An Interview with Njeri Mwagiru

Dr Njeri Mwagiru is a Senior Futurist from the Institute for Futures Research, University of Stellenbosch Business School, South Africa.

Njeri's involvement in executive education is what lead to her eventually entering the futures field. She was partnering with the United Nations Systems Staff College doing a UN leaders programme where she was introduced to Dr Mostert, the Director of the Institute for Futures Research. They invited him to be a speaker on futures and there the connection was made. When the African futures position became available with the Institute, everything fell into place.

Njeri values networks and making connections, that becomes clear. She seems one of life's great connectors. Perhaps it goes back to her time at boarding school in Malvern in the UK where she made many good friends and remarks on its great alumni, or the fact that she studied a Masters in International Relations, but she's genuinely interested in engaging communities and understanding societies and in bringing people together for shared learning and problem solving.

She came to futures through the practitioner's angle rather than the academic route. That might be why she is incredibly interested in finding the right tools and models to bring about transformational change. "My passion is for the long-term sustainability of the continent, just because that seems to be the best approach to solutions, in my view. We tried the band aid solution for a while and we haven't been getting very far, and a longer-term approach is what we are already seeing within our policy framework. The African Union have the Agenda 2063 which is a 50 year vision from 2013 to 2063 envisioning where the continent can be. It's really a movement."

Her practitioner's nature is again evident in the following comment, "I am a pragmatist. I think it's important we should engage with the tools available to us in the best possible way to achieve our goals and agendas."

We're discussing technology and whether it is friend or foe to developing countries and economies, "It is our opportunity to take lessons and ensure the way it is applied here addresses the gaps we have but at the same time we don't succumb to the pitfalls of the past. We have such data challenges here and our societies have some real challenges in data collection and just having information on the ground." A chance for the continent to apply technology better than the West has then, and perhaps leapfrog using those lessons.

It was surprising to hear that the Institute is linked to the only academic futures programme in Africa, the one at Stellenbosch Business School. There seems to be a deep desire to reach out to other academic institutions to deliver even more futures studies on the curriculum and Njeri spoke glowingly about working with Sirkka Heinonen of the Finnish Futures research Centre (FFRC) with whom she had been able to connect with on African Futures. Sirkka had visited the IFR, where they had all enjoyed valuable conversation and where perhaps there might be some joint research on applying certain models to African futures, at some point.

Anita Sykes-Kelleher was also noted as a valued mentor. The Australian futurist has cropped up more than once in these interviews as an inspiration and Njeri was keen to stress what a valuable role model and collaborator she had been, "I've really appreciated both of them helping me link the academic and conceptual side to industry too."

Of course her team at IFR are an inspiration and she clearly feels a lot of warmth towards the close-knit all-female team. All of her futurist colleagues are women. She mentions the talented Tanja Hichert who as an experienced professional futurist has for a long time specialised in scenario planning, and who had put me in touch with Njeri in the first place, and of course her counterpart Doris Viljoen and other senior futurists at the IFR.

It is certainly true that anyone who wants to know more about African Futures can visit the IFR portal and peruse the reports, research and video content that is hosted there to help people probe, discuss and debate themes of longer-term thinking such as social capital, sustainability, and new roles for business. It is indeed a one-of-a-kind African futures resource.

On that point, I want to know more about Afrofuturism and how we could all be using it more to unlock our futures thinking no matter where we are in the world.

"It's something I think more futurists should be aware of. But it's also a wonderful platform to publicise futures and strategic futures to those who don't know as much about it too, because it is linked to the art and cultural scene. People can experience the expressive and cultural side of futures alongside the academic models and tools - and there's a great new avenue to those connections."

There it is again, the notion of connections. It's what Njeri does so well, linking the practical tools, with high ideals and theory and with all the people involved in both these areas too. It's her route to innovation: "I'm very interested to see if we can link African ways of knowing including cosmology, autology and systemology these philosophical terms, with strategic planning and futures thinking to enrich a new perspective. New models could emerge, tangible models that business could apply to fill the research gap. Womanism for example is a way of knowing that is organic and holistic and promotes long-term thinking in terms of balance and regeneration. It might be a really good avenue for more people to look into."

And when I ask for any advice she might have for the next generation of futurists, whether they be academics or practitioners, she says 'connect, connect, connect.'

"Our African Futures work is very much linked to International Futures for lots of geopolitical and historical reasons. We don't see ourselves as isolated, we see ourselves as part of the pie. And we would be really interested in building those international networks even wider, so more engagement is what I'd ask."

So there's an open invitation to connect for us all.