Interview with Chenai Mukumba, (former) head of CUTS International, Zambia

3 August 2021

[This interview was undertaken in August 2019 by Andrea Baertl and the article written by Cristina Ramos.]

Chenai Mukumba currently works as Policy Research and Advocacy Manager of Tax Justice Network Africa. At the time of this interview, she was head of CUTS International (Consumer Unity & Trust Society), Lusaka. Established in Zambia in 2000, CUTS International, Lusaka has been functioning as a centre for action (policy) research, advocacy and networking on issues of trade and development, competition policy, investment regulation and consumer protection. In this interview, undertaken for a paper discussing organisational leadership, Chenai discusses being the leader of an organisation and the challenges it poses, as well as the challenges of working in evidence-informed policy in a country different than your own.

Andrea Baertl: Could you please describe CUTS International?

Chenai Mukumba: CUTS, Consumer Unity & Trust Society, initially began as an NGO in India working primarily on customer-related issues. In the early 1990s there was a big move towards south-to-south cooperation, and issues pertaining to consumer welfare had not really been touched on in developing countries, and there was the opportunity to open other CUTS offices. In Africa we opened one in Zambia, one in Ghana and another one in Kenya. Over the years, we also started working on trade and development, as well as economic governance. In summary, we are a research and policy advocacy institution working on areas of consumer-related issues, trade and development and economic governance. We consider ourselves a think tank: we do research and also quite a bit of advocacy work as well.

The Zambia office has a team of 10 (most are programme officers) and was established in the year 2000. We have done work with the government, we specifically have close relations with the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Agriculture, and in different government areas locally. In other countries we work through networks, so if there is a project we want to implement, we team up with an institution that is well connected within that country, and they are the main implementing partner.

AB: Can you tell me about your own trajectory in CUTS?

CM: I started working with CUTS in 2012. I trained as a policy analyst and I lived and worked in Geneva for a couple of years. Then I moved to India where I worked with the CUTS office for about three years, working specifically on trade policy issues, which is my area of expertise. When the opportunity opened to manage the centre here, I volunteered to take the position and have been working in my capacity as the director managing the centre for the past three and a half years.

AB: Could you describe the process of becoming the director of the office in Lusaka? What do you think facilitated your appointment? Or was there anything that made the process difficult?

CM: I had worked for CUTS for about three and a half years and had gone up the ranks (first working as a policy analyst and then in managerial positions that became available).  Part of my thinking for leaving the work in India was because within the Indian office I did not really have growth opportunities available, mainly because I was not from India. It proved to be quite difficult, for example, to walk into spaces as a foreigner and intervene in evidence-based results. So that led to my conversation with my supervisors about wanting to move to a CUTS office in which I had more opportunities available, because I really enjoyed the work, enjoyed the culture, but wanted to keep growing. When the previous director of the Lusaka office announced he was thinking about leaving I had several discussions with my supervisors in India about coming here and taking up this role.

AB: What you mentioned about being a foreigner and doing policy research, I think that’s very interesting, because it’s not usual to see foreigners undertaking research and offering policy advice, the exception being white men, so…

CM: It’s true, I think white men would have had different opportunities, but I was black and female, and so I think that was an issue. India is quite patriotic, but also often when I walked into a space, I was the first black person they had ever interacted with. So, whilst I think it was not supposed to be important, the receptiveness in different spaces was a big thing.

This also meant that there were certain opportunities that I could not take advantage of. I will give you an example: an invitation to a meeting in Brazil was issued to CUTS, and I was the leader of what we were doing, so they gave my name, and everything was fine up until I sent my passport. Then they said: ‘Could you maybe send somebody who is of Indian descent?’ And I found that a little frustrating; they had read my work, they had accepted the piece, but now they had reservations. Whilst this was frustrating in general, I think the leaders of CUTS knew the value of my work and recognised that I could produce quality work when given the chance.  So, my frustration did not result in me wanting to leave, but just wanting more opportunities to be creative within the organisation.

AB: And how was the process of assuming the office in Lusaka?

CM: When I moved to Lusaka, the work was incredibly difficult largely because – and this is something I realised quite later and I do not know if I would’ve moved if I had known it in advance – a lot of the work and projects that different think tanks and organisations take on are largely based on who the director knows, based on status, relationships, and meetings. That process was very difficult because certain donors used to work with certain people and what I ended up doing was spending little time working on projects and a lot more time attending meetings and trying to find a place in those different spaces, and then using those opportunities to start conversations around funding. It was a very difficult transition.

AB: Following up on that, what are the main challenges that you have faced (personally) as a director?

CM: Being young is one. When I had just started (before people knew who I was), I would need to take one of my older male board members to different meetings with different ministries in order to have a receptive audience. Now I no longer need to do that, now I can walk into certain spaces because I think I have managed to gain a reputation, as well as build relationships.

AB: What are your roles and functions as executive director?

CM: Managing and overseeing the work that we do, resource mobilisation, overseeing the finance departments and programmes, establishing relationships, partnerships, and growing our network as an institution, and I also work with the programme teams on different pieces of research depending on what the focus is.

AB: And what are your current concerns for leading the organisation?

CM: I think the major concern remains the financial sustainability of the organisation. I think it is not as easy as it was before to undertake resource mobilisation. And I think there’s been a closing of space in Zambia because it was granted middle-income status by the World Bank, so a number of donors left. That’s a funding issue, but even in terms of the spaces that we work within, there is a closing of civil society space and think tank space, because, for example, one of the issues that we are working on is Zambia’s debt situation with public financial management, and because Zambia’s debts turned unsustainable, that has become a political discussion. We now find that when talking to the government, in these conversations, just even talking about it you need to be as politically correct as possible and at times it can be difficult to open transparent discussions about certain topics. I think that has affected civil society and think tanks that are working in certain areas.

AB: And how do you address this?

CM: The first concern on resource mobilisation, we have had to look outside of the traditional partners, so CUTS’ funding, particularly in the Zambian centre, used to be from local resources primarily, but because of the closing down of those resources, we have had to look outside of Zambia and our traditional partners.

On the political side, what we find ourselves having to do is, essentially, instead of having a go at a topic as an individual organisation, we team up with other institutions that are doing work in the same area and take the subject as a group rather than as an individual organisation, especially with potentially sensitive topics. Working as a group gives credibility, as it is not only one institution, but a group of organisations saying something together. There are several voices that also have the same view. And, also, it is easier to discredit one voice.