Amani Institute: An interview with Roshan Paul

Amani Institute: An interview with Roshan Paul

The Amani Institute is a higher education organisation for the modern age, stepping in to bring the changes to social sector education and training that universities are not fast enough to accommodate. Roshan Paul and Ilaina Rabbat, who together have more than 25 years of experience working in social change in every continent in the world, founded it in 2011. I had the chance to talk to Roshan about the growth of Amani and the changes happening in social innovation in Africa and Brazil over the last few years, during a conversation in London a couple of weeks ago.

It was a fascinating conversation covering a range of subjects, from work in the modern age and how people today are more focussed on having a life where their career makes a difference to how it is to notice the change that’s happening in the ‘other valleys’ across the world because the infrastructure isn’t as developed as the West, and therefore it isn’t as easy to hide the efficiencies at work. As Roshan said, ‘For anyone interested in innovation, it’s really interesting to see it at work in Africa right now’.

Co-founders of Amani Institute, Roshan Paul and Ilaina Rabbat

Co-founders of Amani Institute, Roshan Paul and Ilaina Rabbat

OK, so let’s start by talking about Africa, which is where you started Amani a few years ago. Why Africa, and why now?

Roshan: This is a very interesting time for Africa. In the 90’s it was China, in the early 2000’s it was India, and I feel that time of growth and change is happening in Africa right now. Technology is having a huge impact on Africa – solar energy and mobile phones are leading this change. Access to finance is another factor, especially with products like M-Pesa, which is driving the inclusive finance movement.

We’re also living in a very interesting time in general, with the increased adoption of business structures like B-Corps. There are a lot of businesses in Kenya, South Africa and Uganda to name a few that are operating with a social motive, such as Sanergy, the One Acre Fund, the Bridge AcademiesM-Kopa Solarand M-Farm, apart from Amani of course.

What was the gap in higher education in the social impact space that you saw, which made you feel the need for an organisation like Amani?

Roshan: In September 2011, the Economist’s Special Report “The Great Mismatch” explored the divide between employers needing talent and the high level of unemployment around the world. Our own survey of 54 leading organizations (reported on by Fast Company magazine in February 2013) confirmed that these global findings also hold true for the jobs economy of the social sector. What employers value in incoming recruits isn’t provided adequately by universities, and vice-versa, what universities do well isn’t valued highly by employers. The core finding was the need for experiential learning on the ground, over material taught in classrooms.

We felt that there was a critical market failure in higher education. Universities understand the challenge, but cannot re-tool their infrastructures fast enough to enable this transition. The mission of the Amani Institute is to develop and spread a new model of education and training to encourage this transition towards 21st century approaches of leadership development.

Amani started off in Nairobi in 2011 but launched in Sao Paolo, Brazil last year. Why do you feel there is an on-the-ground need for training through courses such as the ones that Amani provides, for countries like Kenya and Brazil?

Roshan: In recent years, the idea of the flipped classroom has taken root in innovative education models. We take it even further, by flipping the world. Emerging markets today represent the frontier of social change; they’re hubs for social innovation because innovators want to see the tangible difference their work makes. And yet, most of the best educational institutions are in highly developed societies. 

We flip that dynamic by intentionally locating ourselves where the world is changing most rapidly. And with several recent innovations (mobile money, crisis mapping, conditional cash transfers, frugal innovation models) all coming out of emerging markets first, this is where you can see the future. For too long in the social sector, ideas have flowed from advanced economies to the rest of the world. And yet, there is probably more that emerging economies can learn from each other than they can learn from richer countries. We strongly believe in the importance of collaboration across the developing world.

A follow-on advantage of that reversal is that it enables us to have lower operating costs and thus make our programs cost-effective and accessible to changemakers who would never be able to afford the high costs of studying and living in highly developed countries. While still being a world-class global institution.

Both Nairobi and Sao Paulo are global hubs for social innovation that offer not only solid insights into the complexities and possibilities of emerging markets but also countless opportunities to learn from and get inspired by local innovations, while simultaneously building a strong global network and understanding how to work effectively and empathetically with people from many different cultures. The future of work is boundaryless, and these hubs are where you build the mindset for global citizenship.

In May 2015, Amani partnered with the UK’s SIX Innovation Exchange and the Netherlands’ HIVOS on an event looking at how cities can be hotbeds of innovation – this video beautifully illustrates the viewpoints of people across the world on the issue we’re talking about.

Beyond the training that you provide to future leaders of social change, what are some of Amani’s objectives in terms of achieving impact?

Roshan: We do a lot of consulting work – our work in Kenya is growing fast in this area. We want to serve the larger movement of people who want to have mindful careers. There are lots of organisations doing this at the moment, such as OnPurpose in the UK and Starting Bloc in the US. We would love to be able to network them as a group of mid-career professionals (who also form 30-40% of our intake). We want to build professional skills in social change, of which there is a shortage. Traditional education theory in social change-related courses taught in Ivy League universities like Harvard and Columbia build people for an academic life, rather than a professional one. This is not their fault – the history of universities is about being a place of learning but society also wants them to be a place where you can train for your career. But they aren't set up for that.

We published a report in 2013 on the state of talent development – it’s the report I referred to earlier, where we interviewed 43 executive-level leaders or recruiting directors in 34 leading organisations in the social sector and 39 graduates of higher education institutions with less than three years of work experience, working in 35 leading organisations in the social sector. Amongst other things, what Amani does has a concentrated focus on building skills for the workplace. A lot of knowledge is available today at the click of a button, so it is more about the value that accumulates to students beyond that. All our students have to do a 6-month internship and work on a social innovation project themselves, which gives them the hands-on experience they need to make an impact in their careers.

How do you measure impact?

We measure impact that we’re having on individuals; for example when Amani Fellows come back and say that their lives are different after the course. We also look for the usual metrics: testimonials from Fellows and employers and also at an ecosystem level (for example an increase in partners wanting to work with us).

What inspires you as an individual and as the leader of Amani?

I’m always looking to learn and grow. One of my mentors told me that I shouldn’t be teaching in real life if I’m not a student in some other part of life. As a result, I really look to improve myself every year in specific areas that I set out at the beginning of the year. For example, last year the focus was how to help organisations reinvent themselves (I highly recommend the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux) and this year it is teaching myself how to become a better manager.

Another thing that inspires me is nature and wildlife. Lately I’ve become very interested in biomimicry for social innovation – I wrote an article about this with a colleague for the Stanford Social Innovation Review a couple of years ago – in fact, a course called ‘Bio-Empathy: Learning from Nature’ is one of the first courses that students at Amani take. If you think about it, the ultimate innovator is nature, but most discussed innovation is in the science and technology sphere. I’m very interested in the potential for social innovation to learn from biomimicry. When we are deeply connected with nature there is so much to observe, but most of us just aren’t that connected to nature. Nature-based leadership, through courses like those organised by Outward Bound for example, are very interesting. So yes, bioempathy is a core area of interest, and I try to learn this in three ways: connecting with nature, observing how nature innovates and coming up with ideas around social innovation as a result of my observations.

As a field, we’re still in the first phases of learning though, so there is a long way to go.

One of the key goals that I’d like to achieve through my work is also reducing boundaries between people. I imagine a world where travelling becomes much easier for people, so that collaborations become more common. I’m also interested in the connections between cities and countries. Cities are hubs of inspiration and as cities grow, countries – and their relationship to cities - will also evolve.

What is your opinion on the potential for social impact by corporates?

This is a very tricky area for corporates; brands like Toms Shoes have already been discredited in the social impact space. Most corporates don’t understand social impact – you need to come into it as a student and do all the market research you would if you were launching a product in a new market, which not many corporates do. There is often a sense of arrogance.

But there’s also huge potential for impact when it is done right, and sometimes it may be completely unintentional. Safaricom and M-Pesa for example, that was never designed as a social impact project but it has huge social impact. Cemex, the construction materials company in Mexico, is another example, as isDanone’s work in social impact and Natura’s in Brazil

What is the funding model for Amani?

For the last 2 years, Amani has been completely financially self-sustaining, which is unusual for a non-profit. We spend very little time looking for funding, and count on the fees paid by our students and fees from our consulting work to sustain us. We also depend on most of our students paying full fees so we are in a position to subsidise those that can't afford it. 

What’s next for the Amani Institute?

We’ve just launched our core programme in Brazil, and we’re keen to grow in other emerging markets also, especially India, where I’m from. But personal attention to each student who takes up an Amani course is critical, and it’s such a crowded market in a country like India that it will be much harder to do without a strong base there, and will be hard to develop from scratch. The Middle East is another interesting region – there’s a lot of entrepreneurship happening there, especially in countries like Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia. But as I mentioned earlier, my increasing interest is in cities, not countries, and some of the cities that are interesting to me are Amman, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, all the Indian metros, Singapore and Mexico City.

For now, at Amani, we’d like to focus on Africa – there are lots of interesting opportunities to grow here. 


Amani Institute is now accepting applications to their 10-month Post-Graduate Certificate in Social Innovation Management, which is designed to help build and accelerate a career in social change.

Application deadline: June 6th, 2016

Program start: July 1st, 2016

If this interests you, you might also want to check out their partnership with Lynn University, which gives students an option to continue their education with an MBA in Social Innovation Management.

SIMLab: An interview with CEO Laura Walker McDonald

SIMLab: An interview with CEO Laura Walker McDonald

The Forum for the Future in India: An Interview with Anna Warrington

The Forum for the Future in India: An Interview with Anna Warrington