Meet the CEO

Paul Stuart joined SAC in 2013 and was appointed CEO in 2016. Akiiki Roselyn Emuna is Programme and Partner Support Manager for Ripple Effect Uganda – she’s been with the charity since 2007.

ROSELYN: Can I start by saying it’s a pleasure to be interviewing my CEO. And my first question is: what have been the high and low points of this last year for you?

PAUL:The high point has been seeing how everyone came together this year. Existing supporters showed faith in us, sometimes in extraordinary ways.

The leadership of the teams in Africa developed new ways of working through the pandemic, making greater use of peer farmers and self-help groups. With the support of a COVID adaption fund, we created training material on a new digital platform.

The result was that communities continued to build their food security, despite the situation. Self-help groups developed businesses such as selling liquid soap to hotels and churches. And farmers who couldn’t travel to markets sold their excess produce to their neighbours at their farm gates.

I think the low point for me was the reduction of UK Aid commitment which has been a valuable source of support. With the increased uncertainty that brought, we had to make some hard decisions to cut back resources, which put more pressure on staff.

ROSELYN: Without visiting in person this year, have you felt connected with staff in Africa?

PAUL: That’s a good question, and to really know the answer we should ask the teams in Africa. I’ve been with SAC eight years now, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to spend time either in the country head offices, or travelling to the projects. So in that sense I feel very connected and very inspired by the team in Africa.

I rely on line management, of course, because we have nearly 200 staff in Africa. But it has been harder to feel connected since my last trip, in March 2020.

So three months ago I decided I needed to speak to all the project teams via online meetings. It was quite an exercise to get them all set up, but that has been really valuable because each person talked about the challenges they were facing, as well as opportunities they could see for us.

I remember talking to you, Roselyn, and you also spoke about enterprise at a community level in Rakai, I think with haymaking and seeds. And I remember you were you were very clear about some of the challenges as well, in terms of the risk of staff getting burnt out and leaving.

ROSELYN: And just to give you some feedback, the frontline teams were very appreciative of that, and especially new staff who were glad to be able to put a face to their CEO.

PAUL: I think, going forward, all of us have to think very carefully about when and why we travel. The world has changed, and online technology like Teams has meant that we can be connected in other ways, and only travel when it really is right and necessary.

ROSELYN: How do you see the Africa Forward strategy making us more effective in our work?

PAUL: We’ve opened the new Africa office in Nairobi and our new Africa Director Fred Ochieng comes with lots of enthusiasm, lots of ideas and new networks. He's bringing an African perspective of what he thinks is necessary to help build and support the leadership and country teams in Africa, and we will have more senior staff closer to where we work.

The centre of gravity of our strategic leadership is moving - which is a good thing.

I’d like to ask you, Roselyn, how you see the Africa Forward strategy helping our work?

ROSELYN: I'm hoping that the regional office in Africa will help us getting into certain funding spaces, particularly foundations.

And above all that it will build the capacities of our staff so that we become the go-to organisation for delivering programmes.

ROSELYN: Now, if I ask you WHICH of these two things is MOST important to our work today, would you say… climate crisis, or hunger?

PAUL: That's quite a loaded question… Hunger, climate and nature really are inextricably linked. If we don't deal with the climate crisis, more and more people will be hungry, and more and more people will be affected by poverty, and they’re not things we can solve alone. The whole world must address them together.

ROSELYN: I totally agree. So, my next question: farm systems, or enterprise development?

PAUL: I think timing would be the differentiator.

Ultimately, our vision is to see communities that are thriving: having choices in terms of education, health, assets around the household. The kind of choices that I have in my life, for example.

I don't think I don't think you can get there without some sort of entrepreneurial mindset, and without going beyond food for the home.

I remember one family in Burundi speaking about the choice of who would eat in during the hunger months. As parents, they always chose for their children to eat – and yet they were having to do hard, daily farm work without having food themselves.

So, in terms of putting food on the plate for good nutrition – and therefore health and education – I think the farm system is absolutely key, the entry point, and then stays relevant throughout the enterprise and becomes the next stage.

ROSELYN: Absolutely: a hungry man can’t think about generating income: he needs to feed his family.

Now, we see the donor requirements for monitoring and evaluation changing every year… Are you happy with our approach – do we need to change?

PAUL: Ripple Effect has had good monitoring and evaluation for a number of years, and I think I think we've really been pushed forward on that by some of the institutions that we receive funding from, like the FCDO, who have had very strong requirements on monitoring progress at a household and a community level.

Many of the impact reports that we produce are very well received by the people who support us.

I think an area where we need to get better is in producing more timely reporting. I know there are many, many indicators that we look at, and all of them are important. But I think we do need to focus on the things that really matter to us – so maybe maybe fewer indicators, and more timely.

ROSELYN: Now, can you tell me: what have been your worst moments as a CEO?

PAUL: Over the years I’ve visited places where we’ve gone in to do the community assessments and consider the work we could do there – and then we haven’t been able to proceed.

I remember one particular community in Zambia. How does that feel for people who have possibly had their hopes raised? That’s heartbreaking.

Probably the hardest thing is saying goodbye to colleagues.

Several years ago we took the decision to leave Lesotho as a country programme. My last visit to the country, seeing the team and saying goodbye was very hard. We had a special ceremony where we invited previous staff, country directors, past and present funders, and programme participants, who shared what Ripple Effect had meant to them over the years.

It was incredibly emotional. And at one point the chair of the trustees sitting next to me leant over and said: “You need to be really listening to this, so that you learn that when you leave a place, if you leave well the work continues.”

ROSELYN: And my last question is a little personal: how are you different at home compared with how you are as a CEO?

PAUL: You’re talking to me at home now, so maybe we should ask my family...

I hope that I am the same at home as I am at work and with my friends. That's how I would aspire to be. And over the last year and a half with Covid, it's been really good to be working at home more, and getting a bit more of that balance. And it’s a pleasure when people like yourself are invited into my home when we’re meeting online. (If I turn my computer screen you’ll see the bicycles over there in the corner…).