PROFILE: Ngele Ali, holding space for communities to use their own voices
By Patience Nyange and Esther Kirago
Ngele Ali is an award-winning media, communications for development and advocacy expert with over 20 years of regional and international experience.
She currently serves as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Head of Communications, Kenya office.
Over the years, she has managed and led the design and execution of communication strategies, and advocacy campaigns focused on developing and humanitarian-related work.
She has had the privilege of collaborating with donors, civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders.
She has also served on location or remotely about 14 countries in Africa including Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, DRC, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, among others.
She is adept in designing and implementing media, communication and advocacy strategies that encourage diversity and community voices.
She considers herself a storyteller, but most importantly, a space holder where our communities can use their voices to shine a light on their lives, progress and challenges in the most empowered and dignified ways possible.
Talk to us about your career journey highlighting the significant achievements and the events around them? What are some of your proudest moments?
Over the years, my work has afforded me enormous opportunities to lead and collaborate with others. My journey started at the defunct Ayton Young and Rubicam (AY&R), where I worked as an Art director.
For the four years of my service, I had an excellent opportunity to work on several advertising and marketing campaigns for household brands across East Africa. At AY&R, it is where my approach every task, and work ethics were truly shaped.
As a visualiser in 2000, working with no computer but art paper and coloured pencils all day long, visualising ideas assigned to me, taught me a valuable lesson on trusting the process and valuing my input in any given task.
Within three months, I was promoted to Junior Art director, and in 2004 when I departed from the company, I was a fully-fledged Art Director, who had made a mark.
Transitioning from profit-making to non-profit was a significant shift, but I was ready to shift gears to work in places where my actions will account for making a difference for humanity.
I joined Pact in 2004, and that is where my understanding and love for communities truly expanded – you can say I was now in tune with my purpose here on earth.
As a Communications and Graphics specialist working for Pact (2004 – 2012), I worked with several countries across East, West and South Africa where I was assigned to work with diverse colleagues in various programmatic areas.
Some of the memorable and impactful assignments include supporting a team working under the WORTH program. I supported the production and packaging of content that build basic literacy, numeracy, and enterprise-development skills of rural women across East Africa.
It was an eye-opening experience to see how simple math and reading capabilities significantly turned around women’s fortunes, improving their chances of getting out of poverty.
When South Sudan was transitioning into an independent state, I worked with colleagues to package information in a manner that was accessible to communities to improve the understanding of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
To ensure that our communities in far-flung areas had the opportunity to participate and engage with the proposals that were mainly taking place far away from home – in Naivasha, Kenya, we opted to translate the CPA simplified document into Arabic.
We recorded the peace agreement readings in all the dialects spoken in South Sudan packaging them for dissemination via radio cassettes, which local leaders played at community meetings. I guess this is what we have now as the modernised Audible books!
I also had a chance to work with teams in Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania among other counties where I helped to document and package information that enhanced visibility of the work that the teams in those countries were doing.
My travel across Malawi in 2009, documenting our work gave me a deeper perspective on the impact of HIV/AIDS. I came face to face with how HIV had ravaged communities.
Still, it is the determination not to remain beaten down that has stuck with me since – human beings are resilient despite the challenging circumstances they find themselves in.
In 2012, based on the lessons from the unfortunate events of 2007 post-election violence, together with colleagues, we conceptualised a programmatic campaign “SAFE-Coast” funded by USAID that aimed to increase young people participation in electoral processes and minimise possibilities of violence within the coastal region of Kenya.
I learned that young people are a crucial part of the population, and if engaged in a meaningful way, they too can be stakeholders who demand accountability and good governance.
Nine years later, I joined Oxfam in 2012 as the Regional Information and Communications Officer where I provided advisory and on-site technical support to 10 countries (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, DRC, Rwanda and Burundi).
I led story gathering missions documenting humanitarian and development stories as part of public awareness and resource mobilisation. I lobbied for a yearly allocation of funds by country offices for communications teams to train and equip country office communication officers.
I also had an opportunity to work on several advocacy campaigns that raised awareness of decision-makers and lobby for improved policies implementation.
For example, I curated an exhibition “Make Peace Happen” at the 2013 AU Summit in collaboration with the Oxfam Liaison team in Addis Ababa, where we brought to life the impact of a conflict that was ongoing in Mali and the DRC.
By putting voices and faces, we were able to show beyond the reported statistics of those afflicted. In 2014, I initiated and produced the inaugural one Oxfam annual report for the Horn East and Central Africa (HECA) region.
It was the first of its kind to be published by any Oxfam regional office, setting standards for the best practice of how joint reporting and showcasing of results as one solidifies partnerships across the affiliates, and with funding partners and communities.
In 2016 working with my colleagues, we conceptualised a documentary on the South Sudan refugees in camps in Uganda and Ethiopia, where we shared aspirations and hope of those displaced from their countries.
In 2016 before leaving Oxfam for UNDP, I worked as the International Communications Advisor, working closely with Oxfam GB’s International Division Directorate focusing on internal communications for international programs, enhancing programmatic synergies, fostering learning and knowledge management.
I was the first person to be recruited for this role outside of the UK, and this allowed me to bring the programmatic perspective which I believe was valuable for the position and the team I was working with. I telecommuted for most of my assignment from Nairobi, with occasional on-site work in Oxford when necessary – I proved that it is possible to work and be productive without physically being at the office.
Seems I was ahead of time because, with the pandemic, a large percentage of people are now working remotely! Another memorable moment was my assignment to the World Economic Forum on Africa in Kigali as a media liaison where I supported/coordinated media engagements and appearances for Oxfam International Director Winnie Byanyima.
In 2016 December, I joined UNDP as the Head of Communications for the Kenya office when the country was headed for the 2017 elections. I innovatively provided strategic technical and advisory support to key electoral implementing partners through UNDPs Support to Electoral Processes in Kenya (SEPK) Project, before, during and after the 2017 General Elections.
One of the key outcomes from this engagement was the curation of mass Voter Registration drive targeting young and first-time voters using through comedy nuanced in the local context in collaboration with one of Kenya’s top acts (Churchill live), transmitted live on TV and digital platforms.
To carry along as many people as possible who were unable to access the conferencing facilities during the first International Sustainable Blue Economy Summit held in Nairobi in 2018, I conceptualised and curated an outdoor exhibition that had a collection of over 100 giant prints and 30 films from across the world.
This helped to unpack the Blue Economy concept and ensured members of the public, especially the University students, were fully engaged in the conversation. Representation of how we see our communities is critical.
In 2018, I led a team of colleagues and three Kenyan professional photographers to document and tell the story of development against the Sustainable Development Goals’ backdrop. We travelled to Kenya’s depths and breadth and captured remarkable stories of Kenyans involved in developing communities.
These images now form part of the UNDP photobank to illustrate UNDP’s input in Kenya’s development agenda. How we depict our communities speaks volumes of the collaboration and partnerships we forge with communities and our donors.
In 2019 I infused mobile journalism and storytelling for our partners’ working under the access to justice programmed to promote innovation and leverage resources. 2019-2020 one of my big wins was public engagement and mobilisation during my tour of duty in Nigeria.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I led UNDP Nigeria production of key messages working with 27 notable faces from the creative industry and business sector in support of Government efforts to amplify public awareness on the pandemic and recommended preventive measures.
Working with celebrities such as Banky W, Ali Baba, Timi Dakolo, Dr. Ola Orekurin Brown, Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, Patoranking and Basket Mouth among others the messages in the key languages spoken in Nigeria connected with public and countering the many narratives that misinformed the public.
We reached +90million Nigerians on TV and radio and +50 million plus on social media platforms in two months. I also represented UNDP on the Public Engagement and Risk Communication committee of the Nigeria Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 response. I also worked closely with colleagues in the Nigeria office.
Aside from my communications efforts, I also worked closely with colleagues and the Resident Representative in the Nigeria office and brought onboard new private-sector donors such as the Aliko Dangote Foundation, Maersk among others who contributed towards the Nigeria COVID-19 Basket Fund – a complementary funding mechanism supporting the Government of Nigeria’s response.
Besides that, I led the coordination and production of televised policy development dialogues that created Nigerians’ opportunities to engage and identify crucial development challenges and opportunities. This includes conversations between the UN Deputy Secretary-General and young Nigerians dubbed from Protest to constructive dialogue to unpack the challenges facing the youth in Nigeria and explore how these can be addressed.
Recently, one of the most notable initiatives I have been involved in was the launch and deployment of the Anti-epidemic Robots. I contributed to the team’s efforts of deploying technology and innovation to minimise the risk of secondary infection for our healthcare and frontline workers – by brainstorming and coming up with the names of the robots – in celebration of the selflessness of frontline and healthcare workers in Kenya – a contribution that I am incredibly proud of. (check my Twitter thread for details).
Paint a picture for us about what it means to be a woman in Senior Management in an international organisation. Based on your experience, how would you encourage women to a greater awareness that they are able to break barriers, influence, and occupy decision-making positions?
Being a woman at the decision-making table is not just for me; it is a representation of my communications team, which has coincidentally been 90% female over the years. It gives me a chance to represent seldom-heard voices at the table where ideas and decisions on how we communicate are made, allowing our thoughts to be heard and implemented – with remarkable results to show.
While this is an outstanding achievement, it does not come easy – mainly where communication is considered an afterthought and not factored in during budgeting. Additionally, as communicators, especially women, we have to continually work harder to demonstrate our ideas and capabilities can deliver results.
This is where we must bring our A-game to the table – we have to go beyond the scope of our terms of reference, be ahead of the curve with innovative ideas that speak for us and to be of added value to those who are likely to make decisions on the ideas we present.
We must constantly refresh our thinking and our outlook to remain relevant and remain on the winning side. We have to see the biggest picture possible – this comes with the great responsibility of leading and influencing others. We have to be willing to move out of our comfort zones and be ready to fail…try and try again till what we do becomes second to nature.
If you were to reflect back on your career journey, what would you say have been the guiding principles you have always relied on? In what ways has passion, purpose and self-discovery driven your career?
Invested: In everything I do, it is either I’m jumping in with my both feet in, or not. There are no grey areas when it comes to how I approach my tasks. I’m fully invested in what I do at a personal level and what my team does. I do not do anything simply to tick a box.
Empathy: I have learned to engage with my team beyond who they are as the person they bring to work. It gives me a better perspective of who I am dealing with, and when things are falling apart, it is easier to remedy. I’m one manager who does not leave my people trudging alone on assignments. While I won’t micromanage, I like my team to know I will be there till it’s done. I believe empathy is the cornerstone of building trust and long-lasting relationships.
From the lessons, you have learnt in building a rewarding career and based on your hard-earned wisdom over the years, what top three lessons do you carry within life?
Being authentic. Over the years, I have learned that when I present my ideas from the most authentic place, then I’m also more than willing to go the distance to make it work. Interestingly, when authenticity shows up, the relevant people and resources align to make it possible to deliver on whatever I’m working on. This is similar to how I relate with others – be it my friends, family, suppliers, partners, bosses, colleagues, and those I manage.
I am my own competition. So I don’t compete with anyone; Otherwise, I would get caught up and not serve my true purpose.
What we do must supersede and outlive us. I’ve learned to always look beyond myself, which is the beginning of success. Coming up with excellent ideas is not a self-aggrandizing moment – what we do must be purposeful and meaningful for us to look back years to come and still see the impact. Microwave ideas or work does not cut it for me – we have such limited time so we must make it count in every way.
Away from work, share with us some of your life experiences on personal growth and development. What do you do to recharge and remain true to yourself?
Life has taught me that it is highly unpredictable, and nothing is promised to us. We must live for the now and enjoy the little things in life. I “eat cake” to celebrate milestones big and small – as small as getting the feedback I was anticipating, to grand life-changing milestones.
To stay grounded, I look up to my family and God. My family keeps me grounded, it is where my success is acknowledged but does not change who I am to them and them to me. I also have what I call my courage committee – these are people I consult quite often, and this is a space of no judging but a space for honest conversations. They are those people who make jumping to the unknown an experience worth trying.
Then I have my village – this is a group of people whom I enjoy sharing a moment with and I build and reconstruct my ideal village as I move along in life, they are my people.
I read and listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks. These allow me to have conversations with myself and renew my perspective. I’m also an art collector. This year I want to learn how to ride a bicycle.
You work in an international organization and have worked in others before, including Oxfam, what lessons have you picked as a local for you to thrive and have a say at the decision-making table? What practical lessons should those planning to get into international organizations be alive to?
Know your stuff so that your name can be mentioned at the relevant tables even when you are not there. What you do or know must give those that have access the confidence to refer you when an opportunity arises – everyone likes to be associated with success. Work at it, be it and when you are given a chance to share an idea, make sure what you say/share is memorable and worthwhile.
Work on your ‘shopping basket’ – identify which organizations you want to work with and analyze what you have or need to get there. Does the organization you want to work with match with your career expectations, or outlook towards life? Once you are clear about this, the rest falls into place.
Find a mentor who can help you build on your vision, but you must be a mentee who is willing to put in the work. Nothing comes to those who do not help themselves – therefore be a keen learner and come with a teachable mind and heart. Make a point of learning, relearn and unlearn.
Network – they say your network is your net worth. Invest in your networks – some last a lifetime and some are for a season. Such is life and nothing to be ashamed of if you outgrow your current network – it means that the network has served its purpose and it is time to set new expectations.
Be open-minded and adaptable – what works in one context may not be the same for another context – be flexible enough to change strategy and take note of how you can adapt what worked without necessarily reinventing the wheel.
Most decision-makers do not align well with rigid and closed-mindedness – it makes work more challenging and time-consuming. Be ready to take up a challenge and learn new ways rather than be stuck with “it’s always how it’s been done” or “it’s been done before, and it didn’t work.”
If you were to choose two most important values to you that you live by and that shape the way you work and live; what would they be and why?
Being enough – Sometimes we work so hard to be that which we are not to please others or desperately fit in that we lose ourselves and forget who we indeed are. We are all created uniquely, and self-love starts by knowing and feeling that we are enough. When we look at the mirror, we should like the person looking back at us. Otherwise, we are living the worst betrayal of self.
Accountability – The Bible says to whom much is given, much will be required and thus as I use my skills and talent in the work that I do, I always strive to be accountable to myself first and to others especially those that I lead. For instance, I wouldn’t expect my team to perform with excellence if I wasn’t mirroring the same for them.
How do people describe you?
Fearless and courageous – that I pursue things I have set my heart on, ready to try new things and not shy away from challenging situations. That I always find a way/solution to work through situations.
Dedicated – when I take up responsibility or a task, I immerse myself fully and go above and beyond to make sure it’s delivered in the right way.
Beautiful and kind heart – always want the best for others. Loyal and protective of those I love especially family and will do whatever it takes for them.
Others described you as meticulous. Do you agree?
I guess this stems from how I handle my tasks both at work and private matters. Generous and thoughtful – If I see an opportunity that can benefit others, I’m always willing to pass it on.”
Esther is a writer, editor and communication professional while Patience Nyange is a Chevening Scholar with a Masters Degree in International Public Relations and Global Communication Management from Cardiff University.