Interview with Chukwuka Onyekwena, executive director of the Center for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA) in Nigeria

3 August 2021

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

Chukwuka Onyekwena is the executive director of the Center for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA). CSEA is a non-profit research organisation established in Nigeria in 2008 to produce high quality policy-oriented research and to encourage policy dialogue among stakeholders from the private sector, the government and civil society. In this interview, Chukwuka discusses his functions and challenges as director and how he has improved his skills to transition from being mainly a researcher to becoming a director.

Andrea Baertl: To start, can you please give an overview of your organisation?

 Chukwuka Onyekwena:  The organisation is the Center for the Study of the Economies of Africa, which is about ten years old, and it was created to fill the gap in evidence-based policy making in Africa broadly, particularly on public financial management issues. Over time we expanded into issues that were relevant in the region and incorporated aspects of programme evaluations or economic governance. We operate as a think tank, so we are research based, we conduct research in thematic areas and we disseminate it to the policy space. But we are more than an economic development think tank because we deal with issues that have direct and indirect links with economic development. We are really passionate about research and the idea of an African-based institution working on African issues.

AB: Can you please share a bit of your background?

CO: I studied economics from bachelors, master’s and PhD. After my PhD I was a governance senior fellow at CSEA, that was in 2012. Then I must have been director of research and then executive director, which I’ve been for three years. So apart from working at a think tank the only work I’ve done is working as a research assistant in a government agency, and then also working as a part-time lecturer at the university where I did my PhD. So, most my career has been at CSEA.

AB: So how did you become executive director? What was the process?

CO: When I was the head of research, the previous executive director finished and wanted to explore other opportunities and I was the next in line. So we decided I would take the role of the acting executive director and about after one year, based on my performance, I became the director.

AB: What do you think facilitated your appointment? What made the board decide that you were the final one that they wanted?

CO: They called for applications for an executive director, but they chose me because I’ve been on the ground since 2012 and they had seen how I played the role of acting executive director and since I played it well it would be better to have me than to bring someone from outside.

AB: And how was the transition period? Going from one leadership to the other? What did it imply?

CO: It was quite quick, because the former executive director (ED) got an appointment in a government institution and the board chair of CSEA decided to hold an emergency meeting, and in that meeting I was made the acting ED, it was quite quick.

I started at a low point, I would say, and within one year I was able to recruit researchers with strong skills and we were able to write grant proposals that were successful, and conduct activities that were stimulating.

AB: And the transition with the staff, how did that go?

CO: Let me be a little bit frank on this, because I was already heading research, it was a very smooth transition in the research department, since I was already supervising their work, reading their work and all that. The one that had a little bit of difficulty was the leader of communications, finance and admin, because before I was the overall executive director I was not required to supervise communications and finance. I didn’t have to supervise the work of departments other than research.

AB: And how did you deal with the tension?

CO: I thought the communication strategy wasn’t really fitting, so I had to impose a reform, a complete overhaul of the communications strategy from what we call an output-based one to input-based. So they don’t just wait for the researchers to create outputs and disseminate them, but look out for issues in the policy space and liaise with the researchers to co-produce articles and disseminate them strategically while those issues are trending.

We needed attitudinal, behavioural changes among the team so then it came out well at last. It took a lot of training of the staff. There was a gap in skills also in accounting, so we had to make sure to strengthen the capacity and that also involved more expansion. I had to recruit another assistant in order to equip the team and if there are gaps in skills in one person, the other person would complement. These are the key changes that happened in communications and finance.

AB: Your background was as a researcher, so how did you know that the changes needed to be made in admin and in communications? What helped you prepare to oversee other aspects that you had not previously worked on? 

CO: When I became director, I explored the strategies and best practices of think tank management, I asked questions, I engaged people. Enrique [Mendizábal, director of On Think Tanks] was very helpful, particularly on the communications strategy. I think the fundamental suggestion was through Enrique’s advice and I modified it into the context of Nigeria. I searched for the best practices, I asked a lot of questions, I explored myself, I explored the work of Brookings, the Center for Global Development, and other key research institutions and think tanks.

Most of my learning came from the difficulties we had while I was a senior fellow. I knew what wasn’t working then, so I was doing the opposite of that. I learnt the hard way, working in a period of difficult times, and then I was a decision maker there, trying to do things differently.

AB: Now moving into something else, what are your roles and functions as executive director?

CO: One of the biggest roles is to ensure there is sustainability, particularly financial sustainability. And financial sustainability for a think tank means that you have funding, you are getting these grants. Every unit is involved in this, so that is why it’s good to have a good research team that can bring out ideas and they can pitch them for funding, so the research team is really critical.

I also participate actively in the research too, making sure our proposals are strong enough to be able to be successful in getting these grants. That’s key.

Then I also make sure that while we are doing this research, that it is visible, so I manage the communications team, making sure that they are really pushing out our work into different spaces. We need positive outcomes in terms of visibility.

Another essential part is managing the finance and administration roles, to make sure that there’s cost controls. You need to make sure that the resources are available, and that they do not decrease quickly.

I also represent the centre in different circles and events, both national and internationally, to make sure that we are engaged in the debate on economic development issues.

AB: Since you mentioned challenges, what are the key challenges you face as executive director?

CO: One is that CSEA has been organised around the flexible funding received through the Think Tank Initiative, which existed for the past ten years and just ended in March 2019. So now we are now totally dependent on project funds. So, the biggest challenge is to maintain or provide organisational development with project funds. There’s a challenge of implementing projects and having enough for institutional development, which is also key for think tanks. We need to explore other sources of flexible funds, that’s a huge challenge. And that might redefine CSEA in the near future.

AB: And any personal challenges you have faced as executive director?

CO: There is a kind of lifestyle change. You really have to work long hours, because your partners are in different time zones and you might need to reply emails or attend meetings at different hours. Then, also, there’s a lot of speaking, you have to give speeches, participate as a panellist, attend sessions … those are some of the skills that I had to build really quickly because I used to be this researcher sitting at a desk with a writer’s confidence. I had to acquire social and interpersonal skills on the job.

AB: What is the role of context in the challenges you have faced, both personal and organisational?

CO: In terms of context, yes, in Nigeria there’s very weak demand for evidence-based policymaking. It hasn’t developed to the proper levels, so you’re operating in an environment where there is limited government support for your work. All your partners and funders are international. And when you disseminate this work there is also limited uptake.

AB: What skills, characteristics and knowledge do you bring to the organisation?

CO: Right, so I manage CSEA differently based on my personal characteristics. One is that I look for teams based on individuals, not based on qualifications. I don’t want to impose hierarchy and rather I prefer adhocracy.

For example, there’s a management style called the hierarchy culture, for example McDonalds, they need the burgers in New York to taste the same as in India, so they need a strict hierarchy where everybody does exactly one thing and it’s very clear what you do on a given day of work. But a think tank, what it does is knowledge creation, and knowledge creation is a different output. It can come from people at low levels and senior levels.

So, in my form of interaction with the staff I am aware of what their strengths are, and I don’t allow hierarchy to limit that. Because hierarchy can be a limitation, it can limit innovation. I develop themes around skillsets and strengths and that has worked remarkably well. I’ve created an environment that supports people to bring out their own initiatives. I see that they really appreciate and enjoy what they are doing because they see how they progress when they are passionate about their work. I strive to create a working environment that stimulates passion and drive and motivation. I also provide opportunities for young researchers to participate in high-level events.