remember the next morning what it was all about!"
Although others describe Katindi as "meticulous in [her] work" she tends to think she is "easy going." Personally I think she’s somehow mastered both skills!
Quick facts about Katindi
About the author of this article
Tessa Finlev is a research affiliate with Institute for the Future. She is also pursuing her masters degree in International Political Economy and Development from Fordham University in New York. Her current work is focusing on designing a futures thinking process to contribute to the conflict resolution and peace-building field. Tessa will be joining FFD in Pretoria in July to gain a broader perspective on how futures thinking and peace-building can work together. She will be seeking out interviews from people in the field of conflict resolution and futures thinking, writing features for the site on foresight for peace, and testing the platform as a collaboration site. For more information about her research see here.
Contact Tessa in the following ways: