Episode 14: Chinenye Uwanaka

BSC Director Salimah Samji interviews Implementing Public Policy (IPP) alum, Chinenye Uwanaka, to hear more about how she is utilizing what she learned in the program as she works to resolve public problems.

Chinenye Uwanaka is a nation builder, and her true passion is to empower people and fight against extreme poverty and injustice. She is the Founder and Managing Partner of The Firma Advisory, a boutique law and consulting firm in Nigeria with clients in Africa, Middle-east, Europe and America. Some of the firm’s core practice areas include: Energy Law, Information Technology, Intellectual Property, etc.

For more information on Harvard Kennedy School's Implementing Public Policy (IPP) program, visit the website, read about the PDIA approach, and access the PDIA toolkit.


Salimah Samji Hello and welcome to the Practice of Resolving Public Problems Podcast Series. My name is Salimah Samji and I am the Director of Building State Capability at the Harvard Center for International Development. This new series on the practice of resolving public problems features interviews with alums of our Implementing Public Policy (IPP) executive program at the Harvard Kennedy School. The episodes will focus on how our alums are using the PDIA tools and approach in designing and implementing public policy. We hope you enjoy them. Today I'm speaking with Chinenye Uwanaka, who is a nation builder, and her true passion is to empower people and fight against extreme poverty and injustice. She is the founder and managing partner of the Firm Advisory, a boutique law and consulting firm in Nigeria with clients in Africa, Middle East, Europe and America. Some of the firm's core practice areas include energy law, information technology, intellectual property. She completed our Implementing Public Policy Program in December 2019. Welcome, Chinenye.

Chinenye Uwanaka Hi, Salimah. Good to be here.

Salimah Samji Wonderful. So let's get started. It's almost been two years since you completed the IPP program. What do you remember as being useful?

Chinenye Uwanaka Well, I can't believe it's been two years. Honestly, feels like yesterday. But then again, so much has happened. So what do I remember the most? I think it's the fishbone diagrams from the PDIA process. Because I tend to use it quite often when I'm solving problems, not only policy problems. You know, being a lawyer every day, we have to solve one problem with the other. So I think the PDIA tool has been very useful and I applied to different problem areas that I have.

Salimah Samji Wonderful. Can you share some examples about how you might have been using other things that you've learned in the program?

Chinenye Uwanaka Yes. You know, working with governments across different policy problems, for instance, on intellectual property and innovation, that was the policy problem that I came to Harvard with. In Nigeria, we don't have a national IP policy. And part of the work that I was doing was consulting with stakeholders, both for the National Assembly, that's our Senate, you know, and then other government agencies, to find a befitting policy on intellectual property that would act as a catalyst. We have a lot of laws in that sector that are quite out of date, and it's just been a huge challenge, you know, finding the right structure, the right framework to ensure that we're growing the sector. So, for instance, now we have the tech sector in Nigeria is really growing rapidly. We have a lot of the unicorns from Nigeria. So four out of the six unicorns in Africa are Nigerian. And then you don't have the enabling laws and policies to support that sector. And so it was very important to get stakeholders together. But those in the private sector, you know, be the tech companies or companies in the creative industry, and then the people in the Senate, you know, the House of Assembly and also the ministries like the Nigerian Copyright Commission, the Ministry of Trade and Investment. First of all, the issue was getting them to even see that there was a problem. You know, so that's part of the constructing the problem. So constructing the problem in a way that resonates with all the stakeholders. Remember that they both see it from different perspectives. So it was very important to have workshops and capacity building seminars where we're able to create scenarios for them, construct the problem and then start deconstructing the problem. So basically finding entry points. You know, how do we create a policy that works for all? How do we ensure that the laws in that sector, be it copyrights, be it patents, and all that, how do we ensure that we get it to a state where it actually boosts these important sectors. And so using the tool was quite instrumental because any time you want to go ahead and I always remember Matt's voice saying "premature load bearing", you don't want to tackle the problem head on, you have to deconstruct it. And that way, you know, I just slow down. I say, you know what's okay, let's have a conversation both with the authorizers, with the stakeholders. Let's come up with the problem together so that there's a sense of ownership, that everybody feels that they are part of the process. And then, you know, once we find an entry point, it helps us create like an action plan. So it's been very useful with engaging with stakeholders and then just deconstructing and simplifying it and iterating to ensure that you capture all the voices and you create problems and solutions that are fit for purpose.

Salimah Samji So what was one of the first things you did when you went back? You're the one who came to this program and you were changed. You had new ideas. How did you think about bringing change either to your organization, to your work when you were the one who changed and they did not have this experience?

Chinenye Uwanaka Okay so coming back to Nigeria after studying the program, first of all, I came back feeling very enlightened and some of the things that were really complex before became simpler to me. And so I knew some of the challenges that I would face. However, everybody took it differently. So some people, you know, when you mentioned Harvard, when you mentioned the program, they're excited, they want to learn more. And so my colleagues, for instance, when I explained the concept of PDIA to them and some of the other tools that we learned, they were quite enthusiastic, you know. So that's my core team. Because in order to achieve this, we had to obviously create a core team and then also start working with stakeholders and build a larger team, right? So the initial core team, they were open to the idea. However, when you start dealing with other people who have vested interests, you know, some people who are quite traditional, they're not used to change, then it becomes very difficult. And there were times, I'm not going to lie, I got a little bit impatient because, you know, you're talking to people, you're explaining these new concepts to them and they feel like they know it all already. Who is this young girl coming with this new ideas and all that stuff? And they want to shut it down. So I had to learn a lot of emotional intelligence, you know, just doing the process and just making sure that you're able to find that common interest. Especially when we have the negotiations and we talk to authorizers and even on a day to day basis. Honestly, like I said, with clients, I use this practice all the time. Finding the common interest. Any time I hit a brick wall with someone, I always try to figure out what is in it for them? What do they care about, or how do I construct the problem to get them to care about it? That has been the difference for me. You know, it's always a game changer once you're able to find that common interest. And then also just a process of being flexible, not plan and control, not coming up with all the solutions all at once. And then thinking you can just hand it to people. No, it's a long journey. It's a marathon is not a sprint. So when I work with these authorizers and some of them who are a little bit more traditional, like I say, I try to, you know, bring it down to their level because funny enough, even though they have years of experience, sometimes complex problems are difficult for them to assimilate, especially in these areas that I work in. Like I said, I work with the digital economy, intellectual property, innovation. All these areas are emerging areas. So we deal with things like blockchain, A.I., you know, crypto, all these new areas. So people, policymakers, they don't want to hear about all these new concepts. Sometimes they just think, for instance, with cryptocurrency, they associated with fraud, or they associate it with something that is so risky. And you find a lot of startups and tech companies in Nigeria making a lot of money and actually a lot of users in Nigeria. Nigeria is the second largest market for cryptocurrencies. So we have to you know, I don't know if you heard, but the Central Bank of Nigeria actually banned it at some point a couple of years ago. And then Nigerian companies had to leave, you know. So when you're working with stakeholders like that, some of these tech companies are so furious they don't want to hear anything about government. And then you're working with the government, on one hand, they think that oh, this people are just young people, they're just technology. So, you know, and they have maybe the mindset towards it is not very progressive. And then you have to make everybody sort of see the problem one way. It's quite difficult. Honestly, it's quite difficult. But I realize that over time with a lot of advocacy and sensitization, you know, most of the time I find that that's the entry points to use. And so we do a lot of capacity building, sensitization, workshops, webinars, just as a way to get the stakeholders, you know, to be on the same table to understand the issues and then you can now take it on to some legislative advocacy, talking to the people in the National Assembly, reviewing the laws and making sure that they have all these new areas and that they're flexible to change and innovation.

Salimah Samji Wonderful. I think your example really captures this difference in viewpoint, right, and perspectives and how bringing these two to be able to see things as a common problem is a really great example. Now, as you know, as part of the IPP program, at the end of the program, everyone joins what we're calling the Implementing Public Policy Community of Practice. And you've been a member of this community for two years now. What does the IPP community of practice mean to you?

Chinenye Uwanaka For me, the IPP community of practice is a family. You know, we're all change agents. We all care about each other and we care about what's happening in the world and what's happening in our countries. And the fact that everybody there is willing to learn, is willing to share from their experience and from their knowledge and their network is very, very inspiring. I just feel like I belong to a family. You know, just putting it simply. And, you know, whenever I get to travel around the world, when I go to London, when I go to the U.S., I know that at least in major cities, I can reach out to somebody and I can have a cup of coffee. And it's just yeah, it's just amazing. And I really think that it's a brilliant idea because, you know, recently I haven't been opportune to join some of the recent sessions, but even just having those refreshers, it brings it back to life, it makes it relevant. And then with what is going on in the world right now, fundraising and all of these initiatives that members are coming up with. It just makes me believe that anything is possible. Change is possible. And yeah, I just have a family and we have members all across the world. So it's really, really encouraging and inspiring.

Salimah Samji A global family. I like that. As part of this podcast series, Chinenye, I'm doing a set of rapid fire questions and so I'll ask you those. And the first one is, what are you currently reading?

Chinenye Uwanaka I'm doing research on e-commerce. So I'm reading about Alibaba, how the company was set up. Because I'm trying to work with the government here on an e-commerce policy. So I'm reading up on Alibaba. I'm just doing some research on that company, the history of the company.

Salimah Samji And what's your favorite part of the PDIA process?

Chinenye Uwanaka So I think my favorite part would be the iterations. And it's just because when you're dealing with complex problems, you know, you're dealing with multiple stakeholders. You can't have a plan and control. You can't think of it in a very like rigid sense. I love the flexibility that it gives you. The fact that you can learn while doing, the fact that is evidence based, and you can just gather data from people, it's fluid. So you start out thinking it's one thing, but because you keep learning and adapting, it keeps changing over time. So I really like the flexibility of the iteration process that is in the PDIA process. So I think that's my favorite part of PDIA.

Salimah Samji And what advice do you have for people who are trying to work on either complex problems or public problems?

Chinenye Uwanaka So my advice would be that you cannot do it alone. So it's important to have a core team. And, you know, when Matt was teaching us about building teams, you know, the personalities that you have to have on the team, you can't have people who are just like you or think like you. Diversity is very important, within the skill sets, the personalities, the cultural backgrounds, the world views. You know, so you have to have a very strong core team. And then you also have to be open minded. So, you know, when you're dealing with authorizers, sometimes you think you know it all, but you don't know it all. And a lot of times you have to be human. Matt always talked about that. You know, empathy when you're dealing authorizers don't just say, for instance, where I'm from, have this mindset that, oh, they're all corrupt or they all don't want progress. No. If able to find out what is important to them, you know what they're interested in and you're able to have a conversation with them, a human conversation with them, most times you can get them to listen and to pay attention to what you're trying to do. And like I said, you can't do it alone. You always have to find partners, people who you can synergize with, and you have to stay humble, you know, willing to learn, willing to adapt, especially like with the iteration process. You know, you can't think that you have it all under control because most times you're going to hit a brick wall. And yeah, it's just important to take action, you know, take action, go out, go get it. You know, don't let what is happening in the world make you feel sad or make you feel down or make you feel like change is impossible. I've seen certain in sectors, improvements have happened with some of the advocacy work that we've been doing and even though sometimes it might take time, but, you know, don't lose hope. Change is possible. Definitely.

Salimah Samji I think that's wonderful advice for our listeners. Thank you so much for joining us and for sharing your thoughts and experience with us, Chinenye.

Chinenye Uwanaka Thank you so much for having me. And as always, I'm always happy to get on the calls and have some of these podcast sessions. And anybody who is in this part of the world, in Nigeria and Africa, you know, if you're doing the PDIA process and you want someone to partner with, we're here. You know, we're one big family. So, it's great to be here. Thank you.

Salimah Samji Wonderful. Thank you so much. Thank you for listening to our podcast today. If you liked it, please check out our website bsc.cid.harvard.edu or follow us on social media @HarvardBSC. You can also find links and other information under the description of this podcast.