PICNIC – Social Entrepreneurship, Innovation and the Amani Institute | April 2013

November 8, 2013


PICNIC is increasing its focus on social innovation. Recently, we met up with Roshan Paul, co-founder of the Amani Institute, based in Nairobi, Kenya. Amani offers professional skills and training for social entrepreneurs working to solve today’s problems and take on social challenges.

Social entrepreneurship is taking social innovation to a new level...

How did the Amani Institute come about? 

Roshan: The Amani Institute came about based on the growing feeling that traditional university education did not adequately prepare graduates for demanding work in the social sector. A broad range of organizations are trying to solve societal problems, ranging from UN agencies to social businesses to local NGOs and they are in desperate need of qualified and passionate professionals.

Most employers in this field didn’t believe that universities supplied them with the talent they needed, and given how urgent and important the work in preventing disease, stopping conflict, improving living standards, rehabilitating refugees, and so on can be, this is a failure that has lives at stake. Our organization was founded by Ilaina Rabbat and myself, from Argentina and India respectively, who have 25 years of experience in addressing social challenges and starting innovative ventures across the Americas, India, Europe and East Africa. We have worked or volunteered in every continent, embodying the Amani Institute’s vision of a globally integrated education and practice infrastructure.

In our work, we have had a bird’s eye view of the best social change interventions in the world. This has provided an understanding of the types of problems we face and the nature of professional leadership needed to solve these problems.

What are the shortcomings of current education and training programs and how is Amani trying to solve them?

Roshan: The core purpose of higher education is to foster intellectual learning, research and study. Universities were never meant to be places of job preparation so it’s no surprise that they don’t do that part so well. But in today’s world, more than 95% of people who attend universities do not seek careers in academia so universities excel at serving roughly 5% of their market. This is not a new finding – everyone from The Economist to McKinsey to Institute for the Future have completed studies reporting on this for the general economy. However, the problem is even more stark for the social sector where we do not have the equivalent of a medical or law or business degree, for work that is harder than all of those fields. In our own recent study, the State of Talent Development for the Social Sector, which was covered by Fast Company, the results were the same. The things that universities do well – analytical training, academic research- aren’t valued highly by employers and what employers look for – problem-solving initiative, leadership, real-world experience – aren’t things universities are well equipped to do.

Tell us more about the programs that Amani offers.

Roshan: Our flagship program is the Certificate in Social Innovation Management and applications are in full swing. Here is our call for applications. The program, comprising a field apprenticeship, eight professional skills courses, and an individually customized leadership development journey is helpful to people doing many types of things. It has the intensity and pace of a 2-year Master’s program but is completed in five months.

Our second program targets university students in particular and takes place this summer in partnership with George Mason University. It is a Summer Semester in Social Entrepreneurship, with a focus on conflict resolution, peace-building and human rights.

We also offer a range of other programs, from online courses to specialized trainings for institutions on leadership skills.

What’s the connection between social innovation and social entrepreneurship?

Roshan: Social innovation can be initiated by anybody in any organization or institution (whether a company or a government agency or newspaper or school) who sees a way for that institution to do something new that can make a difference in society. Social entrepreneurship takes social innovation to a new level, usually focusing on solving a problem at its underlying level and creating a different reality in society. Since this is usually hard for existing institutions to take on, social entrepreneurs tend to start new organizations to do so, but that is not always necessary as it is also a mindset and way of thinking that can be applied within institutions.

Who are some of the most inspiring social entrepreneurs who you have met?

Roshan: Some of my favorites are people like Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, Dr. Gary Slutkin who founded Cure Violence in Chicago based on the theory that you can prevent gang violence by treating it like an infectious disease, Jerry White who was one of the leaders of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines which won the Nobel Peace Prize, and Andreas Heinecke from Germany who created the Dialogue in the Dark concept where you start to understand what it is really like to be blind in our world. To be honest, all the people young and old who are stepping up in the face of intractable social problems and saying, “I know this is tough and won’t make me rich but I have to do something here”. It’s those people we most want to help.

What are the challenges facing Amani? How can folks get involved and support the Institute?

Roshan: We are always looking for supporters to spread the word about our work and help us recruit students. If you know someone looking to build a career in development or social enterprise work or looking to make a switch from a government or corporate career to a social one, then we would love to hear from them.

We are also looking for funding to support our costs and thus make the program more affordable for talented people from marginalized backgrounds who can’t afford it. We are happy to accept both large and small amounts of funding for this purpose. Those are currently our biggest challenges and needs.

We would also love to keep building relationships with universities as our long-term goal is to help universities begin to adopt these ways of training as that’s the only way our work will achieve impact on a large-enough scale. We see universities as tremendously important institutions and want to help them reclaim their relevance as drivers of societal impact so connections with universities are also extremely useful.

Share this article: