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In My Own Words: Doreen Ndishabandi

Doreen, a 2018 Skoll Foundation Emerging Leaders Fellow and Chief of Staff at One Acre Fund Rwanda, talks about the organization’s ongoing work around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Doreen - Gabiro Seed Farm

As our team grows, one of our top priorities is building a more diverse and inclusive team.

While 96% of our staff are proudly African, many of our senior leadership roles are still held by international staff. However, we’re making steady progress. This is especially the case in Rwanda, where more than half of the senior leadership is now African. Doreen Ndishabandi, our Rwanda Chief of Staff has been at the forefront of this change, and we sat down with her to get an honest take on One Acre Fund’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

How would you say your personal background informs how you approach diversity, equity and inclusion?

I think for me, being a woman of color and being African, it's always been very important for me to work in spaces where I have people who actually look like me. I'm playing my part to make sure there’s enough representation at the table, which is critical because it allows us to bring perspective from the communities that we're trying to support. It means that when we talk about decision making or improving the impact of our program, we actually have staff who have that additional context that everyone else in the room doesn't have.

Previously, the Rwanda Steering Committee was predominantly American or European, but now more than half of the committee is African. How did this come about?

It’s something that has always been top-of-mind for our leadership. There was a lot of intentionality and a lot of grooming that went into making sure that as some of the founding team transitioned out of Rwanda, we were building up African staff who could step into those roles. This means that while we did have some African nationals who were hired externally, we also had high-performing staff who were growing into leadership roles.

Would you say that when you joined One Acre Fund, it was a personal ambition to change the narrative by ensuring there was more African representation in senior leadership?

For me, it actually started with the team that I was a part of. When I joined the Government Relations team, we did not have many African nationals in senior positions within the department. To help balance the scales, I actually referred three of the senior managers on my team to the organization, and they’re all African nationals. I always knew that I was well positioned to help improve the diversity of our teams by tapping into my network to refer great African candidates.

You've definitely played your part here, and now the Government Relations team is led entirely by African nationals. What impact has that had on both the work that you do and on the team overall?

There's a lot of value in leveraging the local fluency and expertise of people who are working in their communities, who already have very strong relationships with the people we’re trying to reach. It's people who can enter a room and are able to interpret cultural nuances that anyone else wouldn't. If you put three people of three different nationalities in a room and you ask them after a meeting to explain exactly what happened, you might get three different responses because culturally, there are lots of things that are not always spoken but are still communicated. Having this level of representation is important as it enriches our perspective and informs our decision-making.

Staff Appreciation Day-RW

One Acre Fund Rwanda staff get together during a recent Staff Appreciation Day celebration.

Given how the make-up and leadership of the team has changed over time, has it improved how we interact with the government?

Yes. We actually have the strongest relationship with the Rwandan government that the organization has ever had.

I think, because of all the changes that happened, we were able to transition from just transacting with the government, to actually building strong, trust-based relationships. When people aren’t just engaging with you because they're required to, it really changes how much they interact with and support the program.It is the quickest way to build strong government champions and partners. 

Speaking to Doreen as a person, what's it been like to be the one of the first Africans to serve as a senior leader in the Rwanda program?

It's been a great experience. When I joined the program, the work around diversity and inclusion was still quite young. At the time, I think it was difficult for people to even aspire to take on different roles within the organization. One of the things that I've appreciated since then is that the organization is creating more opportunities for staff, including African nationals, to rise up. It also allows me to mentor others and to pass on my experience to other rising African leaders.

I really appreciate the amount of effort that's gone into this. Having been around for almost four years and coming in at a time when a lot of this work was still new; seeing this evolve and lead to significant program changes has been great. We still have a long way to go but I think that the leadership has the right amount of focus, because it's not just something that's being pushed at the country level. Andrew (Youn, Founder and CEO) is equally obsessed with making sure that this happens.

Earlier on, you talked about the perceived ceilings for certain staff, and the ability to enjoy career growth like yours. With that in mind, what advice would you give to candidates considering senior roles at One Acre Fund?

I think it’s a great time to step into a leadership role here. Our DEI journey is far from done, but one of the great things I already see happening is that we have African staff joining our leadership and helping champion our work.

Lastly, we are going to be serving over 1 million farmers this year. What does that scale mean to you?

For me, I think it's the best opportunity for us to achieve our long term vision. We're trying to solve such a huge problem, ending extreme global poverty, increasing farmer productivity, and building a system that is truly farmer-focused – this stuff seems so difficult when you say it out loud, but when you think about it in very practical terms, it's helping farmers access high quality seeds, helping them adopt good agricultural practices, or advancing policy initiatives that improve farmer outcomes. Each additional farmer brings us closer to actually achieving that.

Doreen in the Farm