Embarking upon a new journey, Roselyn Akinyi Walender is leaving Cordaid after a 12-year run which took her from Sudan, the Netherlands and culminated in Ethiopia. Throughout her tenure, she has been a driving force for positive change, innovation, and growth. A scrupulous leader, a tenacious strategist and steadfast women’s advocate – Akinyi will be dearly missed by her team at the Ethiopia Country Office colleagues, and peers who have interacted and worked with her over the years throughout Cordaid globally. To spotlight her personal journey and legacy within Cordaid, we sat down with her for an interview; this is her story.
Where are you from and where did you grow up?
I come from Kenya. I grew up in Nairobi and spent a substantial amount of time in the village with my maternal grandparents. My mother worked in the office of the president, and through her different postings I got a chance to live in different parts of the country.
Tell us about your educational background and why did you choose a career in development?
In my early years, I attended Catholic Franciscan and Loreto convent schools. Where the nuns inculcated Christian values and the zeal to succeed against all odds, they largely informed my values and ethics and have remained the voice in my head.
I also came from a very Christian household and my grandfather was very prominent in the Anglican Church in Kenya. After secondary school, I joined Strathmore/Kianda College (Opus Dei) where I earned a diploma in Office Management. I got a scholarship for undergraduate studies at the University of Ghana Legon, where I graduated with a double major 1st class honours degree in Political Science and Sociology. I went on to earn a post graduate diploma in Governance and Political Transformation from The University of Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. I later went on to earn a certificate in Executive Leadership & Strategic Management from Cornell University in the USA. Finally, I was awarded a scholarship to Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where I earned a Global Master of Arts in International Affairs.
Career – I always wanted to be a lawyer and eventually a legislator to the Kenyan Parliament; however, I guess life had other plans for me. I kind of stumbled into the development sector after being exposed to south Sudanese neighbours who were refugees in Kenya. Being my first encounter with refugees, their stories and journey had a profound effect on me. From thereon I wanted to be involved, but at the time I just didn’t know what or how. I got an opportunity to volunteer for Cush, the first south Sudanese indigenous organisation and that is, where my whole career started. Within this role, I did just about everything i.e., logistics, manned the radio, reception, and facilitated security briefs. I also doubled up as executive assistant to the director and eventually became his right-hand person. Because he did not speak English, I accompanied him to all strategic meetings with donors and partners and became his voice to enable communication in all engagements and negotiations with stakeholders. I learned so much about management and the humanitarian sector.
Tell us more about your career journey before joining Cordaid and what key career lessons did you learn during this time?
After my two years of volunteering at the Cush, I was referred to the South Sudan Law Society, which was just starting at the time. This was my first paid job. There I carried out research on marriage and traditional rights and solicited articles from lawyers and started producing a monthly law society newsletter, which was distributed in Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan. I later joined Christian Aid as senior administrator and set up their office in Kenya. When the Sudan programme started, I became a humanitarian
In terms of career lessons, I have also learned not to lose sight of who I am, to claim my voice and to stand tall. Love what you do, give it your very best because every experience will only add value; make you stronger, the rest will take care of itself, because life can be surprising that way.
From early on I knew that I had the ability to lead. So, I set out to learn and embrace every experience and opportunity that came my way. When I don’t know something, I ask. When the need arises, I challenge the status quo, and I push back. I know I have something to bring to the table, I have something to say. I also know that, that seat will not be given to me willingly, so I have equipped myself with the education, knowledge, and necessary skills needed to succeed. I have also had amazing mentors both male and female.
Tell us about your career journey at the Cordaid Global Office?
I had taken a break from Sudan and the development sector and returned to Kenya; there was just too much heartbreak caused by the decade long civil war and I just needed to breath. I took a year and a half off, and together with two other women, we started a business in Kenya. We started an organic vegetable farm, poultry, and fish business at the same time we started another business sewing promotional T-Shirts and created employment for 8 people producing 10,000 T-shirts for the Twic Olympics in Tonj, South Sudan. This experience helped me understand the challenges inherent in the private sector and entrepreneurship. The opportunity to work for Cordaid presented itself through a retired Irish catholic priest who knew me and my work in South Sudan and thought I might enjoy the role with Cordaid. I wasn’t sure if that is what I wanted to do but I was getting so much encouragement from different quarters to come back to the sector. I think they understood the passion that I had and urged me. So, I applied and ended up getting the job as a policy officer for Cordaid in Sudan; however, that role only lasted about 3 months. A visit from Cordaid CEO Rene Grotenhuis led to me being asked to set up the Cordaid South Sudan office and shut down the Sudan office. In 2013 another opportunity opened up at the Cordaid Global Office to lead the Women’s Leadership unit, I expressed interest and at the encouragement of Rene I applied alongside many global candidates. I got the job and moved to the Netherlands to be Director, Women’s Leadership. In my mind it made sense for the unit to be led by someone from the global south because the issues were inherently uniquely southern.
In hindsight, I have a lot to thank Rene Grotenhuis for. He engaged me and got to know me quite well, he saw my potential and believed, and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. My experience at the global office was very tough. However, I enjoyed my job immensely and that kept me going. During my induction Rene said “Akinyi, brace yourself, it will not be easy, but remember, don’t get caught up in the noise around you, keep your eyes on the ball; this experience at the global level will shape your future and open doors for you”. I was also privileged to be mentored by Miriam Notten, an amazing Dutch businesswoman and friend; she toughened me up. My worldview expanded beyond belief, I made amazing contacts and met people I would otherwise never have met. I refined my perspectives and strategically linked local issues to global developments and vice versa.
Perspective – I wrote an article on women and leadership, experiences from the ground and was published in the special edition of the Institute of Inclusive Security & US Defence University Journal. This led to an invitation to speak at the US Africa Military Command Centre (AFRICOM) in Stuttgart. I spoke on “the role of women in countering violence extremism’’ and got noticed by a Tufts Alumni who went on to introduce me to Justice Joyce Aluoch, who was then the Vice President of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague; she too became my mentor. I was later invited to contribute to a chapter in a book “The Fabric of Peace in Africa’ commissioned by the “Centre for International Governance and Innovation” a Canadian think tank. My article was picked up and tweeted by Kofi Annan, the then UN Secretary General and retweeted several times. Suddenly I had been noticed, Justice Aluoch recommended me to the Dean of the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. I applied and was awarded a scholarship – the rest as they say is history. I have no regrets. I am a GMAPER!” with an incredible global network to boot, to date one of my most valuable asset. Because of the intentional selection criteria, GMaper’s are leaders in every sector and on every continent and we stay connected.
How did you end up as Country Director for Ethiopia and why did you choose to take on this role?
The Director of International Offices at the time, Remco van der Veen, who was responsible for managing Cordaid Country Offices, approached me to join his team of Country Directors. I jumped at the opportunity and Ethiopia was very strategic as the seat of African Union, IGAD and UNDP and an important country in the Horn of Africa. This was a logical direction for me as I wanted to return to the continent and re-connect.
What would you say has been the most challenging aspect about leading the Cordaid Ethiopia Country Office?
When I came to Ethiopia, the country office was very small. There were only 13 staff with a budget of approximately €1.5 million a year. In November 2018, exactly one year into the position, I was informed that the country office was going to be shut down. In disbelief, I decided that I could not give up without a fight because this meant failure and I could not be associated with failure of a country office that had so much potential just waiting to be nudged out. So, I negotiated with the Remco and Kees Zevenbergen (CEO) to give me an opportunity to turn the office around. I am grateful to Kees for obliging my request. I was given a small budget and 6 months to carry out my transformation plan. This included developing a new multi-annual strategic plan, a fundraising strategy, and a staff analysis ensuring the right staff were matched to the right skills and roles. I also invested on team building to nurture solidarity and a common understanding I needed a team that worked well together to save the office. And we ended up doing just that! The Performance Based Financing (PBF) pilot project in Borana was already underway. I remember hosting a donor visit to Borana and with me were Petra van Haren, Maarten Oranje, and Inge Barmentlo. We hosted the 1st Secretary at the Netherlands Embassy in Ethiopia and generated interest. On April 1st, 2019, we received our first grant of €16 million from the Netherlands Embassy to begin the PBF Jimma programme. An additional €6 million was awarded six months later. This experience shows that diverse teams working together can move mountains. Through a concerted effort between global and country office colleagues, we brought the money home. Cordaid Ethiopia was not only saved, with a viable strategic plan we started and expanded thematic areas, raised more funds, today we have 122 staff.
Although times were challenging, yet necessity is the mother of invention we turned challenges into opportunities, we dug deep and prevailed as a country office. I believe that to prevail, one must keep an open mind and identify opportunities inherent in your environment. I don’t believe in having a defeatist mentality. I’ve never been like that. That voice in my head has always told me that “to every cloud is a silver lining”. One just doesn’t give up when everything around you seems to be to be falling apart. You find a way. You talk to people. You look at the opportunities around you, you reach out and that is my definition of resilience. That’s what I did, and here we are today. Cordaid Ethiopia is an incredibly resilient and amazing office with incredibly optimistic colleagues. I simply love my team; they are the heroes.
What has been your most cherished memory working for Cordaid?
I will miss Cordaid, it has been my home for a decade. I am grateful for the opportunities I got to learn, grow and honed my leadership skills. Over the years, there were so many moments to cherish as I travelled around to visit partners. To date, I still remembered Rene’s words, “cherish the moments, learn, and grow”. For example, I was shocked and thrilled when Cordaid celebrated it’s 100-year anniversary and the board asked me to accompany the Dutch Queen Maxima for the day. I did the boat trip with her, read the 1st reading at Cathedral in Amsterdam, and sat by her at the high table for lunch; it was surreal, I still get goose bumps. What an incredible day, what an incredible memory, and who would have thought! It was amazing. Another cherished memory was my visit to Israel where I visited the old biblical city in Jerusalem and literally walked in the footsteps of Jesus, mine was a spiritual awakening. On this trip I also visited, Palestine and spent 3 nights in Ramallah. Despite everything that was happening in Palestine, all I recall is how peaceful those nights were. To date, I still remember Ramallah fondly. The other side of journey is the memory of driving through the Israeli security checkpoints, it was terrifying. Yet the highlight was meeting with wonderful young men and women in Palestine. I experienced the passion and promise they had for life and the future, and I said a silent prayer that their dreams would come to pass. I sometimes wonder what happened to them. Palestine, like South Sudan, against all odds, people still remembered to laugh and live. I also have fond memories of Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala, Afghanistan, Burundi and so many other places, I was enthralled. ?
What is your proudest achievement as Country Director of the Ethiopia Country Office?
I would say that I have an amazing team and I am going to miss team CET. I must say, the Ethiopia office has been quite a joyful place to be. Putting a team together is not an easy task; it takes time and patience. I would not say it has always been perfect, but one thing I can say is that I have woken up in the morning and looked forward to going to the office. That says a lot! I’ve seen people grow, which gives me joy. The team is quite diverse. When I first came to Ethiopia, there about 4 women and now 38% are women. For me, that’s a great achievement. We have an internship programme that seeks to provide opportunities for young people to learn workplace soft skills. This was conceptualised to contribute to unemployment challenges afflicting the continent as employers often cite a lack of soft skills among barriers to employment. I believe as the young people who pass through Cordaid go out into the world, they are more confident and employable. After all, that’s how I started in my career. Somebody gave me that opportunity as a volunteer and that’s where I learned my soft skills in the workplace. Today we have a lot of young people coming in and out of our doorstep and whenever they leave, they end up getting jobs, while others have found employment within Cordaid.
I am also glad that within Cordaid Ethiopia, we have been able to cultivate a safe space for women to thrive and dream big.
The women who work here have always understood that as long as I am here, I’ve got their back and that’s important. The men have also been champions for engendering our workspace. When it comes to gender transformative action, the inclusion of men is also key. We always include men in our conversations and events related to gender and we have a culture of equality and equal responsibility when it comes to gender, both within the organisation and in our work. We recruit people based on merit, but we also make room for women who have talent and potential to grow, if given the chance. So, I would say for me that is the one thing that I feel very proud of. I wish the whole team well and I trust they continue supporting each other because a strong team is a winning team.
Tell us a little bit about your new job and how your work in Cordaid has prepared you for this career path?
So, my new job is going to be Africa Director with responsibility for the organisation’s work across the continent. The mission is on climate, environment, breakdown in food systems, regenerative agriculture, and energy with gender transformation cross cutting the themes. My first major task will be to lead the team to COP27 in Egypt. I’m passionate about the planet and very excited to advance the African agenda and voice on these very pertinent issues. As a member of the executive team, I will also be responsible for managing and providing strategic direction to regional and country directors in Africa. Having been one, I will leverage the experience and I pray that God gives me the grace to be the kind of leader they deserve. Coupled with their clear mission on planet, I was also attracted by the way they have embraced diversity across the whole spectrum of the organisation.
What advice would you give to young professionals looking to advance their careers?
I would say always keep an open mind listen, learn, respect, and read widely. There are lessons to be learned along the way, and these come from situations we encounter and the people we meet. Reach out and engage widely; there is always something that you learn from every situation, from every opportunity, from every job. Do not shy away from engaging with people who seem different from you; these are the ones with perspectives you may never have considered if you kept a closed mind. Take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. You will learn something. You will learn what you like and what you don’t like, but you will also learn a lot about yourself.
Who is Roselyn Akinyi Walender?
I am “Akinyi” very apt. I was born early in the morning, I am dawn, I am sunrise, every day, every experience is a new dawn for me. I am a lion, an ox, an eagle, I have had phenomenal life and am not done yet, I claim my space. I found my voice; I stand up for what is just.
I am resilient. I know for a fact that what doesn’t kill me only makes me stronger. I am a mother who has raised a wonderful son, while being single, studying and holding down tough jobs. I had a dream of becoming a recognised leader in my own right and merit, and I have ‘’BECOME”, by the grace of God. I take nothing from granted.
Finally, at this point in my life I can say that I am a very happy person. I know who I am, what I want and where I want to go. I don’t travel alone; I never have because no one gets far by travelling alone. So, I always reach out and take others along by enabling and changing lives one step at a time. This is how we brought more women into the workplace in Ethiopia.
Do you have any final words?
Embrace diversity and inclusion. People and organisations that recognise, embrace and value diversity hold the key to organisational survival. After all, no one has a monopoly on knowledge or expertise. Endeavour to create space where ideas can come together, where voices are respected. It is through these ideas that challenges meet solutions, and innovations are nurtured.
Take others along with you and enable others to travel even further than you. Shine a torch wherever you go. And pay forward every act of kindness you have received along your own path.
To Cordaid, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!
Roseyln Akinyi Walendar Farewell Video on Facebook